On August 6, 1945, at 2:20 p.m., an aircraft taxied onto the runway at the Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank, California, and began takeoff. The factory-fresh airplane took to the air after 2,700 feet of pavement.
When it was about 150 feet up and 500 feet beyond the runway, a large puff of white smoke billowed behind it. The aircraft continued the ascent for another half-mile, at which point the canopy came off. Five seconds later, the right wing dropped and the airplane nosed over.
The pilot, his parachute already unfurled, exited the right side of the aircraft. Although he cleared the cockpit, shroud lines from his chute caught in the tail assembly. The aircraft disintegrated in a small field at Oxnard Street and Satsuma Avenue in North Hollywood, producing a fireball that consumed everything within a 300-foot radius, including the pilot. The following day, the Los Angeles Times ran two front-page headlines: one informing the world of the U.S. atom bomb attack on Hiroshima, the other about the fiery death of Major Dick Bong.
During the war years, the loss of a U.S. Army Air Forces test pilot was not something that garnered much notice in the press. But Richard Ira “Dick” Bong was more than a test pilot; he was a war hero. Just eight months before, the 24-year-old had received the Medal of Honor for “aggressiveness and daring” in the skies over Borneo, and in Balikpapan and Leyte Gulf, the Philippines. He was America’s highest scoring ace in World War II, credited with shooting down at least 40 Japanese fighters and bombers. After so many victories, he was deemed too valuable to be risked in further combat and sent home. But after the inevitable public relations and war bond tour, Bong won an assignment as a test pilot, one of the most dangerous jobs in the Army.
On the day he was killed, Bong had been flying the cutting edge in military aviation, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. It wasn’t the first U.S. jet to fly—that honor went to Bell Aircraft’s P-59 Airacomet, which first flew in October 1942, nearly three years earlier. But the P-59 was a dog with fleas, barely able to keep up with the piston-powered P-47s and P-38s of the time. The P-80—a highly maneuverable, winged torpedo that could exceed 500 mph in level flight, as well as a steady gun platform with a six-barrel .50-caliber stinger—belonged to a whole new generation.
After Bong’s death, the Shooting Star was grounded pending an investigation. Reporters quickly sniffed out that several other test pilots had died in P-80 accidents, one of them only four days before Bong. The press, the politicians, and the public all asked the same question: If the P-80 was too much for America’s premier fighter pilot, wasn’t it simply too dangerous to serve?
The last thing Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Forces, wanted was a mob of taxpayers and politicians threatening to cut funding for his new jet. He had a vested interest in jets. In April 1941, he’d witnessed a test flight in England of the Whittle jet engine-propelled Gloster E.28. Working a deal to bring the Whittle engine to the United States (he promised the Brits an improved design for high-speed, high-temperature turbine blades in return for one engine and all British experimental jet data), Arnold designated General Electric to begin building them under license, and hired Bell Aircraft to build the first jet fighter.
But when the Airacomet fizzled and reports began streaming in of the impending arrival of a twin-engine Nazi superjet, Arnold turned to a company that the Army had turned down when it had pitched the idea of a jet fighter three years earlier.
On June 8, 1943, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, to sell Lockheed’s Model L-140. Johnson showed specifications and drawings, then threw down the gauntlet: He would deliver his jet prototype within 180 days. Johnson would later write in his memoir, Kelly: More Than My Share of it All, that General Frank Carroll told him,“You will have a Letter of Intent this afternoon by 1:30 p.m. There is a plane leaving Dayton for Burbank at two o’clock. Your time starts then.”
Lockheed had five days shy of half a year to build what Johnson was sure would revolutionize military aviation.
Under the Big Top
Johnson knew he’d need to sequester his top-secret project. But the aircraft factory’s six football fields’ of floor space was already spoken for, cranking out 28 warplanes a day. Returning to Burbank, Johnson did an end-run around company bureaucracy. He built his own manufacturing site around a small shack near the wind tunnel, and stole personnel from all over the plant. His team bought out a local machine shop to get the tooling it needed, built walls from a vast supply of wooden packing crates that came with the Wright Cyclone engines that powered their Hudson bombers, and topped off the ad hoc facility with a big top rented from a local circus. The unsightly hybrid was christened the Skunk Works after the still that made moonshine in the backwoods of Al Capp’s popular cartoon “Lil’ Abner.”
As summer turned to winter, America’s first real jet fighter took shape inside the most not-up-to-building-code facility in the San Fernando Valley. But the secrecy, drafty surroundings, and merciless schedule wore on the L-140 team: Flu season had arrived, and up to half the staff was out sick at any one time. Even the cops seemed to be against them: A jet engine expert on loan from Britain’s de Havilland Aircraft was stopped for jaywalking and jailed for not having a draft card. But on day 143 of the contract, a spinach-green XP-80 christened Lulu Belle was rolled out for its maiden flight.
On January 8, 1944, Lockheed test pilot Milo Burcham fired up Lulu Belle’s British Halford H-1 Goblin engine and took off. By the second flight of the day, Burcham was confident enough to alarm spectators by skimming low over the field at 475 mph and pulling up into a series of tight aileron rolls.
Only three weeks after that first flight, with most of Europe firmly under German control and the thought of jet-powered Me 262s picking off U.S. bomber crews never far from their minds, the Army brass asked Lockheed to incorporate GE’s yet-to-be-flown, but more powerful, I-40 jet engine into two new airframes, calling the resulting craft XP-80As. Arnold promptly amended the order to include 13 more, identifying them as YP-80As. A week later, Arnold authorized buying an additional 500 P-80As—all before a single one of the first GE-powered jets had taken to the sky.
But they did have Lulu Belle, and it was impressive. “I always dreamed of the perfect airplane and how I would fly it, but little did I realize I would ever see it,” wrote Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier in his autobiography, Pilot. “As it reached flying speed, it went into the air with no more than a slight pull back on the stick. After the gear and flaps were up, it seemed almost like something you would dream about.”
Today, the Lulu Belle is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.