Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Black Widows

Two P-61As are depicted on this Northrop-issued postcard. Compare to the
same depiction on a press 8x10 further below. 
The MojaveWest Archive recently had the opportunity to obtain two small collections of Northrop- and Air Corps-issued publicity/press photos of the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. The first is a set of three real-photo postcards issued by Northrop, presumably as publicity giveaways, and the second collection is are press-release 8x10 photos that were collected by some unknown individual (they came from an estate via an intermediary, so the origin has been lost), although I suspect that this person was a retired Northrop graphic artist.

The lurid 1940s hype shines through in the description: "Big, venomous,
secretly equipped, the BLACK WIDOW has what it takes to lurk in the darkened skies."
The P-61 Black Widow was a fighter that, like so many other planes built by Jack Northrop, just didn't quite fit the image that people had about fighters. While most such aircraft were single-seaters, the P-61 had a three-man crew: pilot, gunner and radar operator. It had almost the same length and wingspan, as a B-25, and more powerful engines and had a heavier empty weight than the Mitchell. Yet the P-61 had no bomb bay (it did have under-wing hardpoints, though). Instead, the Widow's bite was its four 20mm cannon it its belly, as well as four .50 caliber Browning machine guns in a dorsal turret, which could be aimed and fired remotely by any one of the three-man crew - at least that's how it was designed. After the first 37 aircraft were delivered with turrets, delivery issues with the turret led to the next 363 aircraft to be delivered without them, as the turret shared critical components with those used in B-29s, which were considered a higher priority aircraft. The aircraft that came without the turret also had the gunner position eliminated.

The real secret of the Black Widow, however, was that it could see in the dark. In fact, it's sole intended mission was to serve as a night interceptor, finding and eliminating the enemy in the dark. To do that, it was equipped with the SCR-720 radar system, which was steerable by a radar operator, who initially sat in the aft section of the aircraft; on aircraft without a dorsal turret, the radar operator was moved up to the gunner's position. The radar system had a range of about five miles and when the operator identified a target, he would vector the pilot towards it. When the Widow got closer, the pilot could navigate using a small radar scope on the instrument panel.

The rest of the images, below are all accompanied by the text of the mimeographed cut lines pasted to the backs.

This appears to be a factory new plane; note lack of any markings other than the
insignia, and the lack of an upper turret.
(Left) "Closeup of the deadly Northrop Black Widow, world's largest pursuit plane, designed specifically for night fighting, now in increased production at Northrop Aircraft Inc., Hawthorne, California. The Black Widow P-61 is quick and easy to 'spot' in flight or on the ground. Distinguishing features are the long nose of the crew nacelle and twin 2,000 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines. Twin tail booms supporting two rudders are connected by a stabilizer and elevator group. The plane is as large as a medium bomber; it carries a crew of three fighting specialists. Photo by Northrop Aircraft Inc."

This serial 41-18876, the third aircraft built and the first of 13 YP-61 service test
aircraft. Note that the aircraft paint crew seems to have been somewhat dyslexic,
having labeled the tail incorrectly as 11867. Also note the early experimental radar
antenna on the side of the fuselage.
(Left) "The Army Air Forces' deadly night fighter, the Northrop P-61 'Black Widow', is doing yeoman work in the Philippine Theater, where the Japs are attempting to destroy our B-29 and fighter airbases, supporting General MacArthur's re-conquest of the Islands. Jap attempts to night bomb our airfield have met disaster in the 'Black Widow's' sting with its four 20 millimeter cannon and four .50 calibre machine guns. Darkness moans nothing to the 'Black Widow', for with its special detection instruments it can spot planes from afar, sneak up on them in the dark and blast them to pieces. 14 Feb. 1945. Photo by Air Technical Service Command."

The press print version of the post card includes lots of clouds, but somehow,
the angles all seem wrong to me, as if a photo of the planes taken from the ground
was superimposed on a photo of clouds. Thoughts?
(Right) "Northrop Black Widows soar gracefully through the sky in test flights daily over Northrop Field, Hawthorne, California. These deadly night interceptors, now in increased production, are the world's largest and most powerful pursuit planes and were designed specifically for night fighting. The Black Widow P-61 is easily identified in flight. Look for the long nose of the crew nacelle extending far in front of the plane's two 2,000 horsepower Pratt and Whitney radial engines, and riding between twin booms. Capable of blasting apart anything that flies, the Black Widow packs 20 mm cannon and 50 cal. machine guns. Photo by Northrop Aircraft Inc."

Tail number 42-5501, the 16th A-model built. 
(Left) "First official photo of the top turret of the Northrop Black Widow P-61 night fighter. While much of the equipment of the Black Widow is still highly restricted by the War Department, permission was granted to show the lethal, revolving turret, on top of crew nacelle, housing four .50 caliber machine guns. In addition to this armament, the Widow carries 20 millimeter cannon, a combined fire-power greater than that of any other fighter in the world and capable of blasting out of the sky anything that can fly. It is this terrific fire-power PLUS the inherent maneuverability and safety of the Black Widow that has enabled it to shoot down the best the Japs and Nazis could throw against it, without a single Black Widow being compromised or shot down in combat. Official Army Air Force Photograph."

P-61A-1 42-5507
The photo on the right is clearly not the same photo, nor the same aircraft, as shown above, but carries the exact same caption on the back, with the exception of the photo credit being given to Northrop. Which was first? Were they released on the same day? Well, who's counting. What is intriguing to me is the motivation for releasing two photos of early-production A-models, which were built just before the turrets became unavailable - and unused - on the next 363 aircraft. Could it be a little bit of psych-warfare, wanting the enemy to fear a weapon that was not actually available?

Serial 42-39486 was a B-model, and had an 8-inch longer nose. Like many of the
A-models, the first 200 (out of 450) B-models built didn't have an upper turret,
the lack of which might have been one reason this plane was shot from the bottom.
(Right) "Newest photo of the Black Widow P-61 night fighter, Army's most powerful, and still highly secret pursuit plane. Picture was taken to show the exceptional rate of climb of the Black Widow which takes off steeply and swiftly, as well as landing at low speeds, permitting it to be used on small airfields. In [this] picture, the Black Widow has attained considerable altitude although its landing wheels have barely started to retract. The plane is made by Northrop Aircraft, Inc. Hawthorne Calif., creator of the Flying Wing. Photo by Northrop Aircraft Inc."

The last photo is not part of the above collection, but is an 8x10 film positive that has been in the Archive for a while; the image itself is one of the more common P-61 photos out on the web. There is no caption accompanying it.


  1. Technically, the Black Widow and the Mitchell had different engines (R2800's and--eventually--R2600's, respectively).

    1. Bry...you are correct...my error! Will update tonight.