Northrop P-61 Black Widow

A Black Widow photographed in 1976.

The P-61 Black Widow was an advanced twin-engine twin-boom night fighter that was designed by Northrop. The P-61 was designed from the ground up as a dedicated radar carrying night fighter, the first aircraft in history to do so. With four .50 cals and four 20 mm cannons, the P-61 would become one of the US’ most deadly aircraft of the war.

The P-61 was first conceived by Jack Northrop in 1940 to fulfil a demanding British requirement for an aircraft that could defend against German aircraft bombing British cities at night. The aircraft had to be able to loiter for at least eight hours, carry radar to detect incoming aircraft and be fast enough to intercept them.

YP-61 Black Widow. The antenna of the radar set, either a SCR-520 or SCR-720, can be seen in the partially transparent nose.
YP-61 Black Widow. The antenna of the radar set, either a SCR-520 or SCR-720, can be seen in the partially transparent nose.

Conveniently, the US Air Corps were looking for an aircraft of very similar requirements, and Jack Northrop, already ahead with his design, jumped at the opportunity. Northrop was awarded a contract for two prototypes in early 1941, under the designation of XP-61.

The P-61 Black Widow was an incredibly unique looking aircraft. Its twin boom tails resembled the P-38, while its stepped central fuselage contained three crew members, a gun turret and radar.

The P-61’s 20 mm cannons were mounted in the belly. Mounting all eight guns in the fuselage meant they were closer together, creating a more focused beam of fire than wing mounted guns that would converge at a set range. This focused fire made hitting targets from further away easier. Without the guns in them, the wings could carry more fuel.

417th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 In Flight over Alps
417th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 In Flight over Alps

The turret was remotely controlled with a system similar to that used in the B-29, and could be operated by both the gunner and radio operator who each had controls. The crew were located in the central ‘gondola’, the nose of which contained the SCR-720A radar. Behind this was a two-step canopy. The pilot sat in the lower level, while the gunner sat on the upper level above and behind.

The radar operator was secluded from the rest of the crew in the rear compartment, surrounded by a  pointed plexiglass canopy. He monitored the radar scopes and operated the radios.

View of the P-61 night fighter’s radar operators compartment in the rear of the fuselage. Photo was taken on Saipan, Marianas Islands on July 20,1944.
View of the P-61 night fighter’s radar operators compartment in the rear of the fuselage. Photo was taken on Saipan, Marianas Islands on July 20,1944.

The SCR-720A radio set had a range of about 5 miles. Once a target was found, the operator would verbally direct the pilot towards the target, who would then use a smaller scope in the cockpit to follow the target when in close proximity.

The turret could rotate 360 degrees, and elevate 90 degrees, covering all the sky above and to the sides of the P-61. Targets behind could be engaged by the radar operator, and the turret could be locked to the 20 mm guns in the belly for use by the pilot.

The aircraft was powered by two 2,250 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-65W Double Wasp radial engines, driving 12 ft four bladed propellers. This gave the P-61 a top speed of 366 mph, good for its size, but underwhelming against similar aircraft like the British Mosquito.

P-61B-15-NO (42-39748) at Hamilton Field on April 6, 1946. Image by Bill Larkins CC BY-SA 2.0
P-61B-15-NO (42-39748) at Hamilton Field on April 6, 1946. Image by Bill Larkins CC BY-SA 2.0

The aircraft’s career was rather brief and lacklustre, only reaching squadrons in mid 1944 and having minimal engagements with enemy aircraft, compared to its contemporaries. In Europe the P-61 often gave up its night fighting role to assist in ground attack missions. It faired well in the air against most German designs, but came up short against the latest Germany had to offer, usually simply being too slow to keep up.

During the war, the P-61 Black Widow was often compared with the British Mosquito, a beloved and war winning design. A few competitions were set up to compare the two aircraft, where the Mosquito won out with its incredible speeds. The P-61 was however able to outmanoeuvre the Mosquito.

Nightie Mission P-61A 6th Night Fighter Squadron Pictured being fueled and armed on East Field, Saipan, Mariana Islands, 1944
Nightie Mission P-61A 6th Night Fighter Squadron Pictured being fueled and armed on East Field, Saipan, Mariana Islands, 1944

 

A Black Widow photographed in 1976.
A Black Widow photographed in 1976.

 

427th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 Black Widows arriving at Calcutta, India, 1944.
427th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 Black Widows arriving at Calcutta, India, 1944.

 

Northrop P-61 green airborne
Northrop P-61 green airborne

 

425th Night Fighter Squadron Radar Maintenance.
425th Night Fighter Squadron Radar Maintenance.

 

Northrup P-61 NACA Test Aircraft, Moffett Field, California.
Northrup P-61 NACA Test Aircraft, Moffett Field, California.

 

426th Night Fighter Squadron strafing river traffic in Burma
426th Night Fighter Squadron strafing river traffic in Burma

 

425th Night Fighter Squadron Preflighting P-61
425th Night Fighter Squadron Preflighting P-61

 

422d Night Fighter Squadron P-61 Formation
422d Night Fighter Squadron P-61 Formation

 

420th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 over California
420th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 over California

 

6th Night Fighter Squadron Preflighting P-61
6th Night Fighter Squadron Preflighting P-61

 

6th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 being assembled at Guadalcanal
6th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 being assembled at Guadalcanal

 

425th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 Formation
425th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 Formation

 

YP-61 Black Widow. The antenna of the radar set, either a SCR-520 or SCR-720, can be seen in the partially transparent nose.
YP-61 Black Widow. The antenna of the radar set, either a SCR-520 or SCR-720, can be seen in the partially transparent nose.

 

View of the P-61 night fighter’s radar operators compartment in the rear of the fuselage. Photo was taken on Saipan, Marianas Islands on July 20,1944.
View of the P-61 night fighter’s radar operators compartment in the rear of the fuselage. Photo was taken on Saipan, Marianas Islands on July 20,1944.

 

The Northrop P-61’s nose radar
The Northrop P-61’s nose radar

 

P-61s being built by Northrop Corp. Hawthorne, CA
P-61s being built by Northrop Corp. Hawthorne, CA

 

P-61B-15-NO (42-39748) at Hamilton Field on April 6, 1946. Image by Bill Larkins CC BY-SA 2.0
P-61B-15-NO (42-39748) at Hamilton Field on April 6, 1946. Image by Bill Larkins CC BY-SA 2.0

 

P-61 crash-landed
P-61 crash-landed

 

Northrup P-61 NACA Test Aircraft on the runway at Moffett Field, California.
Northrup P-61 NACA Test Aircraft on the runway at Moffett Field, California.