Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star

Development of the P-80 Shooting Star was initiated in 1943 by the USAAF. At the time, it was already becoming apparent that jet-powered aircraft would be superior, even though the experimental models of the time could not compete with piston-engine aircraft. Germany and Great Britain were leading the research at the time, and the intelligence data from Germany about the newest Me 262 fighter was the necessary nudge to progress jet fighters from experiments to production in the USA.

The first Lockheed XP-80 prototype was built around the licensed copy of the British Halford H.1B turbojet engine (later renamed deHavilland Goblin). Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson, a talented and established engineer, lead a small group that worked in absolute secrecy and had priority access to all the necessary materials with a minimum amount of bureaucratic hassle. That group was what eventually evolved into the legendary Lockheed Skunk Works, a separate department within the company that develops super-secret military projects even today.

The contract required Lockheed to build a prototype within 180 days. Johnson’s team managed it in 143 days, even though the aircraft delivered on 16 November 1943 was far from completion. It was equipped with a non-flightworthy H.1B engine, and initially the airframe was even assembled with a wooden mockup of the motor. The team decided to skip the pressurized cockpit to save time. The first land-based tests started on 17 November, and that’s when the problems started. The air intake walls disintegrated under pressure and debris caused slight damage to the engine. Once it was taken off the aircraft for repairs a design defect in the compressor became apparent. The team needed another engine, which was shipped from Britain.

The XP-80 first took flight on 8 January 1944. Lockheed’s test pilot Milo Burcham was very positive about the machine despite the numerous issues it experienced. He noted extraordinary roll speeds that made it possible to do a barrel roll in around 1 second, as well as high horizontal speeds. The machine was sent for improvements, and once they were finished it was passed to the USAAF pilots for evaluation. But by then the focus had shifted to another version of the XP-80 that was being developed simultaneously, the XP-80A.

The XP-80A was conceived as a modification of the original model to accommodate a more powerful General Electric I-40 engine. The main features remained the same, including the straight wings and general aircraft outlines. Nevertheless the heavier engine required numerous changes. The intake ducts were moved under the cockpit, the wings and fuselage were lengthened, and the landing gear was made sturdier. The XP-80A took more ammo for the planned armament of six .50 caliber machineguns, as well as almost twice the amount of fuel. Since most of the design was finalized in the XP-80 project, detailed design changes for the XP-80A took only 10 days. The first prototype was expected in 125 days and was delivered on 3 July 1944. Its paint scheme gave it the “Gray Ghost” nickname. The aircraft performed its first flight on 10 June. It was soon accompanied by a two-seat version for research purposes, nicknamed “Silver Ghost” since it was never painted. The test flights uncovered a lot of problems with the controls, engine, and fuel systems. The first prototype was eventually lost when the engine turbine disintegrated in flight and literally sheared the tail off the airframe.

Nevertheless, after improvements were made by Johnson’s team, the first pre-production YP-80A aircraft were ordered. The first five of them were not too lucky. The third one to be finished crashed during an acceptance flight and took the very same Milo Burcham’s life. Investigation showed that the engine experienced regular problems with a fuel pump, so an emergency pump was installed but Burcham was not informed of this. The other fourYP-80A’s were sent to Europe for field testing, which was supposed to formulate combat tactics for this absolutely new type of aircraft. Two of them went to Britain, another two – to Italy, operating in the Mediterranean. The first of the British Shooting Stars crashed on its second flight, the second one was adapted to test the prototype Rolls-Royce Nene engine and was later lost also. The pair that served in Italy performed combat missions but never actually encountered an enemy. They were later sent back to the USA. But with all the negative statistics it’s worth noting that the main problem with the P-80A was not the aircraft itself, but the lack of experience the majority of pilots had with the totally new type of machine.

 

Despite the disappointing start, Lockheed still secured two orders to produce the first generation of the Shooting Star for 500 aircraft each, based on the General Electric J33 engine (a production version of the same I-40 the prototypes were built for). In June 1945, 2,500 more P-80A’s were ordered, but soon after, Japan surrendered and the contract was canceled. The first two orders were also reduced, even though Lockheed had only built 83 machines by that point. Overall there were 1,714 Shooting Stars built, most of them belonging to the latest F-80C modification with upgraded engines. A significant portion of them were reconnaissance models that had armament replaced with camera equipment.

The F-80A (a designation the P-80A received after a change in the aircraft naming system in the US) eventually saw combat in the Korean War. By that time, the aircraft was nearly obsolete, and while it was quite successful against the Korean Soviet-built Yak-9’s and Il-10’s, its straight wings proved to be a real drawback when fighting against the new MiG-15’s that had swept wings and, consequently, much better speed characteristics. In total, the US pilots claimed to have shot down 6 MiG’s, but it was never proven. Soon the Shooting Star was replaced by a much more adequate F-86 Sabre, transferred to ground attack missions, and eventually retired.

Yet it had one more purpose where the P-80A turned out to be very successful. The Shooting Star was made into an excellent racing aircraft. Over several months it secured the world records for the fastest transcontinental flight from Long-Beach to New York, including a flight without refueling stops. Later on, it secured a record for the fastest flight from New York to Washington (barely more than 20 minutes), and then for a maximum average speed over 1000 km — 683 km/h.

The Lockheed P-80A-1 in World of Warplanes is represented by the first production modification with the Allison J33-A-11 engine. Its main features are extraordinary roll speed and thrust-to-weight ratio. The aircraft is very easy to control and fun overall to play. Powerful boost and good speed parameters allow it to “pounce” on a target, close in on it, and deal a lot of damage with the 6 .50cal machineguns. Additionally, since the machinegun battery is located in the nose, it is quite accurate and poses a threat to any enemy. The gameplay style resembles that of the late Mustangs, namely P-51H, and the overall dogfighting tactics are quite similar.

Comments

(0)