A P-38 is head-high, so knowing where the boarding ladder is located is important. Without it, there's nothing a pilot can grab that will help him hoist himself up to the second floor.
We all love to fly/drive something new. However, it often appears as if the most "interesting" vehicles require the most difficult dance moves to get into them. In fact, in some cases, the dance constitutes a test in which you have to prove yourself willing to contort your body into unnatural shapes to earn the right to fly/drive something out of the ordinary.
This thought came to mind as I was watching a student trying to insert himself into the front pit of my airplane. He hadn't learned the dance steps and was in danger of getting a charley horse, so I climbed up on the wing walk and demonstrated: left foot well up on the wing walk, hang onto the flying wires with your left hand, lay your right leg/knee horizontally on the cockpit edge, grab your right pant leg cuff with your right hand, and lift your foot into the cockpit. Don't lean on the rear wind screen. Step on the seat, learn far right, and bring the left leg in while avoiding the bottom of the top wing with your knee. Then wiggle down inside and breathe a sigh of relief. Easy, cheezy!
And then there's getting out, but we don't have space to discuss that here. The process flows more smoothly if you're silently singing, "You put your right foot in. You put your right foot out..."
Bottom line is that to a lot of edge-of-the-bell-shaped-curve aviators, the character of the airplane is somehow linked to the character of the boarding procedure. If an airplane is easy to get into, there's a high probability they won't find it interesting.
Take the J-3 Cub, for instance: Getting in either seat requires a full checkout by a qualified CFI or an official dance card that details every step of the proper choreography. Otherwise, you stand a chance of hurting yourself or the airplane. Or both. At the very least, done poorly you can severely damage your airport image: displaying a high klutz factor is never good for our public image. This is especially true in boarding a Cub's front seat, where your final seating position includes being folded up like a cheap pocketknife with the control stick hitting you in the chest. However, the knees-and-panel-in-your-face seating position somehow seems in character for the type, and the resulting flight is well worth the effort.
For whatever reason, when I think about vehicles and the feeling they engender while boarding, two totally disparate vehicles usually pop into mind. One was a 1942 M3A3 "Stuart" light tank (owning a Stuart was number one on my Christmas list, when I was 14, and again when I was 50, and again when I was…). To wiggle through the mail-slot opening of its front viewing port requires that you learn a salamander dance with a butt-squirming wiggle being the major move. It also helps if you're short, skinny and extraordinarily limber. Did I mention being skinny helps?
The other "vehicle" was my first flight in an F8F Bearcat in 19mumblemumble. As I stepped over the side of the cockpit and let myself down inside, the dance pretty much explained itself and did so in a thoroughly exciting fashion. As I stepped off the seat onto the floor pan and let myself down inside, my arms had to come inboard to clear the canopy rails. And I had to turn slightly sideways to let the canopy clear both shoulders while cranking it shut. The dance ended with the amazing view of a huge (I mean HUGE) propeller, seemingly a few feet in front of me, and these tiny wings projecting off to both sides. Feet spread wide to the rudder pedals, hands on a manly throttle and control stick, 2,100 horsepower just ahead of my feet, it was obvious this dancing partner would be "interesting." And she didn't disappoint.
There are some airplanes that if no one has given you the secret dance steps to you'll never get in. When boarding a Mustang, for instance, if you don't see the spring-loaded steps and handholds hiding here and there, you'll think each airplane came equipped with an rope ladder. Or all Mustang pilots had/have 38-inch inseams. Of course, for the Mustang, there's an alternate dance that has you clambering up on a main-gear tire and crawling over the leading edge. But that leaves footprints on the wing, which is okay when someone is shooting at you and looks don't count, but not acceptable on the fly-in circuit where every warbird has a contrail of groupies eager to wipe and wax at the appearance of a single smudge.
A P-38's boarding dance is the most secretive of all. Unless you know the "secret," you're going to have to pole-vault up on the wing to get to the cockpit. The secret is that there's a skinny little "ladder," and I use that word only because I don't know what else to call it. It's barely an inch thick and vaguely triangular shaped, and is buried in a slot hidden in the very back of the fuselage, or whatever you call the people pod. You pull it down out of the slot, and then execute an awkward dance that has you sidestepping because the ladder is facing the wrong way: It faces left/right, not fore/aft, so your feet are twisted around in an unnatural angle, making you feel like a severely pigeon-toed newbie trying to tango.
A B-25 Mitchell's gettin'-in dance is pure simplicity: Open the belly hatch and a ladder drops down that looks as if it were bought at Costco. No aero-disco moves needed here. The B-17, on the other hand, derives its boarding process from a gymnastic routine, specifically the parallel bars: You have to reach up and grab the edge of the belly hatch that's well over your head. Then you swing your feet up inside. This is no small feat. It's one of the reasons wars are bought by the young. If you're not young, you can't get in some of the airplanes.
Oh sure, it makes much more sense, if you can stand on a wing and simply step down into the cockpit Cirrus/Warrior style or climb in ala Cessna. But, that's too easy. Where's the challenge in that? Some of us like our airplanes to be rife with challenge and personality and, if that requires a demanding boarding dance, so be it. Besides, there's nothing like a good dance to set a warm relationship in motion.