Vladimir Pavlecka had a message for his boss, Jack Northrop. It was October 1940, and a U.S. Army Air Corps colonel had summoned Pavlecka, Northrop’s chief of research, to a meeting at Wright Field in Ohio. The engineer was instructed to commit to memory—he could take no notes—specifications for a secret aircraft. This “Night Interceptor Pursuit Airplane” included an unnamed device that could “see and distinguish other airplanes” in total darkness. From the tone of the meeting, Pavlecka concluded that accepting the project wasn’t an option. It was an order.
The Northrop Aircraft Corporation, headquartered in Hawthorne, California, was only a year old, operating principally as a subcontractor for larger aircraft makers, so it seemed an unlikely choice to commission for the development of the world’s first dedicated night fighter. However, established manufacturers—Lockheed, Grumman, Douglas—were already committed beyond their capacity to stocking the nation’s flying arsenal. Also, the military may have gotten wind of something: A month earlier, the British Purchasing Commission had quietly approached Northrop with specs for a proposed night fighter for the Royal Air Force. Having endured nightly hammering from German bombers during the Blitz, the Brits had learned that night fighting required an aircraft with special characteristics: a high ceiling to intercept intruders, extended loiter time to circle a defended zone slowly, and the firepower to take down big bombers before they reached their targets. And perhaps most important, that unnamed device.
In the first world war, darkness had been used to cloak airborne weapons. German Zeppelins, though awkward aerial punching bags by day, hectored England with bombing raids on moonless nights. Gotha biplanes also night-bombed London, inflicting even greater casualties. Though England fought back with searchlight-guided Sopwith Camels and anti-aircraft fire, the memory of high explosives raining out of the darkness was unnerving to the British as they learned that German belligerence and warplane production was ramping up again in the 1930s.
In the United States, where the airspace had never been violated, the ability to fight at night was a low priority. “It involved a handful of military pilots, trained by civilian airline pilots, who used conventional radio aids and standard flight instruments,” recounts Carroll Smith, destined to become the highest scoring night ace in the Pacific, in American Nightfighter Aces of World War 2 by Andrew Thomas and Warren Thompson. “The glaring weakness of this was that few of these pilots were able to fly without visual references to the ground.”