|First Lt. Russell J. Brown, USAF|
On November 8, 1950 somewhere high over the Korean Peninsula United States Air Force pilot Lieutenant Russell J. Brown, flying an F-80 Shooting Star encountered a North Korean MiG-15. The ensuing fight was the first ever jet-on-jet aerial combat in the world. Brown reported and was credited with shooting down the MiG and the event was celebrated in the American press. In recent years examination of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) records by international historians indicate that the damaged Soviet made MiG managed to return to its base. But the Air Force officially is sticking to Brown’s account.
The two air craft were badly mismatched. An American victory in an F-80 would almost have been a fluke.
Originally designated the P-80, the aircraft was hastily designed and put into production late in World War II in response to reports that the Germans were developing jet fighters.
Lockheed’s Clarence “Kelly” Johnson hastily began design work on a straight wing all-metal body fighter with a turbo jet engine mounted in the fuselage. Beginning work on June 23, 1943 the team delivered a prototype airframe to be fitted with a British engine on November 17, just 143 days later.
The prototype first flew on January 8, 1944. Subsequent prototypes were built with larger engines built by General Dynamics but the program was plagued with problems including the crashes of both of the second prototypes with the death of one test pilot and the severe injury of a second. Problems were ironed out and the aircraft was rushed into pre-production of 12 planes designate YP-80 and one fitted out for reconnaissance late in ‘44. The first of these aircraft to be delivered crashed killing Major Richard Bong, the Army Air Force’s to ace of the war.
Four of the pre-production models were sent to Europe—two to Britain and two to allied bases in Italy—for operational testing. The plane in Italy may have been used in escort duty but none saw combat.
The Air Force approved a production order of 344 P-40A’s in February 1945 and deliveries began to the 412th Fighter Group at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Base) in California. The war was over before the Group was entirely outfitted and trained.
Production continued through the post-war period on models designated at P-40A, B, and C with most of the P-40A refitted to conform to C standards. A total of 1,714 were delivered and more than 2,000 two-seat Trainers were also produced. The planes were the primary American multi-purpose fighter.
Several set records. On January 27, 1946, Colonel William H. Council flew a P-80 nonstop across the U.S. in the first transcontinental jet flight. Colonel Albert Boyd in a modified model set a world air speed record of 623.73 mph on June 19, 1947. When the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin in 1948, a squadron of the 56th Fighter Group led by Colonel David C. Schilling made the first west-to-east Atlantic crossing by jets in July.
|Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star.|
When the United States Air Force was created in 1948 all of the P-80s were re-designated as F-80s.
Despite all of this the F-80 was essentially obsolete as a front line fighter by the time the Korean War broke out—all because the Soviets had hastily ginned up their jet fighter program with the benefit of the engineering breakthroughs made by the Nazis.
The Russians adopted the German swept wing, which was much more suitable to high speed jet flight. They overcame the under-power problems of the German engines by, much to the amazement of Joseph Stalin, getting a licensing agreement from the post-war British Labour Party government for the most advanced Rolls Royce turboprop jet engine. When production began in 1948 the new Mig-15 could cruise at 647 mph at an altitude of 3,000 feet and was highly maneuverable. In other words, it could fly wings around the F-80.
|North Korean Mig-15|
American began developing similar technology in its new F-86 Sabre jets, but did not have them in sufficient numbers to go operational early in the Korean War.
The USAF sent four F-80 Air Groups to Asia for action in Korea—8th Fighter-Bomber Wing, 49th Fighter-Bomber Group, 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, and the 35th Fighter-Interceptor Group. Initially these units enjoyed great success against North Korean prop-driven Yak-9s and Il-10s and helped give United Nations forces virtual air superiority over the combat zone. The Air Force was so confident that it stripped the 35th of its jets and replaced them with P-51 Mustangs, the fastest of the World War II piston fighters.
Once the Soviets began supplying the North Koreans and Chinese with MiG’s all of that changed. The Air Force scrambled to replace the F-80’s with newer aircraft. The 49th converted in June ’51 to the Republic F-84 Thunderjet, a straight wing evolution of the F-80 that became the Air Forces top ground assault aircraft. The 51st got the new F-86 Saber jets in November ’51. These are the planes that engaged in air combat with the MiG successfully for the balance of the war.
The 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing continued to fly the F-80 through ’53 but their use was confined to ground support in areas where the MiGs did not operate.
In all, during the war 277 F-80s lost in operations—approximately 30% of the existing inventory. 113 were lost to anti-aircraft fire and 14 were shot down. By the end of hostilities, the only F-80s still flying in Korea were photo-reconnaissance variants.