P-61 "Black Widow" (Northup Aviation)

P-61 Black widowWith data from early RAF night fighter operations, the heavily-armed Black Widow  was this country's first aircraft specifically designed as a night-fighter. Other night fighters, including the P-70 derivative of the A-20, the P-38M and the BF110 were modified versions ofexisting aircraft.

The allied enjoyed almost total air superiority by the time the P-61 entered service, and the P-61 was mainly used as a night intruder and attack aircraft. The nose housed a big and heavy centimetric radar set, made in the US which enabled its crew of two or three to locate enemy aircraft in total darkness and fly into proper position to attack. Four .50 cal. machine guns were installed in a remotely controlled turret on top of the fuselage (deleted on many P-61As) and four 20 mm cannon were fitted in the fuselage belly.  There was also a two-seat dayfighter development, the XP-61E, later converted into the F-15 Reporter reconaissance aircraft using a more streamlined version of the basic airframe. 

The XP-61 was flight-tested in 1942 and delivery of production aircraft began in late 1943. The first P-61's went into service in May, 1944 and flew its first operational intercept mission as a night fighter in Europe on July 3, 1944, and later was also used as a night intruder over enemy territory. In the Pacific, a Black Widow claimed its first "kill" on the night of July 6, 1944. In the same month, P-61's shot down four German bombers in their first mission over Europe.  P-61's also shot down some of the V1 flying bombs launched against Antwerp later in the year.  As P-61s became available, they replaced interim Douglas P-70s in all USAAF night fighter squadrons.

During WW II, Northrop built approximately 706 P-61s; 41 of these were -Cs manufactured in the summer of 1945 offering greater speed and capable of operating at higher altitude. Northrop fabricated 36 more Black Widows in 1946 as F-15A unarmed photo-reconnaissance aircraft.

Massive for a fighter, it was surprisingly agile due to its spoiler aileron control and near full span double-slotted flaps.  Even in daylight dogfights, the P-61 could defeat most aircraft it went up against including nimble Japanese fighters.

The Black Widow shown here was presented to the U.S. Air Force Museum by the Tecumseh Council, Boy Scouts of America, Springfield, Ohio, in 1958. It is painted and marked as a P-61B assigned to the 550th Night Fighter Squadron serving in the Pacific in 1945.

Only four P-61 pilots attained ace status; three in the ETO and one in the Pacific.

Portions of text and photo courtesy U.S. Air Force Museum and Jane's Aircraft of WWII


Span: 66 ft.
Length: 49 ft. 7 in.
Height: 14 ft. 8 in.
Weight: 35,855 lbs. loaded
Cost: $170,000
Serial number: 43-8353
Displayed as: 42-39368 (P-61B)

Four .50-cal. machine guns in upper turret and four 20mm cannons in belly; 6,400 lbs. of bombs

Maximum speed: 425 mph
Cruising speed: 275 mph
Service ceiling: 46,000 ft.
Range: 1,200 miles
Engines:Two Pratt & Whitney R-2800s of 2,100 hp. ea.


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