P-38 Lightning vs P-51 Mustang: Which was the Better Fighter?

Which was the better fighter? The P-38 Lightning or the P-51 Mustang?

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Soundbreaker Welch?

Tech Sergeant
Feb 8, 2006
Colorado, USA
Which was the better fighter? Which plane had the superior capabilities and chance to win a battle over any fighter in WWII? Which plane would have the best chance to win if they fought each other?

Not just as a long range escort fighter. Remember, the P-38 Lightning had just as far a combat range as the P-51 Mustang. They both could go over 1,100 miles.

So don't vote for the Mustang because of it's main role in escorting the US bombers long distances. The P-38 Lightning could do it too.

The P-38 Lightning intercepted and shot down Admiral Yamamoto in his Betty Bomber after flying 850 miles. In the Pacific, the P-38 was the long range fighter. Not the P-51.

So this poll is not about range but about fighter abilities.

I am really not sure how this poll will turn out. On this board I have heard several people list the P-38 as the superior fighter. Still, because the P-51 is such a popular plane it often does pretty well in the other fighter polls.

So I guess I'll see how this turns out. And vote all you can to back your fighters choice. You can also vote to say neither was superior.

Here are some videos from an air show of the P-38 and P-51.

I do not see how there can be an argument here. The mustang wins easily. Yes, although it wasn't used in the pacific, it could match the German fighters, that the lightnings avoided becuase they were inferior. As a question, the mustang is the better fighter, and although Yamamoto's betty was shot down, it was a bomber!
P51's were use din the PTO and CBI, although not untill late in 1944. P51's were also used to escort B29's after Iwo Jima was taken.

I would say the P51 was better simply because it was easier to build and maintain.

For the fighter bomber role, the P38 was superior.
d_bader said:
I do not see how there can be an argument here. The mustang wins easily. Yes, although it wasn't used in the pacific, it could match the German fighters, that the lightnings avoided becuase they were inferior. As a question, the mustang is the better fighter, and although Yamamoto's betty was shot down, it was a bomber!
well, even the books that i read which state that the Mustang was the best say that the P-38 was unfairly overshadowed, from reading the other posts it says that more P-51s were lost in training accidents than P-38s, P-38s were also (i think) in service way before the P-51

the P-51 was used in the Pacific, my grandfather told me numerous stories of P-51s strading nearby airfields in the Philippines, and has also seen a long dogfight between a P-51 and a Zero, and guess what, the Mustang came home, with Damage while the Zero escaped

If the Mustang DOES win so easily, why bother putting up a poll here?

and btw, P-38s werent inferior to German planes
P38's were in service in 1940.

The P38 was origionally designed as a bomber interceptor, while the Mustang (A-36 model) was origionally designed as a dive bomber.

The P38 was thrust into the fighter role, simply because in 1942 - (first part of) 1944, there were no alternatives.
what theater ? it is all important actually. from 44-45 the P-51 without a doubt due to long range, the P-38 was indeed the better ground strafing-type craft
This poll is about which plane is the better fighter. That means mainly fighting other planes. Of course you can take into acount how well the plane could defend a bomber from an enemy fighter or attack another bomber. I suppose grounding straffing is also good trait in a fighter.

Both planes could perform these jobs. But could one do it overall better?

Looks like the P-38 is winning.
Taking into consideration all yours opinions guys I have to say that it is hard to decide which one was the better.Both P38 and P51 were enough to shot down German or Japanese planes and it doesn't matter if Admiral Yamamoto was on board.Personally,I prefer P51 to P38 because P51 the cadilac of the sky looks better.
"while the Mustang (A-36 model) was origionally designed as a dive bomber."

The Mustang was not designed as a dive-bomber. The NA-73X was designed as a fighter to provide the RAF with a new fighter, instead of just producing the P-40 for them. It just so happened that the Allison F3R engine was supercharged for optimum performance at low-levels, which provided the RAF with a fighter capable of low-level fighter sweeps and fighter-bomber missions. This was then known as the Mustang I, and it achieved it's first air-to-air kill (Fw-190A on 19th August, 1942) before the A-36 'Apache' had even entered service.

The A-36 entered service with 27th Fighter-Bomber Group in April 1943 at Rasel Ma, their first sortie was on 6 June, 1943. This, however, is before the first P-51A sortie which was Thanksgiving Day (November 23rd), 1943.

The fact remains, the Mustang was designed as a fighter from day one. The NAA knew they could produce a better fighter for the RAF than the P-40, or P-39 so they did. The Mustang I was produced and saw service first, the A-36 was second and the P-51A third.
It wasn't. The development 'Mustang' was called the NA-73X under North American designation, and then became the XP-51 when delivered to the USAAC at Wright Field. Remember that the RAF used what became the Mustang first, and it was the Mustang Mk.I.

As I stated previously, the Mustang I, the A-36 second and P-51A third.
The first 'Mustang' was the NA-73/Mustang I, the only difference between the production type and prototype was the addition of armament to the RAF models. These were completed with the Allison V-1710-F3R engine. The fourth and tenth Mustangs off the line went to the USAAC at Wright Field, these were the NA-83/XP-51. The Mustang I first entered squadron service in No.26 Sqdn. in February 1942.

The USAAC found the XP-51 tests favourable but did not put a production order down for the P-51. Instead the RAF had ordered an up-gunned Mustang, which was the NA-91/Mustang IA. 150 of these were to be built and sent to the RAF, but the USAAC held 57 back for themselves. All but two were delivered to operational units as the P-51. These Mustangs had four 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannon in the wings. They were all modified in US service to carry two K-24 cameras, and were redesignated the F-6A or P-51-1. The 68th Observation Group in Tunisia were equipped with the F-6A and performed the USAAFs first Mustang mission of the war.

The first order from the USAAF was for the NA-97 which was to be developed as a ground attack platform with dive-bombing capability. It had an uprated V-1710-F21R engine. This became the A-36A in USAAF service, and entered service in April 1943 with the 27th and 86th Fighter-Bomber Groups. The sole 'Apache' evaluated by the RAF was designated the Mustang I (Dive Bomber).

The NA-99 was the first model ordered by the US Army for fighter service. This was completed with a V-1710-F20R rated for medium-altitude performance. In service these became P-51As, and converted versions with K-24 cameras were F-6Bs. In RAF service these were the Mustang II.

As you can see, the NA-73 was developed as a fighter. The NA-97 which was first ordered by the USAAC was developed as a dive-bomber.
Back to point. The Mustang was more maneuverable than the P-38 and had a higher top speed. The P-51 didn't suffer from tail-flutter in a high-speed dive as the P-38 did. The P-38 didn't function as well in a cold environment, Its cockpit was famously cold, so it functioned better in the PTO than the ETO in the air superiority role. Richard Bong, the highest scoring ace of the war, made his record in a P-38 flying in the PTO. The Lightning's high speed and high altitude performance left a greater impression when used for boom and zoom tactics employed in the PTO against the more nimble medium altitude fighters of the Japanese. However these features were less effective in the ETO because German fighters also had good altitude and speed performance while being less nimble than the A6M2 and the Hiyate found in the PTO. The P-38 had the best weapons package of the two with all the firepower concentrated in the nose, whereas the P-51 had wing mounted guns which relied on setting the weapons to converge at a point in front of the plane. This meant that only at a specific range, I'm not sure what perhaps 200-400 meters, all the rounds would strike in roughly the same place; fire too close and some wouldn't hit or fire to far and some wouldn't hit. This was not an issue with the Lightning with it's nose mounted package. As long as the pilot fired within the effective range of his weapons the the rounds would strike where they were aimed. And of course we can't overlook the fact that the P-38 was the only successful USAAF air superiority fighter that employed a cannon as part of its weapons package. I agree with the earlier comment regarding the P-38 being the better of the two in the ground attack roll, however I would prefer the P-47 myself because of it's remarkable ruggedness and air-cooled engine. The twin Allison engines of the P-38 give a greater safety margin against a holed radiator, since it could fly on one engine if need be. The mid-ship radiator was a major weakness of the P-51 in the ground attack roll. Additionally the P-38 could lift more ordinance than the P-51. But if I were going into a dogfight I would rather be in a P-51 than any of the other aircraft mentioned. So measured by the air superiority roll I go with the Mustang hands down.
Another point for consideration:
Mustang $54,000 each (P51D)
Lightning $114,000 (P-38L)

When you get right down to it, it's all about the money.
Bunch of other prices for Aircraft (in thousands):
P36A- 23
P35A- 22.5
P39Q- 46
P40E- 45
A-36A (Allison Mustang Version) 49
P47D- 85
P-61C 170

B-17G 276
B-25B 96
a-20G 74
A-24A (Douglas SBD) 38.2K
B-24D 336
B-26G 227
C-47D- 138
C-46D- 223
B-29 639

All the prices came from the US Air Force Museam page. Here's a link:

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