481st Night Fighter Operational Training Group

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481st Night Fighter Operational Training Group
420th Night Fighter Squadron P-61 42-39728 in its "stealth" camouflaged shiny black paint, out of place in the daylight skies over California
Active 1943–1944
Country  United States
Branch US Army Air Corps Hap Arnold Wings.svg  United States Army Air Forces
Type Operational Training/Replacement Unit
Role Night Fighter Training
Garrison/HQ Orlando Army Air Base, Florida
Hammer Field, California
Engagements World War II - American Campaign Streamer (Plain).png
World War II American Campaign

The 481st Night Fighter Operational Training Group (481 NFOTG) is an inactive United States Air Force unit. It was inactivated on 31 March 1944 at Hammer Field, California.

The 481st was the primary night fighter Operational Training Unit (OTU)/Replacement Training Unit (RTU) of the Army Air Forces during World War II. Its mission was to train either new graduates of Training Command advanced flying schools or transition experienced pilots into the P-61 Black Widow night fighter. It trained them in the flight characteristics of the aircraft and also night fighter interceptor techniques prior to the operational squadrons or replacement pilots being deployed to one of the overseas combat theaters.



Specialized training in night fighter interceptor tactics began in March 1942 upon the return of Air Corps observers from England prior to the United States' entry into World War II. During World War I, the 1st Pursuit Group 185th Aero Squadron had flown night interception of enemy aircraft, primarily bombers and observation aircraft. It was engaged in combat for less than a month before the 1918 Armistice with Germany.[1]

In the 1920s and 1930s night fighting became the responsibility of regular Pursuit squadrons. These units had enough problems preparing for day war, much less confronting the obstacles of darkness. Yet, despite minimal budgets, pioneering airmen still strove to conquer the night by developing blind-flying techniques, primarily at the Army Air Service’s Engineering Division at McCook Field, and later at the Army Air Corps’ Materiel Division at Wright Field, both in Ohio.[2]

Upon review of the recommendations presented by the observers, the Air Defense Operational Training Unit was established by Third Air Force on 26 March; it was re-designated as the Interceptor Command School on 30 March. Initially established at Key Field, Mississippi, the school was moved to Orlando Army Air Base, Florida.[3]

"To fly these night fighters, the United States needed a different breed of aviator. So difficult and dangerous was the assignment that the AAF relied on volunteers only. Yet the mission was so exciting that there were always plenty of volunteers."[4] V Interceptor Command was given initial responsibility for night training at Orlando. En route to the Philippines in 1941 when the Japanese launched their invasion, the unit was ordered back to Orlando, Florida, to train personnel for defense wings.[2]

Operational/Replacement Training

Army Air Force School of Applied Tactics

Night Fighter Training began in July, 1942 at the Fighter Command School, Night Fighter Division, Army Air Force School of Applied Tactics (AAFSAT) at Orlando Army Air Base, Florida. AAFSAT was ordered to develop a training program to produce pilots with night fighting skills. Immediate requirements were to train night fighter pilots for two operational squadrons that were destined for Hawaii and for Panama. By the end of September, AAFSAT had re-designated the program as the Night Fighter Department (Dark) and the first training was carried out by the 50th Pursuit Group, which was assigned to the AAFSAT Fighter Command School.[5]

Initially, the school received a B-18 Bolo and a number of Douglas P-70 Havocs to initiate the program. Production delays at Northrop for the P-61 Black Widow fighter aircraft required the unit to use what it had until the first YP-61s were received in early 1944.[3] In October, it was decided to form specialized night fighter training squadrons, and the 348th and 349th Night Fighter Squadrons were formed,[5] largely from elements of the 50th Fighter Group, 81st Fighter Squadron. In January 1943 the school was expanded from Orlando to Kissimmee Army Airfield due to the expansion of AAFSAT and the Fighter Command School.[3]

At Kissimmee, the first operational night fighter combat squadrons were activated (414th and 415th NFS) and Operational Training was carried out. Each squadron was manned with graduates of Training Command's twin-engine flying training and Training Command’s B–25 transition school before beginning night fighter training. Once accepted for night fighter training, the student received eight weeks of training in the Douglas DB7 or P-70s. Training consisted of two phases; night flying and night fighting. First came 78 daylight flying hours and 137 hours of ground school, followed by 76 flying hours and 30 hours of ground school in night fighting. Subjects included instruments, airborne radar, night navigation, meteorology, aircraft recognition, searchlight coordination, and ground control radar coordination. Lacking real nighttime combat experience, the AAF created a training program that was ad hoc from the beginning. In all, the night fighter crew would receive 93 hours of instrument flying, 90 hours in a Link trainer, 15 hours of night interceptions, and 10 ground control radar intercepts.[2]

The initial group of four squadrons (414th, 415th, 416th and 417th NFS) were the first graduates of the hastily organized training program at Orlando. When deployed to England, they were sent with the P-70 night fighters they trained in, however, when they got there, these squadrons were re-equipped with used Bristol Beaufighter Mk VIF radar-equipped nightfighters obtained from Britain under Reverse Lend-Lease. From there they were deployed to their combat assignments with Twelfth Air Force in North Africa to provide protection for the combat airfields in Algeria and Tunisia against Luftwaffe night attacks.[5][6]

On 1 April 1943, AAFSAT expanded the Night Fighter Division, placing it under the Air Defense Department, and transferred all training from the Night Fighter Section to the new Division. Beginning in May 1943, orders from HQ AAF were received that the training needed to be expanded to accommodate one new night fighter squadron per month. The school at Kissimmee was expanded with a third OTU, the 420th Night Fighter Squadron at Dunnellon Army Air Field.[3]

With the expansion of the Night Fighter Training Division, tasks were divided into three major functions. The 348th NFS at Orlando AAB provided the initial Operational Training for new Training Command pilots. The 349th at Kissimmee AAF carried out two-engine transition training, while the 420th at Dunnellion AAF provided Replacement Training (RTU). On 15 July 1943, the 481st Night Fighter Operational Training Group was activated to give the school better organizational structure. In September, the first American-built dedicated night fighter, the Northrup YP-61 Black Widow, began to arrive. The YP-61 and a few production P-61As were assigned to the school for both the training programs as well as flight-testing of various turret/gun configurations. Also a second RTU was established in November when the 424th Night Fighter Squadron was formed. The SCR-720 Radar Operators for the P-61 were first sent to the Radar School at Boca Raton AAF then came back to Orlando for flight training.[3] The second group of squadrons (418th, 419th, and 421st NFS) completed their training in the YP-61 and were sent to the Pacific Theater in November and December, operating from bases on Guadalcanal and New Guinea.[5][6]

Fourth Air Force

With the arrival of the P-61 Black Widow, it was decided to move the school to California. This would situate the school closer to the Northrup manufacturing plant at Hawthorne, and was more efficient because the new squadrons programmed for Operational Training would be deploying to either the Pacific or CBI Theaters and would depart from the US west coast. In addition, the Air Staff had decided that the School of Applied Tactics should not be in the training business, although the SCR-720 radar training program would remain at Orlando due to its proximity to the basic Radar School at Boca Raton Army Airfield. The 481st NFOTU and its training squadrons were moved to Hammer Field, near Fresno California on 1 January 1944 and were placed under Fourth Air Force IV Fighter Command.[2]

Under the overall supervision of Fourth Air Force night fighter crews were organized into squadrons and entered three phases of training. Phase One consisted of familiarization training at Bakersfield Municipal Airport. Phase Two was designed to weld pilots and R/Os into teams, and included instruction at Hammer Field, while Phase Three consisted of advanced training, including intensive night flying practice, and took place at Salinas Field. Each phase lasted approximately one month. Finally, after two more months of organizational training at Santa Ana Field, the night fighter squadrons were ready for transfer overseas. The third group of squadrons, trained both in Florida and California, were sent to England as part of Ninth Air Force shortly before D–Day. They would be employed after the Normandy Invasion to initially provide night air defense over France.[2][6]

Three months after the move to California, on 31 March the 481st was disbanded when the AAF found that standard military units, based on relatively inflexible tables of organization were proving less well adapted to the training mission. Accordingly a more functional system was adopted in which each base was organized into a separate numbered unit during a reorganization of units in the United States.[7]

The 319th Wing, activated on 1 April, took over the duties of the 481st, disbanding the group and all of its squadrons on 31 March. It was replaced by the 450th Army Air Forces Base Unit (Night Fighter Replacement Training Unit) as the P-61 RTU, and the squadron designations replaced by letters (A, B, C, D).[3] The 319th Wing completed training for six new Night Fighter Squadrons: the 426th, 427th, 547th, 548th, 549th, and 550th which deployed to both the China and Pacific Theaters.[6] A major new mission for the units was to protect the new XX Bomber Command B-29 bases in China and later in the Marianas from Japanese night attacks.[6]

The unit transitioned to replacement training (RTU) only on 1 December 1944 when the 550th Night Fighter Squadron was deployed to New Guinea, ending the Operational Training Mission.[3] The training syllabus was expanded in early 1945 to include training in offensive day and night interdiction missions, as by this point in the war, enemy aircraft attacks at night were becoming less and less frequent. The well-armed P-61s carried out attacks on shipping, railroads and enemy movements, both day and night, with devastating effect.[2] RTU training continued until the end of August 1945 when the school at Hammer Field was inactivated with the end of the war in the Pacific.[3]


  • Constituted as 481st Night Fighter Operational Training Group on 12 July 1943
Activated on 15 July 1943
Disbanded on 31 March 1944
  • Personnel and equipment reassigned to 450th Army Air Forces Base Unit (Night Fighter Replacement Training Unit), 1 April 1944
Disbanded on 31 August 1945[2][8]



Operational/Replacement Training Units
Operated from : Orlando AAB (1943); Salinas AAB (1944)
Operated from: Kissimmee AAF (1943); Hammer Field (1944)
Operated from: Dunnellon AAF; Hammer Field (1944)
Operated from : Orlando AAB (1943); Hammer Field (1944)[5][8]
Combat units trained

Note: the 6th Night Fighter Squadron was trained and equipped in Hawaii[5]


Also operated from: Kissimmee Army Airfield and Dunnellon Army Air Field[5]
Also operated from: Meadows Field Airport, Bakersfield; Delano Army Airfield; Kern County Airport; Visalia Municipal Airport, and Salinas Army Air Base[5]

See also


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

  1. Series "E", Volume 27, Supplemental History of the 10th–636th Squadrons. Gorrell's History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917–1919, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 McFarland, Stephen L. (1988), Conquering the Night: Army Air Forces Night Fighters at War, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air Force History and Museums Program<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[page needed]
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Northrop P-61 Black Widow—The Complete History and Combat Record, Garry R. Pape, John M. Campbell and Donna Campbell, Motorbooks International, 1991.
  4. McFarland p16
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Thompson and Stalling (1998), P-61 Black Widow Units of World War 2 (Osprey Combat Aircraft 8), Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1855327252[page needed]
  7. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Email from Daniel L. Haulman, PhD, Chief, Organizational Histories Branch, Air Force Historical Research Agency