paintings by Dr. Philip Alexander.


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 as a result not very effective.

At the direction of the Air Corp's General Carl A. Spaatz (for whom our airport is named), John K. Northrop submitted a ground-up night fighter design.  A contract was approved on January 30, 1941 for two prototypes and two wind tunnel modles.  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 two hundred of the 450 built did not have a top turret.   



 The 232nd B-model produced, #42-39445, was assigned to the 13th Air Force, 13th Fighter Command, it was the first P-61 delivered to the 550th Night Fighter Squadron at Hollandia, New Guinea.  After crashing during a test flight, it lay un-recovered for more than 40 years before being retrieved by Mid-Atlantic Air Museum volunteers.

MAAM'S P-61 on the ramp at the 2017 WWII Weekend


The only other P-61B still in existence, after decades of outdoor static display in China, is now the centerpiece of the new Beijing Air and Space Museum.


The P-61C received new engines, the 2100 hp turbo-supercharged R-2800-73s that gave it an increase in speed of about 60 mph, to 430.  The first P-61C aircraft 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.  Two of these are on static display, one at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar Hazy Center.  It wears post-war NACA test markings and has no armament installed.  The second is painted as a famous B-model, "Moonlight Serenade" and belongs to the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

NASM P-61C                                                  USAFM P-61C

Two XP-61D models were modified from P-61As for high altitude testing with more powerful engines by Goodyear, with 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 cannon.  The two prototypes first flew on April, 1945, the same month that saw the introduction of the XP-82 Twin Mustang.  The latter's 100 + mph advantage over the XP-61E killed the program.


After the war, P-61s were used in reconnaissance, weather research, and flight testing.  The first American flight ejections were made from a P-61.  

The F-15A Reporter was an unarmed photo-recon aircraft, modified from C-models.  36 of the type were used and the last retired in April, 1949.

F-15A Reporter

From July 6, 1944, when it claimed its first victory, to 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 and improved handling.  The radar carried in its nose made it the dominant force in the night skies of Europe and the South Pacific.  

for B-model, unless otherwise noted

CONTRACTOR: Northrop Aircraft Inc. of Hawthorne, California
UNIT COST: $170,000
CREW: Pilot, Radar Operator, and Gunner
FIRST FLIGHT: May 21, 1942 (XP-61)
FIRST OP MISSION: July 3, 1944 (Europe)
FIRST KILL: July 6, 1944 (Pacific)
TOTAL PRODUCED: 706 (all variants)
ENGINES: Two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-65 Double Wasp 18-Cylinder engines rated at 2,250 hp
WING SPAN: 66 Feet
LENGTH: 49 Feet, 7 Inches
HEIGHT: 14 Feet, 8 Inches
HEIGHT: 14 Feet, 8 Inches
EMPTY WEIGHT: 20,965 lb
MAX. T.O. WEIGHT 34,200 lb
MAX. RANGE: 1,350 Miles,  (1,900 miles ferry)
RATE OF CLIMB: 2,090 Feet Per Minute
ARMAMENT: Four 20 mm Hispano M2 cannons, four Browning M2 .50 caliber heavy machine guns,
6,400 lb of bombs or rockets

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