May 2012


The Northrop P-61 Black Widow was the first American aircraft designed to take advantage of radar technology in order to be able to intercept at night or in bad weather. The crew consisted of a pilot and radar operator, who sat in the back of the fuselage, and a gunner who operated the remote control turret (similar to the turret on the B-29 Superfortress). The radar operator would lead the pilot to the target and then the pilot could use a small scope on his instrument panel to engage the enemy aircraft. Both radar operators and pilots were given credit for any kills.

The P-61 first flew in May, 1942 and remained in service until 1954. It saw combat in all theatres of WWII and was responsible for the downing of over 120 enemy aircraft, as well as intercepting German V-1 Buzz Bombs. The Black Widow is also considered to the be the aircraft responsible for the last kill against the enemy before the surrender of Japan. A P-61, dubbed “Lady in the Dark”, forced down a Nakajima Ki-44 without firing a shot on August 16, 1945. Over 700 P-61’s were produced during the war.

The example shown here, from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum at the Stephen F. Udvar Hazy Center, is a P-61C that flew in a variety of roles, from USAAF cold weather testing, to performing scientific experiments for NACA (the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA), to being used by the USAF for flight testing. As such, it has been restored with parts of three different paint jobs carefully exposed. The turrent was removed to make room to carry additional equipment.

Northrop P-61 Black Widow
Speed: 366 mph
Ceiling: 33,100 ft
Armament: 4 20mm cannon, d, 4 .50in machine guns in upper turret, and up to 3200lbs of bombs
Crew: 3

Click on the image for a larger version.

The McDonnell FH-1 Phantom was notable for being the first jet aircraft to take off and land on an aircraft carrier. It first flew before WWII ended, in January, 1945, and entered service with both the Navy and Marine Corps. However, it was virtually obsolete on arrival and was quickly replaced by the improved F2H Banshee, which went on to become one of the most well-known fighter aircraft of the Korean War.

The example here is from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and served with Marine Fight Squadron VMF 122.

McDonnell FH-1 Phantom

Speed: 479 mph
Ceiling: 41,000 ft
Armament: 4 .50in machine guns, 8 rockets
Crew: 1

The Curtiss P-40 went by many names, Warhawk, Tomahawk, and Kittyhawk and flew with over a dozen different air forces. First flying in 1938, over 13,000 of these aircraft were built and they saw action in virtually every theatre of WWII.

Perhaps the most famous P-40 unit was the American Volunteer Group or “Flying Tigers” commanded by General Claire Lee Chennault. The Flying Tigers were American pilots who went to China to fight the Japanaese prior to the formal outbreak of hostilities between the USA and Japan. Though called “volunteers”, the Flying Tigers were paid for their services and some consider them mercenaries. None can doubt their courage as they flew their tough P-40’s against the superior Japanese Zero fighters and their experienced pilots. Much like the Navy pilots in their Grumman F4F Wildcats, the P-40 pilots adopted tactics to take advantage of the greater diving speed of their aircraft and, in the P-40’s case, a small turn radius. The heavily armed and well protected P-40 pilots were able to hold their own against the Zeroes and Oscars.

The “Tiger Shark” nose marking of the Flying Tigers is among the most well-known in all of aviation and the P-40E example shown here, from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, clearly shows the shark mouth design, which was adopted by many units flying the P-40.

Above is General Chennault’s marker at Arlington National Cemetary and below the “Flying Tiger” inscription can be seen on the side of the marker.

The P-40 served with distinction against both the Germans (especially in North Africa) and the Japanese.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Speed: 360 mph
Ceiling: 29,000 ft
Armament: 6 .50in machine guns, up to 2000lbs bombs
Crew: 1

Click on the image for a larger version.

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