Shooting Star

From Lockheed’s famed design chief Kelly Johnson, the first U.S. jet to fight.

The P-80 won the name Shooting Star for its speed: It was the first jet to exceed 500 mph in level flight. (NASM (SI-00064792))
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As Burcham, LeVier, and other Lockheed and Army test pilots put the XP-80 through its paces, Johnson and company were racing to build its more massive progeny. Designed to accommodate the bigger, 33 percent more powerful GE engine, the new designs were two feet longer, a foot taller, and two feet wider than Lulu Belle—and 25 percent heavier. Four days after Allied troops invaded Normandy, the first XP-80A, called Gray Ghost after the shiny lead-colored lacquer paint covering the airframe, first flew with LeVier at the controls.

So confident was Johnson of his new design that earlier that morning he asked LeVier to accept half his standard $5,000 fee for a first flight. After all, he’d flown Lulu Belle, and this was essentially the same jet, just a little bigger. But after the flight, when Johnson saw the sweat dripping down LeVier’s face and heard his report, he saw that LeVier was paid his full $5,000.
The Gray Ghost prototype was hypersensitive in pitch, had thrust and flap issues, and had tried to cook LeVier like a goose, with cockpit temperatures soaring to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. But the Army hit the throttle on the P-80 test program, and eventually the most pressing issues, including baked pilots, were solved.

The same month, January 1945, a group of Me 262s brought down an entire squadron of 12 U.S. bombers. The Army again accelerated the P-80 program, putting it on equal footing with the Boeing B-29 bomber. In a war economy, where raw materials and skilled labor were tightly rationed, the Shooting Star was now at the front of the line. The military even contracted with North American Aviation to begin building them under license. It wanted 1,000 P-80s by the end of the year.

The rush came at a heavy cost. The first to fall was Lockheed chief test pilot Burcham, who died in October 1944 after losing an engine on takeoff. Then a Lockheed test pilot was killed in a mid-air collision during a night test. LeVier nearly bought it when a Gray Ghost’s engine disintegrated and tore off the prototype’s tail. Though he bailed out and survived, the P-80 program subsequently killed at least four more test pilots in addition to Bong, all in separate accidents.

Jack E. Sullivan, assistant operations officer at Muroc Army Air Field in California, recounted in Test Flying at Old Wright Field a harrowing P-80A test flight in 1946: “I set up and stabilized my run at 20,000 [feet] and everything looked great, but at about the midpoint of the throttle quadrant, things started changing fast,” he said. “The sound decreased, the tail pipe temperature dropped, the RPM, fuel pressure and everything were zeroing out. I had never experienced an airborne flameout before.”

Sullivan followed the air start procedures he’d practiced on the ground, but it was no use. “I tried again, and again and again, all the while losing altitude and stupidly keeping my head in the cockpit. I had not declared an emergency, still thinking I could get a restart. When it seemed certain that it wouldn’t happen, I yelled at the tower. They cleared me for landing.” Sullivan wasn’t able to reach either of the field’s two runways and instead landed on the grass near the base. But at least he survived.

Bong’s death—and all the prior fatalities that were now receiving the public attention they’d eluded before—brought the P-80 program to a halt. Arnold sent a teletype directing all P-80 commands to stand down, and for five new P-80As to be checked out from stem to stern and updated with any new part that would make them safer. He then ordered each flown for 50 hours. He ended the communiqué with a warning: “There will not be an accident. I repeat, there will not be an accident.”

The five handpicked P-80s and their pilots each dutifully flew 50 hours of some of the least-taxing tests in the history of Wright Field. Within weeks, Arnold was walking the halls of the Pentagon and Congress, propping up support for his program. He also launched a public relations offensive. Suddenly, the P-80 was everywhere: at state fairs, at airshows, on the covers of magazines, and at the 1946 Bendix Trophy Race.

Eager to demonstrate its new jet fighter, the Army Air Forces assigned four P-80s to fly from Van Nuys, California, to Cleveland, with several refueling stops along the way. One of them lost radio contact with the ground and got lost, while another experienced landing gear trouble; both had to drop out of the race. But of the two P-80s that reached Cleveland, one set a new speed record.

The end of World War II changed the Pentagon’s plans for purchasing warplanes. North American’s contract to produce the jet was canceled. The order for P-80s was cut from 5,000 to 2,000.

Fortune and Glory
By the second half of the 1940s, the P-80 was a staple at U.S. air bases. The A-model was supplanted by the B, the first operational U.S. jet with an ejection seat. Soon after, the C supplanted both. With each evolution, the Shooting Star became bigger, heavier, and more powerful.

“The ‘A’ felt good. It was easy to fly and very dependable, and the most fun of the bunch to fly,” says former Air Force fighter pilot Jack Broughton. “The B-model was sort of a doggy, in-between type that nobody thought too much about. The ‘C’ was a more powerful airplane. Far superior engine systems, a flameout aerostart switch, just a whole lot more sophistication.”

When the Air Force became an independent service in 1947, it eliminated the P (for “pursuit”) prefix in favor of F (“fighter”), redesignating its Shooting Stars F-80s. By 1949, the new Republic F-84 Thunderjets and swept-wing North American F-86 Sabres had supplanted the aging F-80s as the shiny new toys Air Force fighter pilots wanted to fly. Still, the majority of Air Force combat squadrons flew F-80s. When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, it was the Shooting Star that became America’s first jet to go to war.

Flying first from Japan, then from South Korean airstrips, F-80 crews helped establish aerial dominance over an inferior North Korean air force. But the situation on the ground was dire. The F-80 took on the role in Korea that the P-47 had in World War II: ground support.

“I got there while we were getting our butts kicked off the peninsula,” says Broughton. “It was colder than hell and we were hanging on by our teeth; everything else had been pushed back to Japan.” He flew his first mission from Taegu airfield in South Korea. “There were about a half-dozen disabled Russian T-34 tanks right off the end of the runway.”

With the Shooting Star’s speed, Broughton needed only 15 minutes to reach the frontlines, bringing bombs, rockets, napalm, and a full load of .50-caliber ammunition to support pinned-down troops at places that became known as the Sand Castle, the Punchbowl, and Heartbreak Ridge.

“By that time, the Chinese had come into the thing and it was like water over the dam, there were so many of them,” Broughton recalls. “We were usually a flight of four, and we’re looking at a hill of bad guys. We’re screaming at full power on the deck, pull the nose up, pick a nice spot, and each plane drops two napalm cans. That whole bloody ridge would be nothing but one big ball of fire. We go over the top, turn around, and use our six .50s on anything that might still be there.”

Tanks, troops, trains, bridges: Anything that could make war or help make war appeared in the illuminated gunsights of F-80 pilots. The Pusan Perimeter—a 140-mile defensive line on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula that included the port of Pusan—held, and eventually the frontline started moving northward. The Shooting Stars went with it.

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