This series on the Shooting Star concludes with an account of its service life.
The service history of the Shooting Star begins in 1944, when the decision was made to deploy four service test YP-80As to Europe to demonstrate their capabilities to combat crews and to help in the development of tactics to be used against Luftwaffe jet fighters. 44-83026 and 83027 were shipped to England in mid-December 1944, but 44-83026 crashed on its second flight in England, killing its pilot. 44-83027 was turned over to the British government and modified by Rolls-Royce to flight test the B-41, the prototype of the Nene turbojet. On November 14, 1945, 44-83027 was destroyed in a crash landing after an engine failure. 44-83028 and 83029 were shipped to the Mediterranean. They flew some operational sorties, but they never encountered any enemy aircraft. They were both returned to the USA after the war.
The tenth, eleventh, and twelfth YP-80As were delivered in early 1945 to the 31st Fighter Squadron of the 412th Fighter Group at Bakersfield Municipal Airport in California for service tests. The first production P-80A was accepted by the AAF in February of 1945. The group relocated to Santa Maria AAF, California in July of 1945. It moved again in November of 1945 to March Field, California. After the war in Europe was over, P-80As began to replace the P-51D and the few P-59As which had served with stateside units. The first 17 P-80As off the line were assigned to the 31st Squadron of the 412th Fighter Group, supplementing the YP-80As that the Group had already received. More P-80As went to the 29th and the 445th Squadrons of this group in the summer of 1945. This group was in preparation for deployment to the Pacific when Japan surrendered.
In the summer of 1945, approximately 30 P-80As were sent aboard an aircraft carrier to the Philippines in preparation for the final assault on Japan. The planes were to be issued to the 414th Fighter Group, based at Florida Blanca. Unfortunately, the planes had been sent without their tip tanks and their aircraft batteries, so they sat aboard the aircraft carrier for 30 days waiting for this equipment. By the time that the batteries and wingtip tanks were delivered, the war in the Pacific had ended, so the P-80 never got a chance to enter combat in the war against Japan.
The initial accident rate for the P-80A was alarmingly high. On July 1, 1945, Lt Joseph Mandl was killed when his P-80A (44-85017) stalled on takeoff and plowed through a fence and struck a parked A-26. On August 2,1945, Major Ira Jones was killed when his P-80A (44-83029) fell apart in midair in a flight over Kentucky. August 6, 1945, Major Richard Bong, Medal of Honor holder and leading USAAF fighter ace with 40 victories in the Pacific, was killed when the engine of his P-80A-1-LO (44-85048) exploded shortly after takeoff. By that time, no less than eight YP-80As and P-80As had been destroyed in crashes, seven had been severely damaged, and six pilots had been killed. The day after Bong's fatal crash, the USAAF ordered the Shooting Star grounded until the problems could be corrected. The grounding order was lifted on November 7, but was soon followed by another grounding, this time caused by problems with the J33-A-9 jet engine. The aircraft was cleared for flight shortly thereafter, but the accident rate still remained high, with no less than 61 Shooting Stars being involved in accidents by September of 1946. Most of these accidents were not the result of any critical flaws in the basic design of the Shooting Star, but were caused primarily by errors on the part of pilots inexperienced with the particular idiosyncracies of jet aircraft.
In spite of its high accident rate, the USAAF was anxious to show off its new jet fighter to the public. On January 26, 1946, three P-80A-1-LOs equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks in place of the guns and ammunition broke the transcontinental speed record between Long Beach, California and LaGuardia Airport, New York City. Carrying standard 165-US gallon wingtip tanks, Captain Martin Smith's 44-85113 and Captain John Babel's 44-85131 completed the trip respectively in 4 hours 33 minutes 25 seconds and 4 hours 23 minutes 54 seconds, which included a refuelling stop in Topeka, Kansas. The fastest time--4 hours 13 minutes 26 seconds for an average speed of 580.93 mph over 2453.8 miles was obtained by Col. William Council who was able to fly nonstop since his aircraft (44-85123) was fitted with special 310-gallon drop tanks. Three months later, Col. Council flew a P-80A from New York to Washington DC in 20 minutes 15 seconds. In June 1946, Lt. Henry Johnson set a 1000-km speed record of 426.97 mph.
In the first postwar National Air Races held in Cleveland in August of 1946, Shooting Stars won three trophies: the Bendix Trophy awarded to Col Leon Gray for flying an FP-80A from Van Nuys, California to Cleveland in 4 hours 8 minutes, the Thompson Trophy 180-km closed circuit race won by Colonel Gustav Lundquist in a P-80A, and the Weatherhead Jet Speed Dash Trophy won by Lieut W. Reilly at a speed of 576.4 mph in a P-80A. The P-80A won the Bendix and Thompson trophies again in 1947.
In order to show off the USAAF's new jet fighter, in May of 1946, twenty-five P-80As of the 412th Fighter Group toured the United States. However, the 412th Fighter Group was inactivated in July of 1946 after completing the operational evaluation of the first two USAAF jet fighters, the P-59A and the P-80A.
Apart from the four P-80s that had been sent to Europe just prior to V-E Day, the first overseas P-80s were issued to the 55th Fighter Group under Col Horace Hanes, which received 32 Shooting Stars for its 38th Fighter Squadron based at Gibelstadt in Germany. This unit evolved into the 31st Fighter Group. In 1946, Shooting Stars were delivered to the 38th Squadron of the 55th Fighter Group and the 27th, 71st, and 94th of the 1st Group stationed in the USA, the 31st Group (307th, 308th, and 309th Squadrons) based in Germany, and the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing (12th, 44th, and 67th Squadron) based on Okinawa. In early 1946, 30 P-80s were sent to the 414th Fighter Group at Florida Blanca Airbase on Luzon in the Philippine Islands. In November 1946, twenty-five P-80Bs of the 94th Squadron were taken to Alaska for six months of cold-weather testing.
The 363rd Reconnaissance Group was activated at Brooks Field, Texas in July of 1946, and received FP-80As.
In 1947, the following groups got the Shooting Star--the 4th Group (334th, 335th, 336th Squadrons) and 56th Group (61st, 62nd, and 63rd Squadrons) based in the USA, the 36th Fighter Bomber Group (22nd, 23rd, and 53rd Squadrons) based in Germany, and the 51st Interceptor Group (16th, 25th, and 26th Squadrons) based in Japan. Sixteen F-80A/F-80Bs of the 56th Fighter Group left Selfridge Field, Michigan on July 7, 1948 and made a multi-stop transatlantic flight and then took part in two weeks of training in Germany.
In 1948, F-80Cs began to reach operational units, the first being the 57th Interceptor Group (64th, 65th, and 66th Squadrons) based in Alaska and the 49th Fighter Bomber Group (7th, 8th, 9th Squadrons) based in Japan. Later in 1948, the 36th Fighter Group took no less than 80 F-80Bs from Florida to the Canal Zone before moving permanently to Germany. In 1949, the 23rd Group (74th, 75, 76th Squadrons) and 81st Group (91st, 92nd, and 93rd Squadrons), both stationed in the USA, received Shooting Stars. In the same year, the 8th Fighter Bomber Group (35th, 36th, and 80th Squadrons) based in Japan received F-80Cs. The 35th Interceptor Group (39th, 40th, and 41st Squadrons) based in Japan received F-80Cs in early 1950.
By the late spring of 1950, F-80Cs equipped twelve Far East Air Force (FEAF) squadrons based in Japan--the 7th, 8th, and 9th Squadrons of the 49th Fighter Bomber Wing based at Misawa, the 35th, 36th, and 80th Squadrons with the 8th Fighter Bomber Wing based at Itazuke, the 39th, 40th and 41st Squadrons with the 35th Fighter Interceptor Wing at Yokota, and the 16th, 25th and 26th Squadrons with the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing at Naha. RF-80As equipped the 8th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Yokota.
When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, four groups equipped with the P-80C (the 8th, 51st, 49th, and 35th) were based in Japan, as well as the 8th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron flying FP-80As. Shooting Stars saw action from June 26 onwards, taking off from their bases in Japan and flying as escorts for transports and as interceptors. On June 26, four Shooting Stars intercepted eight North Korean Ilyushin Il-10 attack aircraft and shot down four of them, scoring the first combat victories for an American jet fighter. On June 28, RF-80As began flying operational reconnaissance sorties, while the F-80Cs began to fly ground attack missions in support of the retreating South Korean forces. On June 30, the ban against air operations over North Korea was lifted, and the initial commitment of US troops was approved.
During the early days of service in Korea, pilots complained that the F-80 was too fast and not sufficiently maneuverable to handle the propeller-driven North Korean Yaks and Lavochkins. Two of the three F-80 squadrons converted briefly to the F-51D Mustang, but this change was to prove short-lived.
The F-80C was instrumental in quickly gaining and maintaining air superiority over the Korean battlefield, rapidly clearing the skies of any North Korean aircraft that dared to venture into the air. However, the introduction of the MiG-15 into Korean combat On November 1, 1950 proved to be a nasty surprise. On November 7, 1950, Lieut Russell J. Brown, flying F-80C #49-0737, shot down a MiG-15 near the Yalu River, scoring the first victory in air-to-air combat between jet fighters.
However, it was soon apparent that the F-80C was no match for the swept-wing MiG-15, being almost 100 mph slower than its Russian-built opponent. Thereafter, F-80s were employed primarily in the ground attack role, leaving air-to-air combat against the MiGs for the more capable F-86 Sabre.
In order to increase the endurance of Shooting Stars operating from Japanese bases, personnel from the 49th Fighter Bomber Wing developed larger wingtip tanks by inserting sections of Fletcher tanks in the middle of standard F-80 tanks. These tanks (named "Misawa" tanks, after the airbase where the 49th was stationed) had a capacity of 265 US gallons and were carried beneath the wingtips of the Shooting Star and increased the aircraft's radius of action by 125 miles to 350 miles when carrying rockets. Later on, new centerline tip tanks with a 230 US gallon capacity were adopted as standard.
One of the problems that faced early USAF operations with jet fighters was their relatively limited endurance and range. In order to extend the endurance of its jet fighters, experiments were made with inflight refuelling. The Wright Air Development Center fitted a probe on each of the tip tanks of a group of F-80Cs and RF-80As. Success of these trials lead to the installation by the Far East Air Material Command of similar probes to the tanks of RF-80As of the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. On July 6, 1951 three RF-80As were refuelled three times by a Boeing KB-29M, flying the world's first air-refuelled combat mission. Similar operational trials were made with F-80Cs beginning on September 28, 1951. However, the air refuelling procedure proved to be cumbersome and was not adopted as standard in Korea by the Shooting Star.
The Shooting Stars were superseded by later types as the Korean War proceeded. The 49th Fighter Bomber Wing traded in its F-80Cs for F-84Es in June/August of 1951. The 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing acquired F-86Es in October/November of 1951. The 8th and 18th Fighter Bomber Wings exchanged their F-80Cs for F-86Fs in 1953. By the time of the armistice agreement of July 27, 1953, the only Shooting Stars still flying combat missions in Korea were the RF-80As of the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing.
During the Korean War, Shooting Stars flew 98,515 sorties and were credited with the destruction of 37 enemy aircraft in the air (six of them MiG-15s) and 21 on the ground. They dropped 41,593 tons of bombs and napalm and fired over 81,000 rockets. In 34 months of combat, the F-80C suffered heavy losses (equal to 35 percent of the F-80C production). 14 were shot down by enemy MiG fighters, 113 were brought down by ground fire, 16 were lost to unknown causes, and 150 were lost in operational accidents.
There was a report that the Communist side managed to obtain a flyable F-80 during the war and actually managed to use it to harass UN troops. If true, this would be yet another example of an aircraft which fought on both sides during a conflict.
While the Korean War was in progress, the F-80A/Bs continued in service in the USA where they were primarily used for training. By late 1951, they were finally phased out. In Europe, F-80Bs were replaced in the 36th Fighter Bomber Group by F-84 Thunderjets during 1950. In Alaska, the Shooting Stars were replaced by F-94 Starfires in 1951. The recon Shooting Stars remained in service for a bit longer, the last RF-80A/Cs being withdrawn from USAF service at the end of 1957.
The Air National Guard (ANG) was issued with Shooting Stars at a fairly early stage. The F-80B entered service in June 1947 with the 196th Fighter Squadron of the California ANG. When the Korean War began, the ANG had six squadrons of Shooting Stars, but they all transitioned to other types before being called to active duty. After the Korean War, the Shooting Star reentered Guard service, with F-80Cs (including rebuilt F-80C-11/12-LO aircraft) equipping some twenty-two squadrons and the RF-80A/C serving with some five squadrons. Air Force Reserve squadrons also flew F-80Cs from the summer of 1953 to the autumn of 1957. In 1958, the F-80C was finally phased out of the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve.
In the mid-1950s, the F-80C was chosen as the replacement type for Latin American nations that were equipped with the Republic F-47 Thunderbolt. 113 Shooting Stars, including original F-80Cs as well as some rebuilt F-80C-11/12-LOs, were transferred to South American air forces under the US Military Assistance Program (MAP). The Forca Aerea Brasileira operated 33 F-80C-10-LOs between the years 1958 and 1973. During the same period, the Fuerza Aerea del Peru ( whose 1947 order for four factory-fresh F-80Cs had for some reason been taken over by the USAF) operated sixteen Shooting Stars. Other Latin American operators of the Shooting Star included the Fuerza Aerea de Chile (18 aircraft), the Fuerza Aerea Colombiana (16 aircraft), the Fuerza Aerea Ecuatoriana (16 aircraft), and the Fuerza Aerea Uruguaya (14 aircraft). Several other Latin American Thunderbolt-operators (including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico) were offered Shooting Stars but elected not to take them on charge. In only one example was a Latin American F-80C used in action--this was in Peru when a few low-level passes helped to persuade a local garrison to give up its insurrection. The last Latin American user of the Shooting Star was Uruguay, which finally turned its last F-80Cs in exchange for Cessna A-37Bs in 1975.
No Shooting Star survives in flyable condition today, although numerous examples are displayed in museums.