View Full Version : P-61 Night Vision Binoculars

12-24-2009, 01:34 PM

A find for the few other odd souls who are interested in what exactly this 6x42 glass was. I know I am. I follow a binocular collector website, and very little is known about them. Not even agreement which company made them.

The drawing is by R. W. Porter, who was on the faculty at Cal Tech during the war--it's out of the Cal Tech archive. Assume that Porter had something to do with their development. I like the sketch because it's clearer than the muzzy photograph in the dash-1 P-61 Pilots Handbook.

A collector named Fan Tao has a pair of these--only ones known in existence. They have a reticle of four dots in a horizontal line, illuminated, with a dimmer--the dots presumably used for ranging as well as aiming.

Very few combat reports mention P-61 pilots using these. Very few in-theater cockpit photos show these binoculars mounted. Hard to escape the conclusion they weren't very useful.

But if the P-61 ever shows up in the game... Be nice to have these on a toggle for night vision enhancement.

12-24-2009, 03:09 PM
Those look like they would be more in the way than of any help.

12-24-2009, 10:55 PM
They swing out of the way and lock to the side. Still, I suspect you're right. They'd be in the way stowed as well.

12-25-2009, 01:00 AM
Experiments at the night fighter training school in Florida, along with suggestions from the field*, brought about the inclusion of night binoculars in the B model for the pilot.

Here they are stowed, and viewed from the outside with the pilots hatch open.

The binoculars were mounted on a track above the pilot's head along the left side of the canopy and could be slowed in an up position or could be pulled along the track and adjusted to eye level when locked in place.

The view from the Pilots seat.

The night binoculars were a combination of 5.8 night glasses and optical gunsights mounted on gimbals to prevent vibrations during flight. When the pilot was ready to use the night binoculars he simply swung them into the position immediately in front of his head at eye level and locked them. All manipulation and movement of the night binoculars could be accomplished with one hand operation, allowing full control of the aircraft while locking the binoculars into position. The optical gunsight of the night binoculars consisted of a row of horizontal illuminated dots, four in number. The pilot simply aligned these dots with the wing of the aircraft being pursued. The inner dots were ten mills apart and the outer dots 70 mills ' apart. Thus enabling the pilot to scale the enemy's range with remarkable accuracy.

A diagram illustrating the dots presented to the Pilot.

The night binoculars were unique since with these pilots could shoot accurately and see approximately five times as far at night as a pilot without the advantage of night binoculars.

* I would wager that this is in reference to the British practice of the use of Ross Night Binoculars. Which were is use and particularly useful for the visual identification of aircraft. Better id the plane as a bandit. You cannot shoot down an unidentified bogey. This order (like all orders in theory) was supposed to be followed rigidly.

Here is a picture of the Ross night binoculars in use.


C.F. Rawnsley, John Cunningham's radar operator, in his book "Night Fighter":

"The Luftwaffe kept up their attacks [Mid-43], making the most they could of their limited numbers by sending in mixed raids of FW-190s, ME-410s and JU-88s. This mixture of fast and comparatively slow types, and the presence all the time of so many of our own bombers returning from raids, made the job of identification by ground control extremely difficult. Visual recognition by the night fighters became even more essential than before; and it helped a great deal when we were issued with Ross night binoculars. Though they had no great magnification, these glasses had an amazing power of collecting light. We tried them out after dark, standing at the door of the crewroom. A vague blur to the naked eye two hundred yards away took on with the help of the binoculars the clear outline of a Mosquito, with the squadron letters plainly readable on the fuselage. . . Halfway through August the Germans put on a sharp raid on Portsmouth . . . Three times during the course of the raid they [the GCI station] gave us contact, and each time I sweated after our target -- they were all coming in fairly fast -- and brought John into visual range.

"The first one was flying as straight as an arrow. We were closing in quickly, and I brought my new binoculars to bear. it turned out to be a Beaufighter. The second waited until we were within three thousand feet, but before John could see it the pilot started a tight turn to port. That was a little puzzling, for he could hardly have seen us, unless the Germans were now equipped with radar tail warning. But that pilot had chosen the wrong man for a winding match, and after a couple of turns John was well inside and rapidly closing in. Our target then steadied up and we saw that it was another Beaufighter.

"Our third customer was moving a great deal faster, and although he flew straight on it took us some time to catch him. At John's word I looked up from the A.I. set. The strap of the glasses caught in my harness, but even without them I could see that this was no Beaufighter. The fuselage was much to slim and delicate for that; it was far more likely to be an ME-410. I fumbled impatiently with the strap and finally got the glasses to bear. Our target leapt into clear profile. this time it was a Mosquito!"


If she were a little less BULBOUS she would be properly sinister. A rarity for Allied aircraft IMHO.

12-25-2009, 06:35 AM
I did not know about these.
How effective were they really?

For those who love the P-61, you must make your way to Reading, PA and check out the Mid Atlantic Air Museum. It is in the hangar and can be seen year round. The restoration is mostly completed.
A good friend of mine in my American Legion post has been actively involved in the restoration process since the beginning.

12-25-2009, 06:04 PM
Thanks for the post, Waldo P.

No offense meant, but this is the usual stuff you see on the P-61 night glasses. To me, it's always sounded a little too much like the optimism of a military press release--this is what these magic glasses can do.

My point is that they were simply binoculars with a bit larger oculars. Same old glass lenses as any other. No enhancement, nothing like night-vision binos. Take a pair of 7x50 sport binoculars--a common dimension--out at night and look at planes passing overhead. See how much better you see them. Not too much, I suggest. And these P-61 binos were 6x42s, a wider angle than 7x50, a bit more light-gathering, but a notch less magnification.

And I have no wish to contradict the noted C.W. Rawnsley, but I have a pair of those Ross 5x40 RAF issue he mentions here in the collection at the library at Castle Jungmann. And I've taken them out at night and never been impressed with them, never seen how they provided Beaufighter or other-type observers much of an advantage over the night-adapted naked eye.

But coming back to the P-61, I wish somebody could link me to some combat reports that included the use of the on-board binoculars, so I could confirm or drop my suspicion that the binos weren't that useful and were often un-installed in theater.

12-25-2009, 06:21 PM
This has a reference to an unspecified type of "night binoculars" used by a P-61 gunner:

“The closure was fast and the bogey maintained a steady airspeed with no evasive action, so he was clueless as to what was coming up from the rear. Sergeant Sukow was perched up in the gunner’s compartment with night binoculars, and this allowed him to get a visual at 7,000 feet out. He talked me in as we closed, and at 2,000 feet I was able to see the enemy aircraft and it was a Betty bomber. From that point on, he was easy to track because we had a full moon and I was careful to close behind and below so we were in their blind spot. I eased into position to fire a short burst at about 700 feet and it didn’t seem to have any effect on the enemy bomber. A long second burst converged on his port engine and it immediately burst into flames, which quickly spread to the fuselage. In that glow, we saw the large rising sun painted on the side.”

http://www.historynet.com/bite...-night-fighter.htm/4 (http://www.historynet.com/bite-of-the-black-widow-northrops-p-61-night-fighter.htm/4)

12-25-2009, 06:34 PM
Thanks, Berg.

The C/R doesn't specify what sort of binos the gunner was using. AFIK, the P-61 binos weren't mounted in the gunners seat. He could have been using regular military issue hand held 6x30s or 7x50s.

Or am I straining too hard to make a point?

12-25-2009, 07:33 PM
Why would he refer to regular military issue hand held 6x30s or 7x50s as night binoculars?

12-25-2009, 08:48 PM
Originally posted by Jungmann:
Thanks for the post, Waldo P.

No offense meant, but this is the usual stuff you see on the P-61 night glasses. To me, it's always sounded a little too much like the optimism of a military press release--this is what these magic glasses can do.

None taken. http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_smile.gif

The men of this era were (aside from the few in WW1) essentially inventing night fighting and were trying all sorts of things. Things like IR SPANNER cameras of the Luftwaffe and IR telescope and the IR formation lights of the Mosquito, and similar.

So there were blind alleys. Like using sound mirrors and the Russians using blind people to help find airplanes in the dark, and I bet that these glasses were one. Except maybe not as the idea is alive and well with us today, though greatly improved, in the form of night vision glasses etc.

Originally posted by Jungmann:
AFIK, the P-61 binos weren't mounted in the gunners seat. He could have been using regular military issue hand held 6x30s or 7x50s.

Correct, the Pilot had the gee whiz setup in the P-61. But it does say Night Binoculars so why doubt it?

Originally posted by Jungmann:
... confirm or drop my suspicion that the binos weren't that useful and were often un-installed in theater.

Not trying to be a d1ck about it or anything, but do you have anything other than suspicion about these glasses were EVER removed from the P-61? I have never heard of any being removed, or used for that matter.

The most interesting field mod of the P-61 I read about is eliminating the gunner position entirely and moving the radar operator into his position.

I could see their use in European skies in the winter. But I reckon they would be even less useful in the Pacific. But that is only based on anecdotal reports of pilots who mention the weather being far worse in Europe, particularly in the winter.

03-19-2019, 08:00 PM
I own one, approx 24” x 36”.

Let me know if interested in acquiring. Drawn, signed, dated 1945. Good condition.