The true tests of any aircraft design are longevity, adaptability and iconic beauty. The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star wins on all counts. While not the first U.S. jet fighter, it was developed in record time, becoming the first U.S. aircraft to exceed 500 mph in level flight, ultimately serving in various forms in the active U.S. military for over five decades. “Peter Eighty,” as a 1945 Army Air Force brochure dubbed it, remains a timeless beauty. And the XP-80 was the first official product of the famous Lockheed Skunk Works of U-2, SR-71 and F-117 fame.
The P-80 was born of a confluence of opportunity, which included emerging intelligence reports on the Messerschmitt Me 262 twinjet, the availability of the British Goblin Jet engine, and a talented team of engi- neers led by the legendary Kelly Johnson. Unlike today, when aircraft contracts take years to develop and contain thousands of specifications, the P-80 program started on a handshake. The Army Air Forces asked Lockheed to develop an operational jet fighter to com- bat the German jet menace. One month later, Johnson and his team delivered a proposal for a single-engine day fighter and got the green light. The prototype was completed in 143 days, seven less than the contract required. That government contract, by the way, did not arrive at Lockheed until October of 1943, fully four months after construction had begun.