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Northrop P-61 Black Widow

The Northrop P-61 Black Widow was the first aircraft to be built exclusively for night fighting. The P-61 was a large plane crewed by a pilot, radar operator, and gunner. Heavily armed, it was also equipped with radar in the nose and could locate enemies within 10 miles. The P-61 was usually painted black, and could operate in total darkness as a night intruder.

Northrop P-61 Black Widow in World War II

The P-61 saw action in all major theaters in World War II. It replaced earlier night fighters such as the Douglas P-70 and Bristol Beaufighters in all U.S. Army Air Force night fighter squadrons. But it also saw daytime action late in the war.

The 348th Night Fighter Squadron based in Florida was the first unit to receive production P-61s. Crews there were trained for night operations in the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters. The 442nd Night Fighter Squadron was the first to arrive in the European Theater trained for and equipped with P-61s. The P-61 had to prove itself against the de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito to satisfy skeptical American generals in late May 1944. On 3 July 1944, the P-61 flew its first operational mission in Europe.

The unique three-man crew configuration of the P-61 created some problems. P-61s in Europe frequently did not have a gunner on board, and practice in the 442nd Night Fighter Squadron was to assign radar operators to the rear compartment. In this arrangement, the pilot could not see the radar operator. The pilot, therefore, too often continued flying a heavily damaged P-61 not realizing the radar operator had bailed out. This problem was solved by moving the radar operator to the gunner's position, visible to the pilot.

The P-61 helped beat back the German offensive in the Battle of the Bulge, and joined in daytime ground attacks on German supply lines. In 1945 P-61s were hunting German officers fleeing in Ju 52s at night.

In the Pacific Theater, the first P-61s arrived in early June 1944 at Guadalcanal in the 6th Night Fighter Squadron. A P-61 scored its first kill against the Japanese on 6 July 1944. But Japanese aircraft were scarce at this point in the war, giving the P-61 few targets. However, on 30 January 1945 a single P-61 played a vital role in the effort to free over 500 Allied POWs at Cabanatuan prison in the Philippines. The P-61 performed acrobatics over the camp to distract guards there while U.S. Rangers moved into position to strike and execute the successful rescue.

A P-61 was responsible for the last aerial kill of World War II, on VJ Day, 14/15 August 1945. The P-61B-2 (s/n 42-39408, "Lady in the Dark", tail number 239408) of the 548th Night Fighter Squadron forced down a Japanese Nakajima Ki-44 Tojo which crashed due to pilot wave-top evasive maneuvers, not shots fired. The P-61 crew was not officially credited with this kill. The same P-61 had a similar incident the next day, after the official end of hostilities.

Northrop P-61 Black Widow Models and Production History

Northrop created the P-61 concept based on a U.S. Army Air Corps and British Royal Air Force requirement for a fighter equipped with radar, a secret technology in 1940. Northrop began comprehensive work on the P-61 in 1941, creating a twin-engine, twin-boom design similar to the P-38 Lightning. The aircraft was larger and heavier than its contemporaries because of its size and all-metal composition. It was designed for a crew of three, with tricycle landing gear and full-span retractable flaps known as "zap flaps." It was heavily armed, including four .50 cal. machine guns in an upper turret and four 20mm cannons in the belly.

The first prototype, designated the XP-61, flew on 26 May 1942. Although the weight of the aircraft made many in the military skeptical of its ability to perform as a fighter, flight tests proved its worth. The XP prototype underwent improvements, including the addition of external fuel containers in drop tanks and flame arrestors/dampers on engine exhausts.

Northrop ultimately manufactured 742 P-61 Black Widows. Major models are as follows:

Model P-61A and P-61B

Though produced in limited numbers, both these models saw significant and important changes to the P-61. The P-61A, of which 120 were manufactured, did not have a top turret. The P-61B, of which 450 were manufactured, had drop tanks added.

Model P-61C

The P-61C was the definitive Black Widow. Performance problems with the earlier P-61s were ironed out, slowly because Northrop was giving higher priority to the XB-35 flying wing project. The P-61C-NO was ready in 1944, with an increased service ceiling and maximum speed. The P-61C had perforated fighter airbrakes on both wing surfaces and underwing pylons for drop tanks. The P-61C was accepted by the U.S. Army Air Force in July 1945, too late to see combat. A total of 41 were built.

The full list of P-61 models is contained in this production history table:

TypeNumber Built/ConvertedNotes
XP-612Prototype night fighter
YP-6113Service test
P-6180Pwr turret, S/N 42-5485 to -5522 only
P-61A120Improved P-61; no top turret
P-61B450Improved P-61A; drop tanks added
P-61C41Engine change; top turret added
XP-61D1 (converted)Modified P-61A with engine change
XP-61E1 (converted)Modified P-61B; new armament
XP-61F1 (converted)Modified P-61C

Northrop P-61 Black Widow Characteristics

ArmamentFour .50 cal. machine guns in upper turret, four 20mm cannons in belly
Bomb load6,400 lbs.
EngineTwo 2,100 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800s
Maximum speed425 mph
Cruising speed275 mph
Range1,200 mi.
Ceiling46,200 ft.
Span66 ft.
Length49 ft. 7 in.
Height14 ft. 8 in.
Weight35,855 lbs. loaded

Note: Characteristics vary slightly with the P-61 Black Widow variant, manufacturing site, and date.

Northrop P-61 Black Widow in flight, 1940s
Northrop P-61 Black Widow in flight, 1940s.

P-61 Black Widow on flightline, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma City, OK
P-61 Black Widow on flightline, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma City, OK.

P-61 Black Widows on flightline, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma City, OK
P-61 Black Widows on flightline, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma City, OK.

Northrop P-61 Black Widow in flight
Northrop P-61 Black Widow in flight.

Northrop P-61B-15-NO Black Widow (s/n 42-39754) used by the NACA Glenn Research Center from 1945 to 1948 in ramjet tests
Northrop P-61B-15-NO Black Widow (s/n 42-39754) used by the NACA Glenn Research Center from 1945 to 1948 in ramjet tests.

Recommended Books about the Northrop P-61 Black Widow

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