Lockheed’s P-80 Paved the Way for Future American Fighters

America’s first operational jet fighter was rapidly outclassed by sweptwing successors and noticed its best utility as a coach of prop pilots

In 1943 it took simply 143 days for Lockheed designer Clarence“Kelly” Johnson and his elite workforce of 128 Skunk Works engineers and fabricators to create the P-80 Capturing Star. However had it not been for the British, all they might have displayed on rollout day was the world’s quickest glider. It might have had no engine. The US had so totally forsworn jet engine growth that it lagged behind even Italy, to say nothing of Germany and Britain.

It was not for lack of attempting. Within the late Nineteen Thirties, Lockheed had began work on an axial-flow turbojet referred to as the L-1000. It was designed by Nathan Worth, a inventive Lockheed engineer who, not surprisingly, would go on to contribute closely (and anonymously) to the P-80 design. Worth had already invented a cabin-pressure regulator for the Boeing 307 that made airliner pressurization sensible, and he was credited with making the Lockheed P-38’s turbocharging system successful.

British designer Frank Whittle had invented the jet engine (in parallel with the German Hans von Ohain), and by the point the P-80 was envisioned, the one Allied turbojets in restricted manufacturing had been the Whittle W.1 and de Havilland’s Halford H-1, a cleaned-up model of the W.1. Within the fall of 1940, within the midst of the Battle of Britain, the British despatched to the U.S. all of its jet engine, radar and proximity-fuze analysis, as a part of the Tizard Mission, named for British radar pioneer Henry Tizard. The ostensible goal was to steer the impartial U.S. to show its manufacturing functionality towards manufacturing this rising expertise. However an unstated motivation was that after Dunkirk the British feared they may effectively lose the warfare and if that occurred they wished the U.S. to inherit their weapons expertise.

In April 1941, Common Henry H. “Hap” Arnold realized of the Whittle-powered Gloster E.28/39 prototype, the primary Allied jet to fly, throughout a secret tour of the British plane trade. He was surprised, although he was already conscious of the German jet genesis. That September, a U.S. Military Air Corps officer with a briefcase of Whittle W.1 blueprints handcuffed to his wrist flew from England to Lynn, Mass., the place the Common Electrical Com­pany, already well-versed in turbine expertise by its turbochargers, set to work constructing what would finally be referred to as the J33 turbojet engine. In its early type, two of them would energy America’s very first jet, the Bell XP-59.

Lockheed’s first jet plane design, the futuristic L-133, by no means left the drafting board. (Lockheed Martin)

Lockheed had been lobbying onerous for the contract to construct that airplane. In spite of everything, the corporate had already created, at the least on paper, the earliest American jet fighter, to be powered by the L-1000 engine. Lockheed’s L-133, once more designed largely by Nathan Worth, was an unique blended-wing/physique canard with slotted flaps and low-drag twin engines mounted contained in the fuselage.

But the Warfare Division informed Lockheed to put off pursuing jet expertise any additional and to place its effort into constructing and bettering the P-38 Lightning. The corporate might play with jets after the warfare. However within the spring of 1943 U.S. intelligence revealed that Messerschmitt was making ready an airplane that may change into the one jet to see air-to-air fight throughout World Warfare II: the Me-262. (The Gloster Meteor did shoot down V-1 buzz bombs however by no means a manned plane.) The U.S. wanted a fighter with one other 100 mph of airspeed—and rapidly.

So why did Bell initially get the nod to give you a jet? Some say it was due to the corporate’s popularity for creating outside-the-box designs such because the twin-engine pusher YFM-1 Airacuda and the tri-gear, mid-engine P-39 Airacobra (with the corporate’s pioneering helicopter work but to come back). Others recommend that Bell was much less encumbered than different airframers with work constructing essential fighters, bombers and transports.

The P-59 was a why-bother design, although it was in a way a proof-of-concept challenge by no means severely supposed to be a fighter. It turned out to be 50 mph slower than the P-40 and 75 mph slower than early P-47s and P-51s. That didn’t cease Bell chief check pilot Jack Woolams from continuously working his favourite prank: pulling alongside cruising P-38s and the like along with his propless thriller airplane whereas carrying a gorilla masks and a derby, smoking a cigar.

When the necessity for an Me-262 beater grew to become apparent, Bell was ordered to provide all of its P-59 documentation to Lockheed, particularly the work carried out in preparation for the XP-59B. To not be confused with the manufacturing P-59B, the XP-59B was supposed to be a much-improved single-engine model of the P-59. To today there are Bell followers who insist the P-80 was only a cleaned-up model of the XP-59B, a declare that one suspects would have had Kelly Johnson doing lomcováks in his grave.

The original prototype, the XP-80 "Lulu Belle," fronts a lineup of Shooting Stars on the ramp at California's Muroc Army Airfield. (Lockheed Martin)
The unique prototype, the XP-80 “Lulu Belle,” fronts a lineup of Capturing Stars on the ramp at California’s Muroc Military Airfield. (Lockheed Martin)

The very first XP-80 prototype, informally referred to as Lulu Belle, was powered by a de Havilland Goblin engine supplied by the British. In reality, the Brits gave Lockheed two Goblins, each initially supposed for the de Havilland Spider Crab, which might change into the Vampire. They had been on the time Britain’s solely functioning Goblins. Lockheed wanted the second Goblin as a result of it had ignored de Havilland’s warning that the consumption ducts needed to be strongly constructed resulting from a robust low-pressure space inside every duct. Throughout a floor run, Lockheed’s too-thin ductwork imploded, sending particles by the engine and ruining it.

Lulu Belle had been constructed below a used circus tent ringed by a bunch of battered wood pallets. Lockheed was busy with manufacturing packages starting from Military Air Forces fighters to Navy patrol bombers, and it had no room to spare for an off-brand experimental program. The tent rapidly got here to be referred to as the Skunk Works, and because it was removed from all different Lockheed buildings, Johnson might function it below his personal guidelines.

The XP-80 first flew in January 1944, from Muroc Military Airfield. Inside 5 minutes, check pilot Milo Burcham was again on the bottom, spooked by the sensitivity of the controls. “You’ve bought a 15-to-1 [aileron] increase and a sizzling ship that’s naturally delicate,” Johnson informed him. “Perhaps you had been overcontrolling.” Mollified, Burcham tried once more and on his second flight had Lulu Belle as much as an unprecedented 490 mph. Lulu Belle would quickly notch a pace of 502 mph, making it the primary U.S. plane to exceed 500 in stage flight.

The second prototype, the XP-80A, was a fairly completely different airplane—virtually two toes longer and wider in wingspan, 25 p.c heavier and with 1,000 kilos of extra thrust from its Whittle-based GE engine. That GE I-40 would change into the J33, the engine that in numerous variations powered each P/F-80, T-33 and even early F-94 Starfire ever manufactured. 

Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier flies the second Shooting Star prototype, the XP-80A "Gray Ghost," near Muroc. (Lockheed Martin)
Lockheed check pilot Tony LeVier flies the second Capturing Star prototype, the XP-80A “Grey Ghost,” close to Muroc. (Lockheed Martin)

Lockheed put a rudimentary again seat into the cockpit for Johnson. From it he solved the issue of “duct rumble,” the noise produced by warring airflow deep contained in the engine intakes. Johnson deduced that it was brought on by a turbulent boundary layer of air interfering with a easy stream into the engine. The answer was the louver-like, boundary-layer-eating air scoop that may be seen simply contained in the intakes of each manufacturing airframe thereafter.

With no engine or prop up entrance and the 4 .50-caliber weapons eliminated, the P-80’s nostril bay afforded room for a second pilot. This chance was exploited for assessments of a prone-pilot place to scale back the consequences of high-G maneuvers. With a cover and flight controls put in, the check pilot was in a position to exhibit at the least some resistance to G forces. He was additionally in a position to exhibit how rapidly he grew to become nauseated and the way tough it was to fly the airplane whereas mendacity down. One other downside: He might fly maneuvers that overstressed his security pilot, sitting upright within the cockpit behind him.

One other unsuccessful P-80 experiment concerned motorizing the machine weapons in order that they could possibly be cranked right into a full-upright firing place, an idea seemingly borrowed from the mounted however semi-upright weapons the Germans referred to as Schräge Musik. Because it was with the Luftwaffe, the intent was to fly below invading bombers and hearth upward into their bellies. However the hammering recoil of 4 .50s drove the P-80’s nostril down, making it unattainable to goal the weapons.

In a concept likely borrowed from the Germans, motorized upward-firing twin .50-caliber machine guns were tested in an F-80 as a means of attacking enemy bombers from below. (U.S. Air Force)
In an idea seemingly borrowed from the Germans, motorized upward-firing twin .50-caliber machine weapons had been examined in an F-80 as a method of attacking enemy bombers from under. (U.S. Air Drive)

One unmistakable Capturing Star part was the airplane’s shapely, tapered wingtip gas tanks. The XP-80A was the primary of the road to hold tip tanks and the primary airplane on the earth to be fitted with them. Johnson invented the tip tank and in Could 1944 patented the thought. His patent software cagily reveals an airplane with a P-80 planview, however with a propeller and with out the jet intakes or exhaust.

Johnson’s tip tanks barely lowered the P-80’s complete drag since they acted as wingtip endplates and lowered tip vortices. In addition they improved roll response and helped with spanwise loading of the wing. The one factor they didn’t do, with a capability of simply 165 gallons every, was considerably improve vary. 

Early P-80s had an abysmal accident file—not essentially by any fault of the airplane however typically due to the shortcoming of propeller-trained pilots to function them correctly. Even essentially the most skilled fell to the needy P-80’s calls for. Milo Burcham died within the third manufacturing proto­sort when its engine flamed out on takeoff in Octo­ber 1944. One other killed American ace of aces Richard Bong on the day the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. (Bong had solely himself in charge. In an age that largely skipped checklists, Bong, with solely 4 hours and quarter-hour of P-80 time logged, forgot to activate his P-80’s auxiliary gas pump for takeoff.)

There was an ace-of-the-base mentality amongst many returning WWII fight pilots, who had been used to the near-instant responsiveness of piston engines and the controllable drag of giant propellers that could possibly be shifted out and in of flat pitch. They didn’t want anyone to show them how one can fly a brand new airplane, however the P-80 supplied no such flexibility. New Capturing Star pilots would discover themselves approaching a touchdown far too quick of their slippery ship and would pull off all the facility. Dangerous concept. It took so long as 14 seconds for a J33 engine to spool again up and supply helpful thrust, and sometimes that was too late.

P-80s of the 416th Fighter Group gather at D.C.’s Washington National Airport after having flown the first transcontinental jet mission in 1946. (U.S. Air Force)
P-80s of the 416th Fighter Group collect at D.C.’s Washington Nationwide Airport after having flown the primary transcontinental jet mission in 1946. (U.S. Air Drive)

One other dangerous concept was that new jet pilots would frantically firewall the facility lever once they discovered themselves on the again facet of the facility curve with an unresponsive engine. Early J33s couldn’t take the frenzy of gas and both flooded or caught hearth.

It was additionally a time earlier than the idea of density altitude was totally understood—that air bought thinner and fewer supportive the warmer and better it grew to become. Many a P-80 ran out of runway earlier than its wings had been able to elevate. By the point the P-80 was little over 2½ years previous and nonetheless in restricted manufacturing, 61 of them had been concerned in accidents. 

Lockheed realized that it wanted a jet coach, which it created by lengthening an ordinary P-80 airframe by 4 toes 6 inches, making room for a back-seat teacher pilot. Thus was born Lockheed’s most profitable jet of all time, the T-33 “T-bird.” Lockheed constructed effectively over thrice as might T-birds because it did Capturing Stars, they usually went on to coach, in line with some estimates, 1 / 4 million new jet pilots.

Some Lockheed followers insist the P-80 served in World Warfare II. One well-regarded aviation historian maintains that 30-odd P-80As had been despatched to the Philippines in the summertime of 1945 to fly within the invasion of Japan however had been grounded for a month as a result of anyone forgot to incorporate their batteries and tip tanks. The anecdote is true aside from the truth that it occurred in 1946, a yr after the warfare ended. Others have claimed that 4 P-80s had been seen on Saipan throughout the closing weeks of the warfare, although there isn’t a proof of this.

What did occur, nevertheless, is that two P-80s had been despatched to England and two to Italy throughout the closing weeks of the warfare in Europe. The previous two had been rapidly misplaced to accidents and there’s little proof of the airplanes in Italy having flown any fight missions, regardless of a lot theorizing that the 2 typically went steaming off searching for Me-262s. Some say they had been despatched to Italy particularly to shoot down marauding Arado Ar-234 high-altitude reconnaissance jets. In reality, the deployment was a easy check of the USAAF’s functionality to take care of and function the jets below fight circumstances, they usually had been by no means put in hurt’s approach.

The P-80 might not have contributed to WWII, nevertheless it rapidly grew to become an efficient PR software quickly thereafter. A flight of three made a record-breaking transcontinental crossing in January 1946—the first-ever in jets—and in August of that yr Capturing Stars gained the Bendix Trophy, jet-class Thompson Trophy and Weatherhead Jet Pace Sprint Trophy on the Nationwide Air Races. In 1947 the Bendix and jet Thompson trophies once more went to P-80s.

That yr additionally noticed a modified P-80R referred to as Racey set a world absolute pace file of 623.7 mph. (It lasted solely two months, till a Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak upped the highest pace to virtually 641 mph.)

In 1950 the F-80C made its bones when it went to warfare in Korea. By that point, the 900 Capturing Stars within the Air Drive stock constituted roughly half of America’s fighter pressure, and lots of WWII piston-engine fighters had been relegated to Nationwide Guard and Reserve squadrons. 

Warfare-weary P-51Ds needed to be swiftly recalled to service, nevertheless, when F-80Cs turned out to be too quick to maneuver with the piston-engine Soviet Lavochkins and Yaks the North Koreans had been flying. Nonetheless, F-80s on the second day of the warfare shot down 4 Ilyushin Il-10s—single-engine ground-attack plane that had been improved variations of the WWII Il-2 Sturmovik—in what had been the USAF’s first jet victories.

4 months later, on January 1, 1950, F-80Cs from the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing engaged three Soviet-flown MiG-15s on the earth’s first jet-versus-jet fight. Lieutenant Semyon Kho­minich claimed one of many F-80s, killing 1st Lt. Frank Van Sickle Jr., however the Air Drive insisted his Capturing Star had been hit by flak, not a MiG. Per week later F-80C pilot 1st Lt. Russell Brown scored hits on a MiG-15 and claimed a victory, although years later it was decided that the Soviet MiG pilot had made it again to base.

In any case, the MiG was virtually 100 mph quicker than the Lockheed. Largely due to this, the F-80 was relegated to a ground-attack function, leaving MiG-bashing to the newly arrived North American F-86 Sabre.

4 F-80C fighter teams had been based mostly in Japan and the commute to Korea left them with little gas to fly helpful missions. The answer was “Misawa tanks,” which had been primarily faired barrels welded up by technicians at Misawa Air Base, in northern Japan. The biggest Misawa tanks held 265 gallons. Early ones, nevertheless, lacked inner anti-slosh baffles. Throughout steep run-ins in opposition to floor targets, partial gas in a Misawa tank would stream ahead and on the pullout would slosh quickly aft. This brought about at the least one deadly accident when the overstressed tank tore off an F-80C’s wingtip after which took out a horizontal stabilizer. 

One other attempt at lengthening the F-80’s quick legs was the world’s first in-combat aerial refueling, on July 6, 1951, when three RF-80As gassed up from a Boeing KB-29 tanker over the Sea of Japan. This successfully doubled the reconnaissance planes’ vary. The receiving probes for the tanker’s drogue protruded from the nostril of every tip tank, nevertheless, and the refueling process proved too prolonged and cumbersome to undertake operationally.

Ground crewmen load a 500-pound bomb onto the wing of an 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadron F-80C in Korea. (U.S. Air Force)
Floor crewmen load a 500-pound bomb onto the wing of an eightieth Fighter-Bomber Squadron F-80C in Korea. (U.S. Air Drive)

F-80s flew virtually 100,000 sorties throughout the Korean Warfare and had been credited with capturing down 37 North Korean plane. However in return 14 Capturing Stars had been misplaced to aerial fight, 113 to anti-aircraft hearth, 150 to accidents and 16 to unknown causes. Whole losses had been equal to 35 p.c of all of the F-80Cs manufactured. This was effectively over double the loss charge throughout the Vietnam Warfare for F-4 Phantoms, then essentially the most susceptible fixed-wing plane of any combatant nation.

By the mid-Fifties, Capturing Stars had been antiquated sufficient that they had been being despatched to South America as a part of the Army Help Program for members of the Group of American States. F-80Cs went to Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay to interchange P-47s. Solely Peru ever used one in anger, to make low next-time-I’ll-shoot passes over a neighborhood garrison that had mutinied.

A number of the final energetic F-80s had been the six utilized by the FAA, with civil registration numbers, for high-altitude navaid inspections throughout the Nineteen Sixties. At the moment, not a single P/F-80 stays flyable, even amongst a warbird neighborhood that has proven the tenacity to revive a number of the oddest and most complicated of army airplanes to flight.

I’ve my very own tiny place in Capturing Star historical past. In July 1948, my grandfather took me to the opening-day airshow at New York’s new Idlewild Airport, which might finally change into JFK. President Harry Truman additionally attended, to offer the opening tackle, and he was accompanied by a three-ship of F-80s in his flight from Baltimore aboard the Air Drive One of many day, a DC-6 that he’d named The Independence. Earlier than his speech the subsequent day, the F-80s flew a low go over the VIP bleachers—low sufficient that they blew off Truman’s trademark fedora. It made the entrance web page of many a newspaper.

Misplaced within the crowd, I didn’t see it occur. However like Forrest Gump, I used to be there.  


Contributing editor Stephan Wilkinson suggests for additional studying: Capturing Star, T-Chook & Starfire: A Well-known Lockheed Household, by Lt. Col. Rhodes Arnold; Lockheed P-80/F-80 Capturing Star: A Picture Chronicle, by David R. McLaren; and F-80 Capturing Star Models Over Korea, by Warren Thompson.

This function initially appeared within the January 2022 situation of Aviation Historical past. Don’t miss a problem, subscribe at the moment!

Prepared so as to add an early P-80A to your assortment of early jet fighters? Take a look at our unique on-line modeling column!


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