Caught In the (P-61) Black Widow’s Web

By Scott Spangler on October 27th, 2014

Image16zxcA side benefit of visiting Reading, Pennsylvania, where two of my wife’s three sons (and 6.5 of her 11.5 grandchildren) reside is catching up on the Mid Atlantic Air Museum’s restoration of its P-61 Black Widow. When I first saw the airplane in 1995, just before we got married, its bent and corroded pieces were not long removed from a New Guinea mountaintop where it crashed during World War II. As we approach our 20th anniversary, the P-61 is on its gear and ever closer to flying again.

There aren’t words to describe my attraction to this airplane. With a lifelong affinity for aircraft of this era, America’s first purpose-built, 4,000-hp night fighter that’s as big as a B-25, caught my attention as a youngster. Another part of it is its rarity. Northrup built 750 of them. Only four survive worldwide, all of them in museums. MAAM’s will be the only one destined to fly again. An equal measure of attraction is the unrelenting passion and determination of the volunteers who have spent decades to achieve that goal by restoring the airplane, complete with all of its systems, and returning the Widow to its intended environment—the sky.

Check out the beautifully restored Radio Operator's compartment.MAAM estimates that the restoration is 70 percent complete. Given the P-61’s rarity, saying that parts for it are hard to find redefines understatement. Working from microfilm blueprints, the museum volunteers have manufactured most of them at a cost of more than 110,000 hours and $900,000. Restoring the outer wing panels and the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines will complete the project. A Kickstarter campaign recently raised more than $35,000 to restore one of the wing spars.

MAAM has never predicted when the P-61 will again fly. That depends on the contributions that make all aspects of aviation viable: desire, determination, time, and money. The long-lasting payback for the necessary investment and donations will be the first-hand experience of seeing aviation history live. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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