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Northrop P-61 Black Widow

A brief history about the P-61 'Black Widow' Night fighter, Built by the Northrop Corporation.
by

Dion V.

on 27 September 2012

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Transcript of Northrop P-61 Black Widow

Pacific Theater The P-61 is probably the most know for its actions in the Pacific Ocean fighting against the Japanese.
The first P-61's were received in early June 1944 by the 6th NFS based on Guadalcanal . The aircraft were quickly assembled and underwent flight testing as the pilots changed from the squadron's aging P-70s. The first operational P-61 mission occurred
on 25 June, and the type scored its first kill on 30 June 1944 when a Japanese Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bomber was shot down.

In the summer of 1944, P-61s in the Pacific Theater saw sporadic action against Japanese aircraft. Most missions ended with no enemy aircraft sighted but when the enemy was detected they were often in groups.
During 1945, P-61 squadrons struggled to find targets. One squadron succeeded in destroying a large number of Kawasaki Ki-48 "Lily" Japanese Army Air Force twin-engined bombers, another shot down several Mitsubishi G4M "Bettys," while another pilot destroyed two Japanese Navy Nakajima J1N1 "Irving" twin-engined fighters in one engagement.

On 30 January 1945, a lone P-61 performed a vital mission that was instrumental in the successful raid carried out by the U.S. Rangers to free over 500 Allied POWs held by the Japanese at the Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines.
As the Rangers crept up on the camp, a P-61 swooped low and performed aerobatic maneuvers for several minutes. The distraction of the guards allowed the Rangers to position themselves, undetected within striking range of the camp. The story of the rescue and the role of the P-61 is told in the book Ghost Soldiers and in The Great Raid, a movie based upon the book, though the absence of a flying P-61 forced the filmmakers to feature a Lockheed Hudson in the film in its place.

It was in this theater that poet and novelist James Dickey flew 38 missions as a P-61 radar operator with the 418th Night Fighter Squadron, an experience that profoundly influenced his work, and for which he was awarded five Bronze Stars.[13] The 418th NFS also produced the only AAF night fighter aces in the Pacific, a pilot-radar operator team.

Finally, that the last enemy aircraft destroyed in combat before the Japanese surrender was downed by a P-61B-2 named "Lady in the Dark" of the 548th NFS.On the 14 August/15 August 1945 they claimed a Nakajima Ki-44 "Tojo." The destruction of the "Tojo" came without a shot being fired; after the pilot of the "Tojo" sighted the attacking P-61, he descended to wave-top level and began a series of evasive maneuvers. These ended with his aircraft striking the water and exploding. Lts. Clyde and LeFord were never officially credited with this possible final kill of the war. European Theater The 422d Night Fighter Squadron was the first to complete their training in Florida and, in February 1944, the squadron was shipped to England aboard the Mauretania. The 425th NFS soon followed.

The situation deteriorated in May 1944 when the squadrons learned that several USAAF generals believed the P-61 was too slow to effectively engage in combat with German fighters and medium bombers.
General Spaatz requested de Havilland Mosquito night fighters to equip 2 US night fighter squadrons based in the UK. The request was denied due to insufficient supplies of Mosquitoes.
Several pilots in the 422nd NFS threatened to turn in their wings if they were not permitted to fly the P-61.
In the end the USAAF determined that the P-61 had a slightly better rate of climb and could turn more tightly than the Mosquito, while the Mossie was a faster than the P-61.

By December 1944, P-61s of the 422nd and 425th NFS were helping to repel the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, with two flying cover over the town of Bastogne. Pilots of the 422nd and 425th NFS switched their tactics from night fighting to daylight ground attack, strafing German supply lines and railroads. The P-61's four 20 mm cannons proved highly effective in destroying German trains and trucks.
By early 1945, German aircraft were rarely seen and most P-61 night kills were Ju 52s attempting to evacuate German officers under the cover of darkness.

The 422nd NFS produced three ace pilots and two radar operators,[11] while the 425th NFS officially claimed none. Lt. Cletus "Tommy" Ormsby of the 425th NFS was officially credited with three victories. Northrop Black Widow The Northrop P-61 'Black Widow', named for the Deadly spider, was an all-metal,
twin-engine, twin-boom design, developed during WWII and was the first operational U.S. military aircraft designed specifically for night interception specifically designed to use a radar.

Although not produced in large numbers as its contemporaries, the Black Widow was effectively operated as a night-fighter in squadrons on every theater were the US was part of.
It replaced earlier British-designed night-fighter aircraft that had been updated to incorporate a radar when it became available.

Not only does this amazing aircraft have the highest kills made by a night fighter in one night by a US pilot, it also holds credit for having the highest scoring US night ace and is unofficially credited with the last Allied air victory before VJ Day.

After the war, the P-61 became the F-61 and served in the United States Air Force as a long-range, all weather, day/night interceptor. The Development In August 1940, 16 months before the United States entered the war, Lieutenant General Delos C. Emmons,
the U.S. Air Officer in London, was briefed on British research in RADAR (Radio Detection and Ranging),
which had been underway since 1936 and had played an important role in the United Kingdom's defense against the Luftwaffe
during the Battle of Britain. General Emmons was informed of that the new Airborne Intercept radar (AI for short),
was a self-contained unit that could be installed in an aircraft and allowed it to let the aircraft operate, independently of ground stations.

Simultaneously, the British Purchasing Commission evaluating US aircraft declared their urgent need for a high-altitude, high-speed
aircraft, able to intercept Luftwaffe bombers attacking London at night.
The aircraft would need to patrol continuously over the city throughout the night, requiring at least an eight-hour loiter capability. The aircraft would carry one of the early (and heavy) AI radar units, and mount its specified armament in "multiple-gun turrets".
Jack Northrop was asked as one of the many manufacturers to make an aircraft, possible of doing this,
and he realized soon that the speed, altitude, fuel load and multiple-turret requirements demanded a large aircraft with multiple engines.

On 5 November, Northrop and Pavlecka met at Wright Field with Air Material Command officers and presented them with Northrop’s preliminary design. Douglas’ XA-26A night fighter proposal was the only competition. The Air Corps issued Northrop a Letter of Authority
For Purchase on 17 December. A contract for two prototypes and two scale models to be used for wind tunnel testing was awarded on 10 January 1941, (costs not to exceed $1,367,000).

In March 1941, the Army/Navy Standardization Committee decided to standardize use of updraft carburetors across all military branches. The XP-61, designed with downdraft carburetors, faced an estimated minimum two-month redesign of the engine nacelle.
The committee later reversed the standardization decision, preventing a potential setback in the P-61's development.

13 pre production prototypes were build in august and september 1943, which was the intro of this machine into the Second World War.
The first unit to receive production aircraft was the '348th Night Fighter Squadron' in Florida which was responsible for training night fighter crews. P-61 In the Mediterranean Theater, most night fighter squadrons exchanged their aging Bristol Beaufighters for P-61s too late to achieve any kills in the "Black Widow" as it failed to play a mjor part in the raging battles fought over North Africa and Italy.
A combination of serviceable aircraft and shortage of spares made the 414th send a detachment of P-61's to Florennes in Belgium.
This seemed to bring a good amount of fortune for the 414th as Twelfth Air Force records show that its units were credited with a number of kills flying the P-61.

The P-61's of the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater were responsible for patrolling a larger area than any night-fighter squadrons of the war. The first kill in that theater by a Black Widow took place on October 30, 1944,
when a Kunming-based Black Widow flown by Capt. Robert R. Scott and Charles W. Phillips of the 426th Night Fighter Squadron shot down a Japanese twin-engined aircraft.

The initial mission of the China-based Black Widows was to destroy Japanese night intruders, but as enemy nighttime flying ceased, the Black Widows went over to night intruder missions, attacking Japanese ground installations in China and Burma. Mediterranean & China-Burma-India Theater After the War The useful life of the Black Widow was extended for a few years into the immediate postwar period due to the USAAF's problems in developing a useful jet-powered night/all-weather fighter.
With the change in the USAF's aircraft designation system in June 1948, all P-61s became F-61s and all F-15As became RF-61Cs.

In 1945 the USAAF programmed a jet night interceptor to replace the F-61. To meet the jet-powered night fighter requirement,
Curtiss-Wright proposed an aircraft of a similar configuration, but adapted specifically for the interception role.
The company designation of Model 29A was assigned to the project. The Army ordered two prototypes under the designation XP-87 and the name "Blackhawk" was assigned. However, the USAAF also thought highly of the Northrop proposal, which was given the designation N-24 by the company. Two prototypes were ordered under the designation XP-89 in December 1946.

A Photoreconnaissance variant with a new center pod with pilot and camera operator seated in tandem under a single bubble canopy was build. Six cameras also took place of radar in the nose. This model was named the F-15.
Only 36 of the 175 ordered F-15As were built before the end of the war. After formation of the United States Air Force in 1947,
F-15A was redesignated RF-61C. These were responsible for most of the aerial maps of North Korea used at the start of the Korean War.

From 1946 till 1949 the P-61 Black Widow was also heavily involved in the 'Thunderstorm Project'.
This was a program dedicated to gather data on thunderstorm activity. The project was a cooperative undertaking on the part of four
U.S. government agencies.
The project's goal was to use this knowledge to protect airplanes better that operated in their vicinity.
The P-61's radar and particular flight characteristics enabled it to find and penetrate the most turbulent regions of a storm,
and return crew and instruments intact for detailed study. Until this day,
much of what was learned since the project has been changed little by subsequent observations and theories.

Surviving aircraft were offered to civilian governmental agencies, or declared surplus and offered for sale on the commercial market. Five were eventually issued civil registrations. some of these were used as testbed aircraft for jet-engines by the goverment Survivors Today, only 4 of the 742 aircraft are known to survive today, and none of these are in flyable condition.

Although one of these is beeing restored into flyable condition by the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania.The aircraft crashed on 10 January 1945 on Mount Victoria, Papua New Guinea, was recovered in 1989 by the museum and has been in undergoing a slow restoration since then with the intention of eventually returning to the air.

There are 2 more aircraft based in the US, one in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. and the other one can be found at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.

The fourth aircraft is on outside display at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China. The official story is that one of the P-61s that were based in the Sichuan Province during the war was turned over to the Chendu Institute of Aeronautical Engineering in 1947. When the Institute moved to its present location, it did not take this aircraft with them in 1954. However, as both USAAF night fighter squadrons (426th, 427th) that served in China were inactivated in 1945, this may not be accurate.
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