A Moment in Air Force History

What was the first U.S. aircraft specifically designed as a night fighter?

A. A-20 Havoc
B. P-61 Black Widow
C. F-3D Skyknight

Answer: B. The P-61 Black Widow was the first U.S. aircraft specifically designed to be a night fighter, and flew for the first time on May 26, 1942. The need for a true night fighter aircraft was well demonstrated during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Aircraft used to counter German night attacks operated by moonlight, searchlights, and were only infrequently aided by ground-based radar, and were not very effective. At the direction of the Air Corp’s General Carl A. Spaatz, John Northrop submitted a ground up night fighter design, which, designated as the XP-61. Its innovative slotted flaps and spoiler ailerons allowed operation from short airstrips and improved handling; the radar carried in its nose made it the dominant force in the night skies of Europe and the South Pacific. From July 6, 1944, when it claimed its first victory, to war’s end, the P-61 distinguished itself as one of America’s most unique fighting machines. After the war, P-61s were used in reconnaissance, weather research, and flight testing. The first American flight ejections were made from a P-61. Only four exist today.

Did You Know? Though used as a night fighter, the A-20 Havoc was originally designed as a light bomber. The night fighter variant was called the P-70. The 86th Bomb Group used the A-20 during WW II. The F-3D Skyknight was the U.S.’s first jet-night fighter. It could also operate from a carrier. The first jet-to-jet night kill in history was scored by a U.S. Marine Corps F-3D crew – Maj. William Stratton (pilot) and Lt. Hans Hoagland (radar operator).