Wartime Service of Northrop P-61 Black Widow

Last revised December 28, 2007

Pacific Theatre

The first operational use of the P-61 Black Widow was in the Pacific theatre. The 418th, 419th and 421st Night Fighter Squadrons shipped out to the Southwest Pacific Area late in 1943. The first operational mission by Black Widow took place out of Saipan on June 24, 1944, and the first kill was made on June 30, when a Black Widow piloted by 6th Night Fighter Squadron members 2nd Lt. Dale F. Haversom and radar operator Raymond P. Mooney shot down a Betty bomber. The Black Widows flew numerous missions against Japanese night intruders, which were a real nuisance to American forces and which up to this time had been virtually immune from interception. On typical missions, the Black Widow would be directed to the vicinity of its target by ground based radar. The onboard A/I radar under the control of the radar operator would then be used to direct the pilot to close with and intercept the the enemy. As soon as the Black Widow had gotten close enough to its target to make a visual identification, the guns would be aimed and fired by the pilot or by the gunner. The appearance of the Black Widow in the night skies over the Pacific was a rude and unpleasant surprise for these night raiders.

One of the primary missions of the Black Widow squadrons was the protection of B-29 bases on Saipan against night attacks, and these aircraft flew combat air patrols and interception missions. They also aided in the rescue of many crippled and lost B-29s trying to return from raids on Japan.

Black Widows were also based in New Guinea and later in the Philippines. In the Philippines, Black Widows flew night intruder missions against Japanese airfields and ground installations. The Black Widow also participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

China-Burma-India Theatre

The Black Widow also served in the China-Burma-India theatre. The first Black Widow kill in that theater took place on October 30, 1944, when a Kunming-based Black Widow flown by Capt. Robert R. Scott and Charles W. Phillips of the 426th Night Fighter Squadron shot down a Japanese twin-engined aircraft. The initial mission of the China-based Black Widows was to destroy Japanese night intruders, but as enemy nighttime flying ceased, the Black Widows went over to night intruder missions, attacking Japanese ground installations in China and Burma.

European Theatre

The first P-61 arrived in Europe on May 23, 1944. The Black Widows were initially based in England, and their first assignment was to chase night-flying V-1 "buzz bombs". The Black Widows would be vectored to intercept approaching V-1s by ground control. Since the V-1 was a little faster than the P-61, the Black Widow had to approach the V-1 from behind and go into a slight dive in order to catch up with it. The first Black Widow V-1 "kill" took place on July 16, 1944, credited to pilot Herman Ernst and radar operator Edward Kopsel of the 422nd Night Fighter Squadron. One of the greatest dangers involved in killing V-1s was the possibility of getting too close to the flying bomb when one fired at it, running the risk of damage to your own plane if the bomb exploded when hit.

After D-Day, many Black Widows moved to France. Although several interceptions of night-flying German aircraft were made, most Black Widow missions were night intruder missions against trains, armor, and other ground targets

Black Widow Wartime Units

Wartime units using the P-61 included:

The Black Widow did not rack up an impressive list of kills. Its entry into the war was relatively late, at a time when the Allies had already established almost complete control of the air. Consequently, enemy aircraft were at this time relatively few and far between, even at night. Nevertheless, there were a few Black Widow aces. In accounting for Black Widow aces, there is a complication since the aircraft had more than one crew member. Does only the pilot get credit for the kill, or does the radar operator get credit as well? What happens if the pilot has had different radar operators on different missions? What if a radar operator has had more than one pilot? In the European theatre, there was an additional complication because some of the Black Widow kills were against unmanned V-1 'buzz bombs". Should these V-1s kills be included in the count? If V-1s are included, and if both pilots and radar operators are to be given credit for the kill, in Europe, there were two sets of pilots and radar operators who achieved six victories. These were the pair 1st Lt. Herman E. Ernst (pilot) and 2nd Lt. Edward H. Kopsel (radar operator) and the pair Lt. Paul A. Smith (pilot) and Lt. Robert E. Tierney (radar operator). One V-1 is included in the count for each pair of crew members. All of these crew members were from the 418th Night Fighter Squadron. The leading Black Widow crew in the Pacific was the pair Major Carrol C. Smith (pilot) and Lt. Philip B. Porter (radar operator) of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron, who destroyed five Japanese aircraft.

So far as I am aware, the Black Widow never served with any foreign air forces.


  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. E-mail from Eric Shulenberger on 548th NFS.

  8. E-mail from James Truman on 547th NFS, which is still active as the 547th Intelligence Squadron.