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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“Once the Pusan Perimeter was busted and we started moving north, our missions became more interdiction,” says Broughton. “Sometimes we would have a fixed target quite a way up north, like a bridge or railway junction. The further north you went, the more likely you would be greeted by MiGs.”
In the early months of the war, the F-80 largely swept the skies of antiquated propeller-driven North Korean aircraft. But when Russian swept-wing MiG‑15s arrived, the 100-mph-slower F-80 lost the advantage. F-80 crews quickly learned to leave the MiGs to the more nimble Sabres whenever possible.

“On a flight up north, they shot down my number-two man on the first pass, and one of my flight had already aborted, so that left me and my number three,” says Broughton. “We had run into a group of 16 MiGs led by a Russian who was good.”

A dogfight among jets typically lasts only a minute or so. For 22 minutes, Broughton and his new wingman George Womack used the only edge the Shooting Stars had: the ability to turn inside the MiGs. “We’d just rack the -80s around, turning completely inside them, and they’d go scooting past,” says Broughton. “And when they did get into position to shoot at us, their guns were so poorly harmonized that when they pulled the trigger, there would be tracers all over the sky.”

Which is a lucky thing if you’re flying an outmatched airplane. Sweating so heavily he had to pull off his sunglasses to see, Broughton watched the MiG leader come in close behind and slide past him. “The MiG’s cannon fire goes all over the sky out in front of me and I just kept rolling to inverted and I’m looking right down in his cockpit. We were probably six feet from each other, canopy to canopy. I’m looking down in his cockpit and he’s so frustrated, waving around trying to hit something. As he started to scoot by, I just completed my roll and I’m right behind him as I let loose with my six machine guns up the MiG’s tailpipe. If I hit him I will never know, but the next thing he rolls over on his back and dives away and the rest of the MiGs go with him.”

The Shooting Star dropped its last bomb in combat on April 30, 1953. While its photo-reconnaissance version, the RF-80, continued to fly, the fighter was relegated to combat patrols over Japan. By the end of the war, in July 1953, 35 percent of the F-80Cs produced had been destroyed—14 by MiGs, 113 by ground fire, and 166 by accidents or unknown causes. A year later, the remaining Shooting Stars were phased out from active duty (the RF-80 stayed on until the end of 1957). The F-80 remained a staple in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guards until 1958, and beginning in the 1950s, the United States sent surplus F-80s to six South American air forces.

Missile Impossible
As fighter technology moved on, the Air Force used its surplus F-80s for missile tests, and for ill-fated experiments in gasoline- and ramjet-power. It even tried towing one behind a bomber to extend its range; that didn’t work either.

Then the F-80 became the star of one of the most bizarre piloted test programs of the still-young nuclear age.

RASCAL (RAdar SCAnning Link) was Bell’s solution to a problem that vexed the Strategic Air Command: how to give bomber crews a fighting chance to survive the blast of a just-dropped, two-megaton W-27 thermonuclear device.

“It was one weird-looking aircraft,” says former Air Force test pilot Joe Kittinger, who in 1960 rose to fame for setting a world record for highest skydive (19 miles) from a balloon. “Bell Aircraft took old A-models and retrofitted them with these great big noses that extended five feet. That was for the [radar]. They put these hydraulically operated fins on their wings and replaced the fuel in the tip tanks with the avionics package of the RASCAL missile.” At $2.2 million each, real RASCALs were too pricey to throw away on training, so Bell built the Air Force the best surrogate it could, using repurposed P-80As.

Along with the nuke, the 18,000 pounds of air-to-surface missile packed 3,000 gallons of JP4 and white fuming nitric acid oxidizer in a 31-foot-long, four-foot-wide package. Carrying only 40 minutes of fuel, the RASCAL imitator was limited to two simulated bomb runs per flight. After lauching the weapon, the bomber pilots would turn tail to escape the blast, while the bombardier/navigator would use a joystick to guide the missile to the target remotely.

“We got right underneath the bomb bay of the airplane and they gave you a countdown, 5-4-3-2-1,” Kittinger says. “When they said ‘Launch’ we would push the power full forward and press the command button, giving the bombardier radio control of the plane. They would climb us up to 45,000 feet, fly us out, and then give us a dive command.”

Non-pilots remotely flying nuclear-tipped missiles with 1950s radio technology was exactly as difficult as it sounds.

“It was a pretty violent ride,” Kittinger recalls. “We had a disconnect button on the top of the stick to quickly take back control if something went way wrong. But they’re flying the plane remotely and you don’t want to disturb things by touching the stick. So the whole time we’re getting jerked around the cockpit, and our hands are on both sides of the stick but not touching it. As the flight continued, the stick is going this way and that—and we’re chasing it around the cockpit with our hands.”

The bombardiers would even steer the F-80 during the near-vertical plunge to target. “We got down to minimum altitude, usually 1,000 feet, then we’d hit the button and do the pullout,” says Kittinger. “They got so good that we would call the guys up and say, ‘Okay, pull us out of the dive.’ ”

For six months in 1957, Kittinger got 20 occasions to chase his F-80’s remote-controlled stick before the RASCAL program was canceled.

It was an odd coda to the F-80’s tour of duty in Korea, a conflict of the nuclear age but fought with conventional weapons: By the time the Korean War ended in 1953, F-80s had flown 98,515 sorties, firing 81,000 rockets and dropping 41,493 tons of bombs and napalm. They had downed 37 enemy aircraft and destroyed 21 on the ground.

This from an airplane built in a circus tent.

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