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Project Extraversion: P-80 Shooting Stars in World War II

One of the untold stories of early jet aviation is about the four Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star fighters that reached Europe as early as January 1945. German jets, in particular the Messerschmitt Me 262, were shooting down Allied bombers. When the P-80s arrived, it was not yet clear how much longer the Allies’ conflict with the Third Reich would last.

The jet-powered P-80 did play a role in the war.

Army Air Forces (AAF) boss Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold probably did not intend to throw the P-80s into combat against the Luftwaffe, at least not until their numbers could be increased, but the jet-powered P-80 did play a role in the war.

P-80 Shooting-Star

An XP-80A, ca. 1944. This historic Lockheed airplane was designed and built from drawing board to takeoff in just 143 days. Flying higher and faster than any airplane in the world, the Shooting Star was assigned to military units in Okinawa, Germany, Alaska, the Panama Canal Zone, Japan, and in the United States. The Shooting Star was the first jet plane produced in quantity. Lockheed Martin photo

Four of these early American jets, properly known as YP-80A models, went overseas – two each to England and Italy. They were fully operational. They were less successful in England than in Italy and today their contribution is hardly remembered at all.

The P-80 (later to be called the F-80) was largely the work of Lockheed engineer Clarence L. Johnson, called “Kelly” because he favored green neckties despite his Swedish ancestry. Having failed to sell a jet aircraft design in 1939, Johnson got a second chance when U.S. Army test officials at Wright Field, Ohio, contacted Lockheed on June 18, 1943. With support from Lockheed president Robert Gross and chief engineer Hall Hibbard, Johnson set forth to design a new aircraft, built around a British jet engine. The Army Air Forces were already testing the Bell XP-59A Airacomet but – influenced by reports of Germany’s Messerschmitt Me 262 – wanted a more advanced jet aircraft.


Project Extraversion: P-80s to Europe

Following Milo Burcham’s first flight in the spinach-green XP-80 (44-83020) named Lulu Belle on Jan. 8, 1944, Lockheed built two XP-80A models (44-83021/44-83022) and won an AAF contract to build 13 service-test YP-80A airplanes (44-83023-83035). The first made its initial flight on Sept. 13, 1944, and all had been delivered to the AAF by Dec. 31. Burcham lost his life in a YP-80A (44-83025) on Oct. 20, 1944, but the program lost none of its impetus.

The AAF boss, Arnold, was following jet developments in Germany and was eager to get YP-80As there. Asked when he wanted the YP-80A in Europe, Arnold said, simply: “Now.”

On Nov. 13, 1944, Col. George E. Price received the go-ahead for Project Extraversion, to send four YP-80A service-test airplanes across the Atlantic – two to England in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and two to Italy in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. The word “extraversion” refers to a persistent personality trait that involves an outward mental orientation, meaning a person who is the opposite of an introvert. So perhaps this project was meant to symbolize reaching out. The four YP-80As were disassembled, put in boxes, and put aboard ships.

Asked when he wanted the YP-80A in Europe, Arnold said, simply: “Now.”

It’s unclear whether Arnold, Price and others expected these YP-80As to see combat. Clearly, one purpose of their journey was to build the morale of Eighth and Fifteenth Air Force heavy bomber crews, who were confronting German jets every day.

The pair for the ETO (44-83026/44-83027) arrived in England on Dec. 30, 1944. Ground crews assembled them at Burtonwood.

P-80 Shooting-Star

Almost overlooked by historians are the four American YP-80A Shooting Star jet fighters that reached Europe during World War II, two in England and two in Italy. They were identical in appearance to this P-80A (Army serial no. 44-85000, Navy bureau number 29667) seen in this previously unpublished portrait during tests at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland in 1945. Jim Hawkins photo

Their time in England, which might have yielded the stuff of high drama, turned out to be was brief and tragic.

Col. Marcus Cooper and Maj. Fredrick Austin Borsodi, the Wright Field pilots assigned to the project, began flying in January 1945, with Cooper making the first flight of any P-80 outside the United States. Borsodi took a YP-80A into the air on Jan. 28, 1945, but a failure in tension of the tail-pipe flange caused part of the hot gasses to vent inside the rear fuselage, expanding and burning through tail surfaces and causing the tail section to disintegrate. The aircraft crashed on a farm and Borsodi was killed.

Their time in England, which might have yielded the stuff of high drama, turned out to be was brief and tragic.

The other YP-80A was available to be sent over the Reich if anyone wanted to use it to combat the Messerschmitt Me 262. It’s unclear whether the YP-80A had sufficient range to reach Me 262 airfields, and it wouldn’t have made much sense to send this single jet out on its own on a combat sortie. A later version, the F-80C, would later be credited with the first aerial victory in a jet-versus-jet battle (in Korea), but it was not destined to happen in 1945. Instead of fighting Adolf Hitler‘s jets, the sole YP-80A in England went off to Rolls-Royce, on loan for flight tests with the Nene B.41 turbojet engine. It survived the war but was destroyed in a crash landing after an engine failure – common in early jets – on Nov. 14, 1945.


P-80 Intro in Italy

Possibly by coincidence, two YP-80As (44-83028/44-83029) arrived in Lesina, Italy in late January 1945, around the time Arado Ar 234B reconnaissance jets based at Udine, Northern Italy, began flying reconnaissance missions over Allied lines on the Italian front. It’s clear the YP-80As weren’t sent in response to Ar 234B operations, but it isn’t clear whether, if events had unfolded differently, the Lockheed jets might have intercepted the Arado jets. Lesina, with its single, pierced-steel planking runway, was part of the Foggia Airfield Complex, a series of World War II military airfields located within a 25-mile radius of the city of Foggia.

P-80 Shooting-Star

A U.S. Air Force Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star (s/n 44-85004) in flight in 1946 or 47. The YP-80s in Europe lacked the tip tanks like those on this Shooting Star. U.S. Air Force photo

Exact dates for the start of both YP-80A and Ar 234B operations in Italy are in dispute; dates for the latter appear variously as January, February or March 1945 in various histories. “Pete 57,” a blogger who has studied both YP-80A and Ar 234B operations in Italy, wrote that, “One cannot help but wonder if the delivery of the YP-80As to an operational unit, just weeks after the beginning of the Arados’ operations, was merely coincidental…”

Almost everything we know about Project Extraversion in Italy comes from a draftee just past his 20th birthday. Albert James “Jim” Bertoglio was the official photographer for the Italy-based 94th Fighter Squadron “Hat In The Ring,” a part of the 1st Fighter Group, equipped with P-38J Lightnings – and destined, later, to re-equip with P-80 Shooting Stars in 1946. Bertoglio (1925-2012), who hailed from Medicine Lodge, Kan., was widely interviewed after the war. He remembered that while both test and operational pilots flew the YP-80As, civilians maintained them. Bertoglio is widely quoted as seeing a YP-80A flying north of its base near Foggia, Italy on some mysterious mission that was never explained.

“The YP-80A operations were strictly off-limits to regular AAF personnel.”

According to Bob Esposito, a historian who studies the history of the P-80, the jet deployments to Europe were already classified and became even more so after the Borsodi crash in England. “The YP-80A operations were strictly off-limits to regular AAF personnel,” Esposito said in a March 24 telephone interview. “The whole thing was very hush-hush.”

An official history of the 1st Fighter Group states that a 94th FS pilot, Maj. Ed LaClare, flew “two operational sorties” in a YP-80A but “without encountering combat.” Other historians speculate that the YP-80As would have been used in battle if they had encountered a German adversary under the right circumstances.

P-80 Shooting-Star

This is one of two YP-80A Shooting Star fighters (44-83029) that went to Italy in Project Extraversion, seen shortly after its return. Piloted by Maj. Steve Pisanos, the aircraft made an emergency landing in a bean field in West Virginia. It was repaired and was about to take off from the road. The aircraft was flying from Camden, N.J., to Wright Field, Ohio. Bob Esposito photo

The two YP-80As that had been deployed to Italy were returned to the United States. One of them (44-83028) is shown on its aircraft record card to have returned to Air Materiel Command in Buffalo, N.Y., presumably en route to Wright Field, on June 16, 1945; it had a long service life and eventually became a pilotless drone. The other (44-83029) is also listed as returning stateside on June 16; it survived a crack-up in a cornfield only to be lost in an Aug. 2, 1945 crash near Brandenburg, Ky. An official report spoke of wreckage being scattered over a wide area.

Do you know more about the YP-80A deployments to Europe? If so, contact Defense Media Network or leave a comment here.

This article was originally posted online on April 15, 2013


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...