Wings are Next for MAAM’s Black Widow

By Scott Spangler on May 9th, 2016

MAAM-22Pinned against the hangar wall by a floor-filling mass of airplanes from a B-25 to a Pietenpol, The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s P-61 Black Widow restoration project seems unchanged from my last visit in 2014. Wearing its cowled but propless Pratt & Whitney R-28000 engines, it stands patiently on its tricycle gear waiting for its wings.

Those wings, which extend from the port and starboard nacelles, are under construction in another hangar, said Russ Strine, MAAM president. “They are the last big structural item left to do.” While the project’s completion is within sight, there is no predetermine date for the Black Widow’s first flight because the project is funded by donations and much of the work is done by volunteers. But it will fly; rest assured of that.

Working my way through the maze of airplanes on the hangar floor for a closer look, it’s clear to see that the B-25 and P-61 are twin-engine airplanes of similar size. But two engines and a shared weight of 30,000 pounds are where the similarities end. On the floor under the Black Widow’s right 2,000-hp engine was its four-bladed prop. Answering my question about the left side, Strine said, “We now have 2 complete props for the P-61B.  The only other airplane to share this same blade and hub is the Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver.”

MAAM-9That was a surprise that struck home because my father, a World War II naval aviator, flew the SB2c. It was powered by the Wright R-2600, which is only 200 cubic inches different from the P-61’s engines, so that seemed to make sense.

More surprising was learning that the right engine was a zero-time P-61 QEC. To facilitate a Quick Engine Change, all of the aircraft-specific accessories, fittings, and mounts are already connected to the engine. The odds of such a find for such a rare airplane are incalculable, “but people contact all the time with items,” said Strine.

The top turret of four .50 caliber machine guns is, however, another matter. “Two are known to exist,” said Strine, “and neither owner wants to sell.” Only four Black Widows exist today, and if MAAM can acquire a turret, the museum’s P-61 will not be the only flying example, but the only one with a turret.

Of the 706 examples of all Black Widow variants built, only four are know to exist today. The examples the National Museum of the United States Air Force and the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center are related by their service in the post-war Project Thunderstorm. Left at its base after the war, the fourth is at the Beijing Air and Space Museum at Beihang University in Beijing, China.

MAAM-2Ducking under the logo of the 550th Night Fighter Squadron affixed to the MAAM Widow’s nose and sticking my head into the forward cockpit through the door in the nosewheel well, is where most of the work now being done on the airplane is clear. All of the plumbing and wiring is now installed, said Strine, and “we’re just tying up and final detailing the wiring.”

Getting the P-61 Black Widow back in the air is not the only project underway at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum. The hangar where it now resides “is certainly tight,” said Strine, “but we’re about to remedy that with construction of an additional hangar.” Seeing the fully assembled night fighter is more spacious accommodations is reason enough for another visit to Reading, Pennsylvania. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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7 Responses to “Wings are Next for MAAM’s Black Widow”

  1. Terry Says:

    Here at the Kissimmee, Fl. airport (ISM), the P-61 s a big part of our airfield’s WW II heritage, our airport being fairly remote at the time, befitting the “stealth fighter” of its day aspect of the Black window. I find it a neat twist of fate that here at the closest airport to Walt Disney World, some of the P-61 squadron emblems for units stationed here were drawn by none other that Walt Disney himself. We have quite a concentration of warbird business both on our airport and in the region, and I can only hope that as an Air Force retiree and airport manager here that one day a P-61 will land here in a triumphant return to Kissimmee
    AAF”.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    My boss in the Air force a long, long time ago told me he was a Black Widow driver when he first learned of my interest in airplanes. I, of course, simply stood there emotionless because I’d never even heard of a Black Widow or a P-61.

    In fact, when he too mention the airplane was a stealth fighter, my ignorance popped up again since I’d never before heard the word.

    But the stories he later told me about the nighttime missions he flew during WWII left me with my mouth agape.

    So not only do we need to get this P-61 flying, but we need to tell the story of this blackbird too. One of WWII’s best kept secrets I think.

    Rob

  3. Terry Says:

    Rob, do you know about the P-61’s role in the desperate liberation of a large POW camp in the Philippines in 1944? If not, basically the Army Rangers had to approach the camp in the daylight, so a P-61 was flown over a few times and successfully distracted the Japanese guards. The black aircraft was so unusual in appearance to all others during the war. It is probably the single greatest accomplishment of this aircraft which I believe was originally designed to destroy Nazi bombers attacking the U.S. east coast.

  4. paul Says:

    I didn’t think the P-61 was considered a “stealth” fighter other than it’s ability to operate at night. I believe it was an “all-weather night fighter” rather than a stealth aircraft. Still it was an amazing aircraft and I am pleased to see that efforts are being made to restore the few that are still available.

  5. Anthony Marrs Says:

    As a young boy in early 1960’s I was totally enamored WW II warbirds & fighters especially Lockheed’s P-38. When I saw a model kit for a P-61 Black Widow Night Fighter I had to build one! Thrilled to hear a restoration is progressing! Hope to see it in the air on a SW US winter tour incl. Tucson (home of the incredible Pima Arospace Museum & indoor & outdoor acres of restored aircraft collection!). Tony Marrs

  6. Tom Howe Says:

    My father and his two brothers were all pilots in WWII. My father (the oldest) was an airline captain prior to the war and became part of the Air Transport Command made up of airliners and airline crews world wide. His middle brother (my Uncle Sam)flew every fighter in the Army Air Corps and finally ended the war flying P-61’s over the Sea of Japan out of India. He loved the P-61! He often said the airplane took special care of he and his crew.

    As a pilot myself (and an active member of the Commemorative Air Force) I have an appropriate appreciation for the special nuances he would relate to me about the airplane. It deserves to fly again.

    However, when the war was over he made sure he went home on a boat – figuring he had stretched his flying luck far enough.

  7. Mark Joyce Says:

    In 2001 or 2002, I met Herman Ernst at a symposium put on by the Northern California Friends of the American Fighter Aces Symposium. Mr. Ernst was one of the few P-61 aces, flying it while assigned to the 422nd NFS in Europe. I’ve always been intrigued by the P-61 and was quite honored to meet one of its pilots, let alone one that achieved ace status flying it.

    One thing I recall him mentioning was how maneuverable the Black Widow was, especially considering it was almost the size of a medium bomber. Mr. Ernst’s daughter attended the symposium as well and I had a chance to talk with her at length. Mr. Ernst and his Radar Operator named their P-61 “Borrowed Time.” If I remember correctly, his daughter said this name was the result of Ernst and his RO being paired together after their counterparts were killed in separate training accidents. Thus, they felt they were living on borrowed time.

    I wish MAAM the best of luck in restoring its P-61, and look forward to the day it takes to the air.

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