P-61A Black Widow
422 Night Fighter Squadron
Pilot: 2nd Lt Merriman
Date: 11th July 1944
Place: Nantwich, Cheshire, UK
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Photos: Ian Hodgkiss
The P-61 Black Widow, the world's first purpose built night fighter, was a very brief visitor to the UK. Based at Scorton, North Yorkshire, the 422nd Night Fighter Squadron received their first P-61s in May 1944. By July 1944 they had followed the Allied invasion to a base in France, leaving behind 42-5533 under a Cheshire field having been abandoned by it's crew at seven thousand feet after a radio failure.
With the cause of the loss known, the aircraft completely destroyed, and no effort required to recover the crew, the crash site was tidied up and left. This was the only aircraft of it's type lost in the UK, making it a very rare bird indeed.
The site was located and dug in the 80s, but it's rarity made it worthy of a second visit. A metal detector and magnetometer survey suggested that a lot of steel was still underground, so a licence was applied for and granted.
The P-61 had buried itself deeply and burned underground, for several days according to one local eyewitness. This was born out by most of the remains, which were between badly burned or melted to globules. The deepest part recovered was a section of prop boss at a depth of nearly twenty feet. Above that the Black Widow had effectively cremated itself. Some interesting items were discovered, and an impression of the enormous strength of the aircraft gained. The structure was extremely sturdy, with many cast and machined parts. Armour plate was twice as thick as it's British equivalent. The P-61 weighed in a third heavier than the RAF Mosquito which was modified to carry out the same role.
Enough unburned skinning was found to confirm a colour scheme of Olive drab and grey, not the typical gloss black seen on later aircraft. Parts of the radar equipment were recovered, including a panel embossed 'video output' presumably a very early use of the term. The landowner had a propeller blade from the first dig, which he kindly donated to the group. The straightness suggests it was from the feathered right side.
Excerpt from accident report
Lt. Merriman and Lt. Dow took off for a G. C. I. exercise. After being airborne a short while, the radio in the aircraft failed. Due to extensive cloud cover and low ceilings pilot was unable to find any navigation aid that he recognized. When the gasoline supply was almost exhausted both crew members abandoned the aircraft.
The accident was due to the malfunction of the radio equipment as noted from the statement of the occupants of the aircraft. It was impossible to determine the cause of the malfunction because the aircraft and all the equipment was totally demolished.
Statement of the pilot
On Tuesday morning, 11 July 1944, shortly after 0100, I went to plane number 42-5533 where we waited for our crew chief. Therefore delaying our position in the scramble. We took off from the field in a northerly direction. GCI put us on a vector of 010° and told us to climb to 12,000 feet. At about 8,500 feet GCI told me to vector to 070° which I did and climbed to 12,000 feet. At this time I called GCI but got no answer. I tried several times but still no answer. Then looking down at Set #1 I noticed all the channel lights were out. I hit the box and looked at it with my flash light but couldn’t tell anything. I turned on#2 set and tried to call on E channel as I had before on GCI, but after being on a minute or two it’s lights also went out, I tried to call my Radar Observer but received no response. All this time I was on a vector of 070° and turned back to a southwestward direction till past thunderheads. I then let down o 700 feet in a ???? orbit looking of lights of any kind., not knowing where I was at. I went upstairs several times looking for a hole, but found none. At last from 2000 feet I sighted a red blinking light. I went down to about 500 feet and circled it, firing my gun at different intervals but no signals from ground. I blinked the colors of the day and recognition lights. I circled there for some time and then headed inland as there were docks close but the ceiling was just as low all over and I saw no lights. Not knowing the terrain I returned to the docks and circled till practically out of gas, all the time trying to signal to ground. I then climbed to 7500 feet and tried to holler to my Radar Observer to bail out as I expected engines to cut out any second. I feathered the right prop, trimmed ship to at 110 m.p.h., again tried to signal to my Radar Observer and then eased back to gunner’s escape hatch. I ripped it loose, eased myself out of the window and then let go. I was over the top of the wing and below the horizontal stabilizer. When I first saw the ground I was just over a row of oak trees. I grabbed chute on one side causing a swinging and traveling motion. I missed the trees but hit ground on left foot. I crawled to the near town of Crewe where a Bobbie saw me coming.
EDGAR E. MERRIMAN
2nd lt., Air Corps.
STATEMENT OF RADAR OBSERVER
We, 2nd lt. Edgar E. Merriman, 0-750653, pilot, and myself 2nd Lt. W. Dow, 0-554477, radar observer, took off from the Scorton Airdrome at approximately 0130 hrs. in a P61A-5 aircraft, number 42-5533 on a GCI mission.
Had contact with G.C.I. while gaining altitude. My A.I. was out because there was no transmitter current but the 729 set was working O.K.
Shortly after beginning of mission the pilot’s radio went out completely. We lost contact with G.C.I. and was unable to hear me although I could hear him.
We were above a solid overcast and after considerable flying about he finally went down through the overcast and came out over the RAF Calveley Airdrome which we circled for approximately three quarters of an hour. He fired two flares, one green green and one yellow yellow over the field which gained no results. There was no outer circle lights or runway lights showing.
Circled field until gasoline supply began playing out then gained altitude with the intention of abandoning the aircraft.
Knowing that he intended to abandon ship I made myself ready to jump. I saw him jump clear of the ship, however before I jumped myself I tried to jettison the escape hatch, but it only opened normally so I climbed down the ladder and jumped clear. Abandoned the aircraft at approximately 0415 hrs. The aircraft crashed at Whardle, Cheshire.
DELBERT W. DOW
2nd Lt. Air Corps