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Northrop’s Unmistakable Black Widow: When Death Waited in the Dark

You Might Not Know These Fascinating Facts About the P-61

P-61B. Official US Air Force photograph

The distinctive Northrop P-61 Black Widow was the first operational American warplane designed from the ground up to be utilized as a night fighter and to be equipped with radar in a nose-mounted configuration. However, the aircraft was actually first conceived in 1940 as an answer to a plea from the Royal Air Force for an effective night fighter to combat the Luftwaffe running rampant over England by night.

P-61A (background) flying with a Douglas P-70 (foreground). Official US Air Force photograph

Black Widows were originally armed with four forward-firing Hispano M-2 20 millimeter cannons mounted in the lower central fuselage and four Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns mounted in a remotely controlled central dorsal turret similar to those found on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. In fact some P-61s did not receive their dorsal turrets because they were diverted to B-29 production.

Official US Air Force photograph

The design and evaluation process went through several armament location configurations before settling on the final production setup. The dorsal turret could be aimed and fired by the gunner or the radar operator. Because the turret caused buffeting of the tail control surfaces, in actual squadron use many Black Widows had their dorsal turrets removed. Some were removed to save weight and add fuel.

P-61B. Official US Air Force photograph

The P-61 was a very large aircraft- at more than 45 feet long and with a 66 foot wingspan, tilting the scales at more than 22,000 pounds empty, the Black Widow was far larger than any other fighter aircraft to enter Allied service and nearly as large as the medium bombers then in service.

P-61B. Official US Air Force photograph

The F-15A Reporter was an unarmed photo reconnaissance version of the P-61C. A distinctive bubble canopy replaced the stepped up birdcage arrangement found on the P-61. Uprated Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines turning paddle-bladed propellers powered the F-15A.

F-15 Reporter. Official US Air Force photograph

The Marine Corps intended to use the P-61 but backed out and chose the Grumman F7F Tigercat instead. That didn’t stop the Marines from using about a dozen P-61s (designated as F2T-1N) as radar trainer airframes for a couple of years until Tigercats became available to them in quantity.

P-61B. Official US Air Force photograph

After much back and forth with the RAF and comparisons between the P-61 and the de Havilland Mosquito Mk XVII night fighter variant, P-61s began flying operational missions in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) on July 15th 1944. The first Black Widow to score an aerial victory was a 422nd Night Fighter Squadron (NFS) Green Bats P-61 which shot down a German V-1 buzz bomb. Three ETO crews achieved ace status in P-61s.

P-61s wearing invasion stripes after D-Day. Official US Air Force photograph

During the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, P-61s assigned to the 422nd and 425th NFSs flew cover over encircled Bastogne. With precious little business as night fighters by that time, the heavily-armed Black Widows were pressed into service in the ground attack role. Those four 20 millimeter cannons were capable of making quick work of German locomotives, rolling stock, trucks, and lightly armored vehicles.

P-61B. Official US Air Force photograph

Black Widows were dispatched to the Mediterranean Theater (MTO) and the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) but arrived too late in the hostilities to make an impact before the end of the war. Black Widows scored no aerial victories in either the MTO or the CBI.

P-61C. Official US Air Force photograph

In the Pacific Theater (PTO) Black Widows began flying operational missions from Guadalcanal in June of 1944. Japanese opposition was scarce even as the NFS outfits moved closer to Japan as the war progressed. Several of the PTO NFSs completed their tours with no victories recorded by the conclusion of the war. Only one PTO Black Widow crew achieved ace status. Overall P-61s downed 129 aircraft during the war.

P-61A. Official US Air Force photograph

A P-61B of the 548th NFS, named Lady in the Dark, was unofficially credited on the night of August 14th 1945 with the final Allied air victory before the war ended. Ironically the victory was achieved without a single shot being fired. The opponent, a Nakajima Ki-44 Tojo fighter, went out of control while trying to escape from the Lady.

Image courtesy National Air and Space Museum-Smithsonian Institute

After World War II ended, P-61s continued to serve in Europe and the Pacific in small numbers. Many of the NFSs were inactivated and their aircraft sent to reclamation in Germany and in the Philippines. The few remaining P-61s were redesignated F-61 in 1948. The few F-15A Reporter reconnaissance aircraft were redesignated RF-61C.

P-61B. Official US Air Force photograph

Black Widows took part in initial American ejection seat testing. Dummies were used for the first several trials, but on April 17th 1946 a successful human ejection was made from a P-61B. P-61s also did the heavy lifting for the Thunderstorm Project, a series of weather research flights flown into and out of thunderstorms between 1946 and 1949. The data captured during these flights us still valid and used today.

P-61C. Official US Air Force photograph

North American F-82 Twin Mustangs replaced P-61s in most Air Defense Command (ADC) NFSs beginning in 1948. The last few operational Black Widows, those flown by the 68th Fighter Squadron of the 347th Fighter Group, rotated home from Japan during May of 1950. The Korean War began the next month. The last of the 706 P-61s built were retired from operational use in 1954.

P-61C. Official US Air Force photograph


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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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