The loss of Army interest in the XP-61E escort fighter was not to be the end of the line for the Black Widow. In the summer of 1945, the surviving XP-61E was modified as an unarmed photographic reconnaissance aircraft. All the guns were removed, and a new nose was fitted, capable of holding an assortment of aerial cameras. The aircraft was redesignated XF-15 (in the pre-1948 F-for photo recon series, not to be confused with the post-1948 F-for-fighter series). It flew for the first time on July 3, 1945.
Even before the first flight of the XF-15, the USAAF had shown enough interest in the recon version of the Black Widow that in June of 1945 they ordered 175 production F-15As. These were given the popular name *Reporter*.
A P-61C-1-NO (serial number 43-8335) was also modified to XF-15 standards. The aircraft was redesignated XF-15A. Apart from the turbosupercharged R-2800-C engine, it was identical to the XF-15. The XF-15A flew for the first time on October 17, 1945.
The nose for the F-15A-1-NO Reporter was subcontracted to the Hughes Tool Company of Culver City, California. The F-15A was basically the P-61C with the new bubble-canopy fuselage and the camera-carrying nose. The fighter brakes on the wing were eliminated.
The first production F-15A-1-NO was accepted in September 1946. However, the contract was abruptly canceled in 1947, possibly because the performance of the Reporter was rapidly being overshadowed by jets. Only 36 F-15As were accepted before the contract was cancelled. The last F-15A was accepted by the USAAF in April of 1947. The last F-15 to be produced (serial number 45-59335) was produced as an F-15A-5-NO, which differed from the Block-1 version mainly in having a new internal camera installation in the nose. It seems that this change had been contemplated for the last 20 F-15s as well, since some records indicate that these were all eventually redesignated as F-15A-5-NO.
The pilot was seated in the front, with the reconnaissance operator in the back. The backseat occupant controlled the cameras and navigated the aircraft. However, the rear seat of the F-15A was fitted with a set of rudimentary flying controls, which made it possible for the reconnaissance operator to relieve the pilot if needed. Both crew members were rated pilots and both were trained in the reconnaissance task, so they usually alternated position on each flight.
Of the 36 F-15As produced, nine were allocated to the Air Materiel Command in the Continental US, and the remainder were issued to just one squadron, the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron attached to the 35th Fighter Group in Japan. These aircraft served in the American occupation of Japan, and several of them participated in the Post-Hostilities Mapping Program, in which extensive photographs were taken of beaches, villages, road networks, and cultural centers. Included in this job was the mapping of the Korean Peninsula, which proved invaluable when the Korean War broke out in 1950. A few also served in the Philippines and Celebes. Included in their mission was the mapping of the route of the Bataan Death March for war crimes prosecutions.
Spare parts became a problem for the F-15s in the late 1940s, and both damaged and flyable Reporters were cannibalized to keep the rest of them flying. In June of 1948, the separate F-category for reconnaissance aircraft was eliminated, and the P-for-pursuit category was replaced by F-for-fighter. Surviving Black Widows were redesignated F-61, and the surviving Reporters were redesignated RF-61C (since they were basically modified P-61Cs). On April 1, 1949, the only outfit still using RF-61Cs (the 82nd Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron) was deactivated, and all surviving RF-61Cs were reassigned to the 35th Maintenance Squadron at Johnson AFB for disposal. Some were disposed of as surplus on the commercial market, but others were scrapped.
Serials of Northrop F-15A Reporter
45-59300/59319 Northrop F-15A-1-NO Reporter c/n 3201/3220 45-59320/59335 Northrop F-15A-5-NO Reporter c/n 3221/3236. 45-59336/59474 Northrop F-15A Reporter c/n 3237/3376. Contract cancelled