America's First Fighter Jet (Built to Fight Hitler) Was Sent to North Korea. It Ended Badly.
Over the course of the war, 113 Shooting Stars were lost to ground fire. For example, on November 22, 1952, Maj. Charles Loring’s aircraft was struck by Chinese antiaircraft guns while attacking an artillery position near Kunhwa that had pinned down UN troops. Ignoring his wingman’s radio messages to abort the mission, he deliberately plunged his stricken aircraft into a gun emplacement, a deed for which he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Of the ten F-80 squadrons in Korea, all had transitioned to F-86 Sabre fighters or F-84 ground attack planes by 1953—except one squadron that even reverted to old Mustang fighters. As the Shooting Star was phased out of U.S. service, dozens were passed on to South American air forces such as that of Brazil, where they served into the sixties and seventies.
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.