“MR. P-38” AND HIS ONE-OF-A-KIND SKI PLANE

John Dahlen

Well, here we are rounding the pylon out of the holidays, heading straight toward the Great
Alaskan Aviation Gathering, and still smack dab in the middle of the snowiest ski plane season
ever recorded in much of Alaska! While rummaging through some archives this winter, I found a
first-hand account of a unique ski plane, written by “Mr. P-38;” himself a unique Alaskan aviator
who left an indelible mark on aviation in the Great Land. Much of the following biographical
summary was obtained (read “shamelessly plagiarized because their writers are better than I
am”) from multiple sources, including Military Wiki, and his obituary published in the Fairbanks
Daily News Miner. The account of the P-38 to which he was assigned is a first-hand account
written by then US AAC Captain Randy Acord.

There are probably many Alaska Airmen’s Association members and other aviators in the
Fairbanks area who still remember Randy Acord, also known as “Mr. P-38.” Major Randy Acord
(USAF ret.) was born February 27, 1919 in Hedley, TX. He enlisted in the US Army Air Corps in 1941. After advanced AAC flight training at Luke Field, AZ, and Pratt & Whitney Engine School
in Hartford, CN, along with other assignments, he was assigned as engineer officer for the
Fighter Section of Cold Weather at Ladd Field, (now Ft. Wainwright) adjacent to Fairbanks, AK.
Although he flew all the fighters the U.S. had plus various bombers, his main test aircraft was a
P-38J-LO Lockheed Lightning, which is the subject aircraft of his writing in this article. After his
discharge from active duty, Randy remained in the Fairbanks area, flying for Wien Airlines, and
forming his own business in Fairbanks, the Randy Acord Co, from which he retired in 1986. He
was very involved in community affairs, including being one of the co-founders of the Pioneer
Air Museum in Fairbanks. He received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award in 2004, and was
a member of the Quiet Birdmen, OX-5 Aviation Pioneers, the American Aviation Museum, the P38 Association, the Beechcraft Owners Association (50 years), AOPA, a Commanding Officer –
Major in the Civil Air Patrol, and others. He flew west, at the age of 89, on May 19, 2008. What
follows is Randy’s own first-hand account of his involvement with a unique experimental project
out of LADD Field to mount fully retracting skis on a P-38 Lightning fighter plane in March of 1943.

ONE-OF-A-KIND
By: Randy Acord, Capt, AAC

During the winter of 1943-44, I was assigned an airplane that turned out to be the aircraft that
provided more information regarding problems in cold weather than most others. It was a P-38JLO “Lightning”, #213565. This P-38 was specially equipped with 54 thermocouples located in as
many places in the aircraft and I could read the temperature of each through selectors with a
potentiometer located where the gun sight normally was mounted. This special installation
enabled us to study machine gun lubrication, engine lubrication, cabin heat, carburetor heat and
fuel distribution problems, etc. The Lockheed engineer assigned to my project was Lee C.
Chambers, a wonderful man, and was a great help to many of the project officers in the Cold
Weather Test Detachment at Ladd Field, Fairbanks. During the month of March, this P-38 was
assigned a very special project of testing a set of retractable skis. Mr. Frank Ditter, the President
of Federal Aircraft Skis, Minneapolis, Minnesota, the manufacturer and assisted in the
installation and test. His personal interest was created by some problems which occurred when
another P-38 was ski-equipped in northern Minnesota and was damaged on the ground and
never flew.

During this month, would you believe that it snowed 26 of the 31 days with an accumulation of
34.5 inches. The conditions were ideal for such test and I made 165 landings; with complete
retraction and extensions between each landing. The interest around the base was high and
especially among the Russians based at Ladd. Every operation was successful, even to the
dive test to 450 mph, but the advantages were small. The ski loading was 640 pounds per
square foot and regardless of depth of the snow, the skis went to the bottom. The propeller
clearance was only 14 inches and we could plow that much snow on wheels. The skis worked
well on rough snow covered ground or ice with cracks, while on glazed ice the landing slide was
7,000 feet. With no torque involved and the engines idling at 500 rpm, it was easy to do figure
eights on the ground in the width of the runway.
It was a pleasure to be the project officer on this aircraft and do all the special things it was
capable of doing. During this test on skis, the right engine was flown with the first synthetic oil
ever flown, carrying a 165 gallon belly tank on the right side only, with a quantity of synthetic oil
just to service the right engine, This unbalanced looking condition drove some of the Russian
pilots up a tree, wondering how the P-38 flew with all that weight on one side.
We were able to start the Allisons without heat and off the battery down to -30 degrees. It was a
very good cold weather airplane and I was always first off the ground on cold mornings.

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