P-61 Black Widow
Engine Night Fighter
P-61 was the first U.S. aircraft designed from the start to be a night fighter. By the time it arrived with combat squadrons
in mid-1944, targets were rather scarce. Thus, while it didn't pile up a large score of enemy planes destroyed, it was an
extremely capable and deadly aircraft.
It originated in the Battle of Britain,
when the British urgently needed a night fighter. Because early radars were so heavy and because the british requirement called
for a nightfighter that could stay airborne for a long time, only a twin-engined aircraft would work. Northrop began working
on the project in late 1940. Northrop's proposal, submitted in November, followed the general outline of Lockheed's P-38:
a big, twin-engined fighter, with crew and guns in the fuselage, and two engine nacelles extending back into twin booms connected
by a long horizontal stabilizer.
The armament was quite different though;
the P-61 housed two dorsal turrrets, each with four .50 caliber machine guns.
While there had been primitive efforts to
develop night fighters since 1921, by 1940, radar promised to make them practical. The British had first developed Airborne
Interception (AI) radar and also developed the cavity magnetron, which permitted short wavelength radars. Using a British
cavity magenetron, by early 1941, engineers from MIT and several American electronics companies had built the first microwave
radar, the forerunner of the SCR-270 used in the P-61.
Meanwhile, Northrop struggled with the P-61
aircraft, by far the biggest contract it had ever tackled. Meeting the Army's requirement for a three-man crew was one of
many challenges faced by the design team. Throughout 1941, indeed throughout the entire war, required engineering changes
continually cropped up, delaying the development of the P-61. Guns were relocated; fuel tanks were added; and control surfaces
were redesigned. The first XP-61 protoype flew in May, 1942, with test pilot Vance Breese at the controls.
The second prototype flew that November
and had radar installed in April, 1943.
Flights with the YP-61's revealed that the
dorsal machine gun turret caused severe tail buffeting. Thus it was removed entirely from many early P-61A's, and when added
back, only mounted two guns.
Service deliveries started in May, 1944,
when the 348th Night Fighter Squadron (NFS) of the 481st Night Fighter Group (NFG) received their Black Widows. While the
P-61 was exceptionally maneuverable for such a large plane (thanks to the large and well-designed flaps), it remained troublesome.
In June, deliveries increased to three a day. The first P-61 kill was recorded on June 30, 1944 (some sources say July 6),
when a Black Widow of the 6th NFS downed a 'Betty" bomber over the Pacific. In Europe, the crews continued training while
debates raged over the nightfighting virtues of the Black Widow, the Mosquito, and the Bristol Beaufighter.
Once the Black Widow did get into action
in Europe, it found success against a variety of targets: fighter planes, bombers, V-1 buzz bombs, and ground targets like
locomotives and truck convoys. Some ETO NF squadrons did not convert until spring of 1945, when the war was almost over. In
the Pacific, the 418th and 421st NFS adopted the P-61 in mid-1944, and in the CBI, the 426th and 427th NFS transitioned to
the P-61 later that year.
706 P-61's were built in total.
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 Mauritania. The 425th NFS was soon to follow aboard the Queen Elizabeth.
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 which were in demand for a number of roles. Several
pilots in the 422nd NFS threatened to turn in their wings if they were not permitted to fly the Black Widow. At the end of
May, the USAAF insisted on a competition between the Mosquito and the P-61 for operation in the European Theater. RAF crews
flew the Mosquito Mk XVII while crews from the 422nd NFS flew 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. Colonel Winston Kratz, director of night fighter
training in the USAAF, had organised a similar competition earlier. He said of the results "I'm absolutely sure to this day
that the British were lying like troopers. I honestly believe the P-61 was not as fast as the Mosquito, which the British
needed because by that time it was the one airplane that could get into Berlin and back without getting shot down. I doubt
very seriously that the others knew better. But come what may, the '61 was a good night fighter. In the combat game you've
got to be pretty realistic about these things. The P-61 was not a superior night fighter. It was not a poor night fighter.
It was a good night fighter. It did not have enough speed".
In England, the 422d NFS finally received their first P-61s in late June, and began flying operational missions over England
in mid-July. These aircraft arrived without the dorsal turrets so the squadron's gunners were reassigned to another NFS that
was to continue flying the P-70. The first P-61 engagement in the European Theater occurred on July 15 when a P-61 piloted
by Lt. Herman Ernst was directed to intercept a V-1 "Buzz Bomb." Diving from above and behind to match the V-1's
350 mph (560 km/h) speed, the P-61's plastic rear cone imploded under the pressure and the attack was aborted. The
tail cones failed on several early P-61A models before this problem was corrected. On 16 July, Lt. Ernst was again directed
to attack a V-1 and, this time, was successful, giving the 422nd NFS and the European Theater its first P-61 kill.
In early August 1944, the 422d NFS transferred to Maupertus, France, and began meeting piloted German aircraft for the first time.
A Bf 110 was shot down, and shortly afterwards, the squadron's commanding officer
Lieutenant Colonel O. B. Johnson, his P-61 already damaged by anti aircraft land fire, shot down a Fw 190. The 425th NFS scored its first kill shortly afterwards.
In October 1944, a P-61 of the 422nd NFS, now operating out of an abandoned Luftwaffe airfield in Florennes, Belgium, encountered a Messerschmitt Me 163 attempting to land. The P-61 tried to intercept it but the rocket powered
aircraft was gliding too fast. A week later, another P-61 spotted a Me 262, but was also unable to intercept the jet. On yet another occasion, a
422nd P-61 spotted a Me 410 Hornisse flying at tree top level but, as they dove on it, the "Hornet"
sped away and the P-61 was unable to catch it. Contrary to popular stories, no P-61 ever engaged in combat with a German jet
or any of the late war advanced Luftwaffe aircraft. The most commonly encountered and destroyed Luftwaffe aircraft types were
Junkers Ju 188s, Ju 52s, Bf 110s, Fw 190s, Dornier Do 217s and Heinkel He 111s, while P-61 losses were limited to numerous landing accidents, bad weather,
friendly and anti aircraft land fire. Apart from exploding V-1s and an attack on a Bf 110 Night Fighter that turned against
them, there were no reports of a P-61 being damaged by a German aircraft; and apart from one accidentally shot down by an
RAF Mosquito[, none were confirmed to be destroyed in aerial
combat, though one researcher suggests 42-39515 may have been shot down by an Fw 190 of NSG 9."
The absence of turrets and gunners in most European Theater P-61s presented several unique challenges. The 422nd NFS
kept its radar operator in the rear compartment, meaning the pilot had no visual contact with the R/O. As a result, several
courageous pilots continued flying their critically damaged P-61s under the mistaken belief that their R/O was injured and
unconscious, when in fact the R/O had already bailed out. The 425th NFS had a more novel solution: they moved the R/O to the
former gunner's position behind the pilot. This gave the pilot an extra set of eyes up front, and moved the aircraft's center
of gravity about 15 in (38 cm) forward, changing the flight characteristics from slightly nose up to slightly nose
down which also improved the P-61's overall performance.
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 (.79 in) cannons proved highly effective in destroying large numbers of German
locomotives 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
The 422nd NFS produced three ace pilots, while the 425th NFS officially claimed none. Lt. Cletus "Tommy" Ormsby of the
425th NFS was officially credited with three victories. Ormsby was killed by friendly fire moments after attacking two Ju 87s on the night of 24 March 1945. His radar operator escaped
with serious injuries, and was saved only by the quick actions of German surgeons. He later reported that they had successfully
engaged and shot down both Ju 87s before being shot down themselves. This claim was corroborated by other 425th aircrew who
were operating in the area at the time. To this day, many members of the 425th question why Lt. Ormsby was never credited
with his final two kills, and "ace" status.
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."
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. Unfortunately, the P-61 arrived too late in the CBI Theater to have any significant impact, as most
Japanese aircraft had already been transferred out of the CBI Theater by that time in order to participate in the defense
of the Japanese Homeland.
The 6th NFS based on Guadalcanal received their first P-61s in early June, 1944. 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, with the attack resulting in several
kills for that pilot and radar operator, who would jointly receive credit for the kill.
In the Pacific Theater in 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 but most
missions were uneventful. Several Pacific Theater squadrons finished the war with no confirmed kills.
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 (by Hampton Sides) 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.
Last kill of World War II
Historian Warren Thompson wrote that "it is widely believed" that the last enemy aircraft destroyed in combat
before the Japanese surrender was downed by a P-61B-2 named "Lady in the Dark" (s/n 42-39408) of the 548th NFS. The aircraft piloted by Lt. Robert W. Clyde and R/O Lt. Bruce K. LeFord on 14 August/15 August 1945 claimed
a Nakajima Ki-44 "Tojo." It should be noted, though, that 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 which 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.
Though the P-61 proved itself very capable against the majority of German aircraft it encountered, it was clearly outclassed
by the new aircraft arriving in the last months of World War II. It also lacked external fuel tanks until the last months
of the war, an addition that would have extended its range and saved many doomed crews looking for a landing site in darkness
and bad weather. External bomb loads would also have made the type more suitable for the ground attack role it soon took on
in Europe. These problems were all addressed eventually, but too late to have the impact they might have had earlier in the
war. The P-61 proved very capable against all Japanese aircraft it encountered, but saw too few of them to make a significant
difference in the Pacific war effort. Mothballed Black Widows at Erding were sent to reclamation at Oberpfaffenhofen Air Depot near Munich.
In the Pacific, the 426th, 427th 5 48th and 550th NFS were inactivated by the end of 1945. As part of the Occupation force
in Japan, the 418th and 547th NFS were transferred from Okinawa and Ie Shima to Atsugi Airfield, Japan, and the 421st NFS was reassigned from Ie Shima to Itazuke Airfield, Japan. The 6th, 418th and 421st were all inactivated, their personnel
and aircraft being consolidated under the 347th Fighter Group in Feb 1947. They became the 339th, 4th and 68th Fighter Squadrons respectively.
The 419th in the Philippines and the 449th on Guam were both inactivated. Many P-61s in the Pacific that were deemed "war
weary" met their fate at reclamation facilities established on Luzon.
P-61s returned to the United States which were considered still operational were organized and allocated to the three
new Major Commands established by the 21 March 1946 USAAF reorganization. All of these CONUS-based commands were allocated
squadrons which were non-operational that had to be manned and equipped.