Northrop P-61B Black Widow

Northrop’s big Black Widow was the largest allied fighter of World War II.

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Let’s look at the nocturnal air war and a weapon design for that purpose.

At the start of World War II darkness provided an effective protection for anyone venturing out.  The ability for defenders to locate an intruder was pretty limited.  It was only partly effective if skies were clear and the moon was full.
The flip side is, bombing anything was also extremely difficult.  When British Bomber Command began night missions their accuracy was so poor the Germans often could not even guess what city had been their target. The Germans fared slightly better against the British for a couple reasons; London was close enough to occupied Europe that the Germans could adapt commercial aircraft night aids to guide their bombers most of the way.  Secondly, if visibility was even partly good London has a distinctive location on a major river.  So the Germans could usually find what was then the world’s largest city.

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Of course we know World War II was the dawn of modern electronic warfare.  Britain and Germany both had defensive radar nets at the start (the British system was much better, but we’ll save that story for another day).  But big, ground based systems could really only guide a fighter to a general area; visual range by day.
What was needed was a smaller, more precise radar on an interceptor for guidance right to the target.   Something to fill that gap between daytime visual range and nighttime visual range (visual sighting was a necessity, WWII gunnery always involved seeing a target to shoot at it).
Just as the War started the British had developed a small airborne set that could be carried on a heavy fighter, specifically a Bristol Blenheim, a tactical bomber converted into a fighter.  The Germans had previously concluded it was impossible to make a radar this small which gave the British a nice head start.  But small is a relative term here.  The equipment was large and bulky enough that only larger aircraft, with extra crew to operate the thing could be used.  After the Blenheim, the British would use the Beaufighter and Mosquito as next generation night fighters.

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Meanwhile in the United States, the US Army Air Force was following developments closely and even worked alongside British technicians.  Work was started on a specialized aircraft that could carry the latest and greatest radar, have adequate speed to chase down any intruder, and enough power to carry extra fuel or ordnance for a variety of mission types.
Northrop’s design became the front runner quickly, but it was a complex modern warplane that took time to sort out both as a high performance aircraft and an electronics platform.  The SCR-720 radar had a five mile range and could also serve as a navaid.  In short, this meant the P-61 had one of the most advanced and versatile electronic suites of any aircraft.

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It first deployed to England in May of 1944.  This is fairly late in the War, and in spite of how advanced the Black Widow was there was by now several aircraft to fill the role.  In fact, American night fighter squadrons already in theater had been using the Bristol Beaufighter.  These crews in particular wanted to re-equip with Mosquitos, not Black Widows no matter how “advanced” their radar was.  It came to a contentious head in June of 1944 when 8th Air Force arranged a fly off between a Mosquito Mk XVI and a specially prepared P-61A.  The Black Widow both outran and out-turned the Mosquito at every altitude.
And skeptics have scoffed ever since.  The British could not produce enough Mosquitos for their own needs, and could not really refuse a request for a little “reverse Lend Lease”.  It seems likely the fix was in, and the Mosquito crew was in on letting the Black Widow win.
But regardless, the Black Widow was a capable and dangerous aircraft in the night skies.  Especially since they were mostly called on for night interdiction against troop movements and transportation.  With the Black Widows ability to carry a load, and the SCR-720s ability to track moving targets on the ground, it was almost certainly the best choice for this sort of mission.

Northrop P-61B Black Widow

P-61B Black Widow in flight (photo from WW2Aircraft.net)

The situation was a little different in the Pacific. The Black Widow didn’t play second fiddle to the Mosquito, but found itself outperformed in some parameters by Navy and Marine F6F-5N fighters.  This used a much smaller and shorter range radar, but that meant the comparatively small single seat fighter was much faster.  P-61’s did some of the same interdiction work they did in Europe, and flew many standing patrols through the night protecting major bases.  But in a few cases they proved unable to catch high speed intruders so the Marines were called in to deal with the problem.

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Nose art by Sgt LeRoy F Miozzi.  He is responsible for much stunning nose art in 6th NFS.  Compare to his work on an earlier P-61A.

A new, much faster variant of Black Widow (P-61C) was entering production at the end of the War.  It had a powerful turbosupercharger that let the R-2800 engine produce 2800 horsepower.  It was 60 miles per hour faster than previous versions (430 mph) and could sustain speed and power at a broader range of altitudes.
Existing Black Widows at the Museum of the United States Air Force (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) and Smithsonian (at Udvar-Hazey) are both “C” models.  A “B” is being restored to airworthiness at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum (Reading, Pennsylvania).

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Think of the Mosquito as a nighttime Spitfire, and the Black Widow as a night Thunderbolt!

This example represents a P-61B of the 6th Night Fighter Squadron on Ie Shima (off the coast of Okinawa) in the last summer of the War.
It is from the Great Wall Hobbies kit.  The kit is an improvement over the old Monogram kit that has been around forever, but maybe not a huge improvement.  In box, it looked beautiful and I was very excited to build it.  But fine detail and stunning presentation hid some fit and alignment challenges.  It IS an improvement, but its not first class quality (even if the packaging is!).
Decals were from the kit for stencils and national markings, but “Midnight Belle” specific (art, name, serial number) are from Zotz.  Excellent product, they look better and are easier to work with than the kit decals.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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21 Responses to Northrop P-61B Black Widow

  1. Pingback: Northrup P-61B Black Widow – My Forgotten Hobby III

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Thanks for the review. I won’t have to buy Great Wall Hobbies P-61 thinking it’s better than the old Monogram P-61 I have in my collection.

    • atcDave says:

      Well I think it is better, but only barely. The panel lines are engraved, overall fit is pretty good, especially fit of the clear parts is MUCH better.
      But it is pretty fiddly in places. And getting the wings, fuselage pod, and tail to not only line up but be a good strong join (provided attachment points are small ledges, that won’t make a strong weld with plastic cement. You’ll need CA, which of course is problematic on several levels) is tricky. It took me three tries, and yeah, that means breaking things apart, cleaning the seam, and re-attaching.
      I did not use nearly as much putty as I did on the Monogram kit. But I used A LOT of Mr Surfacer. So I guess that means; not as many major problems, but a lot of seams needed a little attention.

  3. Ernie Davis says:

    The Black Widow was a favorite of mine. I built the Monogram kit and loved it, but mainly for the famous diorama o that kit that went Sooooo far beyond what that kit provided. It was one of those formative experiences that told me if I got good enough the kit was just a starting point and not the limits of what I could do if I had the skill, imagination and the creativity to go beyond the kit. Probably why so few of my models survived in the end,

    And just for the record, I still liked the Mosquito better, both as a model and a plane.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah those Shepherd Paine diorama leaflets inspired a whole generation of modelers! I’ve collected as many of them as I can find, but no luck with the TBD or Do 335. He had a few dioramas on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry back in the day too. Those I got to see in person! Terrific stuff, even if ultimately it reminds me I’m a second (or third!) tier modeler.

      The Mosquito was truly faster. It upset the nocturnal balance of power in a way no other machine ever did. Even so, the Black Widow brought new capabilities to the table like interdicting supply lines at night. It did take a while to figure that all out, I think it wasn’t until the Battle of the Bulge (?) when Black Widow squadrons started to assert themselves. Until then, it really looked like a more expensive but less capable partner for the Mosquito.
      And remember, never belly in with the Mosquito!

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Yes, Shepherd Paine inspired a generation of modelers and gave Monogram a better reputation than they ever deserved. There was that brief time when it seemed one could make a living as a professional modeler, like he seemed to, and with things like Star Wars showing the potential expansion beyond the simple hobbyist. Sadly that prospective career didn’t last long.

  4. jfwknifton says:

    I have always admired the sinister looks of the P-61, even its sinister name of “Black Widow” but I can’t believe that it “outran and out-turned the Mosquito at every altitude”.
    As for “wheels up” landings, that’s very true, but I struggle to thing of a British WW2 aircraft where the safety of the crew was ever much of a consideration. If heavy bombers could carry any more, it would always be extra bombs rather than armour plating. I have an idea too that somewhere in the mists of time, I read that the earliest Spitfires had inadequate (and cheaper) rear view mirrors, and pilots used ones from cars,

    • atcDave says:

      You’re in good company if you doubt the outcome of that “test”! It was certainly a PR stunt for the crews that would fly it.
      Largely thanks to Hugh Dowding armor plate and glass was added to Spitfires and Hurricanes before the Battle of Britain. That was innovative and forward thinking of him, and it carried through the War. I’m not sure right off what sort of protection other WWII British types might have had. But absolutely, when it came to little things like ergonomics or getting out in an emergency, pretty much zero consideration was wasted!

  5. Great stuff, Dave.
    Like Ernie above, and probably a good chunk of the modelers in our age group, I was extremely stoked with Shep’s P-61. It was always a kit that I wanted and never got. The small community where I lived didn’t have a hobby shop and the stores that carried models were pretty limited in their selection (thatnk goodness they carried Monogram armor, though!)
    I think if I ever get a P-61 kit, I will get the GWH version, so as not to ruin a fond memory in the Monogram and what might have been!

    • Ernie Davis says:

      I was very lucky in that there was a dedicated hobby shop that concentrated heavily on military models while I was growing up. I was there so often that I got to know the owner well enough that he’d give me the catalogs and pamphlets he got after he was done with them. He was even nice enough to special order some items I found in the catalogs. The shop also sponsored Diorama Contests which I entered religiously. I got a lot of second place finishes, there was a ringer who lived locally who regularly won contests throughout the region and was competitive nationally on occasion.

      Sadly the shop didn’t last more than a few years, which fortunately coincided with my years of greatest interest.

      • atcDave says:

        Growing up in a Chicago suburb I always had choices for hobby shops, four nearby at times of my youth. But of course all are long gone now. I remember scooping up a P-61 as soon as it first came out; and oh did mom grill me about why it cost $6 instead of $4 like all the others! Hey it was my lawn mowing money, why did she care!
        I still remember the shop where I got it though. The owner was an old curmudgeon, I could never understand why he owned a toy and hobby shop when so obviously hated kids! Too funny.
        I remember doing some dioramas for school projects that got me good grades; The Battle of Concord and The Siege of Troy. They were huge, like 3’ x 3’, other kids hated me but I was so excited to use those skills for school! But never really with my models. Funny that.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I grew up outside Pittsburgh, so there were additional choices available, some with far better selections of models, paints and additional supplies, but the big thing about “my” hobby shop was that I could walk to it, whereas the others required the parents and a half hour drive.

      • atcDave says:

        Oh yeah, grumpy guy was by far the easiest for Me to get to on a bike so he got 70% (?) of my business!
        But the shop 20 minutes further had things by these funny companies like Hasegawa, Tamiya, Italeri…. That’s where I went when I could.
        The only time I remember my parents helping was when the B-17 came out and I wanted that for my birthday. It was hard to find! But dad understood, it was a B-17!
        Once I got my own car it opened new horizons! But by then I was more into gaming and associated miniatures.

        Sounds like being nerds runs bone deep for both of us!

      • Ernie Davis says:

        My hobby shop guy was well versed enough that he found and then went to the same suppliers as those stores with the exotic and rare kits from companies like Tamiya and Hasegawa so pretty early on I had options outside Monogram and Revell. But I still needed those other stores for things like sheet styrene or scale accessories like cobblestone roads or bricks or lumber for a top notch diorama. Odd that the group that always placed at the top of his diorama contests often had to shop elsewhere for that stuff. I guess the profit margins were probably too small.

        I was also moving to other hobbies by the time I was driving, and I quickly became the go-to guy in my D&D circle to paint their various knights and Orcs, etc… (talk about nerd-cred, this was back in the late 70’s and early 80’s long before that became cool)

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah that sounds familiar. I do think the miniatures work helped with my eye for detail and learning a few new techniques, so I am glad I went there. Even if I don’t particularly like doing figures now!

    • atcDave says:

      It’s funny now though, even Michaels or Hobby Lobby will almost certainly still have that old P-61 kit! It’s made the plane popular And known out of all proportion to its actual use. It’s also still significantly cheaper than the GWH kit.
      But as you say, it would likely disappoint those childhood dreams. It’s clearly an old school kit that will require a lot of time to get good results. The Great Wall kit is definitely a more modern sort of tooling and easier to meet modern expectations with. Just know it’s tricky in its own way.
      There is also a Hobby Boss kit in this scale. Typically I don’t like that company much, but I have actually not seen their Black Widow.

  6. Jeff Groves says:

    A very nice history Dave, well done. The NMUSAF P-61 is in the darkest corner of the WWII hall, not the best place to display an all-black aircraft.

  7. As a child the P-61 Black Widow fascinated me. It’s looks and name reflecting the venomous sting it had. It was an unusual model, and I had the Airfix one (there were few other makers about then) which I thoroughly loved. I too find it hard to believe it could ‘out perform’ a Mosquito, as good as it was. The electronic war is also a fascinating area, with the constant challenges to ‘out do’ each other and stay one step ahead of the enemy. The Germans playing a more defensive role lacked the better sets as you say. A very interesting post with a lovely model to boot!

    • atcDave says:

      Interesting that this build sure has brought out the nostalgia!
      I think the Mosquito’s top speed is usually listed at 60 knots faster than the Black Widow. It really shouldn’t have been close.

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