Aviation History

That time America’s Top Ace Richard Bong flew under the Golden Gate Bridge and buzzed downtown San Francisco Area flying his P-38 Lightning

In 1942 a young P-38 pilot flew his fighter under the Golden Gate Bridge and, just in case no one had noticed him yet, he buzzed the downtown San Francisco area.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was originally conceived as an advanced, high-performance twin-engine interceptor. On Feb. 11, 1939, Lt. Ben Kelsey set a coast to coast record of 7 hours, 48 minutes in the sleek prototype Lightning, but crashed while landing. Despite the accident, development continued and the first of 13 service test YP-38s flew on Sep. 16, 1940.

It entered USAAF group service in the USA in mid-1941, although aircraft and pilots were not yet combat-ready when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

During 1942-1944, P-38 squadrons were deployed further afield by the US 11th, 5th and 13th Air Forces in the Pacific theatre, and the 10th and 14th Air Forces in the China-Burma-India theatre. By the summer of 1944, when the 5th and 13th Air Forces were reorganised into the Far East Air Forces, the new command included five groups equipped with P-38s.

But before being deployed to the Pacific theatre the aircraft was “tested” in quite a singular fashion by a young, promising pilot according to an interesting story appeared on Quora.

‘In 1942 a young P-38 pilot flew his fighter under the Golden Gate Bridge and, just in case no one had noticed him yet, he buzzed the downtown San Francisco area. No word on exactly how low he went but there were complaints from all over the San Francisco area about the buzzing including at least one woman who had her laundry blown off the clothesline.

Richard Bong’s P-38 Marge

‘Shortly the young Lieutenant found himself in the office of a very unhappy commanding general being dressed down by the top man himself. After the general chewed him out for awhile, he asked the Lieutenant how the then new P-38 handled at low altitude. To the general’s surprise the young lieutenant seemed to completely ignore the chewing out he received and enthusiastically described how beautifully stable the P-38 was and described its performance in glowing terms.

‘The general looked at the young pilot, threw the complaints in the trash basket and gave the punishment to the lieutenant. He was ordered to report to the woman who complained about the laundry being blown off her clothes line and told do her laundry for her and generally help around the house for awhile.

‘Shortly thereafter, the general – George Kenney – was posted to the South Pacific to command all US Army Air Force units in the area. When he left, he specifically asked for 50 P-38 pilots to be assigned to him in the Pacific. The top of the list was Richard Bong, the young lieutenant from this story.

‘Bong became the highest scoring US pilot in history and a Medal of Honor winner.’

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. P-38J Lightning “SCAT III” – 43-28341, 479th FG, 434rd FS – 1944
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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