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Northrop’s Night Hunter: P-61 Black Widow

by Jeff Kolln, Specialty Press, North Branch, Minn., 2009, $39.95.

Unquestionably the finest Allied night fighter of World War II, the Northrop P-61 Black Widow entered service in 1944 and served with distinction in all theaters of the war. One of the few night fighters designed from the start for that role, the big twin-engine P-61 combined speed, range and maneuverability with powerful armament. Although its radar required maintenance, it was effective, and the P-61 proved to be a deadly enemy.

In Northrop’s Night Hunter, Jeff Kolln tells you virtually everything you’ll ever need to know about the Black Widow, from its initial design phases to an accounting of the four surviving aircraft. Kolln writes well and with authority, the depth of his research clearly evident. You get a hint of his background as an U.S. Air Force crew chief as he explores the details of the P-61’s sophisticated controls and systems.

Kolln’s comprehensive account includes a welcome background discussion about the development of radar and the employment of the early night fighters. He goes from theater to theater, outlining unit operations—but also judiciously introducing first-person accounts to keep his narrative flowing smoothly. Kolln also provides a capsule history of each of the 742 Black Widows. In addition to the section of excellent color plates and photos that are included, modelers will be pleased to see many black-and-white photographs as well as a liberal selection of drawings.

This is a solid contribution to the literature, one that the P-61 richly deserves given its excellent combat record and elegant appearance. The late Jack Northrop would have been glad to see Northrop’s Night Hunter published: The P-61 came at a time when it was badly needed by his country— and by his firm.


Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here