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Northrop P-61 Black Widow

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The P-61 would be the first dedicated night fighter used by the United States and had early success after entering service in July 1944. Continuing in service until 1952, the Northrop P-61 Black Widow would appear in various guises.

Quick Facts
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First flight
26th May 1942
Entered service
Early 1944
Total built

Front view
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Side view
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Rear view
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During November 1940 Northrop submitted their P-61 design in response to a specification calling for a heavily armed twin-engined aircraft that could also be fitted with radar equipment, the first dedicated United States night fighter was born. Two months later on the 11th January 1941 the United States Army Air Corps placed an order for two XP-61 prototypes. This was followed, again two months later, on the 10th March 1941 for thirteen YP-61s and then 150 production aircraft were ordered on the 1st September 1941 and then on the 12th February 1942 an order for a further 410 was placed, this was still three months before the prototype flew.

The 26th May 1942 saw the prototype XP-61 fly for the first time and by the end of September 1942 both XP-61s and all of the YP-61s ordered had been flown and by the end of the following year deliveries of production P-61As were underway. The Northrop P-61 Black Widow was a much needed aircraft for the United States as at that time they were using Bristol Beaufighters, lent to them by the Royal Air Force, for night fighting duties.

Early production versions were fitted with a top turret but after buffeting problems this was removed from the 38th production P-61 and onwards. With the first P-61As entering service in early 1944 in the South Pacific. July 1944 saw P-61B deliveries begin with the last 250 of the 400 ordered having the top-turret re-installed. This brought the total armament of the P-61B to four 0.50-in machine-guns contained in the top turret and the fuselage contained four 20-mm cannons and depending on the mission the P-61B could carry a 300-US gallon drop tank or four 1,600lb bombs.

Powered by 2,800-hp R-2800-73 engines was the P-61C which would be the last production version of the type and under the designation of F2T-1 the United States Navy acquired twelve ex-United States Army Air Force P-61As to train crews who would go on to fly the Douglas F3D Skyraider.

Entering the European theatre by July 1944 the P-61 got off to a promising start, when in their first engagement, they shot down four German bombers and during attacks on Antwerp, Belgium by V-1 rockets intercepted a number of these. Although the P-61 was hampered by problems with its Airborne Interception radar.

Despite production of the P-61 ending by the close of 1945 with a total of 706 built, some P-61As and XP-61Es were converted as the F-15A Reporter reconnaissance aircraft which would later be re-designated as the RF-61C and these stayed in service until 1952.

Technical Details

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Top Speed Range Service Ceiling Armament
P-61A 369 mph 1,000 miles 33,100 ft four 20mm cannons
four 0.50-in machine-guns
P-61B 366 mph 1,010 miles 33,000 ft four 20mm cannons
four 0.50-in machine-guns
P-61C 425 mph 1,000 miles 42,200 ft four 20mm cannons
four 0.50-in machine-guns
6,400lb bombs
XP-61D P-61A with new engine, only one built.
XP-61E A pair of P-61Bs modified to become long range escort fighters.
XP-61F P-61C modified, only one built.
P2T-1N Designation for twelve P-61Bs used by the United States Marine Corps.


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See This Aircraft

(C) = Cockpit only exhibit. (F) = Fuselage only exhibit. (R) = Remains of an aircraft.

No known examples currently on public display in the UK.

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