Photographed on January 27, 1947, this Northrop P-61 Black Widow is getting a boost from an airfoil-shaped ramjet engine as part of a series of tests carried out for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA). The flight tests were performed from 1945-1948 by the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (AERL) based at Lewis Field in Cleveland, Ohio, an organization that was created at Langley Field, Virginia in 1934 to investigate improvements in the power and efficiency of aircraft propulsion systems. The Laboratory moved to Cleveland in 1943, and was renamed the John H. Glenn Research Center in 1999 in honor of Ohio-born astronaut and state senator John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth.
The P-61 was the first American fighter designed specifically for night fighting, and the first American warplane designed to carry a radar to track targets. After the war, the Black Widow served the US Air Force until 1950, and its size and power made it an excellent candidate for testing and research. It was used in the development of ejection seats and as a mother ship to test air-dropped missiles such as the ramjet-powered Gorgon, built for the US Navy by the Glenn L. Martin Company. A handful of P-61s were used extensively in meteorological studies as part of the Thunderstorm Project.
Author’s note: This is the first installment in a new series called Wingspan, focusing on events, aircraft, and personalties throughout the history of aviation and in the present day. I hope to make it a weekly feature, but there may be weeks with more than one article, or weeks with none. Regardless, the articles will always post at 12:35 pm ET, so keep your eyes on the sky.
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