Authored By Dan Alex (Updated: 5/11/2016):
Everything changed on July 26th, 1944, when a lone British twin-engine, piston-powered De Havilland DH.98 Mosquito - on its merry way to take pictures over Munich - encountered a twin-engine German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter (flying as part of a test squadron). The Me 262 opened fire on the unsuspecting two-man crew and - perhaps through ingrained training or pure instinct - the Mosquito banked and dodged to safety, managing to turn tail and run. This was the first meeting ever against a jet-powered foe and the fact that the Germans were able to field such a lethal implement was a new realization for the Allies. Jet power promised speed and greater flight loads that would lead directly to more potent armament options. It seemed that the Germans held the upper hand.
Had Adolf Hitler not meddled in the development of the Me 262 as a fighter (he envisioned these aircraft as fighter-bombers instead of fighters charged with defense of the Reich's airspace), manufacturing of fleets of such aircraft would have prolonged the war by a potential years let alone months. The British and Americans (and Soviets and Japanese for that matter) all had viable jet programs under development at the time. The Germans developed the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet which, despite its limited range, held some combat value in speed and firepower, particularly when it came to raking Allied bomber formations. The Heinkel He 162 Volksjager was a simplified single-seat, jet-powered fighter meant for a crop of pilots requiring little in the way of training to operate. The Horten brothers found limited trials success with the world's first stealth aircraft in the Horten Ho 229 flying wing. Such was the expediency as to which the Allies would have to react to head-off this expanding German technological front.
While the Bell P-59 Airacomet became America's first "true" jet aircraft, the system lacked in all major combat qualities and made itself an unfeasible system to field, having no more usefulness than that of a jet trainer. As it stood, the P-59 failed to keep up with even the latest piston-powered fighter mounts through the ensuing mock dogfights and was, therefore, produced in limited quantity for the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces). At any regard, the seemingly limited exploits of his P-59 paved the foundation for a revolution in American jet-powered aircraft - these new-fangled implements that were to fly without the need for propellers.
The relative failure of the P-59 forced the US Army to continue a pursuit of other avenues for a jet fighter aircraft capable of matching the enemy and fulfilling this need through a rather limited window of time. While Lockheed was already committed to large-scale production of its fabled P-38 Lightning series (designed and developed by the great Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson), it showed great interest in the development of such an aircraft. However, the Army would much rather have its proven P-38s in the skies as opposed to diverting Lockheed company resources to fund and develop such an experimental endeavor. But as the P-59 reached its limited potential, the US Army refocused its attention on the Lockheed interest and the two became joined at the hip in producing America's first true jet fighter.
The new specification emerged in May of 1943 and called for a jet-powered high-altitude interceptor centered around a capable powerplant - this becoming the British de Havilland Halford H-1 Goblin engine to be developed in 180 days from reception of the official government contract. One can only imagine Johnson licking his lips at the prospect of such a challenge (his firm would be responsible for the cutting-edge SR-71, U-2 and F-117 projects some decades later). The company designation of "Project MX-409" was assigned and the government contract came on June 17th for development of the "XP-80".
An initial design was formulated and presented by Lockheed and ultimately approved for by the US Army. Work began at a frenetic pace and, amazingly, Lockheed engineers produced a working ground concept in 141 days. The engine arrived from Britain and was installed almost immediately. The design centered around a clean fuselage, tapered straight-tipped wings and a single-seat pressurized cockpit under a bubble canopy. The engine and cockpit were situated close to the center of the fuselage for a proper center of gravity. The completed prototype was trucked in pieces from Lockheed's Burbank facilities to the open air confines of Muroc Army Air Field in the Mojave Desert.
After assembly, the XP-80 was run through some basic engine exercises on the ground and it was soon found that the jet produced such suction that the intake fittings of the airframe were being pulled into the aircraft itself. After some finger-pointing between Lockheed and de Havilland (owners of the Goblin engine), Lockheed went ahead and revised the intakes to successfully counter the problem at the expense of a delay to the project.