The need for a true night fighter aircraft was well demonstrated during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Aircraft used to counter German night attacks operated by moonlight or searchlights, only infrequently aided by ground-based radar and were not very effective.
At the direction of the Air Corp’s General Carl A. Spaatz, JohnK. Northrop submitted a ground-up night fighter design. A contract was approved on January 30, 1941 for two prototypes and two wind tunnel models. The XP-61 first flew on May 26, 1942.
In addition to the two XP-61 prototypes, thirteen YP-61 were ordered and built for use in service testing. These were delivered during August and September of 1943.
The first of eighty operational P-61 Black Widows with a powered top turret rolled off the production line in October of 1943 followed by 120 improved P-61As, only the first 37 of which had the top turret and a three man crew. The first A-models entered operational service in May, 1944.
The next variant, the P-61B, made further improvements to the A model, including a provision for drop tanks, as seen below. The first 200 of the 450 built did not have a top turret.
The 232nd B-model produced, USAAC s/n 42-39445, was assigned to the 13th Air Force, 13th Fighter Command. It was the first P-61delivered to the 550th Night Fighter Squadron at Holland, New Guinea.
The P-61C received the 2100 hp turbo-supercharged R-2800-73 engines that gave a 60mph increase in speed to 430mph. The first C model was accepted by the USAAF in July of 1945. However, the war in the Pacific ended before any P-61Cs could see combat. Only 41 C models were produced and only 2 exist today.
Two XP-61D models were modified from P-61As for high altitude testing with more powerful engines by Goodyear, the first flights in November, 1944. An outgrowth of this program was the XP-61E long range fighter escort with side-by-side seating and a completely rebuilt crew pod. The radar in the nose was replaced by four .50 caliber machine guns, retaining the belly-mounted 20mm cannons. The two prototypes first flew in April, 1945.
The F-15A Reporter was an unarmed photo-recon aircraft, modified from C-models. 36 of the type were used and the last was retired in April, 1949.
From July 6, 1944 when it claimed its first victory, to the war’s end, the P-61 distinguished itself as one of America’s most unique fighting machines. The ‘Black Widow’ was the first aircraft totally designed as a night fighter. Its innovative slotted flaps and spoiler ailerons allowed operation from short airstrips with improved handling. The radar carried in its nose made it the dominant force in the night skies of Europe and the South Pacific. After the war, P-61s were used in reconnaissance, weather research, and flight testing. The first American flight ejections were from a P-61.
NORTHROP AIRCRAFT INC. OF HAWTHORNE, CALIFORNIA
PILOT, RADAR OPERATOR, AND GUNNER
MAY 21, 1942 (XP-61)
MAY 1944 (P-61A)
FIRST OP MISSION
JULY 3, 1944 (EUROPE)
JULY 6, 1944 (PACIFIC)
706 (ALL VARIANTS)
2 PRATT & WHITNEY R-2800-65 DOUBLE WASP 18 CYLINDER ENGINES RATED AT 2250 HP
49 FT 7 IN
14 FT 8 IN
MAX. T.O. WEIGHT
RATE OF CLIMB
2090 FT PER MINUTE
4 X 20MM HISPANO M2 CANNONS, 4 X BROWNING M2 .50 CALIBER HEAVY MACHINE GUNS, 6400 LBS OF BOMBS OR ROCKETS