Northrop's P-61 Black Widow was America's, and arguably the world's, first purpose-built night fighter. The size of a typical medium bomber, it was surprisingly agile. It was also remarkably strong, as this was the airframe chosen after the war for exploring the internals of Midwest thunderstorms.
A number of stories tell of the development of the gloss black finish, which made the plane less visible when caught in a searchlight. Conventional camouflage OD over light gray was highly visible and matte black scattered enough light to produce a ghost image when lighted; gloss black reflected light as a couple of small bright spots that could be mistaken for stars on a clear night. I have seen no sources to verify, but it would seem that the (relatively high-maintenance) gloss black finish was not used, or was at least little used, in the Pacific theater, since the planes in that theater seldom had to deal with searchlights. Most of the planes in PTO seem to have been painted in OD over gray.
Many of the surviving planes ended their careers as borate bombers fighting wildfires in the western US. The ability to operate of short, rough fields, designed in to meet the needs of operations in the Pacific theater and during the advance across Europe, high maneuverability and considerable lifting capacity all combined to make them a plane well suited to that duty.
My collection has two Design Analysis articles, one from Aero Digest [ HTML ] in two parts, and one from Industrial Aviation [ HTML ]. There is also a somewhat less detailed Design Details article from Air New with Air Tech [ HTML ].
We have some wallpaper images developed from a phantom rendering in a Northrop ad. The rendering in the Industrial Aviation Design Analysis article is a single-page image, rather than the ledger-sized foldouts common in their earlier Design Analysis articles.
The Black Widow entered the war relatively late, so there weren't a lot of articles featuring it.
- Air Tech's "Shop Talk" column for April, 1944, included "Black Widow Latest Night Fighter" [ HTML ], introducing the Widow.
- "Two strikes against the Axis" [ HTML ] describes the B-29 in some detail and the P-61 in passing. Less information had been released on the P-61 at that time.
- A news clip with photos, "Deadly Lady of the Evening", offers a short introductory description.
- "The Black Widow Boys" [ HTML ] describes the training regimen of a P-61 crew, along with a short history of night-fighter development and usage.
- "How to fly a P-61" [ HTML ] is one of a series of "How to fly" articles in Air News.
- "P-61" [ HTML ] is a short design analysis article.
- "Design Details of the Northrop P-61" [ HTML ] is a two-part design analysis of the P-61.
- "Design Analysis of the Northrop Black Widow" [ HTML ] gives considerable detail on the design of the P-61.
- The P-61 ID entry from Recognition Journal, page dated April 1, 1944, shows YP-61 118877 seen from 2 o'clock low and a 3-view silhoutte. Data were restricted in April, 1944.
A second page of the ID entry shows four more views of the YP-61: 3 o'clock; 12 o'clock low; 2 o'clock high, vertical plan view from above.
- The Air Tech color front cover for July, 1944, shows P-61A-1-NO 25507 in OD camouflage in flight over Southern California; view is from 8 o'clock.
- "Two strikes against the Axis", [ HTML ] includes a photo of a P-61 on the ground, seen from 6 o'clock.
- An in-flight photo, "Northrop P-61 Black Widow", shows YP-61-NO 118887 from 10 o'clock low. Plane has white radome and non-specular paint.
- A news clip with photos, "Deadly Lady of the Evening", includes two views of what is probably a YP-61, one in flight seen from 8 o'clock low, one on the ground, seen from 1 o'clock.
- A Northrop ad, "This big black battlecruiser is the first true night fighter", features a color painting of a P-61 seen from 1 o'clock low.
- A Northrop ad, "Big as a bomber, fast as a fighter
the first US warplane ever designed especially for night fighting" has a color painting of P-61A 25508 on a tropical airfield, seen from 2 o'clock.
- "Aviation's Sketchbook of Design Detail" for November, 1944, shows details of the nose landing gear.
- A DuPont Lucite ad, "Lucite", has a picture of a P-61 seen from 10 o'clock low and two detail photos pilot housing and tail compartment showing the glazing of those areas.
- A Pesco (air pumps and power brakes) ad, "Performance controls the air", features a color drawing of a P-61B in flight at night, seen from 10 o'clock high. The plane seems to be depicted in OD camouflage. The Pesco brake booster was tradenamed "Univac," a potential source of amusement for later generations.
- A Northrop ad, "Retractable-ailerons
a Northrop contribution to slow landings
." includes a drawing of P-61s taking off from a tropical airfield and diagrams of the retractable ailerons and full-span flaps.
- A Northrop ad, "There's more to it than meets the eye", features a phantom drawing by David T Biel. Phantom viewpoint is from 10 o'clock high.
- A Houdaille-Hershey Corp (shocks and shimmy dampers) ad, "No Shimmying for the Black Widow", shows a P-61 in black, with gear down, seen from 10 o'clock low. Nose gear does not seem to be fully deployed.
The same Northrop ad, "There's more to it than meets the eye", was printed in the July, 1945, Flying in color, but without artist credit.
- A Northrop ad featuring color phantom rendering of a Black Widow.
[This image has been heavily processed to remove background and improve contrast. JLM]
Ad is from June, 1945, Air Tech magazine.
[Note: Also available as a very large 23.6 MiB, 600 dpi file JLM]
- The Air Tech color front cover for September, 1945, showed a P-61 on the flightline, apparently new, being serviced by 4 men. View is from ahead of the left engine, showing left engine and inner wing and fuselage nose. It is in a fresh gloss black paint scheme. Photo is washed out to reveal as much detail as possible in the black paint.
- A color Gallery photo captioned "A Northrop Black Widow at its Pacific island base. Note Lightnings in background" shows P-61A-10-NO 25562 on hardstand. Front wheel is steered to the left. Plane is in gloss black finish with white star-and-bars insigne showing; tail number in red. View is from 7 o'clock, in close. This appears to be one of the planes built without the dorsal turret.
- Phantom drawing of the P-61.
[Note: Also available as a large 12.4 MiB, 600 dpi file JLM]
Additional information from Technical Orders
AN 01-15FC-2 Erection and Maintenance Instructions for Model P-61C Airplanes
- Figure 1 P-61C Airplane: three-views of plane [ photos ]
- Figure 2 Principal Dimensions: dimensioned 3-view drawing [ drawing ]
- Figure 3 Major Components Assembly: isometric exploded view [ drawing ]
- Figure 4 Stations and Frames Diagram [ drawing ]
- Figure 12 Rigging Diagram: two dimensioned views with detail insets [ drawing ]
- Figure 13, Sheet 1 Access and Inspection Provisions: wings [ drawing ]
- Figure 13, Sheet 2 Access and Inspection Provisions: fuselage, elevator [ drawing ]
- Figure 13, Sheet 3 Access and Inspection Provisions: tail booms [ drawing ]
- Figure 14 Handling Diagram: 4 views plus isometric plus details, showing lifting and jack points [ drawing ]