P-61 opinions

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I'm working on a P-61 Black Widow project, and I'm wondering if anybody has any reasonably knowledgeable insights about the airplane as a combat machine. I say "combat" because some of the most useful things the airplane did came after WWII. And I specify "reasonably knowledgeable" because I recently read a thread on a well-regarded World War II aviation forum re. "What was the best night fighter of WWII?" that had after a dozen pages resolved itself into arguing the merits of the Mosquito NF XXX and the Ju-88G-6 when a latecomer posted, "I nominate the Black Widow, because it's so cool." It was difficult to convince him that coolness was not a meaningful parameter. Not to prejudge anybody's opinions, but let me say that I think the airplane's capability has been exaggerated among latter-day enthusiasts largely because of its brutish looks and size. Plus a PR-dream nickname and lots of room for self-congratulatory nose art...
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Profile picture for user QldSpitty

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From what Ive read it was extremely successful in the field but came at a time when the war in the air was winding down.The allies had air superiority at that time so any targets would be opportunist in nature where as earlier in the war it would have been a different story.As a purpose built nightfighter it had been built with all the lessons learnt from previous attempts and had the newest tech available.
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But wouldn't "lessons learnt from previous attempts" have meant that they'd have created an airplane with the rate of climb, ceiling and speed to pursue and catch targets? Like, say, a Mosquito NFXXX? I'll agree that it had the newest tech, troublesome as it often was, but it doesn't seem to me that they did much else right.
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It might not yield all the data you require for your project, but if you can get hold of the excellent, 'America's Hundred Thousand' by Francis H.Dean, you'll find a lot of good, factual info and technchal data in there regarding it's performance, handling, systems, and what it's pilot's thought of it as a combat aeroplane. Good luck! Cheers Paul
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Thank you, Paul--just ordered it.
Profile picture for user Moggy C

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I think the P61 was to some extent a typical example of how WW2 developed so quickly it was easy to end up with a weapon suited to an earlier threat, rather than a current one. Imagine a few squadrons in service with the RAF through the Autumn of 1940 and you could see that the Luftwaffe night blitz would have been a much more costly undertaking in turns of bomber losses. But when the threat moves on and you need to combat fast fighter-bombers and pilotless V1s, it just wasn't the right tool. It did some good service in the Far East. And it's undeniably cool! Moggy
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I seem to remember reading in the Osprey book of an occasion when a P61 on test supposedly bettered a Mosquito. Too many variables to come up with an objective conclusion, a lot seems to depend on where the commentator comes from ...
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As I heard the old one about the mosquito feathering one engine, flipping on its back and accelerating away....:)

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Have to agree with Moggy here. In terms of technological advances I think WWII must have been the fastest in history. They certainly gained a reputation in the Far East.
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It seems to have been a competent performer as opposed to outstanding.
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But wouldn't "lessons learnt from previous attempts" have meant that they'd have created an airplane with the rate of climb, ceiling and speed to pursue and catch targets? I'll agree that it had the newest tech, troublesome as it often was, but it doesn't seem to me that they did much else right.
Don't be too hard on it.... Stephen, remember that with that level of technology, the main task was finding the target in the first place. Simply put, you can't shoot down anything unless you find it. The technology required a big aircraft and the P-61 was a good attempt. It did have some interesting features like the spoilers and remember that the tiny Northrop firm wasn't exactly de Havilland or North American when it came to experience in designing warplanes. Also, the ship wasn't meant to be a dogfighter, as a night fighter it was up looking for "intruders" and what we'd today call interdiction aircraft rather than typical fighter vs. fighter stuff. That's why the Bf-110, Ju-88 and other types were successes in the role. As the first dedicated (designed from the outset) night fighter type (as opposed to the Mosquito which was a fast bomber and had room for the added radar), it was the first step in technology and as such did fairly well.
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It did have some interesting features like the spoilers and remember that the tiny Northrop firm wasn't exactly de Havilland or North American when it came to experience in designing warplanes.
Yes, DeHavilland had designed exactly ... One, (in recent times)!
As the first dedicated (designed from the outset) night fighter type (as opposed to the Mosquito which was a fast bomber and had room for the added radar), it was the first step in technology and as such did fairly well.
The same claim was made for the Bristol Beaufighter?

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I seem to remember reading in the Osprey book of an occasion when a P61 on test supposedly bettered a Mosquito. Too many variables to come up with an objective conclusion, a lot seems to depend on where the commentator comes from ...
The USAAF deemed to early P-61s to be inferior to the Mosquitoes and Beaufighters, and sought examples of those to equip their NF units. There was a conspiracy theory that the RAF tests of the P-61 deliberately promoted it's advantages over the Mosquito to prevent the Americans seeking Mosquitoes in reverse Lend Lease......
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There appears to have been some issue with the top turret? On the face of it, it looks pretty much like an improved Schräge Musik, but again, by the time it came into service lumbering German bombers were few and far between. Does anyone know if they were deleted as a performance enhancer, or were there technical issues with the installation? Moggy

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I find a quote in wiki interesting, especially the last few sentances: "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". So good, not great. The merits of the SRC-720 radar vs. the radars on other aircraft should be part of the discussion. The 720 (or known as the Mk 10 in UK service) was a bit newer and more refined than other early radars, and had 360 rotation. The Mosquito used many marks of radars, some better than others. See page X-14 of this http://www.rquirk.com/cdnradar/cor/chapter10.pdf I agree that coolness factor is huge with the P-61. Big, black, monster guns, neat layout, awesome name, what's not to like?

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There appears to have been some issue with the top turret? Does anyone know if they were deleted as a performance enhancer, or were there technical issues with the installation? Moggy
Airflow issue with the turret it seems. http://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/detail-page-2.asp?aircraft_id=78 "It was soon discovered (via wind tunnel tests and, later, with a P-61 airframe test gondola) that the dorsal turret was the cause of an air flow disturbance along the aft portion of the central gondola, occurring just aft of the turret assembly itself. This find forced the removal of the turret from the 38th P-61A production example and onwards. The stability issue developed when the turret was traversed to either side or elevated away from its "at rest" face-forward position causing a disruption to the air flow causing buffeting over the aircraft when at speed." IIRC some users just locked the turret to fire directly ahead to avoid the turbulence.

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A good night fighter should have an excellent rate of climb, high top speed for "dash" to a contact, the ability to carry a heavy (effective) armament, fairly large to provide a stable gun platform and sufficient fuel for good combat radius or loiter, dependent on the nature of the sortie. It also needed an adequate radar for locating its quarry after being vectored by Ground Control. P-61 did well in these areas though, even with Double Wasp engines, perhaps it could have used the larger powerplants coming into use at that time to improve RoC and top speed. In a time of rapid advances in technology (the war effort was really getting into its stride by 1944) designs of the time conceived only two or three years before were, in many instances, almost obsolete by the time they entered service. With the deletion/removal of the top turret (with 0.50 cals) the overall firepower of the P-61 (4 x 20mm Hispanos) was inferior to the Mosquito (4 x 20mm Hispanos and 4 x 0.303 Brownings). Having said that, the "twenties" were more than adequate for dispatching an adversary when in position for an attack, and at much longer range than the Brownings. In fact, unless the intercepting aircraft was right up close behind its target it is doubtful whether the 0.303's were much use at all. The P-61's combat record was good, probably only because the allies enjoyed aerial superiority in its theatre of operations. How it would have fared if it had stayed in Europe would have been interesting. Pitted against the formidable Ju.88 and He.219 Night Fighters, operating over enemy territory, with no rear-warning-radar equipment and without the benefit of GCI, it may have suffered badly as the Germans had night-fighting down to a fine and well-practiced art with excellent GCI and airborne equipment by the time it came into service. Still a good-looking a businesslike machine. I have made several models of it and even attended the excavation of the crash site of one about 20 year's ago. Anon.

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Mosquito armament It was the fighter/bomber versions with 4x20 mm cannon and the 4x .303 that were so armed e.g. FB6 and FB26 (IIRC). Radar equipped dedicated nightfighters e.g. X1X, XXX as against night inftruder FB's, were 4 x 20mm cannon only. The larger radar sets used up the nose where .303's were housed in the FB's. WZ862
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With the deletion/removal of the top turret (with 0.50 cals) the overall firepower of the P-61 (4 x 20mm Hispanos) was inferior to the Mosquito (4 x 20mm Hispanos and 4 x 0.303 Brownings).
By the time that the P61 entered service, most if not all NF Mosquitos were not fitted with the .303s as the space was used for the AI aerial.
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I think had I been driving a Bf110 around the night skies of Germany looking for Lancasters and one of those great ugly brutes came up behind me, I'd probably jump out and save him the ammunition. They do look so mean. Moggy
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All I can say is that it must have been a damn sight more comfortable to fly in than the Mossie. One point about the coverage of AI Mk10/SCR720. the scanner rotated through 360, but the back 180 was blanked off, so the screen coverage was just the front 180. I would reckon that AI Mk10 was the best radar of its time.