The Northrup P-61 Black Widow, America’s First Operational Radar Equipped Fighter

by Daniel Russ on October 30, 2009

Northrup P-61 Black Widow, Radar Equipped Fighter Northrup P-61 Black Widow, Radar Equipped Fighter

The P-61 Black Widow was America’s first operational combat aircraft equipped with radar. It was a twin engine, twin tail boom fighter bomber, though used mostly just as a fighter. It had a spinning radar emitter in the nose cone, and a weapons officer in the cabin behind the pilot-the first Wizzo as it were.

Northrup built over 700 copies of it in different iterations, but many of them were built after WWII and used in varying roles, such as thunderstorm detection and observation, and fire fighting.

During the war in the Pacific theatre, a few Japanese Bettys and Tojos were shot down, but frankly the plane struggled to find targets as Japanese pilots had very limited ability to fly night missions.

The P-61 was armed with both .50 cals and 20mm cannons and the pilot could witch from one set to the other, or choose to select both sets of guns.  When the plane fired at anything, the curtain of lead was devastating.

It’s most famous use was distracting Japanese guards that were keeping 500 POWs in a prison camp while US Army Rangers moved in to rescue them. It was memorialized in the book Ghost Soldiers.

Source: Johnsen, Frederick A. Darkly Dangerous: The Northrop P-61 Black Widow Night Fighter. Washington, DC: Bomber Books, 1981.

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