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Aviation History And Aircraft Photography

P-61 — The Black Widow Survivors


The P-61 was not the most glamorous airplane of WWII. It also wasn’t the fastest, biggest, most produced, or had the highest number of kills. It did, however, have one job to do, and it did that job very well, hence the nickname “Black Widow”. It also sported a unique design, much like the P-38, which resulted in a very nice looking airplane.

The Black Widow concept began early in the war as the USAAF generals started to realize the importance of the British RADAR systems. The goal was to have a hunter/killer airplane that could fly at night and track down its prey using RADAR. Early airborne radar units were large, heavy, and power hungry. And they used antennas that looked a lot like big clunky outdoor TV antennas. As RADAR was further refined, the sets got smaller, and a version emerged that used a small parabolic dish. This would be perfect for installing in a medium twin-engined fighter aircraft. Thus was born the P-61 project.

Click P-61 Photo

The P-61 was a twin-boom airplane, with the engines at the front of each boom, and the tail and rudders at the back end of the booms. A pod on the centerline of the plane housed the cockpit, radar, a navigator/radar operator, and gunner. The nose of the Black Widow was fiberglass, and the radar dish sat inside the nose. The P-61 was outfitted with (2) Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines, 18 cylinders each, with an output of 2000 HP per engine. Later versions of the P-61 saw that horsepower level increased to 2800 HP per engine. That increase in power boosted top speed from around 366MPH up to 440MPH. The Black Widow had a 66-foot wing span, was about 50-feet long, and sat 14-foot 8-inches tall. She weighed in at 24,000 pounds empty, and could carry an additional 16,000 pounds of payload and fuel. The offensive sting was powerful...(4) 50-caliber machine guns and (4) 20mm cannons.

The P-61 benefited from being developed later during the war. As a result, it was a very polished and refined airplane. It had a lot of automation for its day, and could literally fly itself into the air once the takeoff run was started. Pilots tell me that one could make a turn into a dead engine, something that would be suicidal in most other airplanes.

The Black Widow did not have an overwhelming number of kills in WWII. The reason is that it came along rather late in the war, and by that time, the AXIS partners had little left to throw at the Allies. If someone did dare to take to the skies under the cover of darkness, and a P-61 was nearby, they were as good as toast.

A total of 742 P-61’s were built, including XP-61 and YP-61 pre-production aircraft, then three production models, the P-61A, P-61B, and the more powerful P-61C. In addition, 36 F-15A photo recon variants were produced. Today, only 3 survive as complete airframes, one is undergoing restoration, and one is known to survive in China.


P-61 Black Widow On Static Display

Serial Number Aircraft Type City State Location Notes
42-39417 P-61A Beijing China Beijing Aeronautics Institute 3 Black Widows were stolen from the USAAF by communist Chinese troops in the final days of WWII. This one is on display at the Institute’s museum outside of Beijing. Jeff Kolln has recently confirmed that the other two were destroyed, and also confirmed the serial number of the survivor.
42-39445 P-61B Reading PA Mid-Atlantic Air Museum Recovered in 1990 from a mountain in the south Pacific. Undergoing restoration to flying status.
43-8330 P-61C Washington DC National Air And Space Museum As of May, 2006, the Black Widow is on display at the NASM annex, the Udvar Hazy Center near Dullas Airport, after decades of storage at Silver Hills.
43-8352 P-61C Dayton OH US Air Force Museum On display in the WWII hangar, marked as 42-39468.
Note—click on the Serial Number to see a photo of each airplane.

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