For the past five years, the Lockheed Lightning has been classified the most versatile aerodynamic design of this war. Air war's evolution, however, made the P-38 Lightning merely another member of the gigantic air fleet leveling Japan, while a new super-fighter was born.
Whereas the Lightning established a record as the first production fighter in the world to surpass 400 mph maximum and 200 mph cruising speed, the super fighter P-80A Shooting Star is the world's first jet machine to attain necessary current combat range and radius of action. Surpassing every other fighter plane in combat performance, it stands as a pinnacle of scientific acumen in American design.
There are many features of the P-80A that are outstanding in fighter plane design, but its performance ratings have afforded it far more publicity than any other single factor. Of all production combat warplanes in the world, the Shooting Star is by far the swiftest in horizontal flight, rate of climb at its critical altitude, service and combat ceilings.
With a released maximum speed of above 550 mph, the P-80A was able to overtake any Nipponese warplane flying, including the rocket-propelled Baka bomb which has a maximum speed of over 500 mph.
Achieving mastery over what has been the chief bugaboo of jet fighters, extreme fuel consumption resulting in inefficient range, the P-80A attains a combat radius of at least 1,000 miles, a combat range of over 2,000 miles. Its special auxiliary wing-tip tanks are the same as those fitted to the P-38L. Wingtip position was demanded when the additional drag imposed by the midwing displacement proved a performance hindrance. Another factor is that the jet fighter sits low to the ground; midwing tanks are likely to be destroyed in takeoff or landing.
Takeoff ability of the P-80A is not outstanding, in fact the fighter requires a greater run than conventional machines. This is explained in the fact that the only efficient jet machine is one that flies high and fast. Taking off at tremendous speed with the aid of flaps, the Shooting Star must leave its field in a long, flat climb, steepening its ascent angle until more rarefied atmosphere is reached. Then the machine comes into its own, goes soaring into the regions of the stratosphere with incredible climb velocity. Diving ability of the P-80A remains restricted, but its streamlined design should allow a power terminal velocity of over 700 mph. The slim, razor-sharp wings are set far back of the nose, an integral factor in dive performance.
Maneuverability is excellent but only at extreme altitudes and speeds. The jet fighter cannot match normal reciprocating engine machines at normal combat speed in turns, and maintain the same radius.
With the debut of the Shooting Star, successful American jet engine designs have achieved actual combat reality, surpassing the construction, design and performance of any foreign product. Even with the super-performance of the new jet-engined fighter, simplicity remains its outstanding maintenance and operational feature. Weighing considerably less than half of what a conventional engine would gross to turn out comparative power, the entire warmup operation of the super GE electric jet engine takes less than thirty seconds, in sixty short seconds the fighter is swiftly rolling down a runway. Two starting spark plugs on either side of the engine activate the turbine compressor rotor to a speed of 1,000 rpm, gunning the engine.
The super-jet actually has but one moving part, consisting of an impeller and turbine connected by shaft. The turbine and impeller spin at more than ten thousand revolutions per minute. One of the unusual features of the GE turbine operation is that the inrushing air from the side scoops is frequently from temperatures of fifty degrees below zero Fahrenheit, while that pouring from the combustion chambers through the turbine buckets only a few inches distant is blazing hot, 1500 degrees Fahrenheit and more. The present fuel is kerosene; high octane fuel is not necessary to attain the superpower of the P-80A.
Situated between the pilot and tail in the fuselage, the power plant is fed from air ducts along the nose which lead to the impeller compressor of the engine. The impeller whips air to combustion chambers, fiercely burning the kerosene in the compressed air. Velocity of the gases and air is greatly increased by the heat before they strike the buckets of the turbine. The air and gases turn the turbine wheel at great tempo, then rush from the jet nozzle to the rear of the airplane. The turbine wheel also derives sufficient energy from the hot gases to drive the compressor and necessary accessories.
There is no true comparison in horsepower of the jet engine to reciprocating engines. The power of the P-80A is measured in pounds thrust rather than horsepower.
Designed, built and flown in a period of 143 days, the Shooting Star is by far the cleanest airplane, aerodynamically. Its only protuberances are the extremely clean cockpit and two flush nose-side air intakes. The smooth finish of the fighter is achieved through ground flushing all rivet heads to the surface of the airplane. Paint is baked on, buffed, coated with wax and then highly polished. The resultant speed increase again adds to super performance.
Normal engine change of the average fighter takes eight or nine hours; no more than twenty minutes are required for the P-80A. This is an invaluable aid for swift combat operations under emergency.
Armor plate is heavy, armament consists of six fifty-cal machine guns in the under portion of the nose. These weapons, like those of the Lightning, fire dead ahead in a parallel stream, insuring maximum effectiveness at great range. The nose is also interchangeable for heavy photographic equipment, giving the USAAF the world's swiftest photo-reconnaissance craft.
Service ceiling of the fighter is far above the 45,000-foot mark. Because of its high altitude rating, cabin pressurization is necessary. Heated air is sent into the cockpit from an engine inlet, supplying the pilot with controllable and heated pressure at all altitudes. An unusual and advantageous feature is the automatic reduction of cabin pressure when the gun switch is turned on. This prevents possible injury to the pilot from instantaneous explosive decompression in the event a bullet shatters the canopy.
As with other jet fighters, there is an amazing lack of vibration of the airplane in flight. No torque insures maximum turning ability in all directions. With constant speed insured by the jet, a steady acceleration is achieved even while in high speed flight. In almost direct contrast to conventional fighters, there is no sensation of tension or vibration when emergency power is suddenly needed.
Wingspan of the fighter is 38' 10½", length 34' 6", and the height 11' 4". Empty weight is 8,000 pounds, maximum overload for combat seven tons.
This article was originally published in the October, 1945, issue of Air New with Air Tech magazine, vol 9, no 4, pp 30, 84, 86.
The original article includes 1 photo.
Photo credited to Lockheed.