You (Might Not) Know These Fascinating Facts About the P-61
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.
Firepower Built In
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.
Getting It Right Took Time
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.
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.
The Photo Flash
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.
Wait…a Marine Corps Black Widow?
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.
Aces and the Competition
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.