The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s rare Black Widow will fly again.
Thanks to the dedication of a father and son team, a Northrop P-61B Black Widow that crashed in New Guinea is nearing the final phase of restoration at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania. Its return to flying status will complete an incredible saga that began more than four decades ago and has involved laborious treks to a snake-infested jungle crash site, confrontations with less than friendly officials and miles of international red tape.
The story of how the MAAM acquired its Widow began at a 1960s Midwestern airshow where a group of Confederate Air Force pilots and Gene Strine, a B-25 crewman and the owner of a fixed-base operation at the Harrisburg, Pa., airport, traded stories about planes that crashed during World War II. One CAF pilot mentioned a downed P-61B that was still on a mountain slope on a South Pacific island. The twin-engine fighter was at a nearly inaccessible point 4,600 feet up 7,000-foot Mount Cyclops, near Hollandia, on New Guinea. At that point the CAF had twice turned down proposals to recover the plane, citing its inaccessibility and the likelihood that bringing it out of the jungle would be prohibitively expensive.
Strine never forgot about that P-61. In 1980 he and his son Russ formed the MidAtlantic Air Museum with the goal of acquiring the rights to recover the plane from the Indonesian government. They knew that this P-61 would be an exceptional prize because only two B models of the night fighter were known to exist. (The other one was on display outside Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in the Chinese capital.) They were also aware that the Dutch government had recovered virtually all of the salvageable wrecks on the island and sold them for scrap after WWII. Only wreckage deep in the jungle was left, since it was deemed not worth the recovery effort.
The MAAM’s P-61 Black Widow, serial no. 42-39445, was the 232nd B model produced by Northrop in Hawthorne, Calif., in 1944. It was assigned to the 550th Night Fighter Squadron, 13th Night Fighter Group, Thirteenth Air Force, at Hollandia in the fall of that year.
The P-61 was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engines outboard of the crew pod. The B model differed from earlier A models in that it could carry drop tanks for longer missions and did not have the .50-caliber four-gun top turret. Its crew consisted of a pilot and radar operator, with the area usually occupied by the turret gunner left empty or used to carry observers or passengers. As turrets became available, the U.S. Army Air Forces planned to retrofit the guns and gunner’s seat.
The Strines negotiated for four years with Indonesian authorities before they were even allowed access to the crash site, in order to determine whether the aircraft was worth recovery. When the team finally reached the wreckage, the plane still had air in its tires, oil in its engines and hydraulic fluid in its system. They found a pair of sunglasses, an officer’s cap and a canteen in the soil below the cockpit.
The crash report indicated that the P-61 had failed to pull up fast enough after making several low passes over the runway, and bellied in on a rock outcropping partway up Mount Cyclops. One wing had been sheared in half by trees, and the rest of the airframe took off the tops of a stand of ironwoods that cushioned the Black Widow as it came to rest. The pilot and radar operator, as well as two nurses on board for an orientation flight, survived the crash landing.
The pilot, Lieutenant Logan Southfield, set off on a six-hour trek down Mount Cyclops to summon help. Along the way he apparently slipped and fell over a steep precipice, severely injuring his back. Many people had seen the plane go down, however, and a Stinson L-5 was immediately dispatched to pinpoint the wreckage. Two days later, rescue teams brought the rest of those aboard down from the mountainside.
The first recovery expedition by the museum team began exactly 40 years to the day after the crash, on January 10, 1985. Gene Strine led that expedition and supervised the building of a work camp that had to be hacked out of the dense jungle foliage. Locals were hired to haul in supplies and carry parts of the aircraft, removed from the wreckage by a crew of volunteers, down the mountain. Each team worked for about a week before a fresh group was brought in.
In all, it took eight expeditions to remove small sections of the plane and prepare larger portions of the airframe to be airlifted out. But then they ran into another big problem: finding a suitable helicopter. Fortunately the Strines met a retired Indonesian air vice marshal “with contacts.” He arranged for the MAAM to donate a flyable, restored Boeing-Stearman PT-16 to the Indonesian Air Force Museum in trade for the use of a helicopter.
To prepare a suitable lift area on the mountainside, the team had to clear three acres and construct a makeshift landing pad of ironwood logs, tied together with vines. Russ Strine explained, “The pad was not strong enough for the helicopter to land on, but it was sturdy enough for us to place the P-61 parts on it so they could be staged and ready to be lifted.”
In the process of clearing the lift area, however, near disaster struck: The workers accidentally felled a tree across one of the Black Widow’s tail booms. Strine recalled that his father was at first deeply distressed by the mishap, but closer inspection of the damage determined that it was not as serious as first thought and could be repaired. In the course of a week, the chopper carried airframe sections down to the base of Mount Cyclops, while another crew began crating the parts for shipment to the United States.
But there would be more delays before the Black Widow could actually leave the island. In fact, an entire year passed as the Strines waited for documents and clearance from the Indonesian government releasing the wreckage for export. During that time the jungle climate took its toll on the wooden crates, which eventually rotted to such an extent that the whole shipment had to be repacked. Finally the new crates were loaded on trucks and transported to the small seaport of Jayapura, where one week later they were transferred to a larger ship in Jakarta for the long voyage to Baltimore.
On April 5, 1991, the shipment arrived in Pennsylvania. Restoration began almost immediately, using a collection of whatever plans and microfilm documentation were available. As the work continued, Russ Strine explained, the museum received considerable help from the National Air and Space Museum. But he pointed out that piecing the P-61 back together “has been a real jigsaw puzzle.”
Since the museum has decided to restore its Black Widow to flying status, the project is of course much more complex than a “cosmetic” restoration. It is estimated that 70 percent of the aircraft will be new when complete. “It’s slow and expensive work,” Russ Strine stressed. Thus far donations of $900,000 have gone toward the project, with “another million” likely needed before completion.
The staff and volunteers completely rebuilt much of the crew pod and mated it to the inner wing sections. At that point the plane’s nose and main gear were lowered, so the aircraft could stand on its own for the first time since 1945. The next major undertaking will be rebuilding the tails and booms. The wings will come last on the restoration schedule.
At this writing, the first flight for the MAAM’s P-61 is estimated to be more than three years off. Russ Strine emphasized that once the plane is at last deemed ready for the air, it will fly only under very controlled conditions. “We realize that this will be the only restored and flying P-61B in the world,” he said. “Any flights it makes will be carefully planned and monitored.”
For more information about the MAAM’s P-61, visit maam.org/p61.html.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.