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May|June 2005

The P-38 Lightning


THE LOCKHEED P-38 LIGHTNING RANKS AMONG THE MOST CELEBRATED AIRCRAFT of World War II. With a prodigious bomb capacity and a top speed of 420 miles per hour, more than 30 percent faster than any other allied plane, the twin-engine fighter became a favorite of accomplished pilots. Major Richard Bong, known as "the Ace of Aces," won the Medal of Honor after shooting down a record 40 enemy planes from his P-38 over the South Pacific. Though best suited for covering the long distances common in the Pacific theater, the plane also served admirably in Europe and North Africa, where its high-altitude dives and low-level strikes prompted German pilots to name it "the Fork-Tailed Devil."

The P-38's combat prowess made the plane especially popular among model airplane builders. In 1965, Revell-Monogram began producing kits for assembling 1/48th-scale replicas of the fighter, and they became one of the company's most successful products, with more than 250,000 sold over 40 years. For most of those years, the manufacturers of planes, trains, and automobiles championed tiny replicas as free advertising. But in the past two decades, various factors—the soaring value of information and intangible assets, for example, and the proliferation of cheap knockoffs from abroad—ignited a boom in protecting intellectual property. In 1990, manufacturers began to charge each model company from 3 to 15 percent of a kit's wholesale price for the right to use their brands and commercial designs. Seeing no legal alternative, the model-makers paid. In 2001, however, when defense contractors demanded similar licensing fees, the companies balked.

Competition from video games had seriously eroded sales, and the model-makers could ill afford higher costs. They argued that military designs, unlike commercial ones, are in the public domain. "The government pays for these, so why should we have to pay defense contractors to make a model of them?" asked Edward Sexton of Revell-Monogram. The fee would add about 50 cents to the P-38's wholesale price of under $10, Sexton said, not including the time and labor of seeking Lockheed Martin's approval for every kit design replicating one of its products. While Lockheed and other contractors say they are entitled by law to the rights to their designs, they insist that profit isn't the motive for enforcing those rights. "We want to be sure that the models are of reasonable quality and that they are safe," explained Lockheed spokesman Thomas Greer.

Still, model airplane manufacturers say the fees could kill off their military lines. They have asked Congress to exempt combat models from the charges—and to prevent defense contractors from doing to the pint-size P-38 what German and Japanese pilots failed to accomplish against the real fighter more than 60 years ago.

—THE EDITORS

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