P-61 Black Widow: The Fighter That Made the Last Two 'Kills' of World War II
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The Second World War brought a big leap forward in aircraft design. At the beginning of the war, the United States Army Air Corps and Royal Air were still flying outdated aircraft, including the Douglas TBD-1 and the Fairey Swordfish. At the end of the war, revolutionary jet planes like the German Me-262 were just the beginning of the future.
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On the way there, however, not only the aircraft advanced, but also the way in which they were used. World War II introduced new concepts for strategic bombing, and a new category of aircraft was created to counteract this. This was the night fighter or all-weather interceptor, which was suitable for use at night and in times of poor visibility. While the concept dates back to the First World War, when some planes were converted for night operations, the military planners only saw the need for a specially built aircraft during the nightly bombing raids on Europe's cities.
The first US fighter plane specifically designed as a night fighter was the Northrop P-61 Black Widow, named after the North American spider. It was also the first aircraft to use radar. The P-61 was a twin-engine all-metal fighter with a double boom configuration, the profile of which was similar to the German reconnaissance aircraft Focke-Wulf Fw 189 Luftwaffe and of course the American Lockheed P-38.
The P-61 made its first test flight in May 1942 and was put into service in late 1943, where it was used effectively by the U.S. Air Force as a night fighter and was used in the European Theater, Pacific Theater, China, Burma, India Theater and Mediterranean Theater during the war.
Northrop Aircraft Corporation was only a year old and was primarily subcontracting to major aircraft manufacturers when it started developing the P-61. The other, more established aircraft manufacturers, including Lockheed, Grumman and Douglas, were engaged beyond their capacities, and Northrop has stepped up its design. While not entirely radical or revolutionary, its double-boom design violated the norms.
It consisted of a three-person crew, which included a pilot, a gunner and a radio operator. The P-61 was also well armed for its night fighter role and included four 20mm Hispano M2 cannons mounted in the lower fuselage and four M2 Browning 0.50mm Browning machine guns mounted in the dorsal turret.
The first series models were used with an olive green / neutral gray color scheme by the US Army. After testing a "Jet Black" paint on bare metal - and not over existing paint - it was determined that the aircraft could be almost invisible to the enemy, ground-based headlights. From February 1944, all black widows were painted so deep black, while the field widows were often repainted.
Despite the innovative design and special paint, the P-61 played a subordinate role in the war. The aircraft was only responsible for shooting down 127 aircraft, including 18 V-1 Buzz Bombs. Still, the plane has a secret - possibly because of both its name and appearance.
A particular P-61, Lady in the Dark, piloted by Captain Lee Kendall, was reportedly one of the most photographed Black Widows in the Pacific Theater and was also the plane that took the last two "kills" from the air of the Second World War II. One was on the last night of the war, while another was almost 24 hours after the hostilities officially ended. Kendall was able to shoot down two Japanese planes that liked to plan kamikaze attacks by chasing these enemies and crashing them both without a shot!
After the war, the P-61 was used jointly by four U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Army Air Forces (the U.S. Air Force after 1947), the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Weather Bureau, and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. The project was carried out to learn more about thunderstorms and the better protection of military and civil aircraft during storms. Many of the theories and insights that emerged from the project, including phases in a thunderstorm's life cycle, have become the cornerstone of today's understanding of thunderstorms and related weather phenomena.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He is the author of several books on military headwear, including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
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