They Owned the Night

Oct. 30, 2017

P-61 Midnight Mickey, with the 6th Night Fighter Squadron, is readied for a mission at East Field, Saipan, Mariana Islands, September 1944. The SCR-720 radar’s parabolic dish antenna can be seen through the radome. Photos: US Army Air Forces; USAF

Midnight Mickey. Moonhappy. Sleepy Time Gal. Outta Hell. The Spook. Nocturnal Nuisance. The Creep. Dark of the Night. Doubtful Doris. Vivacious Vivian. Virgin Widow.

P-61 Black Widow night fighters wore these and many more colorful nose-art names in the Pacific and European theaters of World War II. While today nearly every USAF aircraft “owns” the night, in 1944 the P-61 was the only airplane designed from the ground up for the night fighter mission. Its secret venom? The most sophisticated flying radar built by America during the war.

Northrop built nearly 700 P-61s. They appeared late, flying combat only in the last year of the war, and a slew of other types—from the P-38 to the British Mosquito—shared night fighter duties. Yet more than any other World War II fighter, the P-61 foreshadowed the highly instrumented cockpits and two-man crew arrangement that could make the most of radar in the air battle.

The Luftwaffe’s bombing of London in the fall of 1940 helped drive the need for an able night fighter aircraft. RAF fighters tenaciously defended the airspace by day, but at night, the city lay open to attack, and anti-aircraft fire had its limits. Brig. Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, in England as an observer, worried about nighttime long-range bomber attacks on defenseless coastal American cities.

The answer, in part, was a purpose-built night fighter with stable flying qualities and the necessary speed to close with its targets.

In October 1940, Vladimir Pavlecka, the Northrop Aircraft Co.’s chief of research, was at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, when the Army’s head of experimental aircraft, Col. Laurence C. Craigie, called him into the office. Craigie asked Pavlecka to design a two-engine night fighter and drilled him to memorize the specifications without writing them down. Pavlecka flew back to Los Angeles and met with his boss, Jack Northrop, the next morning. Their first proposal for the P-61 was presented in Dayton scarcely a week later.

January 1941 brought a contract for Northrop to build 13 YP-61s. The 66-foot wingspan gave the Black Widow the look of a medium bomber. Twin tail booms added comfortable flying qualities while two supercharged engines delivered a top speed of 366 mph. Northrop’s XP-61 made its first flight in May 1942.

Combat was still two years away, though.

“Even back in the early 1940s, a sophisticated aircraft like the P-61 could not be designed, tested, and made operational in a few months,” wrote historian Warren E. Thompson. Indeed, the first P-61s would not reach European forward areas until March 1944 and didn’t get to the Pacific until late June 1944.

Night operations could not wait. America’s early night fighters were hasty conversions with primitive cockpit radars installed. In North Africa, four American squadrons flew British Beaufighters as night fighter units. Britain’s swift, wooden Mosquito became a premier night fighter and the US seriously considered procuring it in quantity.

Night fighters depended on ground control for vectors to enemy aircraft, then closed within a few hundred yards for visual identification. If they could close, they often got their kill; it was tracking and pursuing the target at night that posed the biggest challenge.

The SCR-540 1.5 m wavelength radar—the American version of the British Mk IV—had a maximum range of 4,000 yards. It was fitted to a Douglas A-20, renamed the P-70, for tests. Production P-70s carried an upgraded SCR-520 with a 10 cm wavelength. This twin-engine light bomber and attack aircraft went into service in the Pacific as a night fighter in 1942 but it lacked speed and supercharged engines.

Germany had its own night fighters. The Messerschmitt Bf 110G was equipped with a small cockpit radar display. Along with other types, such as the Ju 88 and He 219 Eagle Owl, the German night fighters worked with short-range, ground-based Würzburg radars to vector close to British bombers.

British tactics called for the bombers to fly in a continuous stream. German fighters closing within a few miles

could be devastatingly effective as they worked with ground controllers.

All this operational experience funneled into the refinement of the P-61. Crew tactical requirements got high priority. At one point, Northrop brought several experienced night fighter pilots to the plant to voice their concerns and requests for more fuel, heated cockpits, etc.

The rollout of the YP-61 was in February 1943, and the new engines generated enthusiasm from the start. “Pilots at Orlando [AAB, Fla., the P-61 training facility] familiar with the British night fighters consider the P-61 the most suitable night fighter in existence,” stated a November 1943 War Department memo. “Handling characteristics are excellent,” the memo enthused.

The P-61’s official public debut was dramatic. On Jan. 8, 1944, a production P-61 performed a flyover of the Los Angeles Coliseum filled with 75,000 spectators as part of an Army-Navy show.

What the Los Angeles crowds couldn’t see was the innovation in the cockpit. The P-61 was the first dedicated night fighter designed around the much-improved SCR-720 airborne intercept radar.

This “set complete radar” was lighter and more compact than its predecessors. Still, the SCR-720 weighed in at 415 pounds, not including cables. The transmit antenna dish fitted into the extended nose cone of the P-61. Azimuth receiver antennae were placed along the fuselage. Wartime censors routinely snipped antennae out of official pictures.

The SCR-720 was optimized for night combat with a 180-degree forward sweep. The cone of energy forward was a step up from British and German systems dependent on a blip or ball of energy. The range of 8,500 yards or about five miles at 17,000 feet gave the crew plenty of time to track and intercept for a gun kill.

The P-61 relied on a radar operator seated behind the pilot.

“The radar operator was given the best position in the XP-61, installed above and behind the pilot in his own cockpit with an excellent forward view,” wrote Michael O’Leary in his book USAAF Fighters of World War Two.

The rim of the radar operator’s scope was lined with fur. Red cockpit lighting washed over the instruments, assisting night vision. Northrop also designed a low-light fluorescence system for alternative cockpit lighting. Later P-61s added a scope up front so the pilot could share his radar operator’s view of the bogey they were approaching.

The mission depended on guns, too. Four 20 mm cannon were slung underneath the P-61, providing a devastating barrage. Later, many P-61s in the Pacific were modified with additional .50 caliber guns fixed in the top turret.

Of course, the P-61 crews used no tracer rounds when they opened up on German or Japanese fighters and bombers.

Another stealthy innovation was a new glossy black paint scheme. British experience showed that flat black paint rendered a faint white silhouette of an aircraft bathed by searchlights. Flight tests in Florida in October 1943 pitted olive drab against flat black and glossy black. The glossy paint was not detected in 80 percent of flights through searchlight beams.

Due to red tape, some early P-61s were painted olive drab anyway. A few ended up with vivid yellow and red paint jobs on the nose—eyesores in daylight but not noticeable at night.

The pilots and radar operators selected for the P-61 were all experienced in other types. B-25 experience was considered especially desirable. Several radar operators had flown with the RAF or in USAAF night fighters. Even with this foundation, crews needed extended training periods in Orlando before shipping out.

By the time the P-61 made it overseas, theater commanders were eager for it to join in night operations protecting forward areas.

First to arrive in England in March 1944 was the 422nd Night Fighter Squadron under the command of Maj. Oris B. Johnson. Even after seven months of operational training, the sophisticated P-61 had its skeptics. Combat pilots experienced with other types of night fighters barraged their superiors with memos making the case for other solutions.

Spaatz solved one controversy by allowing a fly-off between the vaunted Mosquito and the new P-61. The match took place at Hurn, England, on July 5, 1944. Ground crews got their P-61 into perfect shape and it outflew the Mosquito—although pilots all acknowledged the virtues of the British aircraft, too.

In reality, there was plenty of work for both. Hitler struck back against the June 6, 1944, Normandy invasion with a fresh campaign of V-1 buzz bombs targeted at England. The 422nd Night Fighter Squadron started defending against the night-launched V-1s in July 1944.

Destroying a V-1 was no simple task. The buzz bombs were fast and dove to the ground at even higher speed in the last phase of their flight. Ideally, night fighters could intercept the V-1s over the English Channel where their radar tracks were fresh and shooting them down would do no harm—on the surface.

Tactics called for P-61 pilots to target the V-1 engine. Hitting the fuselage instead could explode the V-1 into a fireball that could envelop the P-61.

On one night in early August, British ground-controlled interception radar picked up four inbound V-1s on long-range radar. Pilot Lt. Herman E. Ernst and radar operator Lt. Edward H. Kopsel set out after them and saw an RAF Mosquito nail the first V-1. Ernst dove from 5,000 feet to close within 900 feet of another V-1. He splashed it into the English Channel.

P-61s soon followed the advance of Allied forces in Europe. They deployed to provisional airfields and meshed with the increasingly sophisticated radar control of the air war. Their special niche was hunting Luftwaffe fighters and bombers harrying Allied forces.

P-61 crews needed to get close for final visual identification.

Lt. Paul Smith and Lt. Robert Tierney would go on to become night fighter aces. In one of their first battles, though, they pulled in so close to their prey they found themselves in a turning fight with a Bf 110. The Black Widow turned so well it stayed with the Bf 110 until the aircraft actually bumped wings.

Smith got the P-61 back under control, and pilots of the P-61 universally testified to its docile, forgiving nature.

Advances in the P-61’s radar were matched by advances in ground control radar. When P-61 squadrons moved from England to forward airfields in France, they needed a tracking radar like the one in England that had been vectoring them to V-1s. The solution? Pack up the 60-ton AN/CPS-1 radar and move it to the European continent, where it could be relocated as air operations moved forward.

Once installed in September 1944, this radar type provided 200-mile coverage and the ability to track a single aircraft. Paired with a British-made height-finder, the radars created a ground control center that delivered range, altitude, and azimuth on contacts.

According to David N. Spires’ book Airpower for Patton’s Army, “Only the radar system made possible the command’s new night offensive capability.” The radar under XIX Tactical Air Command controlled many daytime flights and all of the night fighter operations. Kill tallies rose.

The 422nd racked up 43 enemy aircraft killed—including at least one of almost everything the Axis flew.

It was in March 1945 when Ernst and Kopsel destroyed two Ju 87s and damaged a Bf 110 the same night. According to Ernst, the crew took off from an airfield in Belgium, then contacted “Nuthouse,” the Eighth Air Force radar station. Nuthouse was flooded with radar contacts and put the P-61 on hold—where Allied anti-aircraft fire picked it out. Ernst retreated closer to German airspace to get a break from the ack-ack. Soon the vectors came and with two victories that night Ernst and Kopsel concluded the evening as official aces.

A few P-61 crews in Europe ended up as what their friends called “semi-aces,” credited with the mixed but satisfactory tally of four German fighters and one V-1.

_You can read this story in our print issue:

Meanwhile In the Pacific

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. George C. Kenney, and Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay were as eager as Patton for night fighter protection in the Pacific Theater. Rapid island-hopping meant that air bases were jammed with valuable airplanes and crew. As MacArthur’s forces advanced toward the Philippines and Adm. Chester Nimitz closed on the Marianas, Japan was resupplying its occupied islands by night.

Black Widows arrived in the Pacific in summer 1944. One of the oldest outfits in the business was the 6th Night Fighter Squadron, which had been fighting on Guadalcanal. The 6th swapped its P-70s for P-61s and redeployed to Saipan in June 1944, eventually going on to Iwo Jima in March 1945.

MacArthur wanted to protect his airfields and landing forces and wreak havoc on Japanese night supply lines. Kenney put the 421st Night Fighter Squadron to work against Japanese shipping convoys steadily resupplying at Ormoc in the Philippines. He ordered the P-61s to “heckle the convoy all night and see if we could keep them from unloading.” It worked. The Japanese ships were “still offshore with decks piled high with boxes and crowded with troops when our attack hit them just after daybreak,” Kenney later wrote. The night fighters also downed seven Japanese aircraft attempting to cover the convoy.

The 418th Night Fighter Squadron deployed in the Southwest Pacific was home to Maj. Carroll C. Smith, who would become the USAAF’s leading night fighter ace. It was in the contested skies of the Philippines that Smith and radar officer Lt. Philip Porter bagged four Japanese aircraft in one night.

Smith described how P-61s loitered awaiting targets. An hour after dusk on Dec. 29, 1944, the fighter director messaged Smith with indications of an aircraft approaching from the southwest at 8,000 feet and 12 to 15 miles away. The crew set a collision course and chased the Japanese Irving—a large twin-engine escort fighter—for seven minutes in and out of clouds. Finally, a pair of bursts from Smith and Porter flamed the Irving.

Smith and Porter returned to convoy overwatch and sure enough, another Irving approached the convoy a few minutes later. A 20 mm burst from 800 feet sent the Japanese plane into the water. After landing to refuel, Smith and Porter picked up a slow-flying Rufe floatplane 200 feet above the water.

“We chased him around like trying to catch a greased pig in a barrel,” as Smith later told it. After two more hours on patrol their fourth and final target was a new Japanese medium bomber type dubbed a Frank, with a top speed of 400 mph. Smith thought he was low on ammunition and closed steadily to get in the first burst. At 75 feet the P-61 gunned the Frank. “My marksmanship improved in direct relation to how close we got to them to shoot them,” Smith said.

P-61s were sent to China to protect the B-29 base opened by LeMay at Chengdu. Japanese air activity was on the wane but no one wanted a repeat of the German night raid on Poltava, Russia, that had destroyed bombers on the ground. The B-29 was far too precious to risk. To get to Chengdu, both P-61s and pilots traveled by ship to India, then flew over the Hump to their new base.

Often, Black Widows were sent out from Chengdu and other forward Pacific locations to escort lost or crippled B-29s returning home. On occasion they hunted and strafed Japanese supply vehicles.

In all theaters, P-61s logged many intruder missions seeking out ground or sea targets after dark. Patton wanted to shut down German resupply at night, so XIX TAC shifted the 425th Night Fighter Squadron to strafing German road and rail traffic to help protect Patton’s tank force at night and whittle down German resupply.

In the Pacific, the 427th Night Fighter Squadron added underwing rockets in February 1945 to increase its effectiveness. Special nose art for publicity shots designated the intruder missions with a quarter-moon silhouette pierced by a lightning bolt.

The Black Widow continues to fascinate World War II aviation buffs. A P-61C is in the collection at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center and another is at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton. A P-61 left behind in wartime China has long been on view at a Beijing University museum.

An even more incredible story of devotion concerns tail No. 42-39445. This P-61B spent just five days with its squadron in New Guinea before it crash-landed after takeoff. It came to rest at a 55-degree angle on the slopes of Mount Cyclops. Survivors made it out. Forty years later, Gene and Russ Strine formed the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Museum with the express purpose of retrieving this P-61.

Multiple expeditions in the 1980s extricated the abandoned Black Widow, now restored to perfection and on display in Reading, Pa.

For that last year of the war, the biggest and heaviest of the USAAF fighters also offered a glimpse of the future. This night interceptor, with its ranging radar, presaged modern combat where pilots and radar operators form an integrated team.


Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “Banding Together” in the October/November issue.