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Northrop P-61 / F-61 Black Widow Nightfighter / Reconnaissance Aircraft (1943)

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 9/30/2013

The P-61 Black Widow was the first US aircraft designed specifically for nightfighting.

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The Northrop P-61 Black Widow became the United States' first aircraft specifically designed from the outset as a platform dedicated to the fine art of night-fighting. Enabled by its complex through highly-effective nose-mounted radar, a distinct overall black paint scheme, its trained crew of three (though sometimes two) specialists and a heavy base armament made up of cannon and heavy machine guns, the "Widow" made its way into all major theaters encompassing World War 2. The P-61 could operate in total darkness, aided by its onboard systems, and move into position to deliver an enemy aircrew's final moments. The Black Widow appeared in quantity during 1944, then under the command of the US Army Air Force (USAAF) and soldiered on well past the war years into 1952, retiring with the newly-minted United States Air Force. The P-61 became one of Northrop's most successful products of all time and essentially put the corporation on the map. The P-61 (later redesignated to F-61) was no longer in operational service by the time of the Korean War, missing the conflict by small window of opportunity. While replacing the aged Douglas A-20 Havoc and D-70 systems in World War 2, the P-61 was itself replaced by the North American F-82 "Twin Mustang" before the Korean conflict.

Background

Night-fighters maintained something of a limited, albeit primitive, existence in World War 1. Aircraft were sent into the night skies and crews were generally left to their own keen vision and senses in terms of locating enemy bombers or observation balloons. After the war, the aircraft business reeled in their production goals and stuck to more conventional and conservative creations, leaving dedicated systems such as night-fighters along the wayside. As World War 2 revved up to a fever pitch in Europe, Adolf Hitler unleashed his forces against the likes of Luxembourg, Belgium, France and Poland in coordinated air attacks utilizing land and air elements to eventually own half of Europe within a few years. With Western Europe now in check, he set his sights on the island nation across the English Channel. His own commanders assured him victory was at hand as the same tactic could be used against Britain once air superiority was in their favor. At first, this involved brazen day-light bombing raids but these quickly produced unacceptable losses to the ranks of the Luftwaffe thanks to the stout reserve of British pilots. To remedy the situation and still give himself a shot at victory, Hitler turned to a relentless night-bombing campaign of London herself and all applicable communications and radar installations. This proved to hand the British a major concern that they had little an answer for.

The RAF (Britain's Royal Air Force) lacked any dedicated war implements designed specifically for combating incoming enemy fighters and bombers at night. Though already making good with the development of early-from ground-based radar and a connected communications front, the island nation still needed "boots in the air" to make a difference against the German strikes. At hand were the basic fighter collections of Supermarine Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes and Bolton Paul Defiants. The Spitfire was an exceptional fighter to say the least - downright legendary - but she became so through primarily fighting enemy aircraft during daylight hours. She was far from a night-hunter and her distinct ground operation (thanks to her narrow undercarriage) proved tricky if not downright dangerous in the darkness of night. The Hawker Hurricane, on the other hand, proved serviceable enough in the night-fighting role but she was essentially a modern fighter from a bygone era - outclassed in many key ways. The Defiant became an extremely short-term night-fighting solution but stemmed from an air frame that had suffered great losses during her time as a daytime mount. To add insult to injury, the Defiant was also limited in armament to a rear-mounted powered turret and performance-wise she was not the fastest thoroughbred in the stable. Experimentation led to the use of complex airborne radar systems in the larger Bristol Blenheim and the Bristol Beaufighter airframes - both emerging as adequate night-fighters that found somewhat better successes than their smaller fighter derivatives. These aircraft, though larger, had some semblance of speed and could direct themselves to the approaching aerial target as required. Anyway one observes it, Britain was in dire need of an answer and that answer was needed fast.


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Picture of Northrop P-61 / F-61 Black Widow
Pic of the Northrop P-61 / F-61 Black Widow
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Specifications for the
Northrop P-61 / F-61 Black Widow
Nightfighter / Reconnaissance Aircraft


Focus Model: Northrop P-61B Black Widow
Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: Northrop - USA
Initial Year of Service: 1943
Production: 742


Crew: 3


Length: 49.57ft (15.11m)
Width: 65.98ft (20.11m)
Height: 14.67ft (4.47m)
Weight (Empty): 23,451lbs (10,637kg)
Weight (MTOW): 36,200lbs (16,420kg)


Powerplant: 2 x Pratt & Whitney R-2800-65 Double-Wasp 18-cylinder radial piston engines developing 2,000hp each.


Maximum Speed: 366mph (589kmh; 318kts)
Maximum Range: 1,350miles (2,172km)
Service Ceiling: 33,005ft (10,060m; 6.3miles)
Rate-of-Climb: 2,090 feet per minute (637m/min)


Hardpoints: 4
Armament Suite:
STANDARD:
4 x 12.7mm Browning M2 machine guns in radio-controlled dorsal turret (some models feature 2 x machine guns; still others delete the turret altogether).
4 x 20mm Hispano M2 cannons in ventral position (fixed forward-firing).

OPTIONAL:
2 OR 4 x 1,600lb bombs underwing (1 x inboard, 1 x outboard of engine to each wing).
6 x 5-inch HVAR unguided rockets underwing
1 x 1,000 bomb centerline fuselage (some models)

PROPOSED LONG-RANGE ESCORT:
4 x 12.7mm Browning M2 machine guns in nose assembly (in place of radar).


Variants:
XP-61 - Prototype Designation; two units produced.


YP-61 - Pre-Production Models; 13 produced.

P-61A-1 - Initial Production Model; 45 produced; fitted with R-2800-10 engines of 2,000hp; final 7 in series produced sans turret.

P-61A-5 - Fitted with R-2800-65 engines of 2,250hp; 35 produced; sans turret.

P-61A-10 - 100 produced; water-injection implemented for improved engine output.

P-61A-11 - 20 produced; two underwing hardpoints introduced for bomb-carrying capability.

P-61B-1 - 62 produced; nose lengthened by 8 inches; SCR-695 tail warning radar introduced.

P-61B-2 - 38 produced; two underwing hardpoints introduced for B-series as in P-61A-11 model.

P-61B-10 - Underwing hardpoints increased from two to four; 46 units produced.

P-61B-11 - Turret Implemented but with only two 12.7mm machine guns; 5 production models built.

P-61B-15 - Turret expanded to 4 x 12.7mm machine guns; 153 produced.

P-61B-16 - Turret reduced to 2 x 12.7mm machine guns; 6 produced.

P-61B-20 - New General Electric turret implemented now with the 4 x 12.7mm machine gun array; 84 produced.

P-61B-25 - APG-1 gun-laying radar introduced for computerized automatic firing of turret; 6 produced.

P-61C - Fitted with R-2800-73 turbocharged engines of 2,800hp each; improved performance; 41 produced; a further 476 cancelled due to war's end.

TP-61C - Dual-Control Trainer Conversions of P-61C models.

XP-61D - Fitted with R-2800-14 series engines; cancelled with introduction of P-61C series; 2 converted from P-61A-5 and P-61A-10 models.

XP-61E - Converted Daytime Long-Range Escort Fighters; sans turret; increased fuel capacity; 4 x 12.7mm machine guns added to nose in place of radar operator's position; 2 converted; cancelled at war's end; one prototype lost to accident whilst other prototype became the basis for the XF-15 model series.

XP-61F - Single conversion model similar to XP-61E.

P-61G - Meteorological Research Platforms; 16 converted as such.

F-15A "Reporter" - Photoreconnaissance Variant; fitted with supercharged R-2800-73 engines as P-61C model series.

F2T-1 - United States Navy Trials Planes; two such converted.


Operators:
United States