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Northrop P-61 / F-61 Black Widow

Night Fighter / Reconnaissance Aircraft

United States | 1943

"The Northrop P-61 Black Widow was the first American combat aircraft designed specifically for the night-fighting role."

Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited: 10/03/2023 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site; No A.I. was used in the generation of this content.
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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 Forces (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.


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.

America was not blind to the events unfolding in Europe. Actions had been under scrutiny and study for some time. The night time bombing attacks on London were indeed witnessed first-hand by American observers on the ground. These observers were specifically sent to study the war from within England and possibly develop a plan for America should the war be brought to her doorstep. The result of these observations produced a new US Army Air Corps specification calling for a dedicated night-fighter platform possessing both firepower and speed to content with such enemy forces all the while operating in total darkness using a airborne intercept radar system that had yet to be developed - no small achievement to say the least, but one that had to be met without failure.

The Call: Northrop's First Test

By this time, Jack Northrop and his Northrop aviation firm (established as recently as 1939 though Mr. Northrop maintained several aviation companies before then) had very little experience in the way of military production aircraft, so far being responsible for just the limited-production N-3PB floatplane and this being a measly 24 examples shipped to far-off Norway. By October of 1940, the USAAC specification came to Northrop's attention and his team set to work on fulfilling the requirements in an attempt to nab the inherent and potentially lucrative production contract. He and his team carved out a large, twin-engine, twin-boom, three-crewmember planform that was essentially a heavy fighter. Proposed armament included 4 x 20mm cannons fitted inside of the wings (in pairs) along with 4 x .50 caliber machine guns in a complex, electrically-driven and remotely-controlled dorsal turret coupled with 2 x .50 caliber machine gun array in a similar belly-mounted turret. Power was formulated from a pair of massive Pratt & Whitney R-2800-A5G radial piston engines. In December of 1940, the design was submitted and officially approved by the US Army on the 17th under the assigned project designation of "XP-61". The initial contract called for two prototypes.

Inevitable Delays

The XP-61's legacy was born and with the birth came along the inevitable growing pains. US Army personnel observing the project's growth made a recommendation that the cannon armament could be relocated from the wings and settled into an under-fuselage position currently occupied by the belly turret - the theory being that the XP-61's heavy firepower could be enhanced by centralizing it. This was accepted and naturally resulted in the nixing of the dorsal 2 x .50 caliber gun turret. More delays immediately met the project:

An Army decision to use another series of Pratt & Whitney engines was (thankfully) soon reversed. Had the decision gone through, it would have meant a complete revision of the intended nacelles. The tail boom covering (then to be composed of magnesium) proved hell to work with. General Electric would have supplied the remote-controlled turret but was running into delays all their own. In a final stroke of bad luck, the Northrop factory was also pre-committed to helping the RAF war effort and penciled in to produce 400 examples of the Vultee Vengeance at their production facilities.

Despite the delays, prolonged night-time actions in the war and the idea of America not having an answer to such dangers moved the US Army to place a 150-strong production contract for the XP-61 with Northrop in late 1941. This was further appended in February of the following year in a production contract for 410 more units - all this without the XP-61 even having flown yet.

First Flight

First flight of the XP-61 was achieved on May 21st, 1942, with showman test pilot Vance Breeze at the controls and responded quite well considering the project's relatively infant stage. As the General Electric turret was still unavailable, Northrop engineers had to fashion a replica dorsal installation to compliment the completed airframe and achieve realistic flight test results. Post-flight, some other (relatively) slight variations came to the design and included a new horizontal stabilizer and revised engines (via Pratt & Whitney) - adding further delays within the program. The radar had also yet to be installed and properly tested airborne within the airframe with the radar system itself a "top secret" project under careful guard offsite.

I See You

The radar system began life as the A1-10, a complex technological offering limited to just 5 miles initially. As American engineers laid their knowhow into bringing the most out of the system, the tested-and-now-in-production A1-10 graduated to become the full-fledged Western Electric SCR-720. Deliveries of this unit began in November of 1942 and production of complete P-61's mated to the SCR-720 system was officially granted to Northrop in July of 1943. Deliveries of full aircraft systems, however, would not begin until late 1943 - some eighteen months after the prototype first flew!

Always Bet on Black

The first P-61A production models were fielded with an Army-required Olive Drab/Neutral Gray coloring scheme based on previous scientific testing of various color combinations. An initial recommendation by MIT researchers of "Jet Black" was rejected on the basis that it simply did not work as advertised, sending the researchers back to their caverns to find out why their theory had failed under the US Army's assertions. It was discovered that the Army had tested the paint on an airframe by simply painting over an existing camouflaged paint scheme and had not applied Jet Black as a fresh coat over bare metal. A review (and subsequent testing occurring in October of 1943) formulated the proper results and produced an aircraft that was nearly invisible to ground-based searchlights - thus clearing the good name of the MIT people. Though the "glossy but rough" Jet Black paint finish had won out, this mattered little to the early production P-61A models already delivered. Official "Jet Black" covered Widows did not make it out the factory door until February of 1944. Previous models may have had their original paint jobs simply covered over in the field with Jet Black but this hardly proved a right solution for the paint applied in this fashion had a nasty tendency to chip, scratch or wear through the regular abuse incurred by such aircraft.

The P-61A

The initial production versions - now taking on the full designation name of P-61 "Black Widow" - were P-61A models. Thirty-seven of the first A-models were fitted with the impressive General Electric remotely-controlled dorsal turret housing a battery of 4 x .50 caliber M2 Browning heavy air-cooled machine guns as well as an array of 4 x 20mm Hispano cannons mounted as a fixed forward-firing amendment in a ventral position. It was soon discovered (via wind tunnel tests and, later, with a P-61 airframe test gondola) that the dorsal turret was the cause of an air flow disturbance along the aft portion of the central gondola, occurring just aft of the turret assembly itself. This find forced the removal of the turret from the 38th P-61A production example and onwards. The stability issue developed when the turret was traversed to either side or elevated away from its "at rest" face-forward position causing a disruption to the air flow causing buffeting over the aircraft when at speed.

The P-61A was represented by four major sub-variants. The P-61A-1 became the initial production models fitting the R-2800-10 series engines of 2,000 horsepower. Forty-five of these systems were produced in whole though the last seven in the run were delivered without the dorsal turret (as explained above). The P-61A-5 was also produced without the dorsal turret but fitted instead with the R-2800-65 series engines of 2,250 horsepower (Northrop engineers were always trying to get more "punch" out of her engines). Thirty-five such machines were produced in the run. The P-61A-10 were built to the tune of 100 examples and featured water injection for an increased boost to engine output (known as "War Emergency Power" or "WEP", a small burst of power culminating in a short duration of improved performance). The P-61A-11 were given underwing hardpoints (one to a wing, inboard of the engines) for the carrying of fuel tanks or 2 x 1,600lb bombs. Twenty A-11s were ultimately produced. The addition of fuel tanks is noteworthy here for it drastically increased the range of the base Widow, allowing it to be considered for use in the vastness of the Pacific Theater. Comparatively, the addition of bombing capabilities allowed for night-time ground attacks to be added to the Widow's forte, known as a "night intruder" when in this role.

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Widows

As an aside, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was not wholly sold on the P-61 in defense of the British mainland (they felt it too slow a system to contend with the available German offerings, having tested the P-61 back in May of 1944, and preferring their de Havilland DH.98 Mosquitoes for the task instead), the Black Widow was nonetheless issued to the American Night Fighter Squadrons based throughout England and, later, throughout Allied held territory in Europe. In "end of the war" matchups, the P-61 and the DH.98 Mosquito both proved equally matched with balancing strengths and weaknesses, putting aside the claim from either nation that they had the best performing night-fighter.

Despite the relative success of the early P-61A, Northrop was still hard at work an increasing the performance specifications of their excellent machine, specifically as they applied to combat. Some early resulting changes evolved the A-models well enough but the somewhat similar P-61B was just on the horizon.

The P-61B model followed shortly in July of 1944, to which some 540 or so would eventually be produced. The B-model brought back use of a structurally reinforced dorsal turret though fitting just 2 x machine guns at first and later with the full 4 x machine gun compliment. The nose was stretched a full eight inches to provide for a greater cavity in the nose assembly while a SCR-695 tail warning radar was installed. The rear glass cone at the gunners station, proving to be prone to collapse or breaking off completely during high speed flight, was justly addressed though the issue was never fully solved. The B-model could be utilized in both night-fighter and night intruder roles thanks to standardized provisions for external bombs or fuel tanks - the hardpoints appearing first as two underwing racks and then as four. The four-gun dorsal turret was brought back with P-61B-15. Other additions to the line included use of HVAR 5-inch rockets for use against ground targets including sea-going vessels.

The P-61B-2 were 38 examples produced with the same underwing hardpoints as that of the A-11 models. The P-61B-10 featured four such hardpoints and were produced in 46 examples. The P-61B-11 brought back the dorsal turret fitting only 2 x .50 caliber machine guns and appeared in a limited production run of 5 examples. The P-61B-15 was a quantitative production Black Widow sporting the 4 x .50 caliber machine gun dorsal turret and appearing in 153 examples. The P-61B-16 reduced the 4 x .50 caliber machine gun armament of the dorsal turret to 2 x .50 caliber machine guns. Only six of this type were produced. The P-61B-20 featured the new General Electric dorsal turret fielding 4 x .50 caliber machine guns and was produced in 84 examples. The P-61B-25 featured an automatically-aimed and fired turret supported by an APG-1 gun-laying radar and integrated computer system - though only six of this type were produced. At least a dozen P-61B models served with the United States Marine Corps under the designation of F2T-1N (serial numbers 52750 through 52761).

In an effort to respond to crew reports coming back from the warzone, Northrop put forth the improved P-61C model. While, the aircraft proved a perfect handler in the air and deadly-responsive in a fight (even against smaller fighters), the massive airframe still needed a bit more "juice" both climbing to altitude and in overall speed.

The P-61C became the final production version (with production undertaken primarily in 1945) and fitted improved and turbosupercharged systems supplied by General Electric (designated as CH-5) fitted beneath each engine nacelle. Engines were Pratt & Whitney R-2800-73 radial piston types pumping out an astounding 2,800 horsepower each. New and larger propeller systems from Curtiss were installed to each engine for improved high-altitude performance. Top speed was increased to 430 miles per hour at 30,000ft though some longitudinal instability occurred when the aircraft officially exceeded 35,000lbs, adding to the need for more runway distance on takeoff (reported to be at least 3 miles). Despite the added weight of the new improvements, it was justified that the more powerful engines would compensate for the all this. It was rightly feared that the new Widow could, in fact, out-race its intended targets and thusly airbrakes over and under each wing were fitted. Despite the fanciful laundry list of additions, the C-model proved heavier at the controls than previous Widow offerings according to pilots who had flown earlier types.

The P-61C model could top speeds of 430 miles-per-hour and cruise at 307 miles-per-hour. Service ceiling leveled at 41,000 feet with a rate-of-climb equal to 2,600 feet-per-minute. Range was listed at 1,725 miles.

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While a slew were netted for production, the end of the war signified the end of the Black Widow line (for the most part) leading to a cancellation order of 476 unbuilt units after VJ-Day. Some 41 C-models were still produced while some were further developed into a dual-control, two-seat trainer as the TP-61C. Two XP-61Ds existed with turbosupercharged R-2800-14 series radials - intended for improved high altitude operations - but were dropped from production contention when the C-model finally hit the assembly lines and engine issues for the "D" pushed the project back some. As such, no official production P-61 "D" models existed.

The XP-61D had reported performance specifications of 430 miles per hour top speed, a cruising speed of 315 miles per hour, a rate-of -climb of 2,500 feet per minute, a service ceiling of 43,000 feet and a range of 1,050 miles. Power was supplied through 2 x Pratt & Whitney R-2800-77 series engines of 2,100 horsepower with 2,800 horsepower attainable via War Emergency Power (WEP).

Other Widows

The XP-61E became another pair of prototypes designed as daytime long-range escort fighters intended to assist flights of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses in bombing the Japanese mainland. These Widows were built sans the dorsal turret and featured a crew of two in a tandem seating arrangement under a large blown canopy glass. Other features included additional fuel tanks and a nose-mounted battery of 4 x .50 caliber machine guns while the original 4 x 20mm cannons in the ventral position were retained. The rear radar operator's position was taken up by the extra fuel tanks to improve range. Though achieving first flight on November 20th, 1944, this version was cancelled with the end of the war. The XP-61F was a conversion attempt of the P-61C to an XP-61E standard. As the XP-61E was cancelled, so too was the XP-61F along with it. The P-61G were sixteen modified Widows used in meteorological research.

The XP-61E had reported performance specifications of 376 miles per hour top speed; a service ceiling of 30,000 feet, a rate-of-climb of 2,500 feet per minute and a range of 2,250 miles. Power was supplied from 2 x Pratt & Whitney R-2800-65 engines of 2,000 horsepower.

The Widow Reporter

The F-15A "Reporter" was developed from the first abandoned XP-61E prototype and became a dedicated photo-reconnaissance platform. The crew of two was made up of the pilot and his camera operator with tandem seating under a single-piece bubble-type canopy. The forward airframe was stuffed with six cameras (replacing the radar system of previous models) and power was supplied through 2 x Pratt & Whitney R-2800-73 radial piston engines of 2,800 horsepower as found on the C-models. The F-15A appeared as the initial XF-15 prototype (approved by the US Army) and followed by a XF-15A pre-production system converted from a C-model. One hundred seventy-five F-15As were under order since June 1945 but the end of the war - and subsequent contract cancellation in 1947 - limited production to just 36 units. These later served under the designation of RF-61C as part of the new United States Air Force (established in 1947). The designation of P-61 ("P" for "pursuit") was dropped in favor of F-61 ("F" for "fighter") beginning on June 11th, 1948. The unarmed F-15A reconnaissance models were produced by Northrop in 1946.

Reporter specs included a top speed of 440 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 315 miles per hour, a service ceiling of 41,000 feet and a range of 4,000 miles.


Despite the use of the word "fighter" in its general categorization, the P-61 Black Widow was a large aircraft to say the least. Power was derived from a series of Pratt & Whitney radial (air-cooled) engines of increasing output fitted into two tail booms making up the engine nacelles and empennage. The tail booms sported vertical tail fins aft (the fins almost triangular in shape) and were connected to one another via a spanning plane containing the horizontal stabilizer. The crew (two or three personnel depending on the model), radar system and primary armament (usually the four-gun dorsal turret and four forward-fixed ventral cannons) were all contained in a central elongated gondola. The radar system was maintained in the extreme forward portion of the nose cone assembly allowing for easy access by ground personnel. The stepped cockpit housed the pilot and the gunner to his rear. The gunner was afforded a good commanding position up and over the pilot. The radar operator was situated in a aft cockpit to the extreme rear of the gondola, completely separated from the other two men. The forward cockpit was heavily framed (oft-referred to as "greenhouse") but still offered adequate views. Considering the night time operations of the craft, the drawback wasn't too great for pilot and crew. The undercarriage consisted of two large main landing gears (single-wheeled) under each engine nacelle and a single-wheeled nose landing system - all were fully retractable with the nose wheel recessing rearwards into the cockpit floor and the main gears recessing backwards into their under-nacelle positions. Wings were straight and shoulder-mounted with slight dihedral outboard of each engine and a relatively straight leading edge with a forward swept trailing edge. The engines powered four-bladed propeller systems and were fitted to either side of the fuselage gondola.

The dorsal turret (when installed) was a product of the General Electric Company and made use of a gyroscopic fire control computer. Operation could be accomplished by the gunner (in the middle cockpit) or the radar operator (in the aft cockpit) as both had access to the same aiming controls and applicable sighting instrumentation. Additionally, the turret could be fixed (locked in place) forward to be fired along with the 20mm cannon armament by the pilot. Traverse was 360-degree rotation with up to 90-degree elevation. The turret contained a battery of 4 x .50 caliber Browning M2 air-cooled heavy machine guns (the center guns slightly offset higher than the outer two guns) along with about 560 rounds of 12.7mm ammunition per gun.

Armament was further complimented by the aforementioned 4 x Hispano M2 20mm cannons fitted to the ventral fuselage, fixed to fire forward and operating with 200 cannon rounds to a gun. In all, this made the Black Widow a true killer of the night skies for a single burst from such a collection could easily damage - if not destroy - vital components of enemy fighters and bombers with equal lethality.

To enhance the use of the P-61 platform, it was later utilized in ground attack sorties. As such, four hardpoints (a pair inboard of the engines and a pair outboard) could accommodate up to 1,600lbs each consisting of external ordnance of various types. Additionally, the wings could serve as a springboard for HVAR 5-inch high-explosive rockets. A centerline fuselage hardpoint on some models could also field a 1,000lb bomb.

Generally, delivered production Widows replaced the interim Douglas A-20 Havoc and Douglas D-70 night-fighters (essentially modified A-20s) as well as British aircraft in service with American forces. The P-61 proved a vast upgrade for these crews.

Widows over Europe

Black Widow groups headed for Europe were trained on P-61A and YP-61 models out of Orlando, Florida before being shipped across the Atlantic to bases within the British mainland. Once there the Widow took to the night sky only to find the occasional action, most often times against slower, already damaged fighters and bombers. For the most part, missions proved a long, boring and dark affair but the tension ratcheted substantially when the enemy was located.

Widows there were called to tackle Hitler's revenge/terror weapons used against London, these coming in the form of Fiesler V-1 "Buzz Bombs". These unguided rockets could be launched from locations within German territory against targets across the North Sea. They were truly effective as the terror weapons they were intended to be but the resolve of the British people proved larger than Hitler's dark vision. By the end of the Widow's time over Europe, some nine V-1 rockets were confirmed destroyed by P-61 crews.

By this time, there were nary a few enemy aerial targets hovering about Germany and her territories, essentially providing little purpose for the P-61's presence in the theater. To make the most of the situation, the US Army employed the P-61 as ground attack "night intruders" to affect enemy targets by use of the powerful cannon armament and excellent handling qualities. The Widow played an increasingly important ground attack role in that way and especially so during the pivotal Ardennes Offensive (the "Battle of the Bulge") which saw these aircraft flying in support of Allied forces nearly round-the-clock and attacking "targets of opportunity" such as locomotives and trucks as well as concentrations of German troops. The Widow proved a most-feared opponent for these hapless Germans on the ground and many (those who survived her wrath) lived with the memories of seeing this mighty black beast coming down out of the sky. In the end, the Widow produced three aces with each kill being equally shared amongst the entire Widow crew. Not bad for an aircraft that had little in the way of targets to shoot down. In all, P-61 actions across Europe proved more or less a success for the Black Widow. No P-61 was lost to enemy action in the theater. Crews operating along the Mediterranean received their Widows much to late in the war to even register a single kill.

Widows in the CBI Theater

Widows in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of War were somewhat more fortunate in having to patrol the most territory of all other Widow crews. However, as Japan reeled in her forces in defense of the homeland, there proved to be less targets for CBI Widow crews to intercept.

Widows Over the Pacific

The Pacific Theater is where the Black Widow truly made her mark, assisted by her exceptional range and powerful radar. She was fielded in quantitative numbers and immediately set about in making her presence felt. Japanese fighter and bombers proved thin-skinned for the most part and the power inherent in the Black Widow made short work of these war implements. Other targets including the vast armada of shipping vessels utilized by the Japanese war machine. But again, the lack of healthy available night targets proved for long drawn-out affairs during missions dotted with the occasional use of force. Japanese bombers proved to absorb a good amount of punishment on more than one occasion but they none-the-less met their fate at the hands of Widow crews.

One interesting P-61 kill of the Pacific Theater came against an abandoned Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The crew, with the pilot being killed from a burst of anti-aircraft fire and a heavily damaged nose to boot - had bailed out over friendly territory from their damaged B-29. As the B-29 was still on autopilot, it happily continued on its straight course over friendlies. As such, a P-61 was called in to down the massive four-engine beast. After several bursts of 20mm cannon fire along the fuselage and, ultimately, the engines, the large machine tilted and plunged into open waters.

Curtain Call

In a way, the P-61 was unofficially credited with the last Allied air kill of World War 2. Unofficial in that the enemy aircraft - a Japanese Nakajima Ki-44 - was reportedly in evasive maneuvers after having encountered an American P-61, its guns blazing on the Nakajima fighter. The enemy fighter flew defensively just feet above the waves and eventually crashed itself along the surface of the ocean, ending the life of the pilot and his mount in a fiery explosion. The P-61 in question was a P-61B-2 aptly-named "Lady in the Dark" and under the control of Lieutenant Robert W. Clyde. The event occurred sometime between August 14th and 15th. If credited, the kill would have been accomplished without a single shot being fired.

Did Widows Fight Over Korea?

Not exactly. The Black Widow was nearly replaced by the Curtiss-Wright F-87 Blackhawk, a jet-powered all-weather interceptor doomed by the cancellation of the XP-87 project itself (and its two completed prototypes). While the Widow was still in some demand, she was gradually being replaced by the F-82F/G Twin Mustangs as dedicated night fighters for the USAF. The final Black Widow was relieved of duty in May of 1950, this accomplished by her final departure from the Japanese mainland. As fate would have it, the Korean War (1950-1953) would start on June 25th, 1950 - effectively passing the Black Widow by. The Widow series in whole was retired from service in 1952.


Remaining post-war Widows served in America's first all-weather squadrons and were the first aircraft selected for service into the US Air Defense Command in 1949. The USADC was charged with the defense of America from Soviet air attack. By 1950, however, the type was all but invisible in the USAF inventory as jet fighters were proving the logical next step. A slew of Widows were unfortunately handed over to the scrapman's torch and never seen again. A few rare models exist in some museums today including one on display at the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio. This particular model was found in France and donated to the museum for display - such is the rarity of seeing this fine bird in person.

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Power & Performance
Those special qualities that separate one aircraft design from another. Performance specifications presented assume optimal operating conditions for the Northrop P-61B Black Widow Night Fighter / Reconnaissance Aircraft.
2 x Pratt & Whitney R-2800-65 Double-Wasp 18-cylinder radial piston engines developing 2,000 horsepower each and driving four-bladed propeller units.
366 mph
589 kph | 318 kts
Max Speed
237 mph
382 kph | 206 kts
Cruise Speed
33,005 ft
10,060 m | 6 miles
Service Ceiling
1,350 miles
2,172 km | 1,173 nm
Operational Range
2,090 ft/min
637 m/min
City-to-City Ranges
Operational range when compared to distances between major cities (in KM).
The nose-to-tail, wingtip-to-wingtip physical qualities of the Northrop P-61B Black Widow Night Fighter / Reconnaissance Aircraft.
49.6 ft
15.11 m
O/A Length
66.0 ft
(20.11 m)
O/A Width
14.7 ft
(4.47 m)
O/A Height
23,451 lb
(10,637 kg)
Empty Weight
36,200 lb
(16,420 kg)
Design Balance
The three qualities reflected below are altitude, speed, and range. The more full the box, the more balanced the design.
Available supported armament and special-mission equipment featured in the design of the Northrop P-61 / F-61 Black Widow Night Fighter / Reconnaissance Aircraft provided across 4 hardpoints.
4 x 0.50 caliber (12.7mm) Browning M2 air-cooled Heavy Machine Guns (HMGs) in radio-controlled dorsal turret (some models featured 2 x HMGs; still others deleted the dorsal turret altogether).
4 x 20mm Hispano M2 automatic cannons in ventral position (fixed forward-firing).

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 aerial rockets underwing.
1 x 1,000 bomb centerline fuselage (some models).

4 x 0.50 caliber Browning M2 HMGs in nose assembly (in place of radar).

Hardpoints Key:

Not Used
Notable series variants as part of the Northrop P-61 / F-61 Black Widow family line.
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.
Global customers who have evaluated and/or operated the Northrop P-61 / F-61 Black Widow. Nations are displayed by flag, each linked to their respective national aircraft listing.

Total Production: 742 Units

Contractor(s): Northrop - USA
National flag of the United States

[ United States ]
Relative Max Speed
Hi: 400mph
Lo: 200mph
Aircraft Max Listed Speed (366mph).

Graph Average of 300 MPH.
Era Crossover
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Showcasing Aircraft Era Crossover (if any)
Max Alt Visualization
Small airplane graphic
Production Comparison
Entry compared against Ilyushin IL-2 (military) and Cessna 172 (civilian) total production.
MACH Regime (Sonic)
RANGES (MPH) Subsonic: <614mph | Transonic: 614-921 | Supersonic: 921-3836 | Hypersonic: 3836-7673 | Hi-Hypersonic: 7673-19180 | Reentry: >19030
Aviation Timeline
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Mission Roles
Some designs are single-minded in their approach while others offer a more versatile solution to airborne requirements.
Some designs stand the test of time while others are doomed to never advance beyond the drawing board; let history be their judge.
Going Further...
The Northrop P-61 / F-61 Black Widow Night Fighter / Reconnaissance Aircraft appears in the following collections:
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