Postwar Service of Northrop P-61 Black Widow

Last revised July 13, 2009






This story of the P-61 Black Widow concludes with an account of its post-war service as experimental and test aircraft. A description is also given of some P-61s that survive today in museums.

The useful life of the Black Widow was extended for a few years into the immediate postwar period due to the USAAF's problems in developing a useful jet-powered night/all-weather fighter. The Curtiss P-87 had initially been scheduled as the jet-powered replacement for the Black Widow, but the failure of the XP-87 project forced the Black Widow to have to soldier on for another few years. Replacement of the Black Widow by F-82F Twin Mustangs night fighters began in early 1948. By early 1950, most Black Widows were out of operational service. The last operational Black Widow left Japan in May 1950, missing the Korean War by only a month.

The following is a listing of USAAF/USAF units which operated the P-61/F-61 in the immediate post-war years.

  1. 2nd Fighter Squadron (All-Weather). Formed from equipment and personnel of 416th Night Fighter Squadron in November 1946 in Germany. Moved back to USA June 1947. Transitioned to F-82 Twin Mustang in 1948.

  2. 4th All Weather Squadron. Formed from equipment and personnel of 418th Night Fighter Squadron in August 1948 in Okinawa. Exchanged its P-61s for F-82Gs in 1948.

  3. 5th Fighter Squadron (All-Weather). Formed in Germany from equipment and personnel of 417th Night Fighter Squadron in November 1946 and made part of 52nd Fighter Group. Returned to US in June 1948, and transitioned to F-82 later that year.

  4. 68th All Weather Squadron. Formed in Japan from equipment and personnel of 421st Night Fighter Squadron in August 1948 and almost immediately transitioned to F-82.

  5. 317th Fighter Squadron. Operated with P-47s and P-51s in MTO and ETO, deactivating in October 1945 and reforming as an all-weather fighter squadron in May 1947. Received P-61s at end of 1947. Transitioned to F-82 at end of 1948.

  6. 319th All Weather Squadron. Formed in September 1947 in Panama from personnel and equipment of 414th Night Fighter Squadron. Transitioned to F-82 by the time it returned to the USA in May 1949.

  7. 339th All Weather Squadron. Formed from personnel and equipment of 6th Night Fighter Squadron in Japan February 1947. Transitioned to F-82 shortly thereafter.

P-61B-1-NO serial number 42-39458 was operated by the Navy at the Patuxent River test facility in Maryland in a number of tests. P-61A-10-NO serial number 42-39395 was subjected by the Navy to a series of test catapult launches to qualify the aircraft for shipboard launches, but so far as I am aware the Black Widow was never flown from an aircraft carrier.

Shortly after the war, the Navy borrowed two P-61Cs (43-8336 and 43-8347) from the USAAF and used them for air-launches of the experimental Martin PTV-N-2U Gorgon IV ramjet-powered missile. The first Gorgon launch took place on November 14, 1947. In the role as mother ship, the Black Widow would carry a Gorgon under each wing. During launch, the P-61C would go into a slight dive in order to reach the speed necessary for ramjet operation to be initiated. These two naval Black Widows were returned to the USAF in 1948, and were transferred to the boneyards shortly afterwards.

A Black Widow participated in early American ejector seat experiments performed shortly after the war. The Germans had pioneered the development of ejector seats early in the war, the first-ever emergency use of an ejector seat having been made on January 14, 1942 by a Luftwaffe test pilot when he escaped from a disabled Heinkel He 280 V1. American interest in ejector seats during the war was largely a side-effect of the developmental work done on pusher aircraft such as the Vultee XP-54, with the goal being giving the pilot at least some slim chance of clearing the tail assembly and the propeller of the aircraft in the case of an emergency escape. However, not very much progress had been made, since pusher aircraft development had never really gotten past the drawing board or the initial prototype stage. However, the development of high-speed jet-powered aircraft made the development of practical ejector seats mandatory. Initially, an ejector seat was "borrowed" from a captured German Heinkel He 162 and was installed in a Lockheed P-80 in August of 1945. However, it was decided that the single-seat P-80 would not be suitable for these tests, and it was decided to switch to a three-seat Black Widow. A P-61B-5-NO (serial number 42-39489) was modified for the tests, the ejector seat being fitted in the forward gunner's compartment. The aircraft was redesignated XP-61B for these tests (there having been no XP-61B prototype for the initial P-61B series). A dummy was used in the initial ejection tests, but on April 17, 1946 a brave volunteer by the name of Sgt. Lawrence Lambert was successfully ejected from the P-61B at a speed of 302 mph at 7800 feet. With the concept having been proven feasible, newer jet-powered aircraft were brought into the program, and the XP-61B was reconverted back to standard P-61B configuration.

Nine P-61Cs participated in tests designed to measure the hazards of thunderstorms. This was very dangerous work, as thunderstorms were very poorly understood in those days (and still are today) and aircraft unlucky enough or unwise enough to fly into them often did not come out again in one piece. These tests were carried out initially by Army pilots. Later, some F-15 Reporters also joined the project. Trans World Airlines also got involved in the project and professors and staff at the University of Chicago participated in the analysis of the data.

The last USAF F/RF-61C finally left USAAF service in 1952. Surviving aircraft were offered to civilian governmental agencies or declared surplus and offered for sale on the commercial market.

An RF-61C (ex-F-15A, serial number 45-59300) was used by NACA at Moffett Field in California to carry recoverable aerodynamic test bodies to high altitude, then drop them. This program was used to test some early swept-wing designs. This program was later joined by F-61C serial number 43-8330 which was borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution. These drops were carried out over Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert in California. F-61B-15-NO serial number 42-39754 was used by NACA's Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio for tests of airfoil-type ramjets. F-61C 43-8357 was used at Ames as a source for spare parts for other F/RF-61 aircraft. After the tests were completed, the F-61C 43-8330 was returned to the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1955, the NACA RF-61C and F-61C aircraft were finally declared surplus and were disposed of on the commercial market. In April 1955, Steward-Davis, Inc of Gardenia, California purchased the RF-61C 45-59300 and the "spare parts" F-61C 43-8357. The RF-61C was assigned the civilian registration N5093V, and the F-61C was given the number N5094V. The F-61C was rebuilt as a high-altitude mapping plane, and was offered on the commercial market. However, it attracted no customers and was finally scrapped in 1957. The RF-61C was sold to Compania Mexicana Aerofoto S. A. of Mexico, and was assigned the Mexican registration XB-FUJ. It was bought by Aero Enterprises, Inc of California and returned to the USA in 1964. It now carried the civilian registration number N9768Z. The fuselage tank and turbosupercharger intercoolers were removed, and the plane was fitted with a 1600-gallon chemical tank for fire-fighting. At the end of 1964, the plane was purchased by Cal-Nat, which operated the plane as a forest-fire fighter. In March of 1968, the plane was bought by TBM, Inc., an aerial firefighting company located in California (the name of the company standing for the TBM Avenger, which was the company's primary equipment). It was destroyed in a takeoff accident on September 6, 1968.

A few other Black Widows also ended up in the civilian market. P-61B-1-NO serial number 42-39419 had been bailed to Northrop during most of its military career. Northrop bought the plane from the government at the end of the war, and the civilian registration number NX30020 was assigned to it. It was used as an executive transport, as a flight-test chase plane, and for tests with advanced navigational equipment. Later it was purchased by the Jack Ammann Photogrammetric Engineers, a photo-mapping company based in Texas. In 1963, it was sold to an aerial tanker company and used for fighting forest fires. However, it crashed while fighting a fire on August 23, 1963, killing its pilot.

YP-61 serial number 41-18888 was purchased by Pratt & Whitney in 1946. The civilian serial number was N60358, and it was used as a flying testbed for advanced propellers. However, it was damaged during a taxiing accident in 1956, and was deemed unsuitable for repair. It was subsequently scrapped.

Northrop Aeronautical Institute (an aviation educational institution, a part of Northrop Aircraft Co.) purchased a surplus P-61C-1-NO (serial number 43-8349) in late 1947. It was operated in the airframe and engine maintenance training program of the school. In 1963, Northrop sold the school, and many of its planes were offered for sale. The Bob Bean Aircraft company thought that they could make the P-61C airworthy, and obtained the civilian registration number N4905V for the craft. However, upon closer examination they found that the Black Widow was so full of corrosion that it was not worth fixing. N4905V was scrapped in 1955.

I am aware of only four surviving P-61 Black Widows, all of them in museums.

  1. P-61C-1-NO serial number 43-8352 is currently on display at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Museum in Dayton, Ohio. It is marked as P-61B-1-NO serial number 42-39468 of the 550th NFS "Moonlight Serendade". It had originally been donated to the Boy Scouts of Urbania, Ohio in 1954 and was sold to Earl Reinert of Illinois in 1958, who never collected it. It was passed along to the USAFM later that year.

  2. The Smithsonian Institution's P-61C (43-8330) is reportedly in storage at the Silver Hill facility in Suitland, Maryland, awaiting much-needed restoration work. I was at Silver Hill in November of 1992, and I didn't see it there at that time. However, there were only a couple of buildings that I was allowed to enter, and there are a lot of really intriguing buildings that I did not get a chance to see. Perhaps the Smithsonian's Black Widow is in one of them.

  3. There is a P-61A on display at the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Engineering in Beijing, China. I am unaware of its serial number. The story of how it got there is sort of interesting. It seems that the 427th Night Fighter Squadron based in China during the war was in preparation for the return home after the end of hostilities. Just as they were were about to leave, some Communist troops came onto the field and ordered the Americans to get out immediately, but to leave their aircraft behind. The Beijing Institute Black Widow may be one of the three P-61Cs seized at that time. The plane has a plaque on it indicating that the construction number is N1234, which would make it 42-39715. It is reported that the Chinese will sell the plane for 2 million dollars, but the wing spar is reportedly so corroded that the aircraft would collapse if moved. There may be other Black Widows in other locations in China.

  4. On January 10, 1945, P-61B 42-39445 crashed near the top of Mount Cyclops in New Guinea during a training flight. The four people aboard survived with only minor injuries, but the wrecked aircraft remained where it hit for over 40 years. In 1991, a team from the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum of Reading, Pennsylvania dismantled the wreck and shipped it back to the USA for restoration and eventual flying status as N550NF.

Sources:

  1. Northrop P-61 Black Widow--The Complete History and Combat Record, Garry R. Pape, John M. Campbell and Donna Campbell, Motorbooks International, 1991.

  2. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  3. Warplanes of the Second World War, Fighters, Volume 4, William Green, 1964.

  4. American Combat Planes, Ray Wagner, Third Enlarged Edition, Doubleday, 1982.

  5. United States Military Aircraft since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  6. Northrop P-61 Black Widow, Warren Thompson, Wings of Fame, Vol 15, 1999.

  7. Posting by Brandon Kunicki on Warbird Information Exchange on 42-39715

  8. E-mail from Johan Visschedijk on date of crash of 45-59300.