It didn’t go well.
Key point: Hastily designed to counter Nazis superfighters in the early 1940s, America’s first operational fighter jet would have an unexpected and long-lasting legacy.
On November 8, 1950, a flight of four straight-winged jets swooped down on an airfield at Sinuiju, North Korea—on the Korean side of the border with China. The F-80 Shooting Stars raked the airfield with their six nose-mounted .50 caliber machine guns as black bursts of antiaircraft fire tore the sky around them.
The Shooting Stars had arrived a few months earlier, in response to North Korea’s overwhelming invasion of its southern neighbor using Soviet-supplied tanks, artillery and aircraft. After a rough early period, a UN counterattack had turned the tables: these F-80s from the Fifty-First Fighter Wing were flying out of U.S.-occupied Pyongyang, striking the remaining North Korean forces near the border with China.
After completing their third pass, Maj. Evans Stephens and his wingman Lt. Russell Brown climbed to twenty thousand feet so they could cover their two wingmates. Suddenly, Brown spotted the silvery glint of around ten jet fighters streaking towards them from higher altitude across the Chinese border. He radioed the other element to abort their attack run—MiGs were coming!
What followed was, debatably, the first air battle between jet fighters in history—and the American pilots were flying the slower planes.
America’s Plan to Counter Nazi Jets
The United States’ first jet plane, the Bell P-59 Airacomet, first flew on October 1942. Though sixty armed production models were eventually built, the Airacomets were never deployed operationally because their early, unreliable turbojets gave them a maximum speed of only around 410 miles per hour—slower than the P-51 Mustang piston-engine fighter then in service. But in 1943 Allied intelligence indicated that Nazi Me-262 jets capable of 540 miles per hour would soon join the fray. Lockheed was asked to produce its own jet fighter using a more powerful British turbojet—in just six months.
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