Tag Archives: Northrop Corporation

17 August 1946

Sergeant Lawrence Lambert is ejected from a P-61B Black Widow, 17 August 1946. (U.S. Air Force)
Sergeant Lawrence Lambert is ejected from the Northrop XP-61B Black Widow, 17 August 1946. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Sgt. Lawrence Lambert

17 August 1946: First Sergeant Lawrence Lambert, U.S. Army Air Forces, was the first person to eject from an aircraft in flight in the United States.

Lambert was assigned to the Air Material Command Parachute Branch, Personal Equipment Laboratory. He was an 11-year veteran of the Air Corps. During World War II, he served in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater. Previous to this test, Lambert had made 58 parachute jumps.

The test aircraft was a modified Northrop P-61B-5-NO Black Widow night fighter, 42-39498,¹ redesignated XP-61B. The airplane was flown by Captain John W.McGyrt and named Jack in the Box.

The ejection seat was placed in the gunner’s position, just behind and above the Black Widow’s pilot. A 37 mm cartridge fired within a 38 inch (0.97 meter) long gun barrel launched the seat from the airplane at approximately 60 feet per second (18.3 meters per second). Lambert experienced 12–14 Gs acceleration.

Flying over Patterson Field at more than 300 miles per hour (483 kilometers per hour) at 6,000 feet (1,829 meters), Lambert fired the ejection seat. He and the seat were propelled approximately 40 feet (12 meters) above the airplane. After 3 seconds, he separated from the seat, and after another 3 seconds of free fall, his parachute opened automatically. Automatic timers fired smaller cartridges to release Lambert from the seat, and to open the parachute.

He later said, ” ‘I lived a thousand years in that minute,” before the pilot, pulled the release. . . ‘ Following the successful jump, blue-eyed, sandy-haired Sgt. Lambert expressed only one desire: To ‘get around the biggest steak available.’ ”

Dayton Daily News, Vol. 70, No. 26, Sunday, 18 August 1946, Society Section, Page 10, Columns 4–6

Sergeant Lawrence parachuted safely. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His citation read:

First Sergeant Lawrence Lambert, Air Corps, 6653991, for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as a volunteer for the test of human ejection from a high speed aircraft, 17 August 1946. His courageous in the face of unknown factors that might have caused serious injury or loss of life, has contributed immeasurably to aeronautical and medical knowledge of the ejection method of escape from the aircraft.

Air Force Enlisted Heritage Institute, AFEHRI File 19–10

Sergeant Lambert also won the Cheney Award, “for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with aircraft, but not necessarily of a military nature.” The medal was presented to him by General Carl A. Spaatz, in a ceremony held at Washington D.C., 15 April 1947.

Master Sergeant Lambert was later involved in rocket sled tests with Colonel John P. Stapp, M.D., Ph.D.

¹ Another source states 42-39489, however, according to Joe Baugher’s serial number web site, this airplane was “condemned to salvage Jul 19, 1945”

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

16 August 1948

Prototype Northrop XF-89, 46-678, parked on the dry lake bed at Muroc Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)
Prototype Northrop XF-89, 46-678, parked on the dry lake bed at Muroc Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)

16 August 1948: The prototype Northrop XF-89 all-weather interceptor, 46-678, made its first flight at Muroc Air Force Base (later, Edwards Air Force Base). Company test pilot Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., was at the controls.

The Northrop XF-89 was a two-place, twin-engine, mid-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear, designed as an all-weather interceptor. The pilot and radar intercept officer sat in tandem in the pressurized cockpit. Similar to Northrop’s World War II-era P-61 Black Widow night fighter, the XF-89 was painted gloss black.

Northrop XF-89 prototype, 46-678, near Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)

The XF-89 was 50 feet, 6 inches (15.392 meters) long, with a wingspan of 52 feet, 0 inches (15.847 meters). The wing had a 1.5° angle of incident, and1° dihedral. The total wing area was 606.2 square feet (56.32 square meters). The prototype had an empty weight of 23,010 pounds (10,437 kilograms), gross weight of 31,000 pounds (14,061 kilograms), and maximum takeoff weight of 43,000 pounds (19,505 kilograms).

The XF-89 was powered by two Allison J35-A-9 single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engines. The J35 had an 11-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-9 was rated at 3,750 pounds of thrust (16.68 kilonewtons). The engine was 12 feet, 1.0 inches (3.683 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,455 pounds (1,114 kilograms).

Northrop XF-89 46-678. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop XF-89 46-678. (U.S. Air Force)

The prototype crashed during a demonstration flight, its 102nd, at Hawthorne Airport, 22 February 1950. Vibrations caused by the engines’ exhaust caused the tail to separate. The pilot, Charles Tucker, escaped, but flight test engineer Arthur Turton was killed.

The F-89 went into production as the F-89A Scorpion. 1,050 were produced in eight variants. The final series, F-89J, remained in service with the Air National Guard until 1969.

Northrop F-89J Scorpion 53-2509 (converted from F-89D-55-NO) at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The interceptor is carrying two AIR-2 Genie rockets on its underwing pylons. (U.S. Air Force)

Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., was born 22 September 1920, at Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the son of Fred Charles Bretcher, a pharmacist, and Frieda Juliana Emma Poggenbeck Bretcher. His father, Sergeant Bretcher (or Bretscher), had served in an ambulance company at Ypres and the Meuse-Argonne during World War I, and had been honorably discharged, 18 April 1919.

The younger Bretcher attended Western Hills High School in Cincinnati. He played with the golf team and worked on the school newspaper. Bretcher graduated in 1938. He then worked as a sales clerk while attending college.

Bretcher enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, 29 May 1941. He was sent to the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, Maxwell Field, Alabama, as a member of Class 42A. He graduated 8 January 1942, and was released from his enlistment to accept a commission as a second lieutenant, effective 9 January 1942. Lieutenant Bretcher was then assigned to Wright Field, Ohio, as a trainee test pilot. While at Wright, he flew every aircraft in the Air Corps inventory.

Lieutenant Bretcher flew combat missions in the European Theater in the Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51 Mustang. Temporarily assigned to the Royal Air Force, he flew the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Tempest fighters and the Avro Lancaster long-range heavy bomber. While serving in Europe, Bretcher was promoted to the rank of captain.

Captain Bretcher returned to Wright Field in May 1944. Promoted to major, he was assigned as the Chief of the Bomber Test Section, working on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Consolidated B-32 Dominator heavy bomber projects.

Major Bretcher also flew at Muroc Army Airfield in California, testing the Bell YP-59 Airacomet, Lockheed YP-80A Shooting Star, and the experimental Northrop N-9M flying wing proof-of-concept airplane. Major Bretcher was released from active duty, 13 January 1946.

Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr.

Fred Bretscher went to work for the Northrop Corporation, Hawthorne, California, as a civilian test pilot. He flew as co-pilot to Chief Test Pilot Max R. Stanley on the first flight of the Northrop YB-35, 15 May 1948.

In 1950, Bretcher was assigned to the flight test program of Northrop’s N-25 Snark cruise missile (which would be developed into the SM-62 Snark) at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Bretcher married Miss Jean Taylor at Albuquerque, New Mexico, 18 December 1951. He retired from the Northrop Corporation in 1952.

Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., died at Sedona, Arizona, 2 June 2004. He was 83 years old.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

19 July 1957, 14:00:04.6 UTC

Northrop F-89J Scorpion 53-2547 fires a live MB-1 rocket during Operation Plumbbob John, 1400 GMT, 19 July 1957. (U.S. Air Force)

During 1957, a series of 29 nuclear weapons tests were carried out at the United States’ Nevada Test Site, 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, under Project Plumbbob. Shot John was the first and only firing of a live, nuclear-armed, air-to-air anti-aircraft missile.

On Friday morning, 19 July 1957, a United States Air Force Northrop F-89J Scorpion interceptor, serial number 53-2547, flown by Captain Eric W. Hutchison, Pilot, and Captain Alfred C. Barbee, Radar Intercept Officer, launched a Genie MB-1 unguided rocket at an altitude of 18,500 feet (5,640 meters) over NTS Area 10.

(DoE)

The rocket accelerated to Mach 3 and traveled 2.6 miles (4,250 meters) in 4.5 seconds when, at 07:00:04.6 a.m., Pacific Daylight Savings Time (14:00 UTC), its W-25 warhead was detonated by a signal from a ground station. The resulting explosive yield was 1.7 kilotons.

Plumbbob John fireball as seen from Indian Springs Air Base, 30 miles away from the detonation. The aircraft in the foreground is a Northrop F-89J Scorpion, a sister-ship of the launch aircraft. (U.S. Air Force)

The Northrop Corporation F-89J Scorpion was a two-place, twin-engine, sub-sonic all-weather interceptor. It was flown by a pilot and radar intercept officer in a tandem cockpit. It had a straight wing at mid-fuselage and a “T” tail horizontal stabilizer. Earlier variants of the Scorpion were armed with machine guns and rockets, but the F-89J carried only rockets and guided missiles.

The fireball of the W-25 warhead, photographed from approximately 5 miles. (U.S. Air Force)
The fireball of the W-25 warhead, photographed from approximately 5 miles. (Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Field Office)

F-89J 53-2547 was built as an F-89D-60-NO Scorpion, and was one of 350 D-models which were upgraded to the F-89J standard. It was a missile-armed all-weather interceptor with a two man crew assigned to the Air Defense Command.

The Northrop F-89J Scorpion was 53 feet, 8.4 inches long (16.368 meters) with a wingspan of 59 feet, 9.6 inches (18.227 meters) and overall height of 17 feet, 6 inches (5.334 meters). The leading edge of the interceptor’s wings were swept aft 5° 8′. The angle of incidence was 1° 30′, with no twist, and 1° 0′ dihedral. The total wing area was 606 square feet (56.30 square meters).

The F-89J had an empty weight of 26,883 pounds (12,194 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 47,719 pounds (21,645 kilograms).

The F-89J Scorpion was powered by two General Electric-designed, Allison Engine Company-built, J35-A-35 engines. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engine with an 11-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-33 had a Normal (continuous) power rating of 4,855 pounds of thrust (21.596 kilonewtons) at 7,400 r.p.m. The Military Power rating was 5,440 pounds (24.198 kilonewtons) at 8,000 r.p.m. (30 minute limit), and it could produce a maximum 7,200 pounds of thrust (32.027 kilonewtons) at 8,000 r.p.m., with afterburner (5 minute limit). The engine was 16 feet, 3.5 inches (4.966 meters) long, 3 feet, 1.0 inches (0.940 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,830 pounds (1,284 kilograms).

Cutaway illustration of J35 turbojet engine. (General Electric)

The F-89J had a cruise speed of 402 knots (463 miles per hour/745 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 528 knots (608 miles per hour/978 kilometers per hour) at 11,100 feet (3,383 meters). The service ceiling was 43,900 feet (13,381 meters). The interceptor’s combat radius was 435 nautical miles (501 statute miles/806 kilometers), and the maximum ferry range was 1,498 nautical miles (1,724 statute miles/2774 kilometers).

The F-89J could be armed with two MB-1 Genie rockets and four Hughes GAR-2A (AIM-4C) Falcon infrared-seeking air-to-air missiles; or two MB-1 Genies and 104 2.75-inch Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR).

F-89s served with the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard from 1948 until 1969. Northrop F-89J Scorpion 53-2547 was transferred to the Montana Air National Guard in 1960. It is on display at the Air National Guard Base, Great Falls, Montana.

A Douglas MB-1 Genie nuclear-armed air-to-air rocket is loaded aboard the F-89 Scorpion in preparation for Operation Plumbbob John. (U.S. Air Force)
A Douglas MB-1 Genie nuclear-armed air-to-air rocket is loaded aboard the F-89 Scorpion in preparation for Operation Plumbbob John. (U.S. Air Force)

The Douglas Aircraft Company, Missiles and Space Systems Division MB-1 Genie (AIR-2 after June 1963) was an unguided, nuclear-armed, air-to-air anti-aircraft rocket. Its solid-fuel Thiokol SR49-TC-1 engine produced 36,500 pounds of thrust (162.360 kilonewtons) and gave the Genie a maximum speed of Mach 3.3. Its range was 6 miles (9.6 kilometers). The rocket weighed 822 pounds (373 kilograms) with its W-25 warhead, and was 9 feet, 8 inches (2.946 meters) in length, with a maximum diameter of 1 foot, 5.5 inches (0.445 meters). The fins spanned 3 feet, 4 inches (1.118 meters). In production from 1957 to 1962, 3,150 missiles were produced. The Genie was in service from 1957 to 1988.

Douglas MB-1 (AIR-2) Genie. (Nuclear Weapons Archive)

The W-25 was a Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory-designed anti-aircraft warhead. It was a fission device, using implosion of both uranium and plutonium. The warhead’s diameter was 17.35 inches, and it was 26.6 inches long. The warhead weighed 221 pounds (100 kilograms). The W-25 was produced from May 1957 to May 1960. All had been retired by December 1984.

Detonation was by time delay fuse. Lethal radius of the warhead was estimated to be approximately 1,000 feet (300 meters).

Plumbbob John. The Nevada State Journal described “a weird spray trailing earthward.”

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

5 June 1948

A Northrop YB-49 over Muroc Air Force Base, 1948. (U.S. Air Force)

5 June 1948: Flying at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), north of Muroc Air Force Base, California, the second Northrop YB-49 “flying wing,” serial number 42-102368, was undergoing stall recovery performance testing with a crew of five aboard. The pilot was Major Daniel A. Forbes, Jr., United States Air Force, and the co-pilot was Captain Glen W. Edwards.

The aircraft suffered a catastrophic structural failure with the outer wing panels tearing off. The experimental airplane crashed approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of the small desert town of Mojave. The entire crew, which included 1st Lieutenant Edward L. Swindell, flight engineer, and civilian engineers Charles H. LaFountain and Clare C. Lesser, were killed.

The YB-49 was an experimental jet engine-powered bomber, modified from a propeller-driven Northrop XB-35. It was hoped that the all-wing design would result in a highly efficient airplane because of its very low drag characteristics. However, the design could be unstable under various flight conditions.

A few months after the crash, the first YB-49 was destroyed in a taxiing accident and the project cancelled. It would be 41 years before the concept would be successful with the Northrop B-2 Spirit.

Northrop YB-49 42-102367. (U.S. Air Force)

42-102367 had been converted from the second YB-35 pre-production test aircraft. The original Flying Wing’s four Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major (R-4360-21) radial engines were replaced by eight Allison J35-A-15 turbojet engines and several aerodynamic improvements were made. The change to jet power  increased the airplane’s speed by about 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour) and significantly reduced the vibrations caused by the reciprocating engines, drive shafts and counter-rotating propellers.

The YB-49 was a very unusual configuration for an aircraft of that time. There was no fuselage or tail control surfaces. The crew compartment, engines, fuel, landing gear and armament was contained within the wing. Air intakes for the turbojet engines were placed in the leading edge of the wing. The exhaust nozzles were at the trailing edge. Four small vertical fins for improved yaw stability were also at the trailing edge.

The fins were likely too small. Test pilots complained about the airplane’s instability, which made it difficult to maintain course or altitude. A stability augmentation system was required.

Northrop YB-49 (U. S. Air Force)

The YB-49 had a length of 53 feet, 1 inch (16.180 meters), wingspan of 172 feet, 0 inches (52.426 meters) and overall height of 15 feet, 2 inches (4.623 meters). It weighed 88,442 pounds (40,117 kilograms) empty, and its maximum takeoff weight was 193,938 pounds (87,969 kilograms).

The Wing defined the airplane. It had an aspect ratio of 7.4:1. The wing’s root chord was 37 feet, 6 inches (11.430 meters). The wing was 7 feet, 1.5 inches (2.172 meters) thick at the root. The tip chord was 9 feet, 4 inches (2.844 meters). There was 0° angle of incidence at the root, -4° at the wing tips, and 0° 53′ dihedral. The leading edge was swept aft 26° 57′ 48″, and the trailing edge, 10° 15′ 22″. The wing’s total area was 4,000 square feet (371.6 square meters).

Northrop YB-49

The YB-49 was powered by eight General Electric-designed, Allison Engine Company-built J35-A-15 engines. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engine with an 11-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-15 was rated at 3,270 pounds of thrust (14.55 kilonewtons) at 7,400 r.p.m., Normal Power, and a Maximum (Military Power) rating of 3,750 pounds of thrust (16.68 kilonewtons) at 7,700 r.p.m. The engine was 14 feet, 0.0 inches (4.267 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,400 pounds (1,089 kilograms).

Cruise speed for the YB-49 was 429 miles per hour (690 kilometers per hour). Its maximum speed 499 miles per hour (802 kilometers per hour) at 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) was restricted by Mach number. The airplane could climb from Sea Level to 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) in 21.0 minutes. It had a service ceiling of 49,700 feet (15,149 meters). The YB-49 had a combat radius of 1,611 miles (2,593 kilometers) at 420 miles per hour (676 kilometers per hour), carrying a 10,000 pound (4,536 kilogram) bomb load.

The YB-49 had no defensive armament. It could carry a maximum bomb load of 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilogram) in its internal bomb bay. (Turbulence resulting from open bomb bays significantly decreased bombing accuracy.)

Only two Northrop YB-49s were built. They were tested by Northrop and the Air Force for nearly two years. Although an additional nine YB-35s were ordered converted, the B-49 was not placed into production.

Northrop YB-49.
Daniel H, Forbes, Jr., 1940

Daniel Hugh Forbes, Jr., was born at Carbondale, Kansas, 20 June 1920. He was the son of Daniel Hugh Forbes, a farmer, and Hattie Rundle Forbes. He attended North High School in Wichita Kansas, and then the Kansas State College at Manhattan, Kansas,

Maj. Daniel Forbes, Jr., USAF

Daniel Forbes enlisted in the United States Army as an aviation cadet at Fort Riley, Kansas, 23 May 1941. On 9 January 1942, he was commissioned a second lieutenant, Air Reserve. Forbes was promoted to the rank of 1st lieutenant, Army of the United States, 25 August 1942, and to captain, A.U.S., 15 August 1944. On 4 October 1945, he was promoted to major, A.U.S.

Major Forbes married Mrs. Edward C. Winkle (née Hazel Marie Moog), 11 March 1948. Her first husband, a 1st lieutenant assigned to the 314th Infantry Regiment, 79th Infantry Division, was killed in action in France, 1 October 1944. Less than three months later, Mrs. Hughes was a widow again.

Major Daniel Hugh Forbes, Jr., Air Corps, United States Army.

Glen Walter Edwards was born at Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, 5 March 1916, the second son of Claude Gustin Edwards, a real estate salesman, and Mary Elizabeth Briggeman Edwards. The family immigrated to the United States in August 1923 and settled near Lincoln, California. He attended Lincoln High School, where he was a member of the Spanish Club and worked on the school newspaper, “El Eco.” He graduated in 1936.

Lt. Glen W. Edwards

Edwards attended Placer Junior College, Auburn, California, before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated in 1941 with a Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) degree, and then enlisted in the United States Army as an aviation cadet, 16 July 1941.

Following pilot training, Edwards was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Air Reserve, 6 February 1942. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant, Army of the United States, 16 September 1942. Lieutenant Edwards flew 50 combat missions in the Douglas A-20 Havoc light bomber with the 86th Bombardment Squadron (Light), 47th Bomb Group, in North Africa and fought at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, 19–24 February 1943. He was next promoted to captain, 28 April 1943. He also flew during the invasion of Sicily, in late 1943.

Two U.S. Army Air Force Douglas A-20B-DL Havoc light bombers, 41-3014 and 41-3134, in Tunisia, 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Edwards returned to the United States and was assigned to the Pilot Standardization Board, but was then sent to train as a test pilot at Wright Field. Captain Edwards was assigned as a test pilot in 1944 and tested the Northrop XB-35 and Convair XB-36.After World War II came to an end the U.S. Army and Air Corps were demobilized to 1/16 of their peak levels (from 8,200,000 to 554,000). Edwards was retained but reverted to the rank of 1st lieutenant. He had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters (four awards). He was transferred to the United States Air Force after it was established as a separate service, 18 September 1947.

Glen Edwards was recommended to fly the Bell X-1 rocket plane, but when that assignment went to Chuck Yeager, Edwards was sent to Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, to study aeronautical engineering. He earned a masters degree in engineering (M.S.E.) in 1947.

Captain Glen Walter Edwards, Air Corps, United States Army.

Following the crash of the YB-49, Topeka Air Force Base in Kansas was renamed Forbes Air Force Base. Muroc Air Force Base was renamed Edwards Air Force Base in honor of Captain Edwards.

Captains Edwards’ remains were buried at the Lincoln Cemetery, Lincoln, California.

Edwards Air Force Base, California, looking northeast, photographed in 2007. (U.S. Air Force)

Edward Lee Swindell was born at Currituck, North Carolina, 22 April 1916. He was the sun of Rudolph Bridgman Swindell, a machinist’s helper at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, and Eula Belle Williams Swindell.

Edward L. Swindell married Miss Edna Irene Hayman, 2 January 1942 at South Mills, North Carolina.

Swindell enlisted in the U.S. Army at Camp Lee, Virginia, 17 March 1942. He was 5 feet, 9 inches (1.75 meters) tall and weighed 156 pounds (70.7 kilograms).

Lieutenant Swindell’s remains were buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia.

Charles H. LaFountain was born 12 June 1925 in New York. He was the son of Leo L. LaFountain and Gladys Ethel Taylor LaFountain. He had served in the United States Navy and was a civilian employee of the Air Force. His remains were buried at the Lake Luzerne Cemetery, Lake Luzerne, New York.

Clare C. Lesser was born 27 June 1925 at Joliet, Illinois. He was the fifth of five children of Henry J. Leser, a worker at a wire mile, and Alvina Leser. Leser served as an ensign in the United States Naval Reserve. Like LaFountain, he was also a civilian employee of the Air Force. His remains were buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Joliet, Illinois.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

26 May 1942

Northrop Corporation XP-61 Black Widow at Hawthorne.
Northrop Corporation XP-61 prototype 41-19509 at Northrop Field, 1942. (U.S. Air Force)

26 May 1942: The prototype Northrop XP-61-NO Black Widow, 41-19509, made its first flight at Northrop Field, Hawthorne, California, with free-lance test pilot Vance Breese at the controls. (Breese had taken the North American Aviation NA-73X, prototype of the Mustang, for its first flight, 20 October 1940.)

Northrop XP-61 41-19509 taking off from Northrop Field. (U.S. Air Force)

The first American airplane designed specifically as a night fighter, the XP-61 was the same size as a medium bomber: 48 feet, 11.2 inches (14.915 meters) long with a wingspan of 66 feet (20.117 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 8.2 inches (4.475 meters). The prototype was equipped with a mockup of the top turret. Its empty weight was 22,392 pounds (10,157 kilograms), gross weight of 25,150 pounds (11,408 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 29,673 pounds (13,459 kilograms).

Northrop XP-61 41-19509 retracts its landing gear after takeoff. (U.S. Air Force)

The XP-61 was powered by two air-cooled, supercharged, 2,804.4-cubic-inch-displacement (45.956 liter) Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp SSB2-G (R-2800-10) two-row, 18-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The R-2800-10 had a Normal Power rating of 1,550 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. at 21,500 feet (6,553 meters), and 2,000 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. for takeoff, burning 100-octane gasoline. The R-2800-10 had a 2:1 gear reduction and drove four-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propellers which had a 12 foot, 2 inch (3.708 meter) diameter. The R-2800-10 was 4 feet, 4.50 inches (1.334 meters) in diameter, 7 feet, 4.47 inches (2.247 meters) long, and weighed 2,480 pounds (1,125 kilograms), each.

The prototype Black Widow had a top speed of 370 miles per hour (595 kilometers per hour) at 29,900 feet (9,114 meters) and a service ceiling of 33,100 feet (10,089 meters). The maximum range was 1,450 miles (2,334 kilometers).

Prototype Northrop XP-61 Black Widow 41-19509 in camouflage. (U.S. Air Force)

The night fighter was crewed by a pilot, a gunner and a radar operator. A large Bell Laboratories-developed, Western Electric-built SCR-720 air search radar was mounted in the airplane’s nose. The gunner sat above and behind the pilot and the radar operator was in the rear fuselage.

SCR-720 Air Search Radar mounted in nose of a Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter. (NOAA)

The Black Widow was armed with four Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns in a remotely-operated upper turret, and four AN-M2 20 mm aircraft automatic cannons, grouped close together in the lower fuselage and aimed directly ahead. This was a superior arrangement to the convergent aiming required for guns mounted in the wings. The fire control system was similar to that used by the B-29 Superfortress. The guns could be fired by either the gunner or the radar operator. The Black Widow carried 200 rounds of ammunition for each cannon,

Northrop P-61A-1-NO Black Widow 42-5507 in olive green camouflage. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop P-61A-1-NO Black Widow 42-5507 in olive green camouflage. (U.S. Air Force)

The XP-61 was built with a center “gondola” for the crew, radar and weapons, with the engines outboard in a twin-boom configuration, similar the the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The Black Widow did not use ailerons. Instead, it had spoilers mounted on the upper wing surface outboard of the engines. Roll control was achieved by raising a spoiler, decreasing lift on that wing and causing it to drop. A similar system was employed on the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress ten years later.

Northrop P-61A three-view illustration with dimensions. (U.S. Army Air Forces)

The P-61 got its nickname, Black Widow, from the glossy black paint scheme that scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) had determined was the best camouflage for a night fighter. Over 700 P-61s were built, with 36 built as the F-15 photo reconnaissance variant. They served in both the Pacific and European Theaters during World War II, and were also used during the Korean War. After the war, the radar-equipped fighter was used for thunderstorm penetration research.

Northrop P-61C-1-NO Black Widow 43-8353 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop P-61C-1-NO Black Widow 43-8353 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop P-61C-1-NO Black Widow 43-8353 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather