Lockheed RF-80 Shooting Star
The development of the jet engine towards the end of WW2 by the Germans, and the British and its subsequent use by the Me-262 and Gloster Meteor fighters, made piston powered fighter aircraft obsolete overnight. As part of the close ties between the UK and US, the British government gave the USA a number of Goblin jet engines. The first US jet aircraft to fly was the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, powered by a version of the Goblin built under licence by General Electric, but the XP-59A was produced in small numbers as an experimental aircraft and it never entered operational service.
The US government were determined to develop an operational jet fighter aircraft as quickly as possible and in 1943 awarded Lockheed a contract to design and build a jet fighter. Given Bell’s earlier work on the XP-59A this might have seemed an odd decision, but Bell were already heavily committed in other areas and it was felt that another company could give this project their undivided attention. As far back as 1939, Lockheed engineers Clarence R ‘Kelly’ Johnson and Hall L Hibbard had conducted research into jet powered aircraft that eventually culminated in a design known as the L-133. From 1942 Lockheed had attempted to interest the USAAF in the potential of the L-133, but with no success.
A highly advanced design for the time, the L-133 was designed around a canard configuration. Power was provided by a pair of Lockheed L-1000 axial flow turbojet engines, designed by Lockheed's Nathan Price, that were years ahead of any other jet engine and could have powered the L-133 to speeds in excess of 600 mph. Unfortunately, the L-133 and the L-1000 engines were simply too far ahead of their time and failed to attract funding from the USAAF staff who simply couldn't really grasp the technology involved and the advantages it would bring. Had the USAAF been able to grasp the potential of these designs, the USA could have been been years ahead of any other country in the development of jet aircraft.
The formal Letter of Contract for Lockheed to build this new jet aircraft, now known as the XP-80, was issued on 16th October 1943 and one of the main requirements was for Lockheed to complete the first aircraft within 180 days of this date – a highly ambitious schedule. To achieve this demanding schedule, Kelly Johnson, assisted by William P Ralston and Don Palmer assembled a small team of engineers in a temporary building near the wind tunnel at Plant B-1 at Palmdale. Working in complete secrecy, ten hours a day – six days a week, the team were allowed to operate with the minimum of bureaucratic interference and paper work. This team and its methods of operation became the origin of the famous ‘Skunk Works’.
Delays in the delivery of the engines caused some delays but on 16th Nov 1943 the aircraft was formally accepted by the USAAF, with the aircraft being completed in just 143 days – a remarkable achievement. The XP-80 first flew on 8th January 1944 with Milo Burcham at the controls and, after some minor problems were resolved, the aircraft soon became the first USAAF aircraft to exceed 500mph in level flight and reached an altitude of over 20,000ft. The aircraft was transferred to the 412th Fighter Group for evaluation and then the AAF Training Command. Surprisingly, it survived all these trials and the aircraft is now owned by the Smithsonian Museum where ii is being restored for eventual display.
An initial production contract for two batches of 500 P-80A aircraft, now known as the Shooting Star, was signed on 4th Apr 1944, followed in June 1945 by a second contract for an additional 2,500 aircraft. However, the end of the war saw the second contract cancelled and the initial order cut back to 917 aircraft. The first aircraft was accepted by the USAAF in February 1945 and the last was delivered in December 1946. The P-80 was eventually re-named the F-80 and, armed with six 0.50-inch Browning machine guns in the nose and capable of carrying ten rockets or two 1,000lb bombs, it proved itself to be an effective jet fighter. In the Korean War an F-80 flown by Lt Russell Brown achieved the first jet v jet kill when he shot down a MiG-15 on 8 November 1950. However, although the F-80 was developed and improved throughout its service life and achieved a total of 3 kills against the MiG-15, it was apparent that the swept-wing MiG-15 outclassed the straight-wing F-80 and the aircraft were re-assigned to ground support mission, leaving the new North American F-84 to tackle the MiG-15s. Although the F-80 was retired from front-line service in the 1950s, it was exported to various countries around the globe and a two seat trainer version, known as the T-33A continued to serve with various countries well into the 21st century – a testament to the excellent design and the aircraft’s reliability.
The importance of tactical fighter reconnaissance had grown enormously during WW2 and it was obvious that the P-80 could be easily modified to carry out this role. One early airframe was modified by removing the guns and fitting an elongated nose which hinged upwards to house a set of cameras – this version was known as the XFP-80A and proved that the concept would work. A further 38 aircraft were then constructed as FP-80A-5-LO photographic reconnaissance aircraft, followed by a second batch of 13 aircraft.
All aircraft were powered by the 3850 lb.s.t General Electric J-33-GE-11 engine and were fitted with one K-17 camera and two K-22 split-vertical cameras. An additional batch of 66 production P-80A fighters were converted by Lockheed into reconnaissance aircraft and given the designation RF-80A-15-LO. The RF-80A proved itself in combat during the Korean War and took part in numerous sorties over North Korea as well as sorties along the border with North Korea and China, near the Yalu River.
Equipped with a forward –looking 40in focal length camera with a telescopic lens, the RF-80A photographed the various airfields in China where the MiG-15s were based, allowing accurate assessments to be made of the potential threat facing UN forces.A number of RF-80A sorties were also flown over Eastern Russia and China by in the late 1940's and early 1950's by 1st Lt Bryce Poe II - click here to read an article on these sorites.