Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star

Let’s take a look at the first American jet to be considered an operational combat type.

And as the last of this series of “hypothetical” builds we’ll also consider what it would have taken for the P-80 Shooting Star to be a World War II combat aircraft.

Lockheed’s famous “Skunk Works” started on their first jet fighter project in 1939, while work on the P-38 Lightning was still ongoing. But in the early stages the Army Air Force (this mostly means Henry H Arnold) felt Kelly Johnson’s work was too advanced, too theoretical and wanted a more practical jet design that could be produced quickly. So initially more money was lavished on Bell’s XP-59A project. The USAAF seems to have gotten exactly what they wanted, a perfectly functional and unremarkable jet fighter demonstrator that helped the Army Air Force learn what would be needed to service and operate a new technology aircraft.
But they realized pretty quickly the P-59 Airacomet would make for an underwhelming combat aircraft. So Lockheed was greenlit to push forward with Kelly Johnson’s ideas. Although the XP-80 did not have swept wings, it would be considered advanced in almost every other way. A single jet engine buried in the fuselage, a clear bubble canopy placed well forward and very thin laminar flow wings made for a much more capable aircraft than Bell’s entry.
The engine was the most radical feature, a British built H-1 B Goblin engine was so new they literally used the same engine that had powered the de Havilland Vampire prototype. Performance was extraordinary, level speed of 502 mph had only been equaled by a specially prepared Thunderbolt. A production version was quickly ordered. The second aircraft, the
XP-80A had a new, bigger engine and smaller wings. The General Electric I-40 was about 25% bigger than the Goblin; unfortunately it didn’t initially offer 25% more power! But that was fixed before production commenced on the P-80A, such that a new coast to coast speed record was set. A production P-80A averaged 584 mph across the US.

After two XP-80A had been built came twelve YP-80A pre-production aircraft in late 1944. In January 1945 four were deployed overseas, two to the 8th Air Force and two to the 15th Air Force. One of those in England crashed soon after arrival which ended that deployment. But the two in Italy made a splash and were assigned to the 1st Fighter Group for operational (test) use. They flew a number of reconnaissance missions before the end of the War.
Meanwhile the P-80A had entered production and was assigned to the 412th Fighter Group at Muroc Army Air Field. This group was working up for deployment at the end of the War. On the day the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima Richard Bong was killed in an acceptance flight of a new P-80A. In response to this accident, USAAF assigned Chuck Yeager and two other test pilots to put 500 hours on 5 P-80A airframes in minimum time. This they did with no further incident or maintenance issues. This may be considered the true coming of age for the jet fighter in American service. But of course the War was now over and P-80 development and production was slowed down.
P-80/F-80 remained in production as a fighter through the “C” model of 1948. But its legacy is far greater, it also led to the T-33 trainer which stayed in USAF service until the 1980s. The last mention I can find of a T-33 in service is Bolivia, 2017.

You can see the dual landing lights at the top of the nose wheel strut. But my sources say on a P-80A it should be in the nose where we see a black housing (later DF Antennae) here.

In order for the P-80 to have flown combat in the Second World War the time line would have to change, even if just a little. It goes like this…
Late summer of 1944 the US and British Armies were advancing across France at a rapid pace. The massive Soviet summer offensive, Operation Bagration was running out of steam after having destroyed 28 of the 34 German divisions in Army Group Center. At this time, a radicalized Ukrainian Nationalist assassinated Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union teetered on the brink of civil war and made peace with Nazi Germany in October. The Red Army was still poised on the border of Greater Germany, it was a dangerous and unstable situation in several senses. Germany could certainly not leave this border open, in fact defensive positions were strengthened. But suddenly several mobile formations, Panzer Armies, were available to block the Western Allies.
The situation was still catastrophically bad for the Third Reich. All sorts of fuel and iron production had been brought to a near standstill by the Combined Bomber Offensive; Bomber Command by night, 8th and 15th Air Forces by day could send thousands of aircraft everyday that kept industry operating well below needs.
Moving large formations from the east to the west was a major and difficult undertaking. Even worse, the RAF’s 2nd Tactical Air Force and USAAF’s 9th Air Force dominated all movement within 100 miles of the front. Hitler ordered a massive build up of force at the German border to launch a counter attack as soon as winter weather shut down Allied air power. In December, the offensive started in the Ardennes with ten Panzer Armies (as opposed to three used historically) that shattered allied forces and triggered wide spread retreats and panic. Much of northern Europe was recaptured and it briefly looked like the Allies could be driven from the continent once again.
But winter weather comes in spurts, and the Allies knew they could be facing a rejuvenated opponent after the Soviets quit so that fall several units had been moved from the Pacific. The Germans fatally overextended themselves and were brought to a bloody halt before spring of 1945. Summer of 1945 meant recapturing much of France and Belgium and by that fall things stood about were they had the year before.
Allied air power dominated the entire year of 1945 and to the end of the War in 1946. The Germans did get an increasing number of jets in the air those last few months. But their designs were largely immature, engines in particular were not fit for military use. The Allied response continued to involve fighter sweeps ahead and behind the bomber streams. And by targeting the jet airfields they caught many as they were taking off or coming in to land. This was particular disadvantageous for the jets that were more sluggish down low, and slow to build up speed and power.
Finally, late in 1945, the 412th Fighter Group deployed to England. Also the 56th and 359th Fighter Groups re-equipped with P-80As. This allowed for jet escorts for the bomber formations over Germany, the 1st Bomb Wing converting to B-29s also increased the pure tonnage coming down on the Reich. History’s first jet on jet combat came to be JG 7 Me 262s against Shooting Stars of the 359th Fighter Group. The Me 262 was faster and better climbing; but the P-80 was actually able to maneuver at high speed. The greatest strength of the P-80 proved to be its pure reliability that allowed the US to put large numbers of jets wherever, and whenever they needed. This combined with three new jet fighter groups in early 1946 (including the 1st Fighter Group in Italy) kept the Germans from staging any meaningful resurgence.
Germany finally surrendered in June 1946, four months after Japan. Eastern Europe remained unstable for several years until the much weakened Soviets finally withdrew to their historic boundaries.

“America’s first jet fighter” is often considered the P-59A Airacomet. But, this much simpler design was really meant to be an extended service test from pretty early in the program.
The comparison that demands attention! With swept wings the Me 262 was faster and faster accelerating. But the P-80 was more maneuverable, especially at speed, and FAR more reliable. And that’s not a small thing, it means USAAF could have put a 100 (or more) jets wherever they wanted, while the Luftwaffe was struggling get more than a dozen up. And the German situation wasn’t improving, they lacked access to critical metals that could have withstood prolonged, high temperature operation.

This is the HobbyBoss kit with Cutting Edge decals. This kit is a pretty easy build. But I think its not what it claims to be. The box and instructions say its a “P-80A”, but it has a couple odd features. The tip of the nose (black housing) should be where the landing light was on the
P-80A, but this kit has the landing light on the nose wheel, a DF Antennae was moved to the upper nose position. Appropriate for a P-80B. It also seems to have a full ejection seat. The P-80A should have a seat similar to the plain aluminum one in a P-38. The P-80B had an early ejection seat but the canopy required manual detachment. The P-80C had a more modern type of bang seat. Also, the location of the pitot tube at the top of the vertical fin is indicated by a sticker on the instruction sheet. The later location was under the nose and this is directed also. Its possible HobbyBoss studied a P-80A that had been updated with these later features? That or they just completely dropped the ball and looked at a P-80C. I had hoped to build another someday as a YP-80A as it appeared in Italy at the end of the War, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe a better option will present itself before then.
The markings are from a Mustang flown by Major George Doersch of the 359th Fighter Group. He was an Ace with 10.5 kills. So let’s say he’s still an Ace, who will add another kill or two in this P-80A (or whatever it is!?).

Some different types would have seen serious action in late 1945, early 1946. I’m really struck by how modern looking the P-80 is. I’d never given it too much notice before, but it looks sharp!

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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19 Responses to Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    I have the Monogram version.

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Always interesting Dave.

  3. a gray says:

    One word. Nice!

  4. jfwknifton says:

    A very interesting post, thank you. I always feel that the British get little credit for the jet engine. As you say, the De Havilland Goblin H-1 was supplied for the XP-80 and we also contrived to supply the Soviets with the Rolls-Royce Nene which they copied for the Mig-15, All down to the stupidity of the then Labour Government.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikoyan-Gurevich_MiG-15 (section about design and development)

    • atcDave says:

      You have a lot to be proud of on jet development. Both for pioneering jet engines and sharing the technologies with allies. Although yeah, sharing with the Soviets was perhaps not brilliant! But I think in the immediate post-War period there was still some left over goodwill from the War years.

  5. A lovely little aeroplane that served well.

  6. Jeff Groves says:

    Nicely done! IMHO “wiffers” are best finished as close to actual schemes as possible, as you have done here.

    • atcDave says:

      I think it helps had a feel of reality to it. Although of course, there’s no reason to think the 359th Fighter Group wouldn’t have changed their markings with a new type.

  7. Ernie Davis says:

    To me this is another one of those ‘tweeter designs that would have been ahead of it’s time in WWII but was slightly behind the times by the Korean War.

    I made one in the ’70’s that I want to say was 1/32nd monogram or Revelle, but I can’t be sure. Nice futuristic looking design for its time. Not as fierce looking as the Mustang or Spitfire, but a very sleek looking airframe that seems to say “fast”.

    • atcDave says:

      I think that’s exactly right about where it’s technology fits.
      I was also struck by how sleek it looks next to the Me 262. Obviously a straight wing, but an internal engine and nice lines.

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