P-79 to P-81 Air Force Fighters
The first of 13 YP-80As flew on September 13, 1944, powered by the J33-GE-11, and as the fastest wartime AAF fighter, the Shooting Star won orders for 3,548 P-80A copies. One thousand were to be built at North American’s Dallas plant, the remainder by Lockheed, who began P-80A deliveries in April 1945. Two YP-80As were shipped in December to AAF bases in Italy and two to England, but the war ended before the Shooting Star could be tested in action. Lockheed’s contract was reduced to 917 and the Dallas order dropped, leaving the P-80A the only Air Force single-seater in production after V-J Day, with 231 delivered in 1945.
Allison produced the GE-designed 4,000-pound thrust J33-A-9 engine after 1945, and 1,800 rounds were provided for the six M-2 .50-caliber guns in the nose, while a 165-gallon drop tank below each wing tip extended the range, and a fuselage dive brake limited dive speed for safety.
Wanting a photo-recon jet with the P-80’s speed, the Air Force had, on September 23, 1944, ordered that the second YP-80A be completed as the XF-14 with three cameras replacing the guns in a longer nose. First flown October 15, 1944, that aircraft was destroyed by collision on December 6, but the concept was proven, and an interchangeable camera nose was substituted in 1946 on production FP-80As (RF-80 after 1948).
From March 1947 to March 1948, Lockheed delivered 240 P-80Bs with a much-needed ejector seat for the pilot, under wing rocket racks, new M-3 .50-caliber guns (firing 1,200 rounds per minute, instead of the 800 rpm of the wartime M-2) and a water-alcohol injection system giving the engine bursts of emergency power. Most of the P-80As on hand were retroactively brought up to B standards, using several models of the J33 engine (A-9B, -11B, -17A, or -21). Air National Guard units at stations with the necessary 7,000-feet runways also had P-80s in 1948.
On March 1, 1948, the first P-80C was flown, and 670 were delivered between October 1948 and June 1950. Since F for fighter replaced the old P for pursuit in June 1948, they became known as F-80Cs, and had an Allison J33-A-23 rated at 4,600-pound thrust. Besides the two 165-gallon drop tanks, wing racks could handle 16 rockets or two 1,000-pound bombs.
The most widely used Shooting Star version was the two-place T-33 trainer, originally seen in 1948 as the TF-80C. Lockheed built 5,691 for the USAF, the Navy and allied nations by August 1959. The Navy began testing three P-80As June 29, 1945, and acquired 50 F-80C and 699 T-33 jets for training as the TO-l and TO-2 (later TV-l and TV-2).
Other versions included the XP-80R, a P-80A with modified wings, canopy and J33-A-23 engine, which established a 623.8-mph world’s speed record in June 1947; the first won by America since 1923. Another P-80A tested in 1947 had an automatic rocket launcher protruding from the nose. Numerous F-80s later became drones (QF-80), directed by DT-33As.
Air Force Groups became Wings in January 1950, and on June 27, 1950, F-80Cs of the 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing shot down four North Korean Il-10 attack planes. The 35th and 49th Fighter-Bomber Wings joined the Korean war in July. Most F-80C missions were ground attacks, but the radius of action with rockets was only 225 miles. This increased to 325 miles when improvised 265-gallon tip tanks replaced the standard 165-gallon size.
RF-80s of the 15th and 45th TRS made most of the war’s photo missions. History’s first all-jet air battle occurred on November 8, 1950, when an F-80C pilot claimed a Russian-piloted MiG-15. But later fights were more often won by MiGs.
Six MiGs and 31 prop-aircraft were downed in air-to-air combat for a loss of 14 F-80s during the Korean war. The F-80Cs flew 98,515 sorties, with 143 losses to enemy action, mostly anti-aircraft, compared to 62,607 sorties and 194 losses for the F-51 Mustangs.
In 1958, F-80Cs retired from the USAF and ANG were supplied to Latin America under the MAP (Military Assistance Program). These included 33 for Brazil, 18 for Chile, 16 each for Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, as well as 14 for Uruguay.
Reaching for Range
Short range was the most obvious limitation of early jet types, so in 1943 the USAF began reaching for designs that might combine jet speeds with the range necessary to escort B-29s to their targets. The goal was a 1,250-mile combat radius with a 250-mph cruising speed and 500-mph top speed. Such a combination seemed beyond the contemporary state of the art, but three twin-engine escort fighter designs were ordered to address this problem.
First was the XP-81 single-seater proposed in September 1943 by Consolidated’s Vultee division, as a combination of jet propulsion for high speeds with propeller-driven power for cruising. Two prototypes ordered February 11 were powered by a J33-GE-5 installed behind the pilot, while the first turboprop engine used in America, a General Electric TG-100 (later called XT-31), turned a four-bladed propeller in the nose.
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