VINTAGE THUNDERBIRD

F-80/T-33 History

 


The United States first production jet fighter, the F/P-80 "Shooting Star" and the classic T-33 "Thunderbird" training variant that evolved from it, as well as the USAF's first operational night jet fighter, the F-94, all came out of Lockheed's fabled, "Skunk Works", directed by Clarence "Kelly" Johnson.  From the P-38 to the current USAF air superiority fighter, the YF-22, some of the most unique and successful aeronautical designs in aviation history were created at the Skunk Works.  Aircraft models such as the PV2 Neptune, P-38 Lighting, P3 Orion, C-121 Constellation, U-2 & TR-2, C-130 Hercules, F/P-80 Shooting Star, T-33 T-Bird, F-94 Starfire, F-104 Starfighter, XFV-1, SR-71, F-117 Stealth, and the latest advanced technology fighter/stealth aircraft, the YF-22.  All were products of perhaps what will prove to be history's most creative assembly of aircraft designers and engineers.  Led by Kelly Johnson, their reputation for always delivering the specific product with more performance at less cost than specifications was legend.

One of the most brilliant creations of the infamous "Skunk Works", was the F-80 "Shooting Star" fighter and its training variant, the T-33 "Thunderbird".  In all the history of modification and revision, there has only been one fighter, the F-80 Shooting Star, that engendered a far more numerically important and famous offspring trainer, the T-33. Just under 1,500 P-80's, later designated the F-80s, were completed.  A few survive in museums, but more than 6,900 T- 33's were built worldwide, 5,800 for the USAF, and more than 100 are still flying worldwide.

The world's first jet trainer evolved from America's first successful jet fighter, the F/P-80 Shooting Star.  The F-80 was developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works in 137 days which was less than the 150 days as specified by the contract from design to test flight in 1943.  After the unsuccessful Bell P-59 Aircomet project, the F-80's airframe was found to be far more sophisticated and advanced than its primitive engine.  It was also much more reliable.  By the time the metallurgical bugs were worked out its original General Electric I-40 engine, which was based on the British de Havilland H-1 engine used in Britain's first fighter the DH- 115 Vampire, the engine project had been turned over to the Allison Engine Division of General Motors.  At Allison, a group of engineers, led by Robert Atkinson, turned the GE I- 40 into the Allison J33 and its many variants with far greater reliability and 50% more thrust.  However, jet fighters from North American (F-86 Sabre) and Republic Aircraft (F-84 Thunderjet) would soon eclipse the underpowered F-80, but the clean airframe still had many miles of utilization remaining in its sleek lines.  In fact, this elegant product of the aviation designer's art looks modern today.  As well it should, since it was the creation of the industry's best aviation minds, laboring under a formidable, stringent deadline, but without the usual impediemnts of red tape.  Compared to the primitive GE powerplant with which it had originally been fitted, it represented the state of the aerodynamicist's art.  It was fast, it was smooth and very maneuverable, with finger light controls.  It was also dependable and, most important, versatile.

The T-33's maiden flight was in March 1948 and was produced through 1958.  Its successful acceptance, due in large part to the proven belief that pilots transitioning from the reciprocating fighter aircraft of World War II to the new jets would require a bona fide jet trainer with similar flight characteristics, ushered in a long and brilliant career for the "T-Bird", as it came to be known.  It also helped to clinch the reputation of Lockheed's Clarence E. "Kelly" Johnson and his experimental development team at the "Skunk Works".

The airframe of the T-33 also formed the basis for the F-94 night fighter, which was given a production contract when more ambitious designs, such as the Northrop F-89 Scorpion, ran into unforeseen difficulties that were to delay their introduction.  Known as the Starfire, the F-94 made its first flight in April 1949 and was in fact the first TF-80C/T-33 airframe that had flown thirteen months before.  In its new role as a night interceptor, it had an elongated nose for airborne intercept radar, an afterburning J33 engine and a number of miscellaneous upgrades, but still retained the fundamental layout that Kelly Johnson and his engineers had first committed to paper in the late spring of 1943 to offset the German Me-262 twin jet fighter that was entering production.

Army Air Corps (later renamed the USAF) General Hap Arnold was very concerned with his air force's lack of progress in developing a suitable jet fighter after the GE/Bell P-59 project.  The Army Air Force was in the process of building up enormous fighter fleets of P-51 Mustangs, P-38 Lightnings, and P-47 Thunderbolts as World War II expanded in 1943. However, Arnold knew that as good as these piston powered fighters were, they would have no chance against waves of German Me-262 jet fighters with a 150-200 MPH speed advantage.  Arnold knew only too well, that to a fighter pilot, speed is life!  The project was given to Lockheed's Skunk Works and Kelly Johnson, and in less than the allotted 150 days the prototype was completed.  Although working within the overall Lockheed corporate framework, the Skunk Works team was on its own, virtually autonomous and independent, under the driving leadership of Kelly Johnson. The team worked 10 hour days, six days a week.  It was given its own purchasing department for supplies, a separate stockroom, kept its own records and, when it could not acquire enough of the required tool-making potential and material, it bought out a local tool shop.  Kelly Johnson had decreed a completely hands-on operation, which meant that all those working on the prototype, whether engineer or craftsman, had to be literally within sight of the aircraft at all times.  Under this no nonsense regimen, with Don Palmer as project engineer, actual work began on June 23, 1943.  The physical environment, which later became known as the Skunk Works, was little more than a temporary lean-to, built of salvaged lumber from shipping crates and covered by a canvas roof.  Cramped, poorly lit, without proper ventilation, it did not even have windows until the second week of the project.  Five weeks after the official launching of the work, it was finally equipped with air coolers-not refrigerated air conditioning- which brought down the sweltering 100-plus degree summer temperatures of California's San Fernando Valley to a liveable 85!  The derivation of the name came from the highly secret nature of the work that demanded that Johnson's team be set apart and kept at arm's length, as one would a skunk. 

Despite delays waiting on the arrival of the engine from General Electric, the aircraft was completed in 137 days. On January 8, 1944, the single seat XP-80 made its first flight from Muroc Dry Lake, now Edwards Air Force Base, in the hands of long-time Lockheed test pilot, Milo Burcham.  It lasted six minutes and during the flight the landing gear would not retract.  Nevertheless, one of the P-80's and later the T-33's best inbred characteristics had already been determined.  The aircraft had extremely sensitive ailerons and would roll 300 degrees within one second.  Lockheed knew early that it had produced a champion.  On the second flight of the day, Burcham reached speeds of 500 MPH and made several low passes with spectacular rolling pull-ups over the 140 men who had worked on her.  The aircraft was fast, extremely stable, with excellent visibility from the cockpit, but there were problems.  Most seriously, at low speeds, with flaps down, stall warning was poor, and when the XP-80 did stall, it broke sharply to the right, usually with deadly consequences when close to the ground.  Also, the XP-80 had a dangerous tendency to flip onto its back in a whipping action in an inverted stall, and this would later bring tragedy to the program.  Engine metallurgy had not caught up with the airframe design and the original GE I-40 engine would be plagued with reliability problems.  Further flight tests and gun firing tests proceeded with the GE engine.

On June 10, 1944 the XP-80A with the new J33 engine was test flown on its maiden flight by Lockheed test pilot Tony
LeVier.  However, early in the flight LeVier knew he was in trouble when the aircraft rolled inverted at 10,000 feet as he was starting flap tests.  With only one set of flaps deployed, LeVier was able to make a fast flat approach and land on the dry lake bed.  The addition of boundary layer splitter plates in the ducts to insure a smooth airflow eliminated snaking.  Unfortunately, flaws in the casting of the engine's turbine wheel caused the turbine disc in the "hot section" to disintegrate cutting off the XP-80A's tail. Test pilot, Tony LeVier was forced to bail out during the March 20, 1945 test flight and survived, but suffered severe back injuries.  Six months earlier, Milo Burcham died when a faulty overspeed governor failed, causing drive shaft overspeed and fuel pump failure, which ultimately resulted in fuel starvation.  Burcham had just taken off from Burbank Airport when the engine flamed out.  He tried to bring the XP-80A back, but crashed into a nearby gravel pit and was killed.  A similar fuel starvation incident was to claim the life of Major Richard Bong, the highest scoring US fighter pilot in World War II and with 40 victories the highest scoring US fighter ace of all time.  To prevent another reoccurrence of the type that killed Burcham, an electrical backup fuel pump had been installed to support the fuel flow should the primary fail.  However, when Bong took off from the Van Nuys Airport, some five miles from Burbank where Milo Burcham had crashed, he failed to switch on his electrical backup pump prior to takeoff, and his P-80A crashed, killing him.  Six more engine related fatal accidents were to plague the program.  However, the program continued to be refined and on June 19, 1947, the XP-80R set a new world air speed record of 629 MPH.

With the relatively high performance of the P-80, the high altitude environment where it could routinely operate, and the new and different demands put on pilots flying jet aircraft, which were so gravely underlined by early accidents which destroyed fifteen YP-80A aircraft and P-80's, required that a jet trainer be developed to aid this transition to a new mode of flight.  Accordingly, a twenty nine inch plug was inserted ahead of the wing, with a second twelve inch plug behind it, giving the trainer a length of 37 feet 9 inches and providing the extra space for a second cockpit with dual controls.  Ejection seats and 235 gallon jettisonable centerline tip tanks were added and on March 22, 1948, Tony LeVier made the aircraft's first flight.  The T-33 flew even better than its single seat ancestor.  Cleaned up and refined, the airframe climbed faster, cruised more effortlessly and was slightly faster than its older and smaller cousins.  Even the US Navy had a special version of the T-33 built, the TV2-1A Sea Star, for carrier pilot training.

Powered by its Allison J33A35 single-shaft dual compressor centrifugal flow turbojet engine with a rating of 4,600 lbs.
of thrust (9200 horsepower), the T-33 had a top speed of 600 mph, a ceiling of 49,000 ft., and a range just under 1,400 miles.  It was fitted with a pair of .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and could carry external stores and armament under its wings.  During the Korean War, T-33's were used for armed reconnaissance and as a fighter-bomber for ground interdiction.  Most importantly, the F-80 made aviation history during the Korean War.  In history's first all jet combat encounter, the F-80 was able to shoot down a more maneuverable MiG-15 fighter!

As the USAF's & Navy's basic jet trainer for over three decades, the T-33 trained thousands of Air Force and Navy pilots.  After being phased out of the Air Training Command in the early 1970's, it was still used as proficiency trainers for senior officers, intruder aircraft for Air National Guard intercepts, and a number of other missions. It was not until 1990, that the last of the T-33's were retired from active USAF service.  In fact, due to its high stealth characteristics (low radar signature) it is still used as a trainer and to test airborne and ground intercept facilities by the Canadian Air Force and other countries.  In the United States, NASA currently operates a control configured fly-by-wire NT-33 for concept testing and flight training.  By programing the fly-by-wire computer onboard the aircraft from the rear cockpit, the aircraft controls and flight from the front cockpit can be made to emulate the Space Shuttle, B-1 & B-2 bombers, XF-22, and other high technology aircraft without risking the actual plane.  At Mojave, near Edwards Air Force base, Flight Systems operates a number of ex-Air Force T-33's for government contract and test work.  The Canadian Air Force intends to keep their CL- 133's, as their T-Birds are known, in service until 1995-2000 mainly because the aircraft is relatively cheap to operate and dependable.  Countries still operating the T-33 are Bolivia, Canada, Columbia, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Ecuador, Japan, Pakistan, and Thailand.  Recently, Flight Systems has proposed re-engining the T-33 with a Rolls-Royce/Turbomeca engine that will provide up to 5,800 lbs. of thrust, offer a 30 percent improvement in fuel efficiency and boost endurance to nearly 2,400 miles.  If their plans for the T-33 take off, the first product of Kelly Johnson's Skunk Works will continue to fly well into the next century, thus proving again the timeless perfection of Lockheed's original design.

 

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