The first Night Fighter. P-61 Black Widow

Zipper730

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D Dana Bell might have more here on this, but I'm pretty sure that it was always supposed to have 4 x 20mm, though early proposals did call for an upper and lower (or fore/aft) turret which was replaced with an upper turret.
 

Snautzer01

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I know Dana would say:

Common mis-perception: the P-61 wasn't the first American aircraft designed as a night fighter - that honor goes to the Curtiss PN-1 biplane. However, the P-61 was the first radar-equipped American aircraft designed as a night fighter.

Cheers,

Dana


Because he did.
 

Snautzer01

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And he wrote:

Actually, the P-61 was miserably disappointing. Being the best available didn't make it good, especially when nothing else was available. Since all of the AAF's eggs were in one basket, there was a concerted effort to convince folks that the basket and eggs actually were pretty good. The P-61 suffered from lack of speed, altitude, and endurance. At one point Wright Field tried to justify continued production by pointing out that Japanese bombers were only slightly faster than the P-61, but that the Japanese would become more confident and slow down to the point the P-61 could catch and destroy them. (That actually did happen on occassion.)

The ETO flyoff was rigged - the Mosquito and its crew were unaware they were in a competition and had been assigned to observe and evaluate the P-61's performance. The P-61 was given the best preparation, flown without the turret or third crewmember, and piloted by an aggressive and angry crew; the Mosquito was a line aircraft of older production with no special servicing. The flyoff was kept below 20,000 feet; above that altitude the P-61's performance dropped off dramatically. The flyoff was flown as a dogfight, not your standard night-fighting tactics. The test lasted only about 2 hours - the P-61 had exhausted nearly all of its fuel.

No P-61 flew at 430 mph - all those claims were based on Northrop estimates, which proved sadly inflated.

The Black Widow's kill-to-loss ratio has no bearing - all those failed attempts at interception never gave the enemy aircraft an opportunity to shoot back.

One AAF squadron was equipped with Mosquito NF.30s and based in Italy at a time when Luftwaffe night activities were fairly limited. In March 1945 a single Ju 188 night raider was targeted by a P-61 which could not intercept and was forced to retire by lack of fuel. A 416 NFS Mosquito then chased the 188 over the Alps to Austria, downing it over its own base before flying back to Italy - all with one of its engines out. No P-61 could have performed as well.

Internal AAF records show the intense disappointment in the P-61, Wright Field's efforts to hide the aircraft's failures, and Hap Arnold's anger when he discovered that the aircraft was not what was promised. Had more Mosquito Mark 30s been available, the P-61 would have been withdrawn from Europe.

Most written histories are little more than propaganda when it comes to the AAF's night fighter designs. The archival records show how disappointing the P-61 really was. What author wants to write a book called The P-61; It Really Sucked, but it was the Best We Had?

Cheers,
 

Snautzer01

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And

Hi Greg,

While we're sure to disagree, that's not a problem. I wanted to make sure you were aware of some well-buried facts to fit into your own examination of the question.

You mention flight test reports. The first of these noted that the P-61 was never going to be a "world beater" and that performance was expected to degrade further with several necessary modifications. Wright Field instead informed Washington that everyone considered the P-61 to be an excellant night fighter.

Eglin tested the aircraft and reported that production should be stopped immediately, with efforts made to purchase Mosquito night fighters. Wright Field squashed the report and had a new set of officers write a gentler opinion. Even the revised report noted problems with the P-61's speed, ceiling, and endurance, all of which would be mitigated once the auto-gun-laying turret was developed and installed. The report ended with the recommendation that the turret should not be installed (losing the sole advantage) and external fuel tanks should be installed (further degrading top speed).

Several Wright Field reports noted incredible top speeds for the aircraft, each with an asterisk noting that the speed had not been measured and the figures were based on Northrop estimates. Later reports quietly admitted that the P-61's speed and altitude had not lived up to expectations, but the aircraft was still better than the P-70 or Beaufighter.

Post-war characteristic files gave indications of releasable statistics and classified statistics. The only aircraft where releasable statistics were better than the actual performance was the P-61. (Normally the files avoided informing potential enemies just how good an aircraft was; for the P-61 the releasable characteristics lied about how bad the aircraft was.)

There were very few who knew the truth behind the flyoff. Dick Leggett was the RAF pilot, and he wasn't even aware he'd been involved in a contest. The two (not three) American crewmen died in combat and weren't available for post-war interviews, but the squadron history noted that the American pilots were violently angry that there was to be an attempt to replace their P-61s with Mosquitos. Only three of their crews were considered gifted enough to defend the P-61's (and the squadron's) honor - they drew lots to see who would champion their cause. Compare this with Leggett's instruction to go fly with the P-61's and note his impressions of it's capabilities. These impressions were then written up by the RAF squadron CO to praise the the P-61 as an excellant night fighter.

All this happened after the Brits had to reject the AAF's request for NF.30s to re-equip the US night fighters. It didn't matter who won the flyoff - there were not going to be enough Mosquitos to meet America's needs. (One wonders what would have happened if Eglin's recommendations had been followed more than a year before.) Vandenburg subsequently wrote a report to Washington noting that the P-61 was the "best available" night fighter for his forces -- of course it was, the Mosquito was NOT available. Vandenburg and Spaatz still wanted Mosquitos, but dealt with the aircraft they were provided.

I was in contact with the two AAF officers sent from Washington to run the flyoff. Henry Viccellio died before we got too far into the discussion, but Winston Kraatz was certain that the Mosquito was still the better aircraft.

I ask myself how I would have determined which aircraft was the best night fighter. Would I have run a daylight dogfight with the two aircraft approaching each other from opposite sides of the field to see who could get on the other's tail? Amazing maneuverability was certainly the P-61's strong suit, but not a widely used tactic for night fighters. Would I have run the test above 20,000 feet, where nearly all enemy bombers were able to escape the Black Widow? I find it significant that that was the chosen altitude to end the tests. Would I have placed a target miles away and raced the two aircraft t see who got there first? Again, speed was certainly not factored into the tests. The fly-off had one purpose - to reenforce the confidence of the American crews in their aircraft so that they might fight to the limits of their aircraft's abilities. The test certainly accomplished that, but it did nothing to determine the best night fighter.

(Incidently, the NF.30 was already in production, but deliveries had been delayed due to critical cracks in their flame dampning exhaust manifolds. Coincidentally, the P-61s were being flown without flame dampners. Despite complaints that the Black Widow's exhaust flames were too bright and could be seen from miles away, the dampners further reduced the aircraft's speed and weren't used. How much easier is it to avoid interception from an aircraft that you can see coming?)

Anyhow, that's a small part of how I came to my conclusions. I've been researching America's search for a night fighter since I first hit the National Archives in 1972, and there are still many files I hope to dig through when Covid allows. With luck, I'll be able to release a small monograph on the subject next year...

Cheers,


Dana
 

EwenS

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It was June 1944 before the Mosquito NF.30 began to reach the first RAF squadron, and initially they worked alongside earlier models. Also introduced around this time was the Mosquito NF.XIX (same AI Mk.X radar but single stage Merlin engines). In northern Europe the NF squadrons flew a variety of Mosquito models through to the end of the war. But RAF NF squadrons in the Med had to soldier on with the Beaufighter NF.VI until late 1944 / early 1945, the same as the US NF squadrons. In the Far East the two RAF NF squadrons had to keep their Beaufighters until April & July 1945 before Mosquito NF.XIX turned up.
 

Dana Bell

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Hi Everyone!

Lately I've been up to the gunwales again, so I've had very few opportunities to post - it's a shame since I've seen so many really interesting recent topics here. I very much appreciate sharing my earlier posts, though - many thanks!

In most cases tend to avoid commenting on someone else's publication or production anyway - it never feels like I'm being helpful. That's different if we're in a discussion about any topic where I think I've found something interesting (and you can't visit the National Archives for 50 years without finding something intersting!) especially if it feels more like a contribution than an argument.

Anyway, perhaps after wrapping up a few projects next month I'll be able to come back for some of these great discussions. {And I PROMISE to stay away from anything political!!!!) Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Hogmanay, and warmest wishes to all celebrating any of the year-end holidays.

Cheers,



Dana
(Here's a page from the project that's got me tied up right now...)
 

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Snautzer01

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Mar 26, 2007
Hi Everyone!

Lately I've been up to the gunwales again, so I've had very few opportunities to post - it's a shame since I've seen so many really interesting recent topics here. I very much appreciate sharing my earlier posts, though - many thanks!

In most cases tend to avoid commenting on someone else's publication or production anyway - it never feels like I'm being helpful. That's different if we're in a discussion about any topic where I think I've found something interesting (and you can't visit the National Archives for 50 years without finding something intersting!) especially if it feels more like a contribution than an argument.

Anyway, perhaps after wrapping up a few projects next month I'll be able to come back for some of these great discussions. {And I PROMISE to stay away from anything political!!!!) Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Hogmanay, and warmest wishes to all celebrating any of the year-end holidays.

Cheers,



Dana
(Here's a page from the project that's got me tied up right now...)
Still want the book mr. Dana.
I could not figure out why for a while, but i think if have seen the darkness.
Pretty planes should do well. It is a looker.
But you talk sence. ... isnt that a bummer.
You told us it is low on your list to write about.
I have many books. In fact a garage full. And in a dryer place a lot documents concerning mostly lufwaffe stuff.
Now ... i have just room enough for this story.
I really like P-61 and would like to read your story about it.
Hope someday you can find the time.
I will wait for it because it is about time for the real story.
Regards.
 
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