On April 13, 1945, a pivotal moment in aviation history occurred as the U.S. Army Air Force introduced the first production model of the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star fighter aircraft into combat units. This marked the advent of the jet age in military aviation. However, the story of the P-80’s creation began several years earlier, characterized by numerous challenges that innovative designers successfully surmounted.
The journey to the P-80 began in October 1942 when Bell Aircraft Corporation initiated flight testing of its XP-59A Airacomet, the United States’ first fighter jet development. Unfortunately, the XP-59A failed to exhibit any significant advantages over piston-engine fighters, rendering it unappealing to the military. Consequently, production plans for the XP-59A were scaled back, and the quest for a new aircraft commenced.
Around this time, the United States and the United Kingdom reached an agreement regarding the sale of the Halford H-1 turbojet engine, later designated as the de Havilland Goblin. Bell intended to employ this engine in designing a new aircraft, which received the designation XP-59B.
However, the XP-59B project faced obstacles and was eventually handed over to Lockheed in May 1943. Lockheed assumed the responsibility for the XP-59A/B documentation, including the innovative de Havilland Goblin engine. The U.S. Air Force also issued technical requirements for the forthcoming aircraft.
Design in Progress
On June 15, 1943, Lockheed unveiled the initial design under the name L-410, which had been crafted by a team led by the talented young designer Clarence Johnson. After swift approval from the Air Force, preparations for a formal contract signing commenced, culminating in the official contract signing with the U.S. Army Air Force on June 24, 1943, to develop the fighter with the H-1 engine.
The demanding timeline necessitated a unique approach to the design process. All work was conducted strictly in secrecy within a dedicated Lockheed premises facility. A team of 23 engineers, led by Kelly Johnson, was assigned to the project, and 105 workers were employed in the construction process. To expedite progress, participants worked ten-hour shifts, with only one weekend off per week, while constantly revising and refining their work on-site.
Organizational measures tailored to the project’s specific demands, such as securing construction materials, were implemented. Working under these conditions, Lockheed presented the aircraft’s design to the Air Force on July 20, 1943. Although the Air Force made nearly twenty suggestions, the development company could initiate the prototype construction while considering these recommendations.
Challenges in Construction
By early August, 105 skilled laborers diligently worked on the XP-80, but challenges loomed. The strict deadlines compelled temporary compromises in design decisions. The first prototype was constructed without an airframe, featuring a simplified equipment structure.
A significant setback occurred with the propulsion system. Delays in obtaining the H-1 engine from the British and design modifications resulted in a race against time. The bulk of the construction was completed by the end of October when ground validation testing commenced.
Only in early November did the imported engine arrive, but it was not initially deemed flight-worthy. Nevertheless, Lockheed swiftly addressed the issues, and on November 16, Air Force representatives signed the acceptance certificate. Astonishingly, from the initial design phase to the delivery of the completed experimental aircraft, a mere 143 days had passed, with Lockheed not only meeting but saving an entire week from the strict timeline.
The aircraft’s sleek and elegant design earned it the nickname “Lulu Belle.” After receiving its standard Air Force livery, it became known as the “Green Hornet.”
Navigating New Challenges
On November 17, ground tests of the engine commenced. Unfortunately, the first engine start resulted in an accident due to damage caused by debris interrupting the air channels. Despite this setback, the H-1 engine encountered similar issues during testing.
A new engine arrived at the end of December, allowing Lockheed to perform repairs and enhancements to the air intakes. The first engine runs of 1944 marked the beginning of attaining maximum performance.
On January 8, 1944, the XP-80 prototype took to the skies for the first time, piloted by Milo Burcham. The initial flight was brief, and issues with landing gear and aileron sensitivity were noted. These were promptly rectified, and further flights demonstrated the aircraft’s speed and agility. The initial phase of flight testing extended just over a week.
During testing, speeds of up to 750 km/h were reached, but challenges with engine thrust and control surfaces persisted.
Progress and Evolution
From January 17 to 27, 1944, the aircraft underwent service to refine various systems and aerodynamics. The “Green Hornet” was transferred to the 412th Fighter Group for military testing in early February.
The aircraft set a new speed record of 800 km/h and underwent onboard weapons testing, showcasing its capabilities in aerial combat.
A New Vision
By the summer of 1943, the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed contemplated the future of the XP-80 project. Despite its advantages, the aircraft faced limitations. This led to a proposal for its modification, featuring a more powerful General Electric I-40 engine and other design refinements.
In September, under Clarence Johnson’s leadership, Lockheed’s K collective proposed the L-141 project, which surpassed the earlier L-140/XP-80 in size and weight but offered superior performance thanks to the I-40 engine.
The proposal was approved, but the project’s future depended on the XP-80’s progress. Design documentation for the L-141 was initiated in January 1944 and completed within about ten days. Following additional research and development, Lockheed commenced construction of the prototypes, which took a total of 130 days.
Subsequently, the prototypes were designated XP-80A, and the production model became the YP-80A. Despite their shared lineage, the XP-80A underwent a substantial redesign. Construction of both prototypes commenced in mid-March, with one painted gray, earning it the moniker “Gray Ghost,” and the other left unpainted.
The two aircraft exhibited notable differences, including a test engineer’s position in the second aircraft.
Test Flights and Refinement
The ” Phantom ” inaugural flight occurred on June 10, 1944, with pilot Tony LeVier at the helm. LeVier praised the aircraft’s high and low-speed characteristics but encountered control system issues at high speeds, aileron vibrations, and cabin air conditioning problems.
One significant issue was the interruption of airflow in the ventilation grill channel, potentially damaging the engine. This problem was solved ingeniously by the chief designer, who flew in the second cockpit, experienced the issue firsthand, and devised an effective solution by introducing slits along the vent’s edge.
Flight tests of the XP-80A Gray Ghost continued until March 20, 1945, when a catastrophic engine failure led to the aircraft’s tail disintegration and LeVier’s miraculous parachute escape.
The YP-80A was introduced ahead of the XP-80A’s experimental flights, taking to the skies on September 13, 1944, as part of a contract for 12 aircraft. Tragically, the third YP-80A crashed on its maiden flight, resulting in the pilot’s death. This accident, combined with the completion of the order, led to the acquisition of the 12 aircraft.
During the fall of the same year, several completed aircraft were delivered to the Air Force for operational and combat evaluations. All 12 fighter aircraft were distributed to various organizations, units, and squadrons. Rigorous military trials culminated in a recommendation for adoption.
The Birth of the P-80 Series
In April 1944, prior to the completion of the XP-80’s experimental and preliminary aircraft, the first order for a full series of P-80 Shooting Stars was placed. This contract included two equipment sets totaling 500 units.
By February 1945, the Army had received the initial P-80A-1-LO series aircraft and initiated their operational deployment. Subsequent contracts and deliveries followed, firmly establishing the P-80 as a prominent aircraft in the U.S. Air Force’s arsenal.
Several P-80s were adapted for research into in-flight refueling. For aircraft carrier use, new equipment installations were implemented. Following several years of active service, the P-80 was re-designated as the F-80 and played a crucial role in the Korean War, where it served alongside more advanced jet fighters. The F-80 remained in service until the mid-1950s, signifying the peak of the era of jet-powered combat aviation that had begun with the P-80 project.