The Lighning’s mystery and the artist’s passion

There’s something about a P-38. A poker face turns into a smile when you start talking about the Lightning.

If you have never touched one or seen one swoosh by with those turbocharged Allison engines singing their beautiful tune, then you’ve missed a great joy in life. And those who have been fortunate enough to fly one always seem to have a special place in their hearts just for those memories.

There’s something about the sleek lines and twin booms of the P-38 that creates an artistic beauty that other planes fail to achieve. While World War II pilots usually believe the last plane they flew in combat was the best, those who have flown this impressive fighter built by Lockheed remember it as a pleasure to fly. Yes, the Lightning could turn and bite an inattentive pilot if it lost an engine, but its good qualities more than made up for any shortcomings. As many fighter pilots have told me, it was when the plane became an extension of themselves that they were truly flying.

Artists are always wondering what to do next. Sometimes they have a commission lined up and sometimes they have gnawing thoughts roaming around in the backs of their minds for a while. Eventually those thoughts becomes an image that is born in the mind’s eye. Once that happens, it often becomes a driving passion to transition the image they conceived in their minds through their fingertips to canvas.

Maybe that’s what drove Stan Vosburg to paint “”Twin Tails and Carrot Tops – A Tribute to the Lockheed P-38.”" In his certificate of authenticity he says, “”By the third year of World War II, the industry was producing thousands of aircraft each month. The folks on the home front were working around the clock to give the services the equipment needed to defeat fascism. Yet, here we see a brief interlude for two Rosy Riveters, Vi and Selma, as they unpack for an afternoon at the beach. Having finished their shift at the ball turret factory in Anaheim, they have traveled to Corona del Mar. Their kids can now unwind and play in the low tide shallows.

“”Military airplanes flying overhead were a common sight, but it was always exciting to see the big birds up close in a low fly-by. The finishing touch to a sand castle is a worthy work of art, but for one of the twins the approach and roar of two supercharged Allison engines is enough to send him leaping in ecstasy. His brother contemplates the opportune time to destroy his cousin’s masterpiece, while his buddy turns to see the errant twin greeting the kindred spirits hurtling through the air.”"

Each print that Vosburg has done has entailed a lot of research into such minor details as the type of clothing the people would have worn then. Knowing this adds to the enjoyment of his images because of his commitment to authenticity. While the scenes he depicts are the product of his imagination, they are based on events that did happen or could have happened then.

Recently Iris Critchell, a friend of mine, called and wanted to know if I would help her put together a display of aviation artifacts for which she is the curator. Whenever we get together the subject usually gets around to the P-38 because she happens to be one of about two dozen WASP who actually flew the P-38 during World War II. When I mentioned that she flew the P-38 to another aviation buff that she had just introduced me to, she got this whimsical look in her eyes and her mouth broke into a smile that let you know she, too, had fond memories of flying this bird.

Someone I have never seen before came into my gallery recently and, as occasionally happens, our discussion got around to World War II. He was stationed at the base in Santa Ana where potential Army Air Corps pilots were sent to determine who would go on to pilot, bombardier or navigator training. This gentleman recalled seeing P-38s based at the Santa Ana Airport taking off. Santa Ana Airport, which is now John Wayne Airport, is probably less than a minute’s flight time for a P-38 from the beach depicted in Vosburg’s painting. In 1944 P-38 squadrons were also stationed at other airfields in the area, so the two shown buzzing the beach could have come from any one of a half dozen airfields.

So why did Stan Vosburg paint a P-38 Lightning this time? Maybe it was a gem of an idea that finally mushroomed in his mind’s eye. Then again, maybe it was just the P-38′s turn. Vosburg’s first print was of F4U Corsairs that flew out of El Toro. Next he did the P-51 Mustang that was built at the North American factory on Mines Field. Then he did the P-80 Shooting Star built by Lockheed in Burbank, followed by the P-61 Black Widow built by Northrop at Hawthorne. All his paintings have depicted fighter planes that were common sights in Southern California skies in the 1940s.

Whatever his motivation for the latest print in his nostalgic series of aircraft of that era, it is sure to be as popular as the others have been.

Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be reached at 909-986-1103.

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