The Buzz

America's First Jet Fighters Went to War Against North Korea. It Wasn't Pretty.

On November 8, 1950, a flight of four straight-winged jets swooped down on an airfield at Sinuiju, North Korea—on the Korean side of the border with China. The F-80 Shooting Stars raked the airfield with their six nose-mounted .50 caliber machine guns as black bursts of antiaircraft fire tore the sky around them.

The Shooting Stars had arrived a few months earlier, in response to North Korea’s overwhelming invasion of its southern neighbor using Soviet-supplied tanks, artillery and aircraft. After a rough early period, a UN counterattack had turned the tables: these F-80s from the Fifty-First Fighter Wing were flying out of U.S.-occupied Pyongyang, striking the remaining North Korean forces near the border with China.

After completing their third pass, Maj. Evans Stephens and his wingman Lt. Russell Brown climbed to twenty thousand feet so they could cover their two wingmates. Suddenly, Brown spotted the silvery glint of around ten jet fighters streaking towards them from higher altitude across the Chinese border. He radioed the other element to abort their attack run—MiGs were coming!

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What followed was, debatably, the first air battle between jet fighters in history—and the American pilots were flying the slower planes.

America’s Plan to Counter Nazi Jets

The United States’ first jet plane, the Bell P-59 Airacomet, first flew on October 1942. Though sixty armed production models were eventually built, the Airacomets were never deployed operationally because their early, unreliable turbojets gave them a maximum speed of only around 410 miles per hour—slower than the P-51 Mustang piston-engine fighter then in service. But in 1943 Allied intelligence indicated that Nazi Me-262 jets capable of 540 miles per hour would soon join the fray. Lockheed was asked to produce its own jet fighter using a more powerful British turbojet—in just six months.

Legendary aviation engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, future designer of the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, scratched out a clean design with elegant, almost art-deco lines and modern tricycle landing gear. A flyable prototype was designed and assembled in a mere 143 days under conditions of absolute secrecy—only a handful of the 130 personnel assigned to the project even knew they were building a jet plane!

The XP-80 prototype could exceed five hundred miles per hour—faster than any operational piston-engine fighter, and the de Havilland Goblin engine was eventually exchanged for a more powerful Allison J33 turbojet with two intakes just below the canopy.

However, the Shooting Star retained the straight wings and tail of World War II piston-engine fighters—design elements that impaired performance when approaching the speed of sound. Problems with the fuel pump on the XP-80 caused fatal accidents that killed Lockheed’s chief test pilot and later Richard Bong, the top-scoring U.S. ace of World War II.

As for the Nazi jets, though they were formidable adversaries, fuel shortages and deteriorating industrial base prevented them from having a large impact. While the UK managed to deploy some its own Meteor jets in response, they never encountered their German counterparts.

Just four preproduction YP-80As made it to Europe in 1945 before World War II ended. Two remained in England, where one suffered yet another fatal crash. The other two were deployed to Italy, where they flew a few missions before the end of the war but did not encounter enemy aircraft.

Lockheed nonetheless built more than 1,700 Shooting Stars in the years after World War II, redesignated F-80. A new F-80B model followed, which introduced an ejection seat, followed by the definitive F-80C, which added more powerful J33-A-35 engines boosting speed up to six hundred miles per hour and distinctive 260-gallon wingtip fuel tanks, extending range to 1,200 miles. Dozens were even transferred to the Navy and Marines, modified with arrestor hooks so aviators could practice jet-powered carrier landings. An RF-80 photo-recon model that had a camera in a translucent nose panel also saw widespread service.

America’s first operational jet fighter soon started setting records. In 1946 a Shooting Star made the first jet-powered coast-to-coast flight across the United States from Long Beach California to New York. The same year, an F-80 unit flew across the Atlantic. A specially modified P-80R “racer” even set a (brief) world airspeed record of 623 miles per hour.

Air War over Korea

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