The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was the first jet fighter used operationally by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF).
Designed and built by Lockheed in 1943 and delivered just 143 days from the start of the design process, production models were flying, and two pre-production models did see very limited service in Italy just before the end of World War II.
Designed with straight wings, the type saw extensive combat in Korea with the United States Air Force (USAF) as the F-80.
America’s first successful turbojet-powered combat aircraft, it was soon outclassed with the appearance of the swept-wing transonic MiG-15 and was quickly replaced in the air superiority role by the transonic F-86 Sabre.
The F-94 Starfire, an all-weather interceptor using the same airframe, also saw Korean War service.
The closely related T-33 Shooting Star trainer remained in service with the U.S. Air Force and Navy well into the 1980s, with the last NT-33 variant not retired until April 1997.
The XP-80 had a conventional all-metal airframe, with a slim low wing and tricycle landing gear.
Like most early jets designed during World War II and before the Allies captured German research data that confirmed the speed advantages of swept-wings the XP-80 had straight wings, similar to previous propeller-driven fighters.
It was the first operational jet fighter to have its engine in the fuselage, a format previously used in the pioneering German Heinkel He 178 V1 of 1939, and the later British Gloster E.28/39 demonstrator of 1941.
Other early jets generally had two engines because of their limited power, these being mounted in external nacelles for easier maintenance.
With the advent of more powerful British jet engines, fuselage mounting was more effective, and it was used by nearly all subsequent fighter aircraft.
Lockheed was the first American aircraft company to start work on a jet powered aircraft, beginning work on the L-133 in 1939.
The L-133 eventually developed into an extremely advanced design, including futuristic features such as canard forewings and a blended wing body, but when Lockheed presented the design to the USAAF, it was rejected as being technologically unfeasible.
Instead, the USAAF concentrated development around the much less radical Bell P-59 Airacomet, which first flew in October 1942.
It quickly became obvious, however, that the P-59’s performance was only marginally superior to current piston engined fighters.
Bell performed preliminary work on a revised version of P-59 featuring a single engine mounted within the fuselage and a low mounted wing designated the XP-59B, but by this time the Bell factory was swamped with other work so the USAAF transferred work on this project to Lockheed.
The impetus for development of the P-80 was the discovery by Allied intelligence of the Me 262 in spring 1943, which had made only test flights of its own first quartet (the V1 through V4 airframes) of design prototypes at that time, all fitted with retracting tailwheel landing gear.
After receiving documents and blueprints comprising years of British jet aircraft research, the commanding General of the Army Air Forces, Henry H. Arnold, believed an airframe developed to accept the British-made Halford H-1 B “Goblin” jet engine could provide the superior performance to match the new German jets, and the Materiel Command’s Wright Field research and development division tasked Lockheed to design the aircraft based on their experience with the L-133.
Concept work began on the XP-80 in May 1943. Since the British turbojet was not yet delivered, Lockheed obtained its blueprint dimensions from Bell as ordered by the USAAC.
Lockheed’s team, consisting of 28 engineers, was led by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson in the same manner as the P-38 Lightning, in the same remote building with high security and greater autonomy, a continuation of Lockheed’s Skunk Works style of research and development.
With the Germans and British clearly far ahead in development, Lockheed was pressed to develop a comparable jet as quickly as possible.
Kelly Johnson submitted a design proposal in mid-June and promised that the prototype would be ready for testing in 150 days.
The Skunk Works team, beginning 26 June 1943, produced the airframe in 143 days, delivering it to Muroc Army Airfield on 16 November.
The project was so secret that only five of the more than 130 people working on it knew that they were developing a jet aircraft, and the British engineer who delivered the Goblin engine was detained by the police because Lockheed officials could not vouch for him.
After the engine had been mated to the airframe, foreign object damage during the first run-up destroyed the engine.
The British engineer who had delivered the engine had warned Lockheed that the skin of the inlet ducts was too thin, but the American engineers ignored this warning and both ducts collapsed and were sucked into the engine when at full throttle.
This delayed the first flight until a second engine (the only other existing) could be delivered from Britain, de Havilland generously donating the engine intended for the prototype Vampire.
The first prototype (44-83020) was nicknamed Lulu-Belle (also known as “the Green Hornet” because of its paint scheme).
Powered by the replacement Halford H1 taken from the prototype de Havilland Vampire jet fighter, it first flew on 8 January 1944, with Lockheed test pilot Milo Burcham at the controls.
Following this flight, Johnson said, “It was a magnificent demonstration, our plane was a success such a complete success that it had overcome the temporary advantage the Germans had gained from years of preliminary development on jet planes.”
The donated British jet engine and program data had no doubt proved invaluable.
In test flights, the XP-80 eventually reached a top speed of 502 mph (808 km/h; 436 kn) at 20,480 ft (6,240 m), making it the first turbojet-powered USAAF aircraft to exceed 500 mph in level flight, following the August 1944 record flight of 504 mph (811 km/h; 438 kn) by a special high-speed variant of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
Contemporary pilots, when transitioning to pioneering jets like the Shooting Star, were unused to flying at high speed without a loud reciprocating engine and had to learn to rely on the airspeed indicator.
The second prototype, designated XP-80A, was designed for the larger General Electric I-40 engine (an improved J31, later produced by Allison as the J33).
Two aircraft (44-83021 and 44-83022) were built.
44-83021 was nicknamed the Gray Ghost after its “pearl gray” paint scheme, while 83022, left unpainted for comparison of flight characteristics, became known as the Silver Ghost.
The XP-80A’s first test flight was unimpressive, but most of the problems with the design were soon addressed and corrected in the test program.
Initial opinions of the XP-80A were not positive, with Lockheed Chief Engineering Test Pilot Milo Burcham commenting that an aircraft he very much enjoyed (powered by the Halford engine) had now become a “dog.”
The XP-80As were primarily testbeds for larger, more powerful engines and air intake design, and consequently were larger and 25% heavier than the XP-80.
The P-80 testing program proved very dangerous.
Burcham was killed on 20 October 1944 while flying the third YP-80A, 44–83025.
The Gray Ghost was lost on a test flight on 20 March 1945, although pilot Tony LeVier escaped.
Newly promoted to chief engineering test pilot to replace Burcham, LeVier bailed out when one of the engine’s turbine blades broke, causing structural failure in the aircraft’s tail.
LeVier landed hard and broke his back but returned to the test program after six months of recovery.
The top-scoring World War II USAAF ace Major Richard Bong was also killed on an acceptance flight of a production P-80 in the United States on 6 August 1945.
Both Burcham and Bong crashed as a result of main fuel pump failure.
Burcham’s death was the result of a failure to brief him on a newly installed emergency fuel pump backup system, but the investigation of Bong’s crash found that he had apparently forgotten to switch on this pump, which could have prevented the accident.
He bailed out when the aircraft rolled inverted but was too close to the ground for his parachute to deploy.
After Bong’s death, both the USAAF and Lockheed wanted to prove the reliability of the airplane.
Robert E. Thacker from the Flight Test Division at Wright Field was ordered to select three other pilots, pick up 5 P-80s from Lockheed and fly them to Muroc Army Airbase, and fly each airplane there for 500 hours.
Thacker tapped Chuck Yeager, plus two other pilots and they put 500 hours on each airplane without further incident.
1714 production aircraft were delivered to the Air Force prior to any conversions or redesignations, with their original block numbers.
Prototype powered by a de Havilland-built Halford H.1B turbojet and first flown 8 January 1944, one built.
Production prototype variant powered by a General Electric I-40 turbojet, increased span and length but wing area reduced, two built.
12 pre-production aircraft. One aircraft, 44-83027, lent to Rolls-Royce Limited and used for development of the Nene engine.
One built from YP-80A order (44-83024), lost in mid-air collision with B-25 Mitchell chase plane on 6 December 1944; USAAF photo reconnaissance prototype.
344 block 1-LO aircraft; 180 block 5-LO aircraft. Block 5 and all subsequent Shooting Stars were natural metal finish.
Fitted with 225 US gal (187 imp gal; 850 l) tiptanks.
USAF designation of P-80A.
Modified to test “Prone Pilot” cockpit positions.
Unknown number of photo-reconnaissance conversions from P-80A, all redesignated FP-80A.
Modified P-80A 44–85201 with hinged nose for camera equipment.