High Desert Hangar Stories Northrop’s P-61 Black Widow: America’s WWII night fighter

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The artwork titled The Spider and the Fly by Stan Vosburg that fuels my wife, Patty’s, passion. (Courtesy photograph)

In my hallway is a painting that is unique to our household, as it’s the one that my wife Patty tolerates in my collection of all things in aviation art.

We all have our favorite aircraft, but for some reason Patty has always been attracted to the looks and history of a very mysterious aircraft that, even today, finds little press and following like its more famous brothers of World War II.

Back in the days of World War II, Northrop was not a big supplier of military hardware. However, that did not mean they were not knee-deep in government projects, as the flying wing design was getting some heavy looks from the higher-ups in military aircraft purchasing, and several other very unique test aircraft were making the rounds out at Muroc and on the dry lake beds.  

One Northrop project that would become very successful was the P-61 Black Widow, which in the later years of World War II would become the fear of many Axis pilots who braved the night on missions to attack Allied forces around the world. The P-61 Black Widow — developed in secrecy down in Hawthorne, Calif. — had its public debut at, of all places, the Los Angeles Coliseum at a night-time war bond rally. The Black Widow made a quick pass over the festivities and the announcer teased the crowd with what they had just seen, and what it was — then followed by what they were not supposed to have just seen, and what it was not! Many a P-61 made the trip up and over Aerospace Valley during those development days, but all the citizens knew was that another radial engine plane was making the rounds in those dark skies of the Southland. They went on about their business, not knowing the lethality of the night fighter that was passing overhead.

A World War II ad announcing  the existence of a new type of fighter, the very first of its kind. (Courtesy photograph)

During that time period, night fighters and crews were coming out of the San Joaquin Valley, most notably from Hammer Field near Fresno. They were flying older Douglas A-20s that were OK, but not particularly inspiring. When the transition finally came to move to the P-61, crews were ecstatic at being assigned to this sinister looking night prowler that was armed with so many 20mm cannons they knew that the enemy would never know what hit them from those dark night skies.

Deployed to Europe and Asia, the mission of night fighters was not very well understood by the operations command at many airfields, as they were attached to daytime fighter and bomber operations. Many times, pilots found themselves parked at the end of the airstrips with orders to just stay out of the way of everyday operations. But one incident in China changed the minds of many in the higher command, when one crew took the Black Widow by its poisonous fangs and rode it to the delight of the field commanders.

Every night, the field was being visited by the Japanese and their Betty Bombers with their surging motors. The psychological aspect of these night raids, along with the bombs that accompanied them, were starting to take a toll on the men and the missions as they lost focus on their jobs in fear of the nightly visits. The field had a detachment of two P-61s and crews. One night after a rather harrowing visit by the unwelcome visitors, one of the Widow pilots went to the base commander and demanded a meeting.

One of the world’s four surviving P-61 night fighters, on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photograph)

Upon being granted the opportunity to speak, the pilot said, “Sir, would you like us to put an end to this nightly insanity?” “Why sure,” came the reply, “but what can you do? We are already throwing so much flack up there, you will more than likely just become another victim.” Give us a chance, said the pilot, and let’s see what we can do — and off the pilot went, after getting the green light to put a plan in motion.

The next night, the P-61 Black Widow and her crew waited patiently for the hostile visitors. Biding their time, the crew waited out the bombing run, and then took off and followed the attackers to their home field. Noting time traveled and location, the crew made a turn for home and waited to make good on their promise of bringing an end to the bombings.

Late the next day, the P-61 took off at dusk, made a beeline to the enemy field, stood off a couple miles in the darkness and waited. Soon the lights and exhaust stacks glowing could be seen by the nocturnal visitor, as the Japanese Bettys taxied out to take off. When the first one began his roll out, the Widow locked him up under the hood of the gunner. As the plane began its climb, it had barely cleared the end of the runway when eight 20mm cannons turned it into a massive fireball and it plunged into the jungle. The second plane started its run and in a few seconds suffered the same fate. With the anti-aircraft guns now lighting up the sky and demoralized Betty Bomber crews returning to their hard stands, the Black Widow and her crew headed for home and, for the first time in a long time, a good night’s sleep. The nighttime bombing visits became less and less frequent and, before long, many bases close to the action found the value in a night fighter operation around their field of operations.

The nocturnal predator that hunted the skies at night: the P-61 Black Widow. (Courtesy graphic)

The P-61 Black Widow captured so many folks’ imaginations back in World War II, it’s amazing to think that only four have survived to be shared with future generations. Of those four, one is in a traffic circle in China and one was recovered from a mountaintop in the South Pacific and is slowly being restored back to flying condition at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum back east. Patty has already let it be known that, come the day when that Widow takes to the air again, we will be at the field cheering on that first flight of an old and tested warbird, thinking about that select group of men who took a spider to foreign lands and used it to spin a web of fear around enemy combatants.

The Northrop P-61 Black Widow: truly an amazing aircraft and legend in the night fighter community, an amazing part of World War II history, and a benchmark in Northrop design and application for a very specific requirement for the air war that was raging around the world.  

Until next time, Bob out …