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P-61 Black Widow

The heavily-armed Northrop P-61 Black Widow was the largest and heaviest fighter aircraft to serve with the USAAF during the Second World War, and the first American aircraft specifically designed from the outset for the night fighting role. The P-61 carried radar equipment in its nose that enabled its crew of two or three to locate enemy aircraft in total darkness and fly into proper position to attack.

Airmen did not wait long to exploit what writer George Sterling called the star-usurping battlements of night. Aviation pioneers flew their fragile aircraft into the gloom, in search of the camouflage of darkness and in pursuit of enemy aircraft seeking the same edge. In 1909, Wilbur Wright and Army 2d Lt. Frederick E. Humphreys became the first Americans to fly at night, orbiting College Park, Maryland, in Signal Corps Airplane No. 1 for forty-two minutes.

The research of 1st Lts. Muir S. Fairchild and Clayton Bissell in the 1920s showed that night operations required a specifically designed aircraft with great speed and maneuverability and an unobstructed view for the pilot. Test flights revealed that pilots became disoriented when they lost sight of the ground and the horizon. Human senses contradicted aircraft instruments, while vertigo magnified a pilots confusion.

Obvious to aviators was the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of finding another airplane in the vast emptiness of the night sky. Many airmen believed fighter aircraft could never intercept and shoot down bombers in broad daylight, let alone at night. Since bombers could strike by day without peril, there would be no need for night missions and no need for a night-fighting capability. Only when the Second World War revealed these new bombers to be vulnerable to attack during the day and unable to always get through did the need for night fighters again become clear.

After losing nearly 1,700 aircraft in three months to British defenses by day, Gring switched his bombing attacks to the night in October 1940. This change in strategy also coincided with his decision to target British morale, better attacked in the uncertainty of night, with lighter losses. German losses to British night defenses and to all other causes during the Night Blitz never exceeded four percent.

Key to opening the black sanctuary that shielded night bombers was the development of radar, both ground-based and units carried aloft in aircraft. The key development for World War II night fighters was the accidental discovery by Lawrance A. Hyland in 1930 that radio waves reflecting off an aircraft in flight, previously believed too small to measure, actually could be collected and gauged. Radar-directed night fighters achieved their first victory in November 1940 and went on to claim 102 victories out of 200 airborne radar contacts during the Night Blitz over England from March to June 1941.

In World War II the United States Army Air Forces (AAF) flew night-time missions to counter enemy activities under cover of darkness. Allied air forces had established air superiority over the battlefield and behind their own lines, and so Axis air forces had to exploit the nights protection for their attacks on Allied installations. AAF night fighters sought to deny the enemy use of the night for these attacks. Also, by 1944 Allied daylight air superiority made Axis forces maneuver and resupply at night, by air, land, and sea. US night fighters sought to disrupt these activities as an extension of daylight interdiction and harassment efforts.

The Air Corps wanted a specially designed night fighter, built according to Muir Fairchilds guidance from the early 1920s. The original request for proposals called for a Night Interceptor Pursuit Airplane. In response to a proposal from Northrop, the Army Air Corps ordered two XP61 prototypes in January 1941 for $1,367,000. Hungry for its first night fighter, the Air Corps ordered thirteen YP61s two months later for service testing.

The prototype was an all-metal, twin-engine, three-place monoplane with twin tail booms and a fully retractable tricycle landing gear. Its revolutionary slotted flaps and perforated spoilers allowed it to close on a target very quicklyup to 362 miles per hour (P61A version)and then to decelerate rapidly to only 70 miles per hour so as not to overshoot the target. Despite this impressive performance, the Black Widow lacked the speed advantage necessary to intercept some high-flying enemy bombers. Two 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp engines powered the P61, two-speed General Electric turbosuperchargers boosted performance at altitude, and four 20-mm cannons and four .50-caliber machine guns provided killing power.

Though the Black Widow was designed for a crew of three (pilot, radar operator [R/O], and gunner), the gunner sometimes did not fly in combat because the remote-controlled gun turret was either deleted or fired by the pilot. Armor plates protected the crew from machine gun fire. The pilot could use 5.8 power night binoculars mounted in the cockpit and connected to the optical gunsight. Four illuminated dots on the gunsight allowed the pilot to determine the enemys range. The R/O sat backwards, unable to see what lay ahead, his eyes trained on the radar scope between his knees.

Nicknamed the Black Widow, the P61 had many teething problems, which prevented the first prototype from flying until May 1942, a service test model until February 1943, and a production model until October 1943. The Black Widow made its public debut in January 1944 during a mysterious night flyover of the Los Angeles Coliseum, rapidly appearing out of the dark like some gigantic bat, and then just as strangely disappearing, with only the roar of its engines testifying that it had flown over the surprised crowd at a halftime celebration.

The P61 Black Widow faced continuing technical problems: aerodynamically-induced tail-buffeting, a move of the cannons from the wings to the belly, a requirement for additional fuel capacity, Plexiglas nose cones that melted in the sun, and delays in receiving remotely controlled gun turrets (in demand for the B29) slowed production even more. The delivery of production aircraft began in late 1943. Labor problems and material shortages also contributed to delays at Northrops Hawthorne, California, plant, which built only 34 in 1943, 449 in 1944, and 199 in 1945. With Northrops assembly line in full gear, a completely equipped P61 cost $180,000 in 1943 dollars, three times the cost of a P38 fighter and twice the price of a C47 transport.

During World War II, Northrop built approximately 700 P-61s; 41 of these were C models 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.

Only 100 Black Widows were overseas by DDay, June 6, 1944. The P-61 flew its first operational intercept mission as a night fighter in Europe on 03 July 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. As P-61s became available, they replaced interim Douglas P-70s and Bristol Beaufighters in all USAAF night fighter squadrons.

Posterity will never know exactly how many aircraft were shot down by US night fighters. Theirs was a lonely war. Claims had to be substantiated, which was usually not possible at night. Aerial victories were hard to come by. With few interceptions, US night fighters in northern Europe, like their counterparts in Italy, turned to night intruder missions.

A favorite tactic for night intrusion beginning in 1945 was to drop fuel tanks filled with napalm. The liquid bombs did not have to hit the target directly, and the resulting blaze illuminated the area for follow-up strafing. The P61s also carried high-velocity aircraft rockets (HVARs), high-explosive bombs, and incendiary bombs. Such varied armament was necessary because the few night fighters involved in night interdiction had to magnify their capabilities.

In August 1944 P61s became available in the Pacific theater, and the 418th Night Fighter Squadron, equipped with them, converted back to defensive patrols, scoring four kills on Morotai and five from Mindoro during the Luzon campaign. In the thirteen nights following December 27, 1944, the 418th gained twelve of its eighteen victories of the war. Piloting a Black Widow, Maj. Carroll C. Smith became the highest scoring night ace of the war, achieving four kills on two missions on the night of December 29/30. The P61s of the 426th NFS went to China in November 1944 to protect B29 bases from Japanese intruders. As elsewhere, the night fighters found the hunting poor, claiming only four kills by February 1945.

The service life of the Black Widow extended into the immediate postwar period, and replacement of the Black Widow by F-82F Twin Mustangs night fighters began in early 1948. Most Black Widows were out of operational service by early 1950.

Americas night airmen operated at the periphery of the war effort. Of the more than one hundred thousand fighter aircraft that the United States produced for the war, only nine hundred were night fighters. The downing of 158 enemy aircraft in the war seemed out of proportion to the 900 expensive P70s and P61s and 16 combat squadrons the United States mobilized to control the skies at night. Night units were never formed into groups, wings, or commands, but operated independently as squadrons. Larger numbers and higher priorities probably would not have boosted their contribution. Night fighters could not enter combat in formations; they were solitary hunters.

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Page last modified: 12-07-2014 18:06:51 ZULU