In 1939, the Lockheed L-133 Starjet emerged as a vision of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. Kelly, an esteemed American aeronautical and systems engineer, served as the initial team leader at Skunk Works.
While Kelly gained fame for his designs of iconic spy planes like the U-2 and SR-71, numerous other cutting-edge aircraft were developed under his guidance. Among his ambitious projects, the L-133 aimed to become the United States’ inaugural fighter jet.
The concept of jet-powered flight was already gaining traction before the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945), but the global conflict accelerated its development significantly.
European engineers initially led the way in this field, and as the war progressed, American engineers joined their European counterparts.
The L-133 was conceived to be propelled by a pair of axial-flow turbojets, featuring an unconventional blended wing-body canard configuration capable of achieving speeds of 612 mph (approximately 985 km/h) in level flight.
While the L-133 held the promise of becoming the United States’ inaugural fighter jet, its development faced significant challenges, not because it lacked the capability to fly, but rather due to the intense competition for resources during World War II.
By 1940, preliminary work had advanced to the point where several versions of the L-133 were being explored on drawing boards.
However, the design was deemed too avant-garde and was ultimately rejected by the US Air Corps in 1942. This decision was driven by the pressing demands of wartime and the need to allocate resources to more established and immediately producible aircraft designs.
Background and Development
The United States, in particular, committed substantial resources, manpower, and materials to develop an operational-level fighter aircraft, resulting in the late-war Lockheed P-80 “Shooting Star.”
American efforts in jet propulsion began in 1940, with research into jet engines progressing at a modest pace.
During the same year, Lockheed engineers embarked on an ambitious project, developing an in-house turbojet engine known as the “L-1000,” which promised an impressive thrust output of 5,000 pounds.
By March 30, 1942, with the United States fully engaged in World War II, Lockheed submitted a proposal to the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) for a single-seat fighter aircraft designed to match their new engine.
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The proposed fighter, known as the L-133 “Starjet,” featured two of these engines arranged side by side, a configuration aimed at maximizing thrust output, overall reliability, and straight-line performance.
Design and Features
To handle the powerful engines, the control surfaces were equipped with hydraulic assistance. The L-133 project involved notable figures such as Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, Willis Hawkins, and Hall Hibbard.
Based on their research and design work, Lockheed engineers had optimistic performance estimates for their new fighter.
They projected a maximum speed reaching approximately 612 miles per hour (some sources indicate 625 mph). The aircraft’s construction involved a significant amount of steel, and it featured a modern fully-retractable tricycle undercarriage system.
Futuristic Fighter Design
The aircraft’s design incorporated a “blended wing-body” configuration, with the main wingplanes positioned well aft and canard foreplanes providing stability and control at the front. The twin turbojet engines were housed internally, with a nose-mounted intake.
The L-133 represented an exceptionally futuristic fighter design for its time, comparable to the ambitious aircraft designs being developed by the Germans during the same period.
The aircraft’s tail design was distinctive in that it featured a single vertical fin without any horizontal planes. The cockpit was equipped with a straightforward two-piece canopy that provided the pilot with excellent forward and side visibility.
However, the raised dorsal spine did obstruct some of the rearward vision. Additionally, the utilization of an elongated nose section presented its own set of challenges.
End of the Program
Despite its promising performance, the Lockheed L-133 Starjet project did not progress beyond the prototype stage. The U.S. Air Force decided not to pursue the aircraft for production, likely due to changing operational requirements and priorities.
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Lockheed’s focus shifted to other projects, and the L-133 Starjet remained a unique and relatively obscure experimental aircraft. Only one prototype was built, and it did not enter operational service.
While the Lockheed L-133 Starjet did not become a production aircraft, it served as a platform for testing and exploring various design concepts. Its forward-swept wing design was particularly noteworthy and contributed to the development of future aircraft with similar configurations.
The L-133 Starjet remains a historical curiosity in the world of aviation, representing an era of experimentation and innovation in aircraft design. Despite its limited impact on military aviation, it has left a mark as a unique and unconventional aircraft in the annals of aviation history.