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WWII United States Army Air Corps P-61 Black Widow Original Illustration Art by Jerome Biederman
Item #: VF4049
N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
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WWII original aircraft on art board that measures 25″x20″. Illustrated image measures 19″x14.25″. This particular aircraft is identified on the reverse and signed by the artist to the front. Jerome Biederman was born February 1, 1913 in Braddock, Pennsylvania. He was a graduate of Chicago’s American Academy Of Art. He maintained studios in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Nashville during his career. This original Gouache watercolor illustration is of a United States Army Air Corps Northrup Aviation P-61 Black Widow and was part of a series of aviation paintings that Jerome did in the early 70's. His artwork routinely sells for over a thousand dollars and he is listed with Artfact with many of his artworks with a selling history.
 

Development

Origins

Close-up view of the P-61 night fighter's radar operator's compartment in the rear of the fuselage, East Field, Saipan, Mariana Islands, 20 July 1944.

In August 1940, 16 months before the United States entered the war, the U.S. Air Officer in London, Lieutenant General Delos C. Emmons, was briefed on British research in radar (Radio Detection and Ranging), which had been underway since 1936 and had played an important role in the nation's defense against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. General Emmons was informed of the new Airborne Intercept radar (AI for short), a self-contained unit that could be installed in an aircraft and allow it to operate independently of ground stations. In September 1940, the Tizard Mission traded British research on many aspects including radar for American production.

Simultaneously, the British Purchasing Commission evaluating US aircraft declared their urgent need for a high-altitude, high-speed aircraft to intercept the Luftwaffe bombers attacking London at night. The aircraft would need to patrol continuously over the city throughout the night, requiring at least an eight-hour loiter capability. The aircraft would carry one of the early (and heavy) AI radar units, and mount its specified armament in "multiple-gun turrets". The British conveyed the requirements for a new fighter to all the aircraft designers and manufacturers they were working with. Jack Northrop was among them, and he realized that the speed, altitude, fuel load and multiple-turret requirements demanded a large aircraft with multiple engines.

General Emmons returned to the U.S. with details of the British night-fighter requirements, and in his report said that the design departments of the Americans' aviation industry's firms possibly could produce such an aircraft. The Emmons Board developed basic requirements and specifications, handing them over towards the end of 1940 to Air Technical Service Command (ATSC) at Wright Field, Ohio. After considering the two biggest challenges—the high weight of the AI radar and the very long (by fighter standards) loiter time of eight hours minimum—the board, like Jack Northrop, realized the aircraft would need the considerable power and resulting size of twin engines, and recommended such parameters, especially as the United States had two twin-row radials of at least 46 liters displacement each in the works, the Double Wasp and the Duplex Cyclone since the late 1930s, getting airborne by the 1940/41 timeframe for their initial flight tests and capable, with development, of exceeding 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) apiece.

Vladimir H. Pavlecka, Northrop Chief of Research, was present on unrelated business at Wright Field. On 21 October 1940, Colonel Laurence Craigie of the ATSC phoned Pavlecka, explaining the U.S. Army Air Corps' specifications, but told him to "not take any notes, 'Just try and keep this in your memory!'" What Pavlecka did not learn was radar's part in the aircraft; Craigie described the then super-secret radar as a "device which would locate enemy aircraft in the dark" and which had the capability to "see and distinguish other airplanes." The mission, Craigie explained, was "the interception and destruction of hostile aircraft in flight during periods of darkness or under conditions of poor visibility."

Pavlecka met with Jack Northrop the next day, and gave him the USAAC specification. Northrop compared his notes with those of Pavlecka, saw the similarity between the USAAC's requirements and those issued by the RAF, and pulled out the work he had been doing on the British aircraft's requirements. He was already a month along, and a week later, Northrop pounced on the USAAC proposal.

On 5 November, Northrop and Pavlecka met at Wright Field with Air Material Command officers and presented them with Northrop's preliminary design. Douglas' XA-26A night fighter proposal was the only competition, but Northrop's design was selected and the Black Widow was conceived.

Early stages

The YP-61 pre-production prototype

Following the USAAC acceptance, Northrop began comprehensive design work on the aircraft to become the first to design a dedicated night fighter. The result was the largest and one of the most deadly pursuit-class aircraft flown by the U.S. during the war.

Jack Northrop's first proposal was a long fuselage gondola between two engine nacelles and tail booms. Engines were Pratt & Whitney R-2800-10 Double Wasp 18-cylinder radials, producing 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) each. The fuselage housed the three-man crew, the radar, and two four-gun turrets. The .50 in (12.7 mm) AN/M2 M2 Browning machine guns were fitted with 36 in (91 cm) long, lightweight "aircraft" barrels with perforated sleeves, without the heavy, breech-end cooling collar of the "M2HB" Browning .50-cal ordnance. The turrets were located in the nose and rear of the fuselage. It stood on tricycle landing gear and featured full-span retractable flaps, or "Zap flaps" (named after aircraft engineer Edward Zaparka) in the wings.

The aircraft was huge, as Northrop had anticipated. While far heavier and larger multi-engine bombers existed, its 45.5 ft (14 m) length, 66 ft (20 m) wingspan and projected 22,600 lb (10,251 kg) full-load weight were unheard of for a fighter, making the P-61 hard for many to accept as a feasible fighter aircraft.

Changes to the plan

The P-61's upper turret is visible on the fuselage between the wings.

Some alternative design features were investigated before finalization. Among them were conversion to a single vertical stabilizer/rudder and the shifting of the nose and tail gun turrets to the top and bottom of the fuselage along with the incorporation of a second gunner.

Late in November 1940, Jack Northrop returned to the crew of three and twin tail/rudder assembly. To meet USAAC's request for more firepower, designers abandoned the ventral turret and mounted four 20 mm (.79 in) Hispano M2 cannons in the wings. As the design evolved, the cannons were subsequently repositioned in the belly of the aircraft, like its Luftwaffe rough equivalent, the Heinkel He 219, often used. The P-61 therefore became one of the few U.S.-designed fighter aircraft to have a quartet of 20 mm (.79 in) cannon — along with the NA-91 version of the Mustang and the U.S. Navy's uprated F4U-4C Corsair as factory-standard in World War II.

Northrop Specification 8A was formally submitted to Army Air Material Command at Wright Field, on 5 December 1940. Following a few small changes, Northrop's NS-8A fulfilled all USAAC requirements, and the Air Corps issued Northrop a Letter of Authority For Purchase on 17 December. A contract for two prototypes and two scale models to be used for wind tunnel testing (costs not to exceed $1,367,000), was awarded on 10 January 1941. Northrop Specification 8A became, by designation of the War Department, the XP-61.

XP-61 development

In March 1941, the Army/Navy Standardization Committee decided to standardize use of updraft carburetors across all U.S. military branches. The XP-61, designed with downdraft carburetors, faced an estimated minimum two-month redesign of the engine nacelle to bring the design into compliance. The committee later reversed the updraft carburetor standardization decision (the XP-61 program's predicament likely having little influence), preventing a potential setback in the XP-61's development.

The Air Corps Mockup Board met at Northrop on 2 April 1941, to inspect the XP-61 mock-up. They recommended several changes following this review. Most prominently, the four 20 mm (.79 in) M2 cannons were relocated from the outer wings to the belly of the aircraft, clustered tightly with the forward-facing ventral "step" in the fuselage to accommodate them placed just behind the rear edge of the nose gear well. The closely spaced, centered installation, with two cannons stacked vertically, slightly outboard of the aircraft's centerline on each side, and the top cannon in each pair only a few inches farther outboard, eliminated the inherent drawbacks of the convergence of wing-mounted guns. Without convergence, aiming was considerably easier and faster, and the tightly grouped cannons created a thick stream of 20 mm (.79 in) projectiles. The removal of the guns and ammunition from the wings also cleaned up the wings' airfoil and increased internal fuel capacity from 540 gal (2,044 l) to 646 gal (2,445 l).

Other changes included the provision for external fuel carriage in drop tanks, flame arrestors/dampers on engine exhausts, and redistribution of some radio equipment. While all beneficial from a performance standpoint—especially the relocation of the cannons—the modifications required over a month of redesign work, and the XP-61 was already behind schedule.

In mid-1941, the dorsal turret mount finally proved too difficult to install in the aircraft, and was changed from the General Electric ring mount to a pedestal mount like that used for the upper turrets in Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresss, Consolidated B-24 Liberators, North American B-25 Mitchells, Douglas A-20s, and other American bombers. Following this modification, the turret itself became unavailable, as operational aircraft, in this case the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, were ahead of experimental aircraft in line for the high-demand component. For flight testing, engineers used a dummy turret.

P-61Bs on the assembly line at Northrop, 1944

During February 1942, subcontracting manufacturer Curtiss notified Northrop that the C5424-A10 four-bladed, automatic, full-feathering propeller Northrop had planned for use in the XP-61 would not be ready for the prototype rollout or the beginning of flight tests. Hamilton Standard propellers were used in lieu of the Curtiss props until the originally planned component became available.

The XP-61's weight rose during construction of the prototype, to 22,392 lb (10,157 kg) empty and 29,673 lb (13,459 kg) at takeoff. Engines were R-2800-25S Double Wasp radials; turning 12 ft 2 in diameter Curtiss C5425-A10 four-blade propellers, both rotating counterclockwise when viewed from the front. Radios included two command radios, SCR-522As, and three other radio sets, the SCR-695A, AN/APG-1, and AN/APG-2. Central fire control for the gun turret was similar to that used on the B-29, the General Electric GE2CFR12A3.

P-61C

The P-61C was a high-performance variant designed to rectify some of the combat deficiencies encountered with the A and B variants. Work on the P-61C proceeded quite slowly at Northrop because of the higher priority of the Northrop XB-35 flying wing strategic bomber project. In fact, much of the work on the P-61C was farmed out to Goodyear, which had been a subcontractor for production of Black Widow components. It was not until early 1945 that the first production P-61C-1-NO rolled off the production lines. As promised, the performance was substantially improved in spite of a 2,000 lb (907 kg) increase in empty weight. Maximum speed was 430 mph (690 km/h) at 30,000 ft (9,000 m), service ceiling was 41,000 ft (12,500 m), and an altitude of 30,000 ft (9,000 m) could be attained in 14.6 minutes.

The P-61C was equipped with perforated fighter airbrakes located both below and above the wing surfaces. These were to provide a means of preventing the pilot from overshooting his target during an intercept. For added fuel capacity, the P-61C was equipped with four underwing pylons (two inboard of the nacelles, two outboard) which could carry four 310 gal (1,173 l) drop tanks. The first P-61C aircraft was accepted by the USAAF in July 1945. However, the war in the Pacific ended before any P-61Cs could see combat. The 41st and last P-61C-1-NO was accepted on 28 January 1946. At least 13 more were completed by Northrop, but were scrapped before they could be delivered to the USAAF.

Service life of the P-61C was quite brief, since its performance was being outclassed by newer jet aircraft. Most were used for test and research purposes. By the end of March 1949 most P-61Cs had been scrapped. Two entered the civilian market and two others went to museums.

F-15/RF-61C

In mid-1945, the surviving XP-61E was modified into an unarmed photographic reconnaissance aircraft. All the guns were removed, and a new nose was fitted, capable of holding an assortment of aerial cameras. The aircraft, redesignated XF-15, flew for the first time on 3 July 1945. A P-61C was also modified to XF-15 standards. Apart from the turbosupercharged R-2800-C engines, it was identical to the XF-15 and flew for the first time on 17 October 1945. The nose for the F-15A was subcontracted to the Hughes Tool Company of Culver City, California. The F-15A was basically the P-61C with the new bubble-canopy fuselage and the camera-carrying nose, but without the fighter brakes on the wing.

F2T-1N

F2T-1Ns

The United States Marine Corps had planned to acquire 75 Black Widows, but these were canceled in 1944 in favor of the Grumman F7F Tigercat. In September 1945, however, the Marines received a dozen former Air Force P-61Bs to serve as radar trainers until the Tigercats would be available in squadron strength. Designated F2T-1N these aircraft were assigned to shore-based Marine units and served briefly, the last two F2T-1s being withdrawn on 30 August 1947.

Design

The P-61 featured a crew of three: pilot, gunner, and radar operator. It was armed with four 20 mm (.79 in) Hispano M2 forward-firing cannons mounted in the lower fuselage, and four .50 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns lined up horizontally with the two middle guns slightly offset upwards in a remotely aimed dorsally mounted turret, a similar arrangement to that used with the B-29 Superfortress using four-gun upper forward remote turrets. The turret was driven by the General Electric GE2CFR12A3 gyroscopic fire control computer, and could be directed by either the gunner or radar operator, who both had aiming control and gyroscopic collimator sight assembly posts attached to their swiveling seats.

The two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-25S Double Wasp engines were each mounted approximately one-sixth out on the wing's span. Two-stage, two-speed mechanical superchargers were fitted. In an effort to save space and weight, no turbo-superchargers were fitted, despite the expected 50 mph (80 km/h) top speed and 10,000 ft (3,048 m) operational ceiling increases.

Main landing gear bays were located at the bottom of each nacelle, directly behind the engine. The two main gear legs were each offset significantly outboard in their nacelles, and retracted towards the tail; oleo scissors faced forwards. Each main wheel was inboard of its gear leg and oleo. Main gear doors were two pieces, split evenly, longitudinally, hinged at inner door's inboard edge and the outer door's outboard edge.

Each engine cowling and nacelle drew back into tail booms that terminated upwards in large vertical stabilizers and their component rudders, each of a shape similar to a rounded right triangle. The leading edge of each vertical stabilizer was faired smoothly from the surface of the tail boom upwards, swept back to 37°. The horizontal stabilizer extended between the inner surfaces of the two vertical stabilizers, and was approximately ¾ the chord of the wing root, including the elevator. The elevator spanned approximately ⅓ of the horizontal stabilizer's width, and in overhead plan view, angled inwards in the horizontal from both corners of leading edge towards the trailing edge approximately 15°, forming the elevator into a wide, short trapezoid. The horizontal stabilizer and elevator assembly possessed a slight airfoil cross-section.

The engines and nacelles were outboard of the wing root and a short "shoulder" section of the wing that possessed a 4° dihedral, and were followed by the remainder of the wing which had a dihedral of 2°. The leading edge of the wing was straight and perpendicular to the aircraft's centerline. The trailing edge was straight and parallel to the leading edge in the shoulder, and tapered forward 15° outboard of the nacelle. Leading edge updraft carburetor intakes were present on the wing shoulder and the root of the outer wing, with a few inches of separation from the engine nacelle itself. They were very similar in appearance to those on the F4U Corsair—thin horizontal rectangles with the ends rounded out to nearly a half-circle, with multiple vertical vanes inside to direct the airstream properly.

The P-61 did not have normal-sized ailerons. Instead, it had small ailerons which allowed wider span flaps and a very low landing speed. These ailerons, known as guide ailerons, gave some roll control and provided acceptable feel for the pilot in rolling manoeuvres. Control of the aircraft about the roll axis was augmented with circular-arc spoilerons which provided about half the roll control at low speeds and most of it at high speeds. The spoilers were located outboard of the nacelle in front of the flaps.

The main fuselage, or gondola, was centered on the aircraft's centerline. It was, from the tip of the nose to the end of the Plexiglas tail-cone, approximately five-sixths the length of one wing (root to tip). The nose housed an evolved form of the SCR-268 Signal Corps Radar, the Western Electric Company's SCR-720A. Immediately behind the radar was the multi-framed "greenhouse" canopy, featuring two distinct levels, one for the pilot and a second for the gunner above and behind him, the latter elevated by approximately 6 in (15 cm). Combined with the nearly flat upper surface of the aircraft's nose, the two-tiered canopy gave the aircraft's nose a distinct appearance of three wide, shallow steps. The forward canopy in the XP-61 featured contiguous, smooth-curved, blown-Plexiglas canopy sections facing forward, in front of the pilot and the gunner. The tops and sides were framed.

Beneath the forward crew compartment was the nose gear wheel well, through which the pilot and gunner entered and exited the aircraft. The forward gear leg retracted to the rear, up against a contoured cover that when closed for flight formed part of the cockpit floor; the gear would not have space to retract with it open. The oleo scissor faced forwards. The nosewheel was centered, with the strut forking to the aircraft's left. The nosewheel was approximately ¾ the diameter of the main wheels. Nose gear doors were two pieces, split evenly longitudinally, and hinged at each outboard edge.

The center of the gondola housed the main wing spar, fuel storage, fuel piping and control mechanisms, control surface cable sections, propeller and engine controls, and radio/IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) equipment, but was predominantly occupied by the top turret mounting ring, rotation and elevation mechanisms, ammunition storage for the turret's machine guns, the GE2CFR12A3 gyroscopic fire control computer, and linkages to the gunner and radar operator's turret control columns, forward and aft, respectively.

The radar operator's station was at the aft end of the gondola. The radar operator controlled the SRC-720 radar set and viewed its display scopes from the isolated rear compartment, which he entered by way of a small hatch with a built-in ladder on the underside of the aircraft. In addition to the radar systems themselves, the radar operator had intercom and radio controls, as well as the controls and sight for the remote turret. The compartment's canopy followed the curvature of the gondola's rear section, with only a single rounded step to the forward canopy's double step. The rear of the gondola was enclosed by a blown Plexiglas cap that tapered quickly in overhead plan view to a barely rounded point; the shape was somewhat taller in side profile than it was in overhead plan view, giving the end of the "cone" a rounded "blade" appearance when viewed in perspective.

The cross-section of the gondola, front to back, was generally rectangular, vertically oriented. The tip of the nose was very rounded to accommodate the main AI radar's dish antenna, merging quickly to a rectangular cross-section that tapered slightly towards the bottom. This cross-section lost its taper but became clearly rounded at the bottom moving back through the forward crew compartment and nose gear well. Height increased at both steps in the forward canopy, with the second step being flush with the top of the aircraft (not counting the dorsal gun turret). At the rear of the forward crew compartment, the cross-section's bottom bulged downwards considerably and continued to do so until just past the midpoint between the rear of the forward crew compartment and the front of the rear crew compartment, where the lower curvature began to recede. Beginning at the front of the rear crew compartment, the top of the cross-section began to taper increasingly inwards above the aircraft's center of gravity when progressing towards the rear of the gondola. The cross-section rounded out considerably by the downward step in the rear canopy, and rapidly became a straight-sided oval, shrinking and terminating in the tip of the blown-Plexiglas "cone" described above.

The cross-section of the nacelles was essentially circular throughout, growing then diminishing in size when moving from the engine cowlings past the wing and gear bay, towards the tail booms and the vertical stabilizers. A bulge on the top of the wing maintained the circular cross-section as the nacelles intersected the wing. The cross-section became slightly egg-shaped around the main gear bays, larger at the bottom but still round. An oblong bulge on the bottom of the main gear doors, oriented longitudinally, accommodated the main wheels when the gear was retracted.

Wingtips, wing-to-nacelle joints, tips and edge of stabilizers and control surfaces (excluding the horizontal stabilizer and elevator) were all smoothly rounded, blended or filleted. The overall design was exceptionally clean and fluid as the aircraft possessed very few sharp corners or edges.

SCR-720 radar

A P-61 radar

The production model of the SCR-720A mounted a scanning radio transmitter in the aircraft nose; in Airborne Intercept mode, it had a range of nearly five miles (8 km). The unit could also function as an airborne beacon / homing device, navigational aid, or in concert with interrogator-responder IFF units. The XP-61's radar operator located targets on his scope and steered the unit to track them, vectoring and steering the pilot to the radar target via oral instruction and correction. Once within range, the pilot used a smaller scope integrated into the main instrument panel to track and close on the target.

Remote turret

The XP-61's spine-mounted dorsal remote turret could be aimed and fired by the gunner or radar operator, who both had aiming control and gyroscopic collimator sight assembly posts attached to their swiveling seats, or could be locked forward to be fired by the pilot in addition to the 20 mm (.79 in) cannons. The radar operator could rotate the turret to face to the rear, in order to engage targets behind the aircraft. Capable of a full 360° rotation and 90° elevation, the turret could conceivably be used to engage any target in the entire hemisphere above and to the sides of the XP-61. A brief assessment of the turret by the British Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment in 1944 found problems with the aiming and "jerky movement" of the guns.

Operational history

Training units

The first unit to receive production aircraft was the 348th Night Fighter Squadron at Orlando Army Air Base, Florida, which was responsible for training night fighter crews.

P-61 crews trained in a variety of ways. Several existing night fighter squadrons operating in the Mediterranean and Pacific theatres were to transition directly into the P-61 from Bristol Beaufighters and Douglas P-70s, though most P-61 crews were to be made up of new recruits operating in newly commissioned squadrons. After receiving flight, gunnery or radar training in bases around the U.S., the crews were finally assembled and received their P-61 operational training in Florida for transfer to the European Theatre, or California for operations in the Pacific Theatre.

European Theater

A P-61A of the 425th NFS (RAF Scorton, England)

The American P-61 Black Widow night fighter had an inauspicious start to its combat operations in the ETO. Some believed the P-61 was too slow to effectively engage in combat with German fighters and medium bombers, a view which the RAF apparently shared, based on the performance of a single P-61 they had received in early May.

The 422d Night Fighter Squadron was the first to complete their training in Florida and, in February 1944, the squadron was shipped to England aboard the RMS Mauretania. The 425th NFS soon followed aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth.

The situation deteriorated in May 1944 when the squadrons learned that several USAAF generals - including General Hoyt Vandenberg - believed the P-61 was too slow to effectively engage in combat with German fighters and medium bombers. General Spaatz requested the de Havilland Mosquito night fighters to equip two U.S. night fighter squadrons based in the UK. The request was denied due to insufficient supplies of Mosquitoes which were in demand for a number of roles.

At the end of May, the USAAF insisted on a competition between the Mosquito and the P-61 for operation in the European Theater. RAF crews flew the Mosquito Mk XVII while crews from the 422nd NFS flew the P-61. In the end the USAAF determined that the P-61 had a slightly better rate of climb and could turn more tightly than the Mosquito. Colonel Winston Kratz, director of night fighter training in the USAAF, had organized a similar competition earlier. He said of the results:

I'm absolutely sure to this day that the British were lying like troopers. I honestly believe the P-61 was not as fast as the Mosquito, which the British needed because by that time it was the one airplane that could get into Berlin and back without getting shot down. I doubt very seriously that the others knew better. But come what may, the '61 was a good night fighter. In the combat game you've got to be pretty realistic about these things. The P-61 was not a superior night fighter. It was not a poor night fighter. It was a good night fighter. It did not have enough speed.

However, on July 5, 1944 General Spaatz ordered a competition be held between the P-61 - using an example from the 422nd which had its Double Wasp radials carefully "tuned up" for the competition - against a Mosquito NF.XVII, and Lt.Col. Kratz made a $500 bet in favor of the Mosquito being a faster and more maneuverable night fighting platform. The "tweaked" P-61 proved Lt.Col. Kratz wrong, as according to the 422nd's squadron historian it "... proved faster at all altitudes, outturned the Mossie at every altitude and by a big margin and far surpassed the Mossie in rate of climb".

In England, the 422d NFS finally received their first P-61s in late June, and began flying operational missions over England in mid-July. These aircraft arrived without the dorsal turrets so the squadron's gunners were reassigned to another NFS that was to continue flying the P-70. The first P-61 engagement in the European Theater occurred on July 15 when a P-61 piloted by Lt. Herman Ernst was directed to intercept a V-1 "Buzz Bomb." Diving from above and behind to match the V-1's 350 mph (560 km/h) speed, the P-61's plastic rear cone imploded under the pressure and the attack was aborted. The tail cones failed on several early P-61A models before this problem was corrected. On 16 July, Lt. Ernst was again directed to attack a V-1 and, this time, was successful, giving the 422nd NFS and the European Theater its first P-61 kill.

P-61 at Étain-Rouvres Air Base, France with rockets mounted, c. 1944.

In early August 1944, the 422d NFS transferred to Maupertus, France, and began to encounter German aircraft for the first time. On the night of 14–15 August 1944, "Impatient Widow", tail number 42-5591 had its starboard engine shot out along with oil lines and hydraulics while attempting to intercept a Heinkel He 177A-5 of 5.Staffel/Kampfgeschwader 40, code F8+AN, Werknummer 550 077, flown by Hptm. Stolle. The downing was witnessed by two other Heinkels, occurring North of Barfleur, Normandy. A Bf 110 was shot down, and shortly afterwards, the squadron's commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel O. B. Johnson, his P-61 already damaged by anti aircraft land fire, shot down a Fw 190. The 425th NFS scored its first kill shortly afterwards.

In October 1944, a P-61 of the 422nd NFS, now operating out of an abandoned Luftwaffe airfield in Florennes, Belgium, encountered a Messerschmitt Me 163 attempting to land. The P-61 tried to intercept it but the rocket-powered aircraft was gliding too fast. A week later, another P-61 spotted a Messerschmitt Me 262, but was also unable to intercept the jet. On yet another occasion, a 422nd P-61 spotted a Messerschmitt Me 410 Hornisse flying at tree top level but, as they dove on it, the "Hornet" sped away and the P-61 was unable to catch it. Contrary to popular stories, no P-61 ever engaged in combat with a German jet or any of the late war advanced Luftwaffe aircraft.

The most commonly encountered and destroyed Luftwaffe aircraft types were Junkers Ju 188s, Junkers Ju 52s, Bf 110s, Fw 190s, Dornier Do 217s and Heinkel He 111s, while P-61 losses were limited to numerous landing accidents, bad weather, friendly and anti aircraft land fire. No P-61s were confirmed to be destroyed in aerial combat, though one researcher suggests 42-39515 may have been shot down by an Fw 190 of NSG 9.

The absence of turrets and gunners in most European Theater P-61s presented several unique challenges. The 422nd NFS kept its radar operator in the rear compartment, meaning the pilot had no visual contact with the R/O. As a result, several courageous pilots continued flying their critically damaged P-61s under the mistaken belief that their R/O was injured and unconscious, when in fact the R/O had already bailed out. The 425th NFS had a more novel solution: they moved the R/O to the former gunner's position behind the pilot. This gave the pilot an extra set of eyes up front, and moved the aircraft's center of gravity about 15 in (38 cm) forward, changing the flight characteristics from slightly nose up to slightly nose down which also improved the P-61's overall performance.

By December 1944, P-61s of the 422nd and 425th NFS were helping to repel the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, with two flying cover over the town of Bastogne. Pilots of the 422nd and 425th NFS switched their tactics from night fighting to daylight ground attack, strafing German supply lines and railroads. The P-61's four 20 mm (.79 in) cannons proved highly effective in destroying large numbers of German locomotives and trucks.

The 422nd NFS produced three ace pilots and two radar operators, while the 425th NFS officially claimed none. Lt. Cletus "Tommy" Ormsby of the 425th NFS was officially credited with three victories. Ormsby was killed by friendly fire moments after attacking two Junkers Ju 87s on the night of 24 March 1945. His radar operator escaped with serious injuries, and was saved only by the quick actions of German surgeons. He later reported that they had successfully engaged and shot down both Ju 87s before being shot down themselves. This claim was corroborated by other 425th aircrew who were operating in the area at the time. To this day, many members of the 425th question why Lt. Ormsby was never credited with his final two kills, and "ace" status.

Mediterranean Theater

In the Mediterranean Theater, most night fighter squadrons exchanged their aging Bristol Beaufighters for P-61s too late to achieve any kills in the "Black Widow."

CBI Theater

P-61s of the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater were responsible for patrolling a larger area than any night-fighter squadrons of the war. The P-61 arrived too late in the CBI Theater to have any significant impact, as most Japanese aircraft had already been transferred out of the CBI Theater by that time in order to participate in the defense of the Japanese Homeland.

Pacific Theater

P-61A-1-NO Black Widow 42-5524, 6th Night Fighter Squadron, Being readied for a mission, East Field, Saipan, Mariana Islands, September 1944

The 6th NFS based on Guadalcanal received their first P-61s in early June 1944. The aircraft were quickly assembled and underwent flight testing as the pilots changed from the squadron's aging P-70s. The first operational P-61 mission occurred on 25 June, and the type scored its first kill on 30 June 1944 when a Japanese Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bomber was shot down.

In the summer of 1944, P-61s in the Pacific Theater saw sporadic action against Japanese aircraft. Most missions ended with no enemy aircraft sighted but when the enemy was detected they were often in groups, with the attack resulting in several kills for that pilot and radar operator, who would jointly receive credit for the kill.

In the Pacific Theater in 1945, P-61 squadrons struggled to find targets. One squadron succeeded in destroying a large number of Kawasaki Ki-48 "Lily" Japanese Army Air Force twin-engined bombers, another shot down several Mitsubishi G4M "Bettys," while another pilot destroyed two Japanese Navy Nakajima J1N1 "Irving" twin-engined fighters in one engagement but most missions were uneventful. Several Pacific Theater squadrons finished the war with no confirmed kills. The 550th could only claim a crippled B-29 Superfortress, shot down after the crew had bailed out having left the aircraft on autopilot.

On 30 January 1945, a lone P-61 performed a vital mission that was instrumental in the successful raid carried out by the U.S. Rangers to free over 500 Allied POWs held by the Japanese at the Cabanatuan prison camp (Camp Pangatian) in the Philippines. As the Rangers crept up on the camp, a P-61 swooped low and performed aerobatic maneuvers for several minutes. The distraction of the guards allowed the Rangers to position themselves, undetected within striking range of the camp. The story of the rescue and the role of the P-61 is told in the book Ghost Soldiers (by Hampton Sides) and in The Great Raid, a movie based upon the book, though the absence of a flying P-61 forced the filmmakers to feature a Lockheed Hudson in the film in its place.

It was in this theater that poet and novelist James Dickey flew 38 missions as a P-61 radar operator with the 418th Night Fighter Squadron, an experience that profoundly influenced his work, and for which he was awarded five Bronze Stars. The 418th NFS also produced the only AAF night fighter aces in the Pacific, a pilot-radar operator team.

Historian Warren Thompson wrote that "it is widely believed" that the last enemy aircraft destroyed in combat before the Japanese surrender was downed by a P-61B-2 named "Lady in the Dark" (s/n 42-39408) of the 548th NFS. The aircraft piloted by Lt. Robert W. Clyde and R/O Lt. Bruce K. LeFord on 14/15 August 1945 claimed a Nakajima Ki-44 "Tojo." The destruction of the "Tojo" came without a shot being fired; after the pilot of the "Tojo" sighted the attacking P-61, he descended to wave-top level and began a series of evasive maneuvers. These ended with his aircraft striking the water and exploding. Lts. Clyde and LeFord were never officially credited with this possible final kill of the war.

Credit for kills

Since pilots and radar operators did not always fly as a team, the kills of the pilot and radar operator were often different. On some occasions, a pilot or radar operator with only one or two kills would fly with a pilot or radar operator who was already an "ace."

Summary

Though the P-61 proved itself very capable against the majority of German aircraft it encountered, it was clearly outclassed by the new aircraft arriving in the last months of World War II. It also lacked external fuel tanks until the last months of the war, an addition that would have extended its range and saved many doomed crews looking for a landing site in darkness and bad weather. External bomb loads would also have made the type more suitable for the ground attack role it soon took on in Europe. These problems were all addressed eventually, but too late to have the impact they might have had earlier in the war. The P-61 proved very capable against all Japanese aircraft it encountered, but saw too few of them to make a significant difference in the Pacific war effort.


 
The Artist
"History will duly set aside the years 1900-1950 as the most momentous. Invention followed close upon the heels of invention...of all the bewildering and glittering array, few if any remotely approach in importance that role occupied by the ability and means to move...on the land, in the air, above and below the surface of the water," expressed Jerome D. Biederman. And few artists have been equally adept at capturing important vintage automobiles and other forms of transportation as this pioneering artist.

 

"My final year in high school, I convinced myself that, above all else, I wanted to become an artist, and started a vigorous inquiry into every school of art within a thousand miles of my hometown Pittsburgh," Biederman wrote in his autobiography, published in the November-December 1970 issue of Horseless Carriage Gazette. He attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago. "The only entrance requirement consisted of artistic proof of one's ability, so I prepared a complete catalog featuring an imaginary automobile. Each page portrayed a separate model, each laboriously rendered in profile, all in full and glorious color. When this massive document was finally lashed together, it possessed all the weight and characteristics of a suitcase loaded with bricks. Thus, for better or worse, my artistic career was launched."

 

Biederman graduated from the Academy in October 1932, and like many of his contemporaries, the rigors of the Depression meant that it took him three years to find a job in his field. "My introduction to the advertising world was a revelation akin to the opening of 1,000 doors," he wrote. "Such mysteries as art direction, layout, production, type, reproduction-all unfolded in rapid succession...I survived this routine for years, but slowly and inevitably had begun the realization that the artist must at some time look to specialization and away from generalization in order that he might achieve recognition, prominence, and even fame. In 1940, I departed the advertising affair for the calmer atmosphere of a studio.

 

"I turned my full attention and energies to transportation vehicles...on/in the water, air and land," he continued. "Movement in its various forms has dominated my time, my thinking, and my life these past thirty years. In the years that followed, I did become known and my particular specialty recognized, but many detours were necessary, including art directorships, freelance artist, etc. As my exhibits became more numerous and my sells more regular, exposure of my efforts began to enter into commercial channels...calendars, prints, premiums, novelties, magazines, as well as other channels."

 

As Biederman's expanding body of work was gaining him prominence, he began a relationship with the McCleery-Cumming Corporation in 1956; this calendar company retained the artist to create six paintings for each of their 1958 automobile calendars. He painted for the calendar company for 36 years, and in the first 31 of those years, 186 automobile paintings were printed without interruption. A total of 444 Biederman transportation paintings were published in McCleery-Cumming calendars by 1993. In addition to the calendars, Mr. Biederman's automotive paintings were featured prominently in Playboy magazine, Automobile Quarterly and Horseless Carriage Gazette. He retired at the age of 75, in 1988, and died in 1996.

 

According to his widow, most of Biederman's paintings were done in tempera on heavyweight 20 x 30-inch illustration board. Calendar art averaged roughly 10 x 15 inches, depending on the subject. A substantial portion of Biederman's body of work remains intact, and most originals are available for purchase at $1,200 apiece.

 

"It seems to me that despite the untold millions of devotees adherent to this, that and the other...the fundamental 'love affair' lies in and with the internal combustion engine, the good, bad or indifferent that surrounds it," Biederman wrote. "The combination of motor, wheels and body, has known, knows, and will experience moments of greatness, be they in performance, styling, concept, even flights of fancy."
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