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The Smithsonian’s P-61 Black Widow

Updated on May 14, 2017
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The P-61 Black Widow at the Udvar-Hazy Center, June 2010.
The P-61 Black Widow at the Udvar-Hazy Center, June 2010.
The P-61 Black Widow at the Udvar-Hazy Center, June 2010. | Source

The Smithsonian's P-61 History

The National Air and Space Museum has its P-61C-1-NO on display in the Udvar-Hazy Center. It has not been restored. Northrop delivered this P-61, serial number 43-8330, to the U.S. Army on July 28, 1945. The Army used it for cold weather tests at Ladd Field, Alaska. These tests were from October 18, 1945 to March 30, 1946. The plane became part of the National Thunderstorm Project in July 1946. It was moved to Pinecastle Air Force Base, Florida. There its guns and turret were removed and replaced with equipment for it to study thunderstorms. These tests were to learn how to better protect airplanes that flew near thunderstorms. This P-61 was moved to Clinton County Army Air Base, Ohio in September 1946. In 1948 the Air Force assigned this aircraft to the Flight Test Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The Air Force declared this aircraft surplus and stored it at Park Ridge, Illinois on October 3, 1950. It was among other aircraft that were to be part of the National Air Museum’s collection. Unlike the other aircraft in the National Air Museum’s collection this P-61 was called back into service. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics asked the Smithsonian if they could borrow the aircraft to study how aerodynamic shapes behaved when dropped from high altitudes. This P-61 arrived at the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Naval Air Station Moffett Field, California on February 14, 1951. The Smithsonian got it back on August 10, 1954 when it landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.

This aircraft had logged 530 flight hours. It has had 3 different pain schemes during its service life.[i] This P-61 always carried the basic gloss black paint scheme but it had different markings related to its 3 assignments. Remnants of these assignments are visible as the aircraft is currently displayed. If the aircraft is restored that is when the Smithsonian will make a final decision as to which of the 3 markings the aircraft will display. Since the aircraft’s current configuration doesn’t have the turret that means it would probably be restored with post-July 1946 markings.[ii]

The Smithsonian has it in its preserved condition and doesn’t have any plans to restore it for the foreseeable future. This P-61 is one of only 4 P-61 in existence today.

[i] The National Air and Space Museum web site, https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/northrop-p-61c-black-widow, last accessed 5/8/2017.

[ii] From correspondence with Jeremy R. Kinney, Ph.D., Curator, Aeronautics Department, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

P-61 Combat History

The first P-61 air victory was on June 30, 1944. First Lieutenant Dale Haberman shot down a Mitsubishi G4M “Betty”[i] bomber. Unknown to 1Lt Haberman a Japanese fighter was flying with the Betty. They were flying so close the P-61’s radar showed a single blip instead of 2 blips. The Japanese fighter got on Haberman’s tail and opened fire, fortunately the Japanese fighter missed and Haberman evaded the fighter.[ii]

The P-61s began combat operations in Europe in June, 1944. They flew ground attack missions. Their first operations as night fighters in Europe were against V-1 buzz bombs.[iii] A P-61 piloted by Lt. Herman Ernst shot down a V-1 buzz bomb on the night of July 16. It was the P-61’s first air victory in Europe. P-61s shot down 4 more V-1s in July.[iv]

On the night of August 14, the P-61 “Impatient Widow” engaged a Heinkel He-177 Grief. The Heinkel’s tail gunner Unteroffizer Fabinger severely damaged the P-61. The P-61’s pilot Second Lieutenant Lewis A. Gordon flew the P-61 back to base. The P-61 crash landed but the crew was safe.[v] The first P-61 kill in Europe against a crewed aircraft was against a Me 110. This was followed by a victory against an FW 190.

In October 1944 P-61s had inconclusive encounters with a Me 163 and a Me 262. In the case of the Me 163 the rocket fighter’s glide speed was too fast. The Me 262’s speed was also too fast for the piston engine night fighter. In an interesting encounter a P-61 attempted to intercept a Messerschmitt Me 410. The Me 410 was flying at tree top level and the P-61 dove on it. The Me 410 managed to outrun the black widow. The confirmed P-61 losses were from accidents and anti-aircraft fire from both sides. FW 190 pilot Feldwebel Werner Hensel may have shot down a P-61 on the night of April 11/12, 1945. The lost P-61B-6, serial number 42-39515 was crewed by Second Lieutenants Lael M. Cheely , Peter J. McGirr, and Lucien M. Beam.[vi]

P-61 Black Widows destroyed 145 enemy aircraft in air-air combat. This included 18 V-1s. P-61s also scored the last 2 air-air kills of World War II. On the night of August 14/15, 1945 a P-61 scored an Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM)[vii] kill against a Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa. The next night a P-61 scored an ACM kill against a Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki.[viii]

[i] The U.S. assigned code names for Japanese aircraft. “Betty” was the code name the U.S. gave to the Japanese G4M.

[ii] Historynet.com, http://www.historynet.com/bite-of-the-black-widow-northrops-p-61-night-fighter.htm, last accessed 5/8/2017.

[iii] The National Air and Space Museum web site, https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/northrop-p-61c-black-widow, last accessed 5/8/2017.

[iv] History of War, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_northrop_P-61_combat.html, last accessed 5/8/2017.

[v] The Luftwaffe Blog, P-61 Black Widow vs. He 177 Grief, http://falkeeins.blogspot.com/search?q=Stolle, last accessed 5/8/2017.

[vi] Ghost Bombers: The Moonlight War of NSG 9, http://www.ghostbombers.com/NSG9/nsg9frame.html, last accessed 5/8/2017.

[vii] An Air Combat Maneuvering kill is when an opposing aircraft is brought down without being shot down. This could involve the opposing pilot bailing out, losing control of the aircraft and crashing, or running out of fuel.

[viii] The National Air and Space Museum web site, https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/northrop-p-61c-black-widow, last accessed 5/8/2017.

Thanks

Thanks to Mike Marshal for suggesting I write an article about the P-61.

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image
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      Robert Sacchi 2 weeks ago

      Yes, during World War II there were rapid advances in aviation. As with the ground and sea there was also air combat on the largest scale ever seen. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 weeks ago from the short journey

      It's always amazing to look at past technology and see what brave people were able to accomplish with it. Thanks for an interesting read.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 5 months ago

      The name is understandable considering it's a night fighter and so would be painted black. The black widow spider is deadly so that fits giving the aircraft name that sounds deadly.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Black Widow is an interesting nickname for an aircraft. Thanks for informing us of how it was used through the years. Sometimes I think leaving an airplane in original condition and not restoring it can be just as interesting as seeing it restored.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 6 months ago

      Lawrence Hebb & C E Clark, thank you for reading and commenting. Yes the P-61 and some other WWII aircraft were used for other military and civilian purposes after the war. World War II and the years following it had great advances in aviation. World War II era aircraft soon became obsolescent though many were used long after the war. Night fighters tended not to get as much attention as the daylight fighters.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 6 months ago from North Texas

      An interesting subject. Seems like this plane was useful in a lot of different ways. Sharing this article on FB.

    • profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 6 months ago

      Robert

      Enjoyed the hub, she was a good aircraft, but maybe came just that little bit too late as jets and rocket planes were coming in.

      The P61 seems also to have found a role helping designers understand how to protect aircraft against lightning, something we can all be thankful for.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 7 months ago

      Thank you. I appreciate your reading, commenting, and sharing. Yes, the P-61 had a good performance and record but isn't as well known as its rivals.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 7 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Great article. Perhaps the least known plane of WWII? Absolutely.

      Sharing everywhere. Thx.