The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, also known as the F-80, was the first jet fighter used operationally by the US Army Air Forces (USAAF). While German jet aircraft, such as the Messerschmitt Me 262, often steal the limelight when discussing World War II-era aviation technology, the P-80 played a significant role in the conflict and helped shape the future of jet aviation.
Development of jet technology during World War II
When examining high-tech aircraft from WWII, German designs like the Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger, Messerschmitt Me 262 and Heinkel He 163 Komet usually come to mind. However, the Allies weren’t far behind in developing jet technology.
The British invented the first turbojet engine, created by Royal Air Force (RAF) officer Frank Whittle in 1930. Whittle’s invention led to the development of the Gloster E.28/39, the first Allied jet engine aircraft, which flew in 1941. The first American jet fighter, the Bell P-59 Airacomet, entered service in October 1942.
While 66 were built, the P-59 wasn’t used in an operational capacity, as it lacked the necessary components to make it effective in battle. It couldn’t even keep up with the newest piston-powered fighters. The RAF found it to be inferior to the Gloster Meteor, so the American jet fighter was, instead, used to train pilots.
Closing the gap
Realizing the need to catch up with the British and Germans, the United States developed the P-80 Shooting Star. Designed by Lockheed, it was the only Allied jet of the Second World War to have the engine mounted within the fuselage.
The development of the P-80 was driven by the Allies’ discovery of the Messerschmitt Me 262 in spring 1943. The US decided to use existing British jet research and fit the aircraft with the Halford H-1B Goblin engine, to give the P-80 performance that could match the Me 262.
Work began on the P-80 in May 1943 – without the engine, as it wasn’t yet available from the United Kingdom. Lockheed Chief Engineer Kelly Johnson gathered a team of engineers and told them their orders: they were to develop a new aircraft prototype for the USAAF. They would perform their job with the utmost secrecy, working six 10-hour days a week, as this new jet fighter needed to be completed within 150 days.
Skunk Works created the first prototype, the XP-80 Lulu-Belle, in early 1944, after 141 days of work. Powered by the British H-1B engine, Lulu-Belle first flew on January 8 of that year and, in further tests, exceeded 500 MPH at over 20,000 feet. This made it the first USAAF turbojet aircraft to surpass that speed in level flight.
After the first flight, Johnson remarked, “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.” This success prompted the development of additional prototypes.
Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star specs
The P-80 Shooting Star was developed around the fuselage, to ensure it had a proper center of gravity. The cockpit featured a bubble canopy, allowing pilots an unobstructed view. As more were produced, the British engine used in the prototype was replaced by an Allison J33-A-35 that was fitted internally and capable of producing 4,600 pounds of dry thrust. This allowed the aircraft to reach speeds of Mach 0.76 and maintain a range of 825 miles.
The single-seater P-80 was armed with a variety of weapons. Six .50 AN-M3 Browning machine guns in the nose served as the primary armament, with eight High-Velocity Aerial Rockets (HVAR) and two 1,000-pound bombs providing secondary support via hardpoints on the wings and specially-made rails. The aircraft’s small size prevented additional weapons or munitions from initially being mounted.
Flying secret missions over Italy
The USAAF was eager to get the P-80 Shooting Star into the war, potentially even seeing combat against the German Me 262. A small unit comprised of just four pre-production YP-80As was dispatched to Europe: two went to the UK for demonstration and familiarization flights, while the others were sent to Italy to join the 1st Fighter Group at Lesina Airfield.
In Italy, the YP-80As faced an interesting situation. The Luftwaffe was already using its own jet aircraft on the Italian Front, with Arado Ar 234B Blitz reconnaissance jets running missions over Allied lines. These couldn’t be intercepted by conventional Allied aircraft. The YP-80A had the potential to change the situation.
Officially, a YP-80A attached to the 94th Fighter Squadron flew two operational sorties in Italy. The details of these missions remain unknown, but they were recorded as non-combat. While the plan had been for the aircraft to be more involved in the conflict, a delay in production prevented this from occurring.
Death of Richard Bong
Maj. Richard Bong was the top American flying ace of the Second World War, serving in the Pacific Theater. He claimed his first kill in December 1942 and scored an additional four the following summer, securing a promotion to the rank of captain. By the time the conflict came to an end, he’d racked up more kills than famed World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, with 40 credited to his name.
Following his service with the USAAF, Bong became a test pilot. On August 6, 1945, he took off in a P-80 Shooting Star, which immediately suffered a malfunction with its primary fuel pump. Bong never switched on his auxiliary fuel pump, and when he attempted to eject from the aircraft, he was too close to the ground and perished.
Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star’s post-war service
After WWII, the P-80 Shooting Star continued to serve in various roles, including as a fighter-bomber in Korea, designated the F-80. Additional units of the P-80A were delivered to the US Navy, where they were modified for service aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB/CVA/CV-42).
Over 1,700 P-80s were produced, with the aircraft undergoing several upgrades, eventually evolving into the T-33 trainer, which served with several air forces around the world. A total of 6,557 were produced until 1959.
In addition to its operational roles, the P-80 contributed to aviation history by breaking several records. On June 19, 1947, a P-80R, piloted by Col. Albert Boyd, set the world speed record of 623.73 MPH. It also played a part in the development of aerial refueling, becoming the first jet to be successfully refueled mid-flight in combat.
Deployment of the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star
The most well-known variant of the P-80 Shooting Star was the F-80. Intended to be a high-altitude interceptor, it took on a number of roles throughout the Korean War, including as a photo reconnaissance aircraft (RF-80), a day fighter and a fighter-bomber. It notably flew combat sorties against North Korean-flown Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s, as well as against Ilyushin Il-10 ground attack aircraft and Yakovlev Yak-9 fighters.
Most notably, the F-80C secured the first American jet-versus-jet kill during a dogfight against enemy MiG-15s on November 8, 1950, with pilot Lt. Russell Brown in the cockpit. An estimated 75 percent of enemy losses during the first months of the conflict were attributed to the aircraft. That being said, 368 were lost, the majority to ground fire.
Given its WWII-era origins, the F-80 was slower than anticipated. This eventually led to the North American F-86 Sabre taking over the aircraft’s combat role in Korea.
Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star’s legacy
The P-80 Shooting Star played a pivotal role in the advancement of jet aviation in the US and helped shape the future of jet fighters. Although it didn’t see extensive service during WWII, its impact on the development of jet technology was significant. The P-80 demonstrated the potential of jet-powered aircraft and paved the way for the more advanced designs that followed in the coming years, such as the F-86 Sabre and MiG-15.
The aircraft’s development and eventual operational use demonstrated America’s commitment to advancing aviation technology and ensuring air superiority. The P-80 may not be as famous as its contemporaries, but its contributions to jet aviation and the post-war era should not be overlooked.