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Northrop P-61 Black Widow Night Fighter

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P-61 was Largest, Most Powerful US Fighter

P-61  Black Widow - US WWII American night fighter

P-61 Black Widow Night Fighter. USAF photo.

The P-61 Black Widow was the first U.S. aircraft to be designed specifically as a night fighter with radar. The largest and most powerful U.S. fighter, armament of the 3 seat Black Widow included 4x 20-mm M2 cannon, 4x 0.50 inch machine guns in the dorsal turret, and up to 1,600 lb of bombs or rockets.

Before the introduction of radar, locating the enemy at night was relatively unsuccessful, and up to the introduction of effective night fighters, bombers could attack at night and incur minimal losses. Ground radar was developed by World War II but could only send the fighter to the vicinity of the target. The use of night bombing by the enemy increased the need for the development of a night fighter with radar.

Allies and Axis - Approaches to Night Bombing

The Germans resorted to night bombing as an unacceptable number of German bombers were shot down in daylight raids. This prompted the British to adapt twin-engine fighters or small bombers for night fighting. By the end of 1940, radar was put into the Beaufighter, to attack German night bombers. The Japanese used nighttime bombing all across the Pacific as a means of harassment creating a need for Allied night fighters to stop these attacks. The American F6F Hellcat was used in this capacity by being equipped with a short range radar unit. The ground radar would send the fighter to the vicinity of the target where it could use its short range radar to close in on the target.

Producing the First Fighter Designed for Radar

P-61 nose radar

Nose radar. US government photo.

Producing the first fighter designed specifically for radar was a complicated process and although the P-61 was designed in 1940, problems concerning the SCR-720 radar delayed its introduction into service until 1944.

The P-61 was designed to carry air interception radar in the nose of the aircraft. The AI radar was based on British models and had a range of almost five miles.

Color Schemes for the P-61

The early camouflage colors for the P-61 was olive drab and gray, but a solid black was eventually found to be the most effect.

Effectiveness as Night Fighter & Reconnaissance Aircraft

Although entering service late in the war, the P-61 proved to be an effective night fighter and reconnaissance aircraft, seeing most of its service in the Pacific and European theaters. Some P-61 Black Widows remained in service until the 1950s.




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* P-61 Black Widow facts

Category Night fighter
Manufacturer Northrop Aircraft Incorporated
Introduced 1944
Used in
United States Army Air Forces
First flight May 1942
Number built 742
Max. speed 366 mph
Altitude 33,100 feet service ceiling
Range > 1,000 miles
* Numbers are approximate