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Flightline: 20/TBD

547th Night Fighter Squadron ramp at Lingayed Field, Luzon
547th Night Fighter Squadron ramp at Lingayed Field, Luzon
Photo: USAAF Photographer
 P-61B Black Widow from the 547th Night Fighter Squadron landing on Lingayen airstrip
P-61B Black Widow from the 547th Night Fighter Squadron landing on Lingayen airstrip
Photo: USAAF Photographer
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Back to Lingayen Air Field for a double dose of Black Widows.

The 547th Night Fighter Squadron was formed on March 1st 1944 at Hammer Field, California, and was the first such group formed in California as well as the first to be equipped with Northrop P-61 Black Widows. The 547th shipped out to Owi Airfield in what was then the Netherlands East Indies in August ‘44, and flew non-radar equipped P-38 night fighters until their P-61s arrived in September. The squadron was tasked with intercepting Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers, which had been forced into almost exclusively attacking at night due to US fighter coverage. The Bettys had been modified with superchargers, which allowed them to fly above the P-38s used by the USAAF, and thus the introduction of the P-61 proved to be a rude surprise to the Japanese planes, which did not take evasive maneuvers during the initial intercepts by the newer plane. After moving to Lingayen in 1945, the Black Widows of the 547th swept Japanese planes, which had been operating with impunity during the night, from the skies. The P-61s were later field modified to carry external stores, allowing them to carry drop tanks to increase their range, or bombs, napalm canisters, and rockets, allowing them to carry out night attacks on Japanese air fields or shipping. The squadron moved on to Ie Shima Airfield located near Okinawa in August of 1945 to begin night attacks in support of Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of the Home Islands. The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki removed the need for the invasion however, and the 547th was instead moved to Honshu as part of the occupation forces, remaining there until February of ‘46.

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The Northrop P-61 Black Widow was the first purpose-built night fighter in US service, as well as the first designed to use radar. Design work began in 1940 in response to a British request for an aircraft combining high-speed, high-altitude and long duration so as to intercept Nazi night bombers. A similar USAAC/F request soon developed, to which Northrop also submitted their proposal. The initial idea for what became the P-61 was massive, 45 feet long, with a 66ft wingspan and weighing almost twenty-three thousand pounds fully loaded. Armament was projected to be two turrets, one in the nose and another in the tail, each featuring four .50 cal Ma Deuce machine guns. The turrets were eventually moved to dorsal and ventral positions on the main gondola, but the ventral turret was later replaced by four 20mm cannon mounted in the belly, which increased firepower without the need for calculating and maintaining their convergence point, as is necessary for wing-mounted guns. The SCR-720 radar had a range of 5 miles in airborne intercept mode, and could also function as a navigational aid, airborne beacon/homing device, and in concert with IFF units. The radar operator would handle the initial scanning and guidance, before handing over final intercept to the pilot. The turret proved to be difficult to install, and the decision was made to switch from the GE ring mount to a pedestal mount as used by B-17, -24, -25 and -29 bombers. This later proved to cause more issues as components were in short supply, and the larger bombers had priority. As a result, 308 A and B model P-61s, more than half of the entire run of 706 total aircraft, were produced without a turret. All in all, fourteen separate models of the P-61 were produced before the war ended, with the fifteenth, the P-61C, probably being the best version of the plane, with turbosupercharged R-2800-73 engines providing a top speed of 430mph and a ceiling in excess of 30,000 feet. Only 41 were completed out of a 500 planned P-61Cs, and none saw battle. After the war, one P-61B was utilized for tests of a captured German ejection seat, with volunteer Sgt. Lawrence Lambert successfully ejected from the plane at 302mpg and 7,800 feet. Other aircraft were loaned to the Navy to be used as motherships for the Gorgon IV ramjet-powered missile program. Another P-61A was used in attempt to qualify the type for carrier operations, though the Widow was never flown from a carrier. A number of P-61s were used by NACA, the US Weather Bureau, the USAAF/USAF and Navy in the Thunderstorm Project from ‘46 to ‘49, with their size and onboard radar allowing the Widows to navigate into and through the worst parts of storms.

An intriguing side note to the Black Widow story is the F-15 (later RF-61) Reporter, a photo recon variant which was ordered to fill in for, and later replaced, the Hughes XF-11.

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An F-15A later used in “Operation Thunderstorm”
An F-15A later used in “Operation Thunderstorm”
Photo: NOAA Photographer

The first F-15 was based on the XP-61E, but the production models used the wings, engines and tail from the P-61C with an all-new central fuselage. The Reporter mounted six cameras, operated by the crew member in the second seat. Both seats featured controls, so either could fly the airplane on long missions. Thirty-six F-15s were completed out of an contracted run of 175, with the remainder canceled as the design was being rapidly outpaced by jet aircraft. All but 9 of the planes were shipped to Japan, and as part of the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, was used, along with the F-13, a recon version of the B-29, to photograph and map the Japanese Home Islands. In addition, maps were made of the Korean peninsula, which proved invaluable for UN forces at the start of the Korean War. The Reporters were retired from USAF service by 1949, though some were drafted into the Thunderstorm Project along with their P-61 cousins. One F-15A was used by the Ames Aeronautical Lab to drop scale model aircraft until 1953, after which it was sold and then sold again to a Mexican company for use in aerial survey work. It was returned to the US in 1964 and refitted for aerial firefighting.

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Illustration for article titled Flightline: 20/TBD
Photo: Unknown

On 6 September 1968, Ralph Ponte, one of three civilian pilots to hold a rating for the F-15, was flying a series of routine Phos-Chek drops on a fire raging near Hollister, California. In an effort to reduce his return time Ponte opted to reload at a small airfield nearer the fire. The runway was shorter than the one in Fresno, and despite Ponte reducing his load, hot air from the nearby fire reduced the surrounding air pressure and rendered the aircraft overweight. Even at full power the Reporter had not rotated after clearing the 3,500 ft (1,067 m) marker, and Ponte quickly decided to abort his takeoff. He made every effort to control the hurtling craft, but the Reporter careened off the runway and through a vegetable patch, before striking an embankment which tore off the landing gear. The aircraft then slid sideways, broke up, and caught fire. Ponte scrambled through the shattered canopy unhurt, while a firefighting TBM Avenger dropped its load of Phos-Chek on the plane’s two engines, possibly saving Ponte’s life. The F-15, though intact, was deemed too badly damaged to rebuild, and was soon scrapped, bringing an end to the career of one of Northrop’s most successful designs.

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