In 1943, during World War II, the United States Army Air Corps asked the Lockheed Aircraft Company to quickly design a fighter (XP-80) around the British de Havilland 3,000-lb. thrust turbojet engine designed by Sir Frank Whittle. While the XP-80 was undergoing flight-testing, a new and improved model, the XP-80A—with the American-built 4,000-lb. thrust General Electric I-40 jet engine—was delivered. Working under the highest security blanket, Lockheed engineers identified the assembly shed where Johnson stirred up a potent brew of aircraft, from the XP-80 to the later SR-71 “Blackbird,” as the Skunk Works. The nickname came from Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip, which featured the “skonk works,” a hidden still in a secluded hollow, where Appalachian hillbillies threw in skunks, old shoes, and other odd ingredients to brew a fearsome drink called Kickapoo Joy Juice. Kelly Johnson’s handpicked team at the Skunk Works built the first XP-80 in just 143 days. Nicknamed “Lulu-Belle,” it was first flown on Jan. 8, 1944, with Milo Burcham, Lockheed’s chief test pilot, at the controls. You can visit that Lockheed XP-80 “Shooting Star” today at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Even though World War II ended before the P-80 could see combat, the aircraft proved itself worthy of respect during the Korean War, when it won history’s first all-jet battle. USAF Lt. Russell J. Brown, flying an F-80 “Shooting Star,” destroyed a Russian-built MiG-15 near the Yalu River on Nov. 8, 1950.
Among Johnson’s military aircraft designs from the Skunk Works following the single-seat P-80 (P for Pursuit) was the tandem seat T-33 jet trainer originally designated as the TP-80C. Lockheed undertook this design of the T-33 with one million dollars of its own money and its own people. It turned out to be one of the best investments of all time. Anthony William “Tony” LeVier first flew the TP-80C on March 22, 1948. Earlier, he had been flying the XP-80 when its jet engine disintegrated and he bailed out high over the Mojave Desert in California. He suffered two crushed vertebrae and spent five months in the hospital. After surgeons patched him up with a steel brace, he returned to fly another XP-80 to an unofficial world speed record of 565 mph.
The two-seat jet trainer designation was changed from TP-80C (Trainer Pursuit), to TF-80C (Trainer Fighter) on June 11, 1948, and finally to T-33A on May 5, 1949. The first production model of the TF-80C had a 4,600-lb. thrust Allison J33-A-23 jet engine and was followed by a series of increased thrust culminating with the 5,400-lb. thrust Allison J33-A-35 jet engine. All Lockheed T-33 aircraft were produced under USAF contract, including those for the U.S. Navy, originally designated as TV-2s and then, in 1962, re-designated as T-33Bs. A total of 5,691 Lockheed-built T-33A-1/5-L0s were produced by 1959, when Lockheed stopped production. There were at least 1,046 T-33s built under license by other manufacturers. Other T-Bird versions were built, including the AT-33A-L0 for Latin America and Southeast Asia, the DT-33-33A-L0 for drone directors, the NT-33A as special test aircraft, the QT-33A as drones, the RT-33A as a photo reconnaissance aircraft, the TO-2/TV-2 for U.S. Navy, the TC-2D as a U.S. Navy drone director, and the TV-2KD as the U.S. Navy drone. The T-33A was the only jet trainer in the USAF inventory from 1948 until the Cessna T-37A “Tweety Bird” entered service in 1957, and then the Northrop T-38A “Talon” in 1961. In support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization build up in the early 1950s, Canada undertook to provide jet training for not only its own air crews, but also for several thousand Allied pilots. To help with the jet-training phase of the program, Canada was given 20 T-33As and 10 more on loan from the USAF inventory, which were later returned or transferred to Greece and Turkey when the Royal Canadian Air Force standardized on their Canadian-built version of the T-33. In 1951, Canada began building its own CL-33A Silver Star Mk.3s, powered by a 5,100-lb. thrust Rolls-Royce Nene 10 engine. Canadair built 656 CL-33s in Cartierville, Quebec. France, Greece, Portugal, Turkey and Bolivia were soon using the Canadian-built T-33s. Today, the T-33 continues to serve in Canada as a target tug and general utility jet transport being re-designated as the CT-133. Japan began producing its own T-33 version on July 1, 1954. Kawasaki built 210 of these jet trainers. At least 1,058 Lockheed-built T-33s were delivered to friendly and neutral nations as part of the Mutual Defense Aid Program. At the beginning of the 1980s, the T-33s were being retired from several air forces, but it wasn’t until April 1997 when the USAF retired its last NT-33, a flight control systems research aircraft, ending 50 years of USAF active duty for the T-Bird. The last U.S. Air National Guard T-33 was retired in 1987. The love affair still goes on with T-33s on proud display at many aviation museums around the world.
The T-33 is still one of the world’s best known aircraft, having served with air forces of more than 20 different countries with some well cared for aircraft still flying today out of the more than 7,000 built. In the more than 55 years since its introduction, the T-33 has been flown to help train more jet pilots than any other training aircraft type and continues to serve as an attack/trainer (AT-33) and reconnaissance/trainer (RT-33) in several foreign air forces. It was also flown as a test bed aircraft in many flight development programs, including tests on ejection seats and missile guidance systems. The T-Bird appeared with the USAF “Thunderbirds” in its most spectacular markings.