Sunday, March 20, 2016

My Uncle, The P-38 Lightning and The SR-71


Every Family is proud of its member’s accomplishment and valor. The stories remain a hidden resume of nerves, steel and titanium. This is an incomplete story because I don't know all of it by any means, since my Uncle only talked in brief cryptic tones about his accomplishment. If he were alive today he would have a strong opinion about the F-35. Titanium was developed on his watch with his years with Lockheed and the SR-71 program. He started with it after the war in the late 1950's (1964 officially) and finished his career at the SR-71's retirement in 1998. 


Kelly Johnson's the Skunk Works ringleader was the author of the P-38 and the instigator of the SR-71. A distinct connection to Paul Mellinger's career where he wasn't far behind Kelly's next big deal.

Kelly Johnson's P-38 Lightning Circa 1937

My uncle first flew the P-38 Lightning at the onset of World War II against Germany. He also served in the Navy in 1940-41 and asked for a transfer to the Army Air Corps before the Pearl Harbor attack occurred. After my uncle moved to the Army late 1941 before the infamous date of December 7, 1941. His radio man technical skill and aviation enthusiasm made him a sure bet for the Army Air Corps, and then World War II happened and England's wilting front needed aviators.

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   My Uncle Paul Mellinger far left at Beale AFB during his Lockheed assignment.

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Paul Mellinger could be pictured here in this flight of Thunder Bolts
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Lockheed Photo Of Paul Mellinger
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His mission just got started after four years combat pilot and closing as an Army flight instructor in Florida until 1945. Lockheed needed skilled pilots and technical people for building the SR-71 at the Skunk Works garage much light the P-38 Lightning emerged from in 1937. Only 20 operational SR-71 were ever built and his job was to keep it flying during its service years until 1998. Much like the F-35 II Lightning both the P-38 and SR-71 had the spirit of can do under impossible odds of making an exceptional difference in times of war. The P-38 has to change its propeller spin to fly without crashing during an aborted take-off and the SR-71 did speed boat runs on Lake Washington testing hull designs.

The "stories" I got from both aircraft gave me a significant appreciation for overcoming daunting obstacles encountered when making them the most successful aircraft they became. The people who made them made the difference by a long margin. Changes and corrections came from slide rulers and common sense solutions. Today there are computers and more computers who will make the F-35 take both the P-38's and SR-71's DNA forward. The DNA comes from hundreds of thousands of people who contribute to the F-35. When mounting cannons on the F-35 for CAS functions look at the P-38 Lightning's formidable nose with four machine guns and a 20 millimeter cannon. It evaporated advisories in the Pacific with one burst. 

During WWII a rare story recounted where the P-38 came down on a military ammunition train, several burst later up went the munitions under the P-38, blowing my uncle sky high during the pass. A badly damage P-38 leaking oil made it back to England miraculously. The shock and awe of the P-38 gave my uncle a pass home where he trained others for the fight from Florida. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for sitting in on the fray and masterfully flew the Lightning. My expectations for the Lightning II comes from that same DNA found in WWII from all those pilots who served with courage and honor from the P-38 seat.

Lightning II has much to account for when comparing future heroic encounters but it is built by the right stuff and will learn to change its propeller spin from the people who are now making it fly like the F-35 advisory that is envisioned.