Air-Minded: America’s First Jet Fighter (Updated 9/16/15)

Walking around the outdoor displays at the Pima Air & Space Museum (PASM) the other day, I stopped in front of a dusty relic, a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, America’s first operational jet fighter.

P-80 Shooting Star (view # 1)
PASM’s P-80B, serial #45-8612 (photo: Paul Woodford)

I always think of the P-80 (later redesignated the F-80) as a Korean War-era fighter.  It’s true that the P-80 first saw combat in Korea, but development actually began in 1943, right in the middle of WWII, in response to intelligence reports about the super-secret Messerschmitt Me-262, the Nazi’s jet fighter.  The Shooting Star was developed in equal secrecy at the Lockheed Skunk Works by legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson.

At the time the British were far ahead of us in jet engine design, and early American experiments with jet powered aircraft depended on close cooperation with our ally.  The prototype XP-80 first flew in January 1944, powered by a British Halford engine being developed for the deHavilland Vampire.  The prototype achieved a top speed of over 500 miles per hour, considerably faster than any propeller-driven fighter in existence.  The XP-80 was a giant leap over what the Germans had achieved with their early jet fighters. Later production versions of the P-80, powered by the General Electric-designed, Allison-built J33 engine (also based on a British design), could just touch 600 mph.  Not only was it fast, it was (I believe but can’t immediately verify) the first American fighter with a pressurized cockpit, allowing pilots to fly at sustained altitudes over 40,000 feet.

Allison J33
Allison J33 (photo: Paul Woodford)

Production P-80s, I was surprised to learn, came this close to seeing action during WWII.  In late 1944 four P-80As were sent to Italy and England so that American and British pilots could develop jet tactics for use against the Luftwaffe, but they didn’t manage to mix it up with the Germans before the European war ended.  In the summer of 1945 another 30 P-80As were shipped to the Pacific aboard an aircraft carrier.  They were to have participated in the final assault on Japan, but in a classic SNAFU arrived without tip tanks and batteries — by the time the missing parts caught up the Pacific war was over too.

When the USAF became an independent service in 1947, it eliminated the P (pursuit) prefix in favor of the F (fighter) prefix, redesignating all its Shooting Stars F-80s.  Standard armament for the F-80 was six nose-mounted 0.50-inch M2 Browning machine guns (300 rounds per gun).  Underwing hard points could carry two 1,000-pound bombs or eight unguided rockets.

P-80 Shooting Star (view # 2)
Primary armament: six .50-cal. machine guns (photo: Paul Woodford)

In 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, the USAF had four F-80 units in Japan.  In the early stages of the Korean War, when the NK air force was still flying obsolete propeller-driven aircraft, our sleek 600 mph jets mopped up, easily establishing air superiority over NK skies.  But with the introduction of the Soviet-built swept-wing MiG-15 to the war, the F-80s were outclassed.  The MiGs were faster and more maneuverable, and at least in the early stages of their use in Korea, many were flown by experienced Russian pilots, some of them WWII aces.  We were by that time developing a swept-wing fighter of our own, the North American F-86 Sabre, and with its introduction the air-to-air role was given to the Sabres and the Shooting Stars were relegated to ground attack. By the end of the Korean War the only F-80s still flying combat missions in Korea were RF-80 reconnaissance versions.

Over a five-year production run ending in 1949, Lockheed built over 1,700 P/F-80s.  The USAF retired its F-80s after the Korean War ended in 1953, but some RF-80s flew on until 1957. Today there are no flyable P/F-80s, only a few on static display in parks and air museums.  A modified version with a longer fuselage and two-seat tandem cockpit, the T-33, remained in production until 1959, with over 6,500 built.  Generations of new USAF pilots trained in the T-33 — also called the Shooting Star — from the 1950s well into the 1970s.

PASM’s Shooting Star is a P-80B, the second of three production versions (the A, B, and C models).  The P-80B was the first production fighter with an ejection seat — in the earlier P-80A, you had to literally step over the side if you had to get out.  Our aircraft is serial # 45-8612, probably delivered to the Army Air Corps the year I was born, 1946.

Astute readers will notice that the wingtip tanks in my photo of PASM’s P-80B are unlike the below-the-tip tanks seen in other photos here.  As I understand it, most P/F-80s had the below-the-tip tanks, which I believe were jettisonable in flight.  Some P-80Bs, like PASM’s example, were fitted with center wingtip-mounted tanks, and I do not think those could be jettisoned.  Don’t take my word for that, though. See update, below.

In 1985, when I was an F-15 Eagle pilot in Alaska, I had an opportunity to fly a T-33 from the back seat on a flight from King Salmon Airport to Elmendorf AFB.  The airplane I flew was one of the last T-33s still in USAF service, and apart from the two-seat cockpit and lack of armament, identical to the earlier F-80.

A few things about that flight are still lodged in my memory.  One was the horribly cramped WWII-style cockpit, with the canopy rails literally touching my shoulders as I flew — I feared that if I had to eject I’d leave my arms behind.  The flight instruments were Neanderthal by F-15 standards, dominated by a giant turn & slip indicator and early “black ball” attitude indicator.

P-80 cockpit
P-80 cockpit & instrument panel (photo: USAF Armament Museum)

Another detail that comes back: fuel quantity and flow gauges calibrated in gallons, not pounds.  Flight controls were conventional as far as elevator and rudder, but the ailerons had a twitchy hydraulic assist, and only a highly experienced T-33 pilot could fly the airplane smoothly.  With my two hours of stick time, the best I could do was limit the constant side-to-side roll to five degrees either way.

And then there was the engine, dating from the dawn of the jet age.  Except for the centrifugal-flow turbines in the T-37 primary jet trainer I flew during pilot training, every jet engine I had experience with had been an axial-flow design with multiple compressor stages.  Flying the T-33 took me right back to pilot training, because that single-compressor centrifugal dinosaur took forever to wind up.  Imagine having to always depress the gas pedal of your car five seconds before you need to accelerate … that’s what these early jet engines were like (axial-flow turbines, which came into use in the early 1950s, eliminated most of the slow spool-up problems pilots had to contend with in earlier jets).

But boy, the Shooting Star was a hot jet in its day.  She may look frumpy to those who grew up on Eagles and Vipers, but this is what she looked like when she was young and sexy:

Early P-80 Shooting Star
P-80A Shooting Star (photo: USAF)

That, I think you’ll admit, is one good-looking fighter.


Update (9/116/15): A fellow docent at Pima Air & Space Museum flew F-80s with the center wingtip-mounted fuel tanks, and he told me today they were in fact jettisonable.

© 2012 – 2017, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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