Northrop P-61C Black Widow

Last revised September 9, 1999






The next version of the Black Widow to enter service was the P-61C, which was a high-performance variant designed to rectify some of the combat deficiencies encountered with the A and B variants.

Most Black Widow crews were enthusiastic about their aircraft, and gave it high marks on both maneuverability and firepower. However, they almost unanimously reported that the Black Widow was just not fast enough to make it a really great night fighter. In addition, they felt that the operational ceiling could stand for some improvement. By mid-1943, even before the combat debut of the Black Widow, both the USAAF and Northrop had come to the same conclusion, and on November 11, 1943, Northrop was given the go-ahead to proceed with an improved Black Widow, the XP-61C.

The XP-61C was essentially the same Black Widow airframe but powered by turbosupercharged R-2800-73 radials offering a war emergency power of 2800 hp. Northrop engineers had initially decided not to add turbosuperchargers to earlier P-61s because they were worried that they would increase the fuel consumption and adversely affect loiter times. However, this time they decided that the performance gain that such turbosuperchargers offered more than offset any potential penalties.

The XP-61C could be readily distinguished from its A and B prede- cessors by the presence of a large tumorous-looking bulge for the turbosuperchargers underneath each engine. Paddle-bladed A.O. Smith propellers were fitted in order to take advantage of the increased engine power. Performance predictions included a maximum speed of 430 mph at 30,000 feet.

Work on the P-61C proceeded quite slowly at Northrop because of the higher priority of the XB-35 flying wing project. In fact, much of the work on the P-61C was farmed out to Goodyear, which had been a subcontractor for production of Black Widow components. It was not until early 1945 that the first production P-61C-1-NO rolled off the production lines. As promised, the performance was substantially improved in spite of a two-thousand pound increase in empty weight. Maximum speed was 430 mph at 30,000 feet, service ceiling was 41,000 feet, and an altitude of 30,000 feet could be attained in 14.6 minutes.

The P-61C was equipped with perforated fighter airbrakes located both below and above the wing surfaces. These were to provide a means of preventing the pilot from overshooting his target during an intercept. For added fuel capacity, the P-61C was equipped with four underwing pylons (two inboard of the nacelles, two outboard) which could carry four 310-gallon drop tanks.

The first P-61C aircraft was accepted by the USAAF in July of 1945. However, the war in the Pacific ended before any P-61Cs could see combat. The forty-first and last P-61C-1-NO was accepted on January 28, 1946. At least thirteen more were completed by Northrop but were scrapped before they could be delivered to the USAAF. Northrop records show an additional 400 P-61Cs with 1945 serial numbers to have been on order, with blocks 5 and 10 being at least in the planning stages.

Most pilots who flew the P-61C felt that the increase in weight made the aircraft a lot less maneuverable than the A or B versions. The service life of the P-61C was quite brief, since it was being quickly outclassed by jet aircraft. Most were used for test and research purposes. By the end of March 1949, most P-61Cs had been scrapped. Two went onto the civilian market and two others went to museums.

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, however, marked as P-61B-1-NO serial number 42-39468.

The Smithsonian Institution's P-61C-1-NO (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 few 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.

Serial numbers of the P-61Cs were as follows:

43-8321/8361 	Northrop P-61C-1-NO Black Widow 
			Modification of 8338 as XP-61F canceled.  
43-8362/8437 	Northrop P-61C Black Widow - contract canceled 
45-001/400 	Northrop P-61C Black Widow - contract canceled 

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.