Military history

TWELVE

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P-80

He was a pioneer like Hans von Ohain or Frank Whittle. He contributed more to aviation than Ernst Heinkel or Willy Messerschmitt. He was working on a design for a jet-propelled aircraft before the Heinkel He 280, the Messerschmitt Me 262, the XP-59A Airacomet, or the Gloster Meteor. He was without swagger or pretension. He was serious and studious and sometimes enthusiastic, but bragging wasn’t in his nature and it wasn’t his idea to call his enterprise the Skunk Works.

Clarence L. Johnson, called Kelly because he favored green neckties in spite of his Swedish ancestry, was the man behind the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, which, if the war went on long enough would end up fighting the Messerschmitt Me 262 in Europe’s skies.

On June 18, 1943, Johnson took stairs two at a time, vaulting up to the office of Robert Gross, Lockheed’s president, located at the company’s headquarters in Burbank, California. In the office, Johnson found Gross and chief engineer Hal Hibbard.

“Wright Field wants us to submit a proposal for building a plane around a British jet engine,” Kelly Johnson told the two corporate leaders. “I’ve worked out some figures. I think we can promise them 180-day delivery. What do you think?”

In fact, Johnson—who had pestered Hibbard to allow him to set up an experimental department where designers and artisans could work closely together—knew that the army had a requirement that the new aircraft be completed in 180 days, but committed himself a few days later to a first flight in 150. It was an extraordinary goal, similar to one Germany’s Heinkel company would seek a year later with the Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger. Johnson was aware the Germans were on the verge of fielding jets, though he had few details.

ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE

Gross, Hibbard, and Johnson all knew that rosy legends about new aircraft being developed overnight are almost always the stuff of fiction. There were special circumstances when the NA-73X prototype went from blueprints to finished airframe in just four months and became the P-51 Mustang. In normal times, even in wartime, it was almost impossible to develop a new aircraft, especially when introducing a new kind of power—the turbojet engine—in any period that could be measured in days, weeks, or months.

In fact, at Johnson’s behest, Lockheed apparently had established a goal of 180 days to first flight (changed to 150 as measured from June 23, 1943) when the company responded to a May 17, 1943, invitation from the Army Air Forces, the AAF, to propose a fighter using the de Havilland-built Halford H-1B engine. By then, the following other jet aircraft had already flown:

• Germany’s Heinkel He 178 on August 27, 1939.

• Britain’s Gloster E.28/39 test bed on May 15, 1941.

• Germany’s Messerschmitt Me 262V3, under jet power for the first time, on July 18, 1942.

• The XP-59A Airacomet on October 1, 1942.

• Britain’s Gloster Meteor on March 5, 1943.

• Britain’s De Havilland Vampire on September 20, 1943.

Americans, who thought themselves leaders in world technology, had missed a chance offered to them earlier by Johnson.

Back in 1939, Johnson’s design team—later to be dubbed the Skunk Works—had proposed a jet fighter. In a prewar environment when the P-39 Airacobra was becoming the standard AAF fighter, nothing but bureaucratic indifference greeted Lockheed’s model L-133. Engineers drew up plans for several versions on the drawing board, culminating in the model L-133-02-01, a futuristic canard design that would have been powered not by a British import but by two company-designed L-1000 turbojet engines. The AAF simply had no interest. But the work on the never-to-be L-133 gave Lockheed’s engineering team a wealth of experience when opportunity belatedly knocked.

In late 1943, Johnson and his staff put their new aircraft together ahead of the AAF’s demanding schedule—not in 150 days but in 143!

Brigadier General Franklin O. Carroll, head of the AAF’s engineering division, arranged for Kelly Johnson’s design team to receive preliminary design studies undertaken by Bell for the unbuilt XP-59B of the Airacomet, as well as the specifications and drawings for the Halford engine. To proceed with engineering work on the L-140 as Lockheed initially named the XP-80, Johnson put together a team that never numbered more than 23 engineers and 105 assembly personnel, including designers W. P. Ralston and Don Palmer. Art Viereck, head of the engineering experimental department, supervised the shop group. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Swofford was the original USAF project liaison on the XP-80.

Johnson’s team concocted an aircraft that superficially appeared quite conventional, as if it might have been flyable with either a jet or a reciprocating engine in the nose. In fact, while the design was sensible and straightforward, it was anything but orthodox. Johnson stressed simplicity. The XP-80 was a clean design with straight wings, tail surfaces, and tricycle gear. To the extent it incorporated any unorthodox feature, the “gamble,” as Johnson called it, was the wing. Departing from proven airfoil designs, Johnson picked what he called a wind tunnel wing—a low aspect ratio, laminar-flow surface never tested on a propeller-driven aircraft.

Air intakes positioned on the lower fuselage forward of the wing leading edge fed the De Havilland–built Halford H-1B Goblin centrifugal-flow turbojet, which occupied the rear of the main fuselage section. The aft fuselage, with engine and tail surfaces, was detachable for ready access to the powerplant. The cockpit was well forward and enclosed by a rearward-sliding bubble canopy. The absence of a propeller up front made it easy to install six forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns in the tear-shaped nose. After a full-scale mockup was evaluated on July 20 to 22, 1943, only exceedingly minor changes were recommended. Many years later, the final F-80 built looked little different from the first XP-80.

To make the powerplant installation accessible and easy to change, Lockheed designed the aft fuselage and tail assembly to be removed as a unit. Three bolts held the tail section in place. Control cables had quick disconnects as did the engine tailpipe, making it possible for maintenance crews to change engines in as little as twenty minutes.

PAPER PROTOTYPE

The XP-80 prototype was built without the team having an actual Halford engine. They had only blueprints. When Guy Bristow, the De Havilland engine expert, finally arrived with the H-1B powerplant seven days before completion of the airframe, minor changes had to be made that put the XP-80 6 pounds over the guaranteed contract weight of 8,600 pounds. Kelly Johnson’s rule against working on Sunday—the design team’s only day off—was broken to install the turbojet.

The Halford H-1B was to be produced by Allis-Chalmers as the J36. Before the XP-80’s first flight, ground run-up tests inflicted damage requiring strengthening of the intake ducts, and the prototype eventually flew with the Halford engine. But the General Electric I-40 (later, the J33) was well advanced in the design stage in late 1943 and was chosen for subsequent airplanes in the series, designated L-141 or XP-80A. Identical models designated YP-80A, with the “Y” indicating “service test,” followed.

Milo Burcham took the spinach-green XP-80 up for its first flight on January 8, 1944. The XP-80 did much of the initial flying and then gave way to I-40-powered developmental airplanes.

The next aircraft was the first XP-80A model, dubbed Gray Ghost because of its painted, pearl gray exterior. The second XP-80A was dubbed Silver Ghost for its natural metal surface, which permitted comparison between this and the pearl gray finish. This aircraft was optimized as an engine test bed and was heavily instrumented with equipment for recording engine thrust, fuel consumption, intake ram pressure, exhaust temperatures, and other propulsion data. Lockheed installed a second seat behind the pilot’s and this ship flew for the first time on August 1, 1944. It was considered an engine research vehicle and intended to carry an engineer on some flights.

On some flights, this aircraft carried Kelly Johnson. In due course, the second XP-80A flew against the P-51D Mustang in maneuverability trials at Wright Field, Ohio.

Late in its career, the Silver Ghost operated as a test bed for the three thousand–pound thrust Westinghouse J-34-WE-11 turbojet engine used on the Lockheed XF-90 penetration fighter and other jets of the postwar era. With this engine, it acquired a dorsal “spine” like that of the XF-90 and had a much-modified rear fuselage and exhaust area.

After the Gray Ghost made a significant contribution to the flight test effort, Lockheed modified it with reduced-size air intake ducts. In this configuration, the Gray Ghost suffered engine failure on March 20, 1945. Test pilot Tony LeVier—who had a reputation for flat-hatting around the airfield at speeds of 575 miles per hour—jettisoned the canopy after the airplane was ripped by what felt like an explosion. He bailed out successfully and wreckage was later found scattered over a wide area.

The YP-80A—like all succeeding versions, and called the L-080 in some company documents—was a service-test aircraft intended to pave the way for introduction of the Shooting Star into operational service.

The YP-80A aircraft were powered by the 3,850-pound thrust General Electric J33-GE-11 or Allison J33-A-9 turbojets also found on the production P-80A that followed—and both redesignations of the I-40—but for a time the engines were still hand-built and were highly unreliable. Until the proper metals, production techniques, maintenance procedures, and fuel controls were developed, engine failure was a frequent cause of accidents.

The first made a forty-five-minute first flight on September 13, 1944. Produced on an accelerated schedule, all thirteen aircraft were turned over to the army by December 31, 1944.

Sadly, by then the second ship had been lost on October 20, 1944. During takeoff at Lockheed’s Burbank, California, terminal, landing gear and flaps appeared to retract slower than normal, a sign of engine failure. The aircraft got to a height of about three hundred feet and then plummeted. Unable to clear the rim of a crater off the runway’s end, the aircraft came to the ground in a crackling, dry crash that killed the much-admired Milo Burcham. The test pilot, flying the YP-80A model for the first time, apparently had not been briefed on a modification that provided an emergency fuel system backup in the event of a main fuel pump failure.

The second of the thirteen YP-80A aircraft was modified to become a photo-reconnaissance aircraft with cameras in the nose and was redesignated F-14A. F-14 was the generic designation for this ship, which has been variously identified in published works as a YP-80A, XF-14, YF-14, or F-14A, although the “Y” for a service test prefix seems unlikely. The F-14A carried cameras in place of machine guns. A window for the camera was built into the hinged-forward, lower nose section in front of the nose wheel. This left the sides of the nose unblemished, unlike subsequent photo models of the P-80, which had camera windows on the side ahead of the air intakes. It is instructive to think of the sole F-14A as an integral part of the YP-80A flight test program during an early juncture in jet development, rather than as a precursor to the RF-80A photo ship that flew the first reconnaissance mission of the Korean War on June 28, 1950, with 1st Lt. Bryce Poe II at the controls.

The test pilot assigned to the F-14A, Lockheed’s Perry E. “Ernie” Claypool Jr., was very much a pioneer jet flyer. Claypool was also one of many in industry who were intrigued by reports coming back from Europe about the Germans developing jet warplanes. The Lockheed team believed that their jet was superior and looked ahead to a time when it would prove itself in battle.

The test pilot and his bosses had heard that German jets left a readily visible, cometlike exhaust trail at night, making them readily visible to an adversary. It’s unclear why they thought this, since the Luftwaffe had only a handful of Me 262 night fighters and opportunities to observe them would have been few. In any event, Claypool was sent aloft in the F-14A on December 6, 1944, to perform visual-recognition work with a Lockheed-owned B-25J Mitchell medium bomber being used as a chase and observation aircraft.

The American jet did not leave a highly visible exhaust trail, a fact that was tragically proven when the F-14A and the B-25J collided in mid-air near Boron, California, with the loss of all aboard. In addition to Claypool, those who died were Capt. Benjamin Van Doren Jr., 1st Lt. Henry L. Phillips, Tech Sgt. William P. Eckert, and civilian Robert C. Eickstaedt. Their names are part of the history of jet aviation, yet little is known about them. A news report in the Bakersfield Californian noted that Claypool was a former resident of Bakersfield, a truck driver for Union Oil Company, and a charter member of the Kern County Pilots Association before becoming a test pilot for Lockheed.

No number of aircraft losses was going to prevent the YP-80A from becoming operational. The AAF’s commanding general, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, was following jet developments in Germany and was eager to get YP-80As to Europe, where he hoped they would soon be fighting Hitler’s jets.

Asked when he wanted the YP-80A in Europe, Arnold said, simply: “Now.”

PROJECT EXTRAVERSION

On a trip to England, Arnold observed an early flight by the Gloster Meteor and was impressed. He was also thoroughly briefed on, but not overjoyed about, the XP-59A Airacomet, which he viewed as too slow and burdened by too many handling problems to serve in combat as a fighter. Arnold’s key leaders overseas, Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz and Lt. Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, were telling him that the war in Europe would last until the end of 1945. Doolittle expressed his fear that by mid-1945 the Reich would have enough Me 262s and other jets to prevent American bombers from carrying out daylight missions. A change in targeting practices, which directed more bombers toward aircraft assembly plants, achieved little. Arnold was aware, however, that tests with the P-80 were proceeding relatively well and that production of P-80s would reach sixteen aircraft per month by the middle of the year.

Spaatz, as commander of U. S. Strategic Air Forces, saw the same reports on Arnold’s desk that showed that in practical flying tests the P-80 could out-perform anything pulled by a propeller. Spaatz urged Arnold to conduct more realistic tests with the P-80, including tests in climate and weather conditions like those of northern Europe. Doolittle, who served under Spaatz and was commander of the Eighth Air Force, took the idea further by suggesting P-80s be deployed to the combat theater.

So, in a move that would later be almost unnoticed by historians, Arnold arranged for the P-80 to become operational in the combat theater before war’s end. On November 13, 1944, Col. George E. Price received the go-ahead for Project Extraversion, in which four YP-80A service-test airplanes were earmarked to go to Europe—two to England in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and two to Italy in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO). The word extraversion refers to a persistent personality trait that involves an outward mental orientation, meaning a person who is the opposite of an introvert. So perhaps this project was meant to symbolize reaching out. The four YP-80As were disassembled, put in boxes, and put aboard ships.

It’s unclear whether Arnold, Price, and others expected these YP-80As to see combat. Clearly, one purpose of their journey was to build the morale of Eighth and Fifteenth Air Force heavy bomber crews, who were being pounded by German jets every day.

The pair for the ETO arrived in England on December 30, 1944. Ground crews assembled them at Burtonwood.

Their time in England, which might have yielded the stuff of high drama, turned out to be brief and tragic. Colonel Marcus Cooper and Maj. Fredrick Austin Borsodi, the Wright Field pilots assigned to the project, began flying in January 1945, with Cooper making the first flight of any P-80 outside the United States. Borsodi took a YP-80A into the air on January 28, 2013, but a failure in tension of the tail-pipe flange caused part of the hot gasses to vent inside the rear fuselage, expanding and burning through tail surfaces and causing the tail section to disintegrate. The aircraft crashed on a farm and Borsodi was killed.

The other YP-80A was available to be sent over the Reich if anyone wanted to use it to combat the Messerschmitt Me 262. It’s unclear whether the YP-80A would have had sufficient range to reach Me 262 airfields, and it wouldn’t have made much sense to send this single jet out on its own on a combat sortie. A later version, the F-80C, would later be credited with the first aerial victory in a jet-versus-jet battle (in Korea), but it was not destined to happen in 1945. Instead of fighting Hitler’s jets, the sole YP-80A in England went off to Rolls-Royce, on loan for flight tests of with the Nene B.41 turbojet engine. It survived the war but was destroyed in a crash landing after an engine failure—oh so common in early jets—on November 14, 1945.

INTRO IN ITALY

Possibly by coincidence, the two YP-80As for Italy arrived in late January 1945, around the time Arado Ar 234B reconnaissance jets based at Udine, Northern Italy, began flying reconnaissance missions over Allied lines on the Italian front. It’s clear the YP-80As weren’t sent in response to Ar 234B operations, but it isn’t clear whether, if events had unfolded differently, the Lockheed jets might have intercepted the Arado jets. The YP-80As were at Lesina airfield, which, with its single, pierced-steel planking runway, was part of the Foggia Airfield Complex, a series of World War II military airfields located within a twenty-five-mile radius of the city of Foggia.

Exact dates for the start of both YP-80A and Ar 234B operations in Italy are in dispute; dates for the latter appear variously as January, February, or March 1945 in various histories.

Almost everything we know about Project Extraversion in Italy comes from a draftee just past his twentieth birthday. Albert James “Jim” Bertoglio was the official photographer for the Italy-based 94th Fighter Squadron “Hat in the Ring,” a part of the 1st Fighter Group, equipped with P-38 Lightnings and destined, later, to reequip with P-80 Shooting Stars in 1946. Bertoglio, who hailed from Medicine Lodge, Kansas, was widely interviewed after the war. He remembered that while both test and operational pilots flew the YP-80As, civilians maintained them. Bertoglio is widely quoted as seeing one YP-80A flying north of its base near Foggia, Italy, on some mysterious mission that was never explained.

Bob Esposito, an authority on the P-80 aircraft, says the two aircraft in Italy had fully functioning gunsights, machine guns, and ammunition.

After the war, a single P-80A was tested with a modified rotating nose, housing four machine-guns that could be elevated up to an angle of ninety degrees, and later with a second cockpit installed in the nose in which a pilot lay prone. The armament test was based on Germany’s Schräge Musik, used on the Messerschmitt Bf 110 and other warplanes.

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