The original Northrop P-61 "Black Widow" proved itself an exceptional heavy night fighter for its time in the air during World War 2 (1939-1945). It was the United States' first aircraft specifically designed for the night-fighting role and made its career in the Pacific Theater against the Empire of Japan. Total production yielded 706 examples before war's end but the line was rather quickly given up in the post-war years with the arrival of the jet age - though some saw service in the ensuring Korean War of 1950-1953 in other roles.
Northrop attempted several major and minor conversions and modifications of its P-61 design. Among these were long-range and high-altitude models of which some saw operational service and others were simply discarded entries. One of the adopted offshoots became the F-15A "Reporter", a dedicated unarmed, two-seat, photo-reconnaissance variant converted for the role.
The F-15's development stemmed from modification of one of the two existing XP-61E prototypes. This pair was originally designed around a daytime long-range escort requirement which seated its crew of two in tandem under a new canopy. The dorsal turret was deleted and an additional fuel store was added at the radar operator's former position in the rear fuselage pod to help increase range. The nose was revised to house a battery of 4 x 12.7mm heavy machine guns and the ventral cannon battery of 4 x 20mm was retained. The first XP-61E recorded its first flight on November 20th, 1944.
Form this beginning, the F-15 was formed from the basic framework established through the XP-61E - a design offering inherent power, speed and high-altitude performance. Further work on the type saw the aircraft stripped of all of its armament and a new nose section added (manufactured by Hughes Tool Company) which housed six trainable cameras of various makes and models. The aircraft was powered by 2 x R-2800-65 series engines and each of these drove a four-bladed propeller unit. A base metal finish completed the look of what became the prototype "XF-15" and a first flight was recorded on July 3rd, 1945.
In the XF-15 prototype, the crew of two sat in tandem under an all-new, forward-sliding (blown) canopy and flight controls replicated at both positions allowing either crewman to take control of the aircraft. For long range sorties, the crew seats were also given a reclining feature for resting. Externally, the wings were given provision for jettisonable fuel stores which further increased range.
The XF-15 impressed Army authorities enough to warrant additional development and this work produced the "XF-15A" - though now based on a converted P-61C production model. The XF-15A would reflect pre-series quality and performance and the Army then commissioned for some 320 of the type under the operational designation of F-15A "Reporter". The engines were 2 x R-2800-73 types and a natural metal finish was, again, used. It would become the highest-performance reconnaissance-minded mount for the service to date.
Northrop received the initial contract for 175 units in June of 1945 and these were to be built atop the existing P-61C models still on the assembly lines. In-service aircraft were outfitted with 2 x R-2800-73 series turbocharged engines (the same as fitted to P-61C models).
Despite its promising nature, the F-15A Reporter would have a limited and short career in Army service for the war with Japan ended in August of 1945 and the Army moved quickly to cancel outstanding on-going projects with many American concerns including Northrop. The XF-15A prototype did not complete its first-flight until after the war in October 17th, 1945. In 1947, the official cancellation came for the F-15A after thirty-six airframes had been completed. These remained in circulation after the United States Air Force (USAF) was formed in 1947 and, in 1948, the F-15A was redesignated to become the "RF-61C". These soldiered on into the Korean War and were heavily relied-upon to provide much-needed aerial data of the North Korean territory.
None. Mission systems centered on photography equipment.
F-15 - Base Series Designation
X-15 - Initial prototype designation from XP-61E
XF-15A - Preproduction designation; based on P-61C airframe.
F-15A - Production model designation
RF-61C - Redesignation of F-15A in 1947
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