Lockheed F-80, RF-80 Shooting Star

            The Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star was a single-seat, single-engine jet fighter-bomber used by the US Air Force during the Korean War.  A prototype of the F-80 first flew on 8 January 19944, and the first service models were delivered in October 1944.  It entered US Army Air Force service early 1945, and two arrived in Italy just before the end of the war in Europe.  The F-80 was the US’ first operational jet fighter, and 1,732 were built. 

            The F-80 was the most common USAF fighter for the first year of the Korean War.  By 1950 the Fifth Air Force, based in Japan, had transitioned to an all-jet fighter force (except for the all-weather F-82 fighter).  On 25 June 1950 the Fifth Air Force contained three wings of F-80C fighters, and the rest of the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) contained two more wings of F-80s, totaling 365 F-80s serving with operational units.  There were also 22 RF-80 reconnaissance jets serving with the FEAF.  The F-80C, the main version used during the Korean War, had a 5,400-lb thrust engine, a maximum speed of 594 mph, and was armed with six 0.50-inch machine-guns.  It could also carry up to eight under-wing rockets, and 2,000 lbs. of bombs, but that heavy a load of ordnance greatly reduced its range.

            The F-80 easily outclassed any aircraft possessed by the North Koreans, but it was limited both by its operational range which made it difficult to carry a heavy bomb load or to patrol for any length of time and by the length of runway it required for take-offs and landings.  The range limitation was partially overcome by the use of improvised, “Misawa” tanks, developed by the 49th Fighter-Bomber Wing based at Misawa Air Base, Japan, which added more than 220 gallons to the plane’s fuel capacity.  Several F-80 squadrons also converted back to F-51 Mustangs which could be based nearer to the front to provide ground support to the embattled UN forces defending the Pusan Perimeter.  The two groups that operated F-80s, the 49th Fighter-Bomber Group and the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Group, quickly gained air superiority over the North Korean Air Force and allowed UN aircraft to fly freely anywhere over the Korean peninsula.

            That changed on 1 November 1950 when Soviet pilots flying MiG-15s were first encountered near the Yalu River.  F-80 pilots held their own in early aerial battles, including the world’s first jet-to-jet kill, which according to USAF records occurred on 8 November 1950 when Lt. Russell Brown, flying an F-80, shot down a MiG-15.  Despite this it became clear that faster fighters would be required to deal with the MiG threat, and the United States dispatched a wing of F-84 Thunderjets and a wing of F-86 Sabres, while the F-80s were relegated to action further from the Yalu and were increasingly dedicated to ground support and interdiction. 

            During December 1950 a third group, the 8th Fighter Bomber Group, switched from F-51s back to F-80s.  During 1951 two of the fighter groups operating F-80s transitioned to F-86 and F-84 fighters, leaving only the 8th Fighter-Bomber Group flying the F-80.  The 8th FBG continued flying the F-80 until February 1953 when it began converting to the F-86F Sabre.

            F-80 pilots are credited with 17 air-to-air victories in Korea, three of them against MiG-15s, as well as the destruction of many aircraft on the ground.  They also carried out many of the interdiction missions during the first half of the war.