During World War 2, all major participants were evolving their jet programs to gain an advantage in the ongoing effort. The most significant work undoubtedly came from the Germans who unveiled their famous Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter in April of 1944 while the British added their Gloster Meteors in July of 1944. The Americans ultimately produced their first operational jet-powered fighter with the arrival of the Bell P-59 Airacobra and this entered service with the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) however the design was never a truly satisfactory fighter - ultimately leaving the USAAF to curtail their initial order to 66 aircraft.
Lockheed began work on a jet-powered, straight-wing fighter development of their own which went on to achieve first flight on January 8th, 1944. This became the P-80 "Shooting Star" and was the first American jet fighter to reach quantitative squadron-level numbers with some 1,700 ultimately produced and seeing export to South America. Though the type arrived too late to see combat service in World War 2, it was a successful venture that went on to see considerable action in the Korean War - the war marking the first jet-versus-jet fighter duels in history.
Prior to the Korean conflict, the USAAF was looking into procuring a jet-powered trainer for which to train its veteran pilots - pilots that had learned to fly and fight from the cockpits of their piston-powered fighters in years prior. With other jet-powered aircraft seeing adoption into service and ever-more capable mounts on the horizon, the need to bring pilots up-to-speed on the new technology (as well as new tactics) was apparent. Lockheed took to modifying their existing - and proven - P-80 design to which the prototype became the "TP-80C". In 1948, US air power was formally separated from the Army and produced the United States Air Force (USAF) of today. As such, the USAF dropped use of the "P" for "Pursuit" designation in favor of "F" for "Fighter". The P-80 therefore became the "F-80" and this led to the TP-80C becoming the "TF-80C".
The TF-80C was more or less the same production F-80 save for a lengthened fuselage to accommodate the second cockpit for the instructor. The two-man crew would sit in tandem within a pressurized cockpit under a single-piece canopy with some three-feet of length added to the aircraft. The cockpits featured dual controls for obvious reasons with the student to be seated in the front. First fight occurred on March 22nd, 1948 to which the USAAF liked what it had and contracted Lockheed to produce the type in number. Production would span from 1948 to 1959 and these aircraft were formally designated as "T-33A Shooting Star" - showcasing it as an all-new aircraft as opposed to a variant of the F-80 proper.
As can be expected, the T-33 trainer followed the smooth design lines of the original P-80/F-80 Shooting Star. The design was characterized by its slender fuselage assembly with its extended nose cone. The two-seat cockpit was situated aft of the nose and ahead of amidships with generally good views all around, particularly from the forward cockpit. To either side of the cockpit itself were the "C" shaped intakes intended to aspirate the single engine installation. The wings were low-mounted assemblies and straight in their general design with slight dihedral. Integrated wingtip fuel tanks were fitted as standard for improved ranges (early turbojet engines were not wholly efficient and rather thirty beasts). The empennage was conventional with its single, curved tail fin and applicable horizontal tailplanes. The undercarriage consisted of a traditional tricycle arrangement that included a single-wheeled nose landing gear and a pair of single-wheeled main landing gear legs, all retractable. Power stemmed from the fitting of 1 x Allison J33-A-35 turbojet engine delivering 5,400lbs of thrust. This allowed for a maximum speed of 600 miles per hour with a range out to 1,275 miles and a service ceiling of 48,000 feet.
Once in service, the T-33 gave an excellent account of itself, proving the original fighter design very accommodating for jet fighter training. The aircraft served primarily with the United States Air Force (born of the USAAF) with a slightly modified version (beginning life as the "L-245") being delivered in limited quantities to the United States Navy as the "T2V-1/T-1A SeaStar" for training on aircraft carriers. The SeaStar was produced in 150 examples, used for training of naval pilots and officially retired in the 1970s.
Several variants of the T-33 existed: the T-33A was the basic USAF trainer version and the two-seat reconnaissance mount became the RT-33A. There was also a two-seat ground attack form, applicably armed for the role, and known under the designation of AT-33A. This version was completed with 2 x 12.7mm heavy machine guns in the nose and could carry up to 2,000lbs of external stores across two hardpoints (conventional drop bombs or air-to-surface high-explosive rockets). The T-33 was also converted into a drone-directing aircraft as the DT-33A. Official conversion target drone airframes took on the designation of QT-33A. The NT-33A designation was used to identify specialized development aircraft in the series.
The United States Navy managed all-together different designations for their T-33s. They initially operated production P-80Cs as land-based trainers and identified these as TO-1 which later were redesignated to TV-1. These were followed by the TO-2 designation which later became the TV-2. The TV-2 then itself was redesignated to the T-33B after 1962. TV-2KDs were the converted drone-directing aircraft which then became DT-33B after 1962.
Use of the T-33 was not limited to American involvement, however, for the aircraft quickly found a home in the inventories of many US allies of the time - forging its legacy as a true Cold War success story. Hundreds more were produced by several foreign parties under the Military Assistance Program (MAP) during the Cold War - meant to stock US allies with modern weaponry in countering or deterring Soviet advances around the globe. Operators went on to include Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Japan, Libya, Mexico, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay, West Germany and Yugoslavia.
Of note here is that Canadair of Canada produced the type under license as the Canadair CT-133 "Silver Star". This version was built to the tune of some 656 aircraft and served with the air forces of Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Canada, France, Greece, Portugal and Turkey appearing in several production marks beginning with the initial Mk 1. The CT-133 was powered by the British Rolls-Royce Nene engine and was not retired Canadian service until 2005. Japan was also granted a license for localized production of theT-33 to which 210 were produced.
The USAF remained the largest operator of the T-33 and most all aircraft of the line (worldwide) have since been retired as of this writing (2012). Some limited numbers may still be in operational service with lesser air forces but the T-33 series has, by and large, been surpassed by more technologically advanced types. Despite that fact, the truth remains that the T-33 family managed a very useful existence into the new millennium despite its World War 2 heritage.
In all, 6,557 T-33 aircraft were produced. In the early 1980s, the Skyfox Corporation began offering a modernized version upgrade kit of the T-33 to be known, appropriately, as the "Skyfox". These would have been powered by a pair of Garrett TFE371-3A turbofan engines (mounted in external fuselage nacelles) and would have introduced a largely reworked fuselage as well as upgrades the various internal systems. Boeing eventually acquired Skyfox in 1986 and offered the package to global parties but to no avail - there seemingly proved little market for the "new" aircraft and only a single prototype was ever completed. This design initiative was formally retired in 1997.