When it comes to American fighter aces, Chuck Yeager is arguably the most famous for breaking the sound barrier. Other famous World War II-era aces include Jimmy Thach (of “Thach Weave” fame), Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (known for commanding the “Black Sheep Squadron” and later making a game show appearance), and Robin Olds. America’s top ace, however, is less famous today than these other flyers — and America’s first combat-ready jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, is arguably to blame.
Major Richard Ira Bong racked up 40 kills during World War II flying the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. That plane became an icon of the war, famous for being the mount of Captain Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. as he took down Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Unfortunately, Bong never got the chance to serve for decades, like Yeager and Olds, nor did he get a chance to cash in, like Boyington. On August 6, 1945, he was killed while testing the P-80A.
At the time, the United States had fallen behind a bit on operational jet fighters. The Germans had deployed the Me-262 operationally and it had been used against the Allies. The British countered with the Gloster Meteor. It would take a full year before the P-80 was ready to join the fight.
But it would be very unfair to the P-80/F-80 (the ‘P’ for pursuit was replaced by ‘F’ for fighter in 1948) to talk about it just as the plane that killed a top ace. It was, in reality, so much more.
The P-80 was affected by the large-scale cancellation of contracts that occurred at the end of World War II. As a result, only two pre-production models ever made it to the front. According to aviation historian Joe Baugher, an initial buy of 1,000 was followed up by a second contract requesting 2,500 more planes. After Japan threw in the towel, however, the second contract got the chop.
The U.S. continued to produce Shooting Stars after the war, but at a slow boil. By the time the Korean War broke out, F-80Cs were ready for their combat debut.
During the early stages of the Korean War, the F-80 held the line, scoring 37 kills (including six MiG-15s) while only suffering 14 air-to-air losses. It primarily served as a fighter-bomber during the conflict, especially while the F-86 Sabre dominated the skies.
After the Korean War, many of the F-80Cs that survived were handed down to air forces in Latin America and served into the 1970s.
To learn more about America’s first jet-powered fighter, check out the video below.