of jet flight and enthused, “It was as if the angels
About that time, Allied intelligence sources
learned of the nascent Me 262 Schwalbe, prompt-
ing a scramble to bridge the technology gap.
In April 1941, Maj. Gen. Henry Arnold, chief of
the Army Air Corps, had seen British tests and
returned home with Power Jets W.1 engine information, eventually leading to the General Electric J31.
Arnold always stressed Air Corps’ relationship
with industry, and Larry Bell’s New York firm
rolled out America’s first jet aircraft 18 months
after Arnold’s trip to the UK. The multitalented
Robert Stanley, who had helped design the DC- 3,
flew the XP-59A at Muroc Army Air Field in
October 1942. Only 66 of these planes were built,
but they showed the way to America’s turbine-powered future.
In March 1944, a squadron of the 412th Fighter
Group began flying production P-59s at Muroc
(and later at Palmdale, California) with two more
squadrons assigned. The commanding officer
(CO) was Col. Homer A. Boushey. With an engineering degree from Stanford University, Boushey
was an early jet and rocket test pilot in 1941.
The Lockheed jet, designated P-80, was designed
around Britain’s Halford H-1B engine, subsequently produced as the de Havilland Goblin.
Without having an engine on hand, Clarence
“Kelly” Johnson’s design team used the H-1’s
dimensions and broke with the current jet-design format by drafting the P-80 with a single
engine in the fuselage—the first jet of that configuration. As it developed, the U.S. derivative
J36 did not pan out, leading to the adaption of
the Allison J33.
In barely four and a half months, Lockheed
produced the first aircraft, with delivery to Muroc
before the end of 1943.
The Shooting Star’s first flight in January 1944
was in the experienced hands of Milo Burcham,
one of the fabulous 1930s’ crop of airmen who
adapted to almost any new technology. A prewar
endurance flier and aerobatic talent, Burcham
had joined Lockheed in 1941, conducting production test flights before being promoted to
lead the company’s office in Britain. There, he
mainly focused on RAF Hudson bombers and
Army Air Force (AAF) P-38s before returning to
Burbank, California, and the Constellation airliner program.
Burcham, the former airshow star, put on a
dazzling demonstration for military officials at
Muroc, later producing the P-80’s claim as the first
American aircraft to clock 500mph in level flight.
The Army ordered 13 preproduction YP-80s
in March 1944, a typical number for evaluation.
The Shooting Star, however, was dangerous—or,
more accurately, its engine was dangerous, leading to three serious losses. In October, Burcham
perished in a YP-80, apparently a victim of the
engine’s fuel pump.
Five months later, in March 1945, legendary
test pilot Tony LeVier jumped from another YP
when a turbine blade sheared with disastrous
consequences. He fractured his spine but eventually recovered.
Then in early August, Maj. Richard Bong, P- 38
pilot and America’s leading ace, sustained engine
failure after takeoff from Burbank. Still new to the
jet with about four hours in type, he neglected