How to fly a P-61

After one of the first missions in which P-61s participated, a raid resulting in the devastation of four Messerschmitt Me-110s, a Black Widow fighter pilot threw down the gauntlet and remarked, "We'll take on any day fighter made." After that spectacular debut in France, the deadly night-fighter has gone on to similar tours de force in the Pacific theater of operations.

Its success, while gratifying to both the air force and industry which built it, was not exactly surprising, because the Black Widow is a killer specifically designed and constructed to lurk in the dark, attack unseen, and cut down its victim with the poison of four .50-cal machine guns and four 20-mm cannons.

Like his airplane, a P-61 pilot is trained arduously for the particular chore at hand, that of flying and fighting at night. Before he can fire one round of ammunition at a Jap, knowledge of the Widow's equipment and operation must be so ingrained that he can handle it, quite literally, in the dark.

At least three hours of concentrated study is required before you will know your way around the cockpit blindfolded. Not only must you know the location of the instruments and controls for the blindfold-test, but the settings of numerous controls as well.

Cockpit Check

First inspect the windshields. They must be spotless, since moisture collects more rapidly on a dirty or greasy surface than on a clean one. Furthermore, a dirty windshield will reflect any stray light present and can cut down your visibility by as much as 50 per cent.

Make sure that the crew chief has closed the entrance doors to your compartment and to the RO's (radar observer) compartment.

Turn on all the circuit breakers and the switches on the generator control panel, with the exception of the heater and cannon relay switches. Check all the instruments for loose or broken cover glasses. See that the clock, altimeter, pressure gauges, and the fuel and oxygen tanks are reading properly. Release the surface control lock, which makes it possible to open the throttles. Set the parking brakes.

Now you are ready for the pre-starting check which should be made by inspecting the cockpit all the way around from left to right. Set all the trim tabs at neutral and set the fuel selector valves to the outboard tanks, with the crossfeed valve OFF. Make sure that the feather switches are in NORMAL position and the propeller selector switches on CON STANT SPEED, where they should always be kept except in emergency. Place the throttles 1/3 open and the mixture controls at idle cutoff. Propeller control levers should be all the way forward. If the flaps are not up already, put them up as soon as the engines are running. Be sure that the landing gear handle is latched down firmly. Open all the cowl flaps and return the levers to LOCKED. Be certain that the oil pressure for the automatic pilot is OFF and that the automatic pilot itself is disengaged. Check both VHF radio switches to see that they are OFF. Be sure the identification light switches are in OFF position.

Night Check and Inspection

In training you will use a flashlight to see that your P-61 is all set to fly again. Someone else has probably been flying it in the afternoon, and it is important that you give it a thorough going over before taking it up yourself. In tactical areas, however, the plane will be made completely ready for you during the afternoon night-flying test. By then, too, the luminous instruments on the panel will aid your check. There are four incandescent lights in the cockpit: one over the propeller selector switches, another over the radio, a third on the canopy above the pilot's right shoulder, while the fourth is on the generator control panel. Make sure that these four as well as the recognition, position and landing lights are working.

You are now ready to start the engines. Before turning on the switches, have the crew chief pull the prop through at least four revolutions to remove the oil which has drained into the lower cylinders of each engine since the plane's last flight. Turn on the ignition switch for the right engine after you shout "Clear" to the mechanic and he has answered, signifying that no one is near the propellers. Energize the right starter for the proper length of time and, during the last five seconds, prime the right engine. Now, engage the right starter and watch the engine start to turn over. As soon as it begins to fire, place the mixture control on AUTO RICH. Keep the starter engaged until the engine is firing smoothly. Run the engine at 600 to 800 rpm until the oil pressure registers; then start warming up the engines from 1000 to 1200 rpm. Repeat the procedure for the left engine.

Examine the flight instruments once more to make sure that they are set or operating properly. Check the following: compass heading with the known runway compass bearing, airspeed indicator, rate of climb indicator, altimeter, turn and bank indicator, artificial horizon, directional gyro, suction gauge and carburetor heat. Turn the radio on and set fuel to takeoff position.

Taxiing and Takeoff

At your signal the crew chief will pull the wheel chocks away. Release the brakes, advance the throttles slightly and taxi out of the parking area. Do not turn until you have started rolling forward; under heavy loads the nose wheel may suffer damage. Particularly at night, when it is difficult to judge speed, taxi slowly and cautiously. Use outside engine and full rudder when making turns. Go easy on the brakes, using them only when necessary. When you taxi in a crosswind, give the upwind engine additional power to counteract the weathercock effect which tends to turn the plane into the wind. Taxi with your head out of the cockpit and your eyes wide open.

The best takeoffs in a P-61 require 1/3 flaps. Before turning onto the runway, check the mags and get permission for takeoff from the tower. After turning onto the runway, open both throttles to about 35" Hg against the brakes to clear the engines. Release the brakes and apply full takeoff throttle. Keep the plane headed straight clown the runway with the rudders. By the time you have advanced the throttles to 54" Hg, the rpm should be about 2700 and the airspeed at least 50 mph. At this point you may raise the nose wheel off the ground, putting the plane in a flying attitude. At 100-110 mph indicated airspeed, the Black Widow will lift itself off the ground. The landing gear should be raised as soon as the plane is safely off the ground. Level out long enough to attain critical single-engine speed. For the P-61, this speed is 110 mph IAS at maximum gross weight and may be defined as the slowest speed at which the rudder has a safe margin of control over the unbalanced thrust of a single live engine at maximum power. As long as you have critical single engine speed, you can fly or land your plane should one of the engines quit.

Since you will go on instruments immediately after leaving the ground and fly on them until the plane has reached at least 1000 feet in altitude, it is imperative that your gyros be uncaged and that you make use of them during takeoff.

If carburetor icing is expected, set the carburetor heat to at least 40° Centigrade, but never take off with carburetor heat on. At 1000 feet, you may turn it on again if it is absolutely necessary. If propeller icing is possible, turn the propeller anti-icing control on full for one minute at low engine rpm just prior to takeoff. The coating of anti-icing fluid which spreads onto the blades will prevent formation of ice.

De-icer boots must never be used during landing or takeoff regardless of the presence of ice. The effect of these boots is similar to that produced by spoilers and works havoc with the plane's stalling speed.

In the event of single engine failure on the takeoff, get rid of wing tanks or bombs whether you are on the ground or in the air. If one engine fails before the plane has left the ground, cut power on both engines and stop straight ahead. If one engine fails in the air, but before the plane has attained critical single-engine speed, cut power on both engines and land straight ahead. If the wheels have already been retracted, make a wheels-up belly landing. In the event that the wheels are still down and not enough runway remains for a normal power-off landing, retract the wheels quickly. If one engine quits in the air after you have attained critical single-engine speed, feather the prop on the dead engine and circle for a landing on the one good engine.

Short-Field Takeoff

There are two types of short-field takeoffs. One involves a field pitted by bomb holes or littered with debris, but without obstacles of any appreciable height. For this type, 2/3 flaps are used and full takeoff manifold pressure is used against the brakes before you start to roll. The nose wheel should be kept on the ground as long as possible while you pick up speed. Pull the nose wheel off the ground and take off as soon as you reach flying speed (75 mph at maximum gross weight). Level off long enough to attain critical single-engine airspeed before you climb. The water injection system may be used to increase engine horsepower and help you get off sooner. The second type of short-field takeoff is made from a field bordered by obstacles. Follow the above procedure with the following exceptions: take off at the last possible moment and, when you get off the ground, raise the wheels and climb steeply until you have cleared the obstacles.

Air Work

The Black Widow has excellent stall characteristics. In a power stall with flaps and wheels down, the stall will occur at approximately 75 mph IAS. It recovers straight ahead with no tendency to fall off on one side or the other. In a turn, the P-61 may be stalled at high speed without whipping off. The plane may be stalled safely with one prop feathered and full military power on the other engine. The unconventional ailerons remain effective when the P-61 stalls, whereas the use of aileron pressure of the conventional type merely aggravates a stalled condition.

Never spin the Black Widow intentionally. It is difficult to put a P-61 into a spin and, after two turns, increasingly difficult to recover. The normal method of recovery, however, can pull it out. Maximum cruising range is obtained at an altitude between 5000 and 7500 feet using every drop of fuel. In order to stay up in the air as long as possible, fly at 150 mph IAS with 27" Hg manifold pressure. To obtain maximum range, adjust the throttles to 35.5" Hg with auto-lean mixture. If you are flying without external fuel tanks, maintain an airspeed of 195 mph.

In dives, the P-61 does not accelerate as rapidly as either the P-38 or the P-51. Although the plane has been dived without hint of compressibility at 425 mph IAS at 25,000 feet, your permissible limit is 415 mph IAS and 3060 rpm below 10,000 feet. Between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, do not exceed 375 mph IAS. Don't dive faster than 305 mph IAS at altitudes between 20,000 and 30,000 feet. If you do encounter compressibility on a dive, continue down to 18,000 or 15,000 feet, where the plane reaches its terminal velocity, and start recovery there.

Aerobatics are forbidden in the P-61 if radar is installed, when the gross weight is excessive, or when carrying wing tanks. Except for these restrictions, half rolls, slow rolls, barrel rolls, normal loops, Immelmans, chandelles and stalls may be executed safely. If you stall out in any unusual position during an aerobatic maneuver, cut the power and allow the nose of the plane to drop. You will soon regain flying speed without any harm to the plane or to yourself.


Before entering the traffic pattern for a landing, be sure that your fuel valves are on the fullest tank. Do not land while using the fuel from a bomb rack tank. Set the mixture controls at AUTO RICH. Turn off the automatic pilot and the de-icer boots. Make sure that the gun turret is locked in the forward position. Tum the booster pumps to HIGH and set the supercharger at NEUTRAL. See that the cockpit heaters are off. On the downwind leg of the pattern, lower the landing gear at less than 175 mph and be sure that it is locked down. Test the brakes to see if they feel normal. Increase the props to 2400 rpm on the base leg. On the approach leg, lower the flaps — but never when the airspeed is above 175 mph. Roll back on the elevator trim tab as the flaps go down. A good landing may be made with 2/3 flaps. At the average landing weight of the P-61 (26,000 pounds), maintain an approach speed of 105 to 110 mph and keep the nose slightly heavy in case you have to go around again. Start breaking your glide at about 75 feet. Cut power and land, keeping the nose wheel off the ground as long as possible to lose speed without using the brakes. Then lower the nose wheel and apply brakes smoothly and evenly until the landing roll is completed. After turning off the runway, bring the plane to a stop, raise the wing flaps and open the cowl flaps. Push the prop controls to full INCREASE RPM and set the elevator trim tab for takeoff. Taxi back to the line and park the plane where the crew chief indicates. He will put chocks in front of the wheels.

In order to stop the engine, the mixture controls should be moved to IDLE CUT-OFF and the throttles slowly opened all the way. When the engines have stopped turning over, cut the switches. Do not shut off the fuel tank selector valves. In night landings, you will usually land without the use of the wing lights. The normal procedure of night fighter squadrons is to land with the aid of a glide-path indicator and the runway lights. This indicator gives out three bands of colored light. You should be coming in on the green band. If you are approaching on the yellow band, your approach is too high. If you are on the red band, you're too low. Keeping as near the center of the green band as possible will assure clearing all obstacles in the flight path and leave enough runway to complete the landing. Remember to hold a constant rate of descent for the full distance of the approach. As you near the glide-path indicator and the runway lights begin to level out, decrease the plane's speed and start to flare out slightly. From this point, ease the P-61 down to a tail-low landing.

The Black Widow has earned a reputation for being an honest airplane. It will take a lot and is extremely forgiving of pilot error. But this does not mean that it will bring any foolhardy, slipshod cowboy home to risk his plane and his neck another day in useless air-playing. The P-61 was built to fight the enemy. Its pilots are trained for the same job.

This article was originally published in the September, 1945, issue of Air News with Air Tech magazine, vol 9, no 3, pp 50-52, 102.
The original article includes a diagram illustrating the flight rules, 3 drawings giving instruction on ditching, and 2 drawings of the cockpit layout.
Cockpit drawings are credited to Headquarters, AAF, Office of Flying Safety.