Named after the venomous American spider, the Black Widow, the Northrop P-61 was the first operational US warplane specifically designed as a night fighter and the first to integrate radar.
The all metal, twin engined, twin boom designed aircraft rolled off the production line in late October 1943 and although never produced in the same numbers as its contemporaries, the Black Widow proved to be an effective and deadly night fighter and served across the European Theatre, China and Burma and the Mediterranean theatres of war.
With a crew of three consisted of the pilot, air gunner and radar operator the P-61 was armed with four 20mm Hispano M2 forward firing cannons mounted in the lower fuselage and another four M2 Browning machine guns mounted on a remote-con trolled dorsal gun.
The spine-mounted dorsal gun could be fired by either the gunner or the radar operator and could even be locked into a forward position and fired by the pilot. The dorsal remote turret was capable of a full 360° rotation and 90° elevation, and could engage any target above and to the sides of the P-61.
With the SCR-720A scanning radar transmitter in the P-61’s nose and with a range of just over five miles, the unit could also function as an airborne beacon or homing device, navigational aid or as an interrogator-responder for the aircraft's IFF (Friend or Foe system)
The aircraft's radar operator would locate the targets on his scope and set up the unit to track and vector them as he guided the pilot on an interception course. Once within range, the pilot used a smaller scope mounted proud of the main instrument panel to close in on the target and mount their attack.
Whilst the Black Widows design was to prove a radical approach to night time interception, the aircraft had a tenuous start when rumours started flying around that the aircraft was too slow to effectively engage with the Luftwaffe's fighters and medium bombers which gained quick traction with the RAF’s fighter command who had based their assessment on just a single aircraft they had taken delivery of.
The situation was not helped any further, when a number of USAAF Generals repeated those concerns and requested their units be equipped with the British De Havilland Mosquito rather than the P-61.
The request was refused due to the insufficient numbers of Mosquitos and the RAF continued to fly the Mosquitos whilst crews from the British based 422nd USAAF Night Fighter Squadron took delivery of the P-61’s.
Debate raged as to which was the most effective aircraft in regard to speed and manoeuvrability so eventually a number of competitions were organised between the two aircraft and their crews to settle the argument once and for all.
Using an example from the 422nd which had its Double Wasp radials carefully “tuned up” for the competition - against a Mosquito NF.XVII, one of the USAAF leading opponents to the P-61, Lt Col Kratz made a $500 bet in favour of the RAF;’s Mosquito. It proved to be a bad call.
As things turned out, the P-61 proved much faster at all altitudes and out turned and out climbed the Mosquito at every level. Kratz lost his bet and opinions began to change and the P61 found itself being dispersed across an increasing number of Squadrons operating across Europe.
The 422nd NFS received their first P-61s in late mid July 1944 but the aircraft arrived without its dorsal turret so the squadrons gunner were dispersed to other duties. However their absence in the P-61’s used in the European theatre presented some previously unanticipated issues for the pilot.
The squadron housed their radar in the rear compartment which meant the pilot had no visual contact with the operator. As a result, several pilots continued flying critically damaged aircraft under the mistaken belief that their radar operator was injured or unconscious when in fact, they and already bailed out. Eventually the radar was moved back just behind the pilot in what would have been the gunner position. Surprisingly this not only gave the pilot an extra set of eyes but also improved the aircraft's flight characteristics as the move shifted the P-61s centre of gravity forward making the aircraft more responsive.
The first combat engagement for the P-61 occurred on July 15 when an aircraft was directed to intercept a V1 Flying Bomb.
Diving from above to match the rocket's speed of 350mph, the P-61s perspex rear cone imploded under the air pressure and the attack was aborted. Tail cones continued failing on a number of early models before this was finally corrected. On the 16th July, the same pilot found himself once again diving on another Flying bomb although this time the attack was successful and become the squadron’s first official European ‘kill’.
A month later the 422nd were transferred to Maupertus France after the successful Normandy invasion, the P-61s began to encounter their first German aircraft. On the night of August the 15th ‘Impatient Widow had its starboard engine shot out along with its oil lines and hydraulics whilst attempting to attack a Heinkel He 177A Greif, the Luftwaffe's new long-range twin engined bomber.
By the end of December 1944, P-61s were helping repel the surprise German offensive in through the forests of the Ardennes, To become known as the Battle of the Bulge, German tank divisions and elite commando detachments caught the allied forces completely off guard and were only defeated when their already dwindling supplies of equipment, men and fuel were cut off from their advancing forces. The offensive ground to a halt after the allies directed their air forces to target the German supply columns.
As part of this counter offensive, 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 effective in destroying German locomotives and trucks.
In the Mediterranean, the many night fighter squadrons were beginning to exchange their ageing Bristol Beaufighters for the P-61s but the war in Europe was rapidly winding down and the change over had little effect with an almost non existent Luftwaffe in the region.
The same was also true in the Pacific Theatres when the 6th NFS based on the island of Guadalcanal received their first P-61s in early June 1944.
The first operational mission took place in late June when a P-61 from the squadron downed a Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bomber but by the summer of that year, it was rare to encounter any Japanese aircraft but when they were encountered, the P-61s made short work of them resulting in several kills for pilots and radar operators who jointly shared credit for the kills.
Back in Europe during the last months of the war, the P-61’s found themselves outclassed by the new German fighters such as the Me 262, advanced Focke Wulf and the push pull propeller attack fighter, the Dornier Do 335 which proved to be the fastest piston engined fighter of the War but it was too little too late and the small number produced did little to for stall the Germans eventual capitulation.
In the immediate post war period, the P-61’s found themselves quickly superseded by the emerging jet fighters such as the British Gloster Meteor and were soon retired from operations.
All Northrop P-61 Black Widow Instruments listed below come complete with detailed Scale Model, Mango Wood Stand & Plaque plus Printed Fact Sheet featuring photo of instrument in the aircraft cockpit.
Return to VINTAGE ORIGINAL AIRCRAFT INSTRUMENTS