Icons of Aviation History: P-80 Shooting Star

Rushed into production during World War II, the P-80 Shooting Star was the US’s first operational jet fighter.

P-80 Shooting Star on exhibit at the Warbird Museum in Titusville FL

In the mid-years of World War II, the US was desperately trying to get a jet fighter flying. The Germans were already working on their Me-262 jet fighter (which hadn’t flow yet but was already discovered by Allied intelligence) and the British were well on the way to flying their own Meteor jetfighters, but the Americans were far behind. So in June 1943, as the experimental American-designed jet engine in the P-59 Airacomet struggled to become workable, the Lockheed Company put a team, headed by Kelly Johnson, to work on designing an operational jet fighter that used the already-proven Halford H.1B turbojet from the British De Havilland company, and to do it quickly. The project was dubbed “L-140”, then, after Air Corps approval, became the XP-80. The Army wanted a workable prototype in 180 days but, in an amazing feat, Kelly went from drawing board to flying prototype in just 143 days.

The airframe was pretty conventional. The XP-80 had low-mounted straight wings  and tricycle landing gear,  and it carried six .50-calibre machine guns. The cockpit was unpressurized and had a sliding bubble canopy. Unlike both the Me-262 and the British Meteor, the XP-80s two jet engines were contained side by side inside the fuselage with air intakes at the front, instead of hanging on the wings. The prototype was christened “Lulu Belle”.

There was one recognized difficulty that Lockheed was unable to solve yet, however. Throughout the war, pilots had been issued parachutes which enabled them to exit the plane if they were shot down. At the speeds that could be reached by jet engines, however, it was becoming more and more difficult for pilots to jump out of their cockpits without smashing into the tail of their own aircraft. (German Me-262 pilots faced the same issue.) This problem would not be solved until after the war ended and workable ejection seats became available. Meanwhile, pilots would just have to take their chances.

The XP-80 prototype’s first flight was in January 1944. It was fitted with the British Halford jet engine, which produced 2600 pounds of thrust, and reached a speed of over 500mph. But by the time the design was approved by the Army Air Corps and was ordered rushed into production (under the designation P-80 Shooting Star), the US finally had a reliably workable jet engine of its own: the General Electric J-33 engine with 3800 pounds of thrust. When P-80s began to roll out of the factory in February 1945, they were fitted with the more powerful American engines. The German Me-262 had already entered combat, and the US Army Air Corps had ordered 500 of the American jets before the prototype had even flown, to counter the Nazi fighter.

There were some teething troubles with the new American jets, and pilots still had to be trained to fly them. The war in Europe ended in May 1945, however, just as the Shooting Stars were beginning to reach their airbases in England and Italy. (Four P-80s had just been deployed for combat testing at the time of the German surrender.) The P-80, which had been rushed out as a response to the German Me-262, never had the chance to face its intended opponent in combat.

With the Nazi surrender, the P-80 program lost its immediacy. The invasion of Japan still loomed, but the Japanese had no operational jet fighters, and barely any effective air power of any sort. P-80 production was scaled back, and focus moved instead towards improving the design. These efforts suffered a setback on August 6, 1945 (the same day the Hiroshima bomb was dropped), when test pilot Richard Bong was killed when a fuel pump on his Shooting Star failed after takeoff and his parachute cords became entangled in the plane’s tail fin. Bong had been the highest-scoring American ace of the war, and the entire P-80 fleet was grounded while the incident was investigated. There were some calls in Congress to cancel the entire program.

As the Second World War ended and the Cold War began,  though, the P-80 remained as America’s frontline fighter. The new B model featured the first operational American ejection seat. In 1947, an F-80B (the newly-formed US Air Force had changed all its former Army fighters from “P” for “pursuit” to “F” for “fighter”) was modified to make an attempt at the world speed record and succeeded, reaching 624mph. These modifications, along with a more powerful engine, were incorporated into the F-80C model, which had a top speed of 580mph. Lockheed also modified the airframe of the P-80 into a two-seat radar-equipped all-weather fighter designated as the F-94 Starfire. Another two-seat version was designed as a trainer for new jet pilots. It was designated as the T-33, sometimes called the T-Bird, and it remained the Air Force’s primary jet trainer until 1959 and was also used by many US allies.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the F-80C faced the Soviet-designed MiG-15. The first jet v jet air victory happened on November 8, 1950, when Lieutenant Russell Brown shot down a MiG-15 over the Sinuiju bridge on the Yalu River. (Many years later, however, records showed that not only was the MiG claimed by Brown on that day being flown by a WW2-veteran Soviet pilot, but that he had not actually been shot down and had managed to return with a crippled plane.)

By this time, the F-80 was showing its age, and it was already in the process of being replaced by the newer F-84 Thunderjet. Although F-80 pilots had claimed six MiG kills, the Shooting Star was assigned to ground-attack duties, striking targets with bombs, napalm and rockets. By July 1953, over 400 F-80s had been lost in combat in Korea, mostly to ground fire. The remainder were withdrawn, though a few remained as photo-reconnaissance platforms. Shooting Stars flew with National Guard units stateside until 1958, when they were finally retired. A few planes were sold to some South American air forces, where they served until the 1960s before being retired.

The F-80 was also utilized in an attempt to build a nuclear-armed drone. This was an old unmanned F-80 that was fitted with a large nose compartment carrying a nuclear warhead and a radio-control system called RASCAL. The drone would be dropped from a bomber and then steered to the target by remote control. The project never worked, and it was eventually abandoned.

In all, about 1500 P-80s were produced, along with 6500 T-33 trainer versions. Today there are about 25 P-80s on display, most of them C models.

The prototype “Lulu Belle” was given to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1949. She underwent restoration in 1976 and went on display when the new National Air and Space Museum was completed.


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