Pioneers

P-26 Peashooter – The Dawn of Modern Fighter Aircraft

The Boeing P-26 Peashooter stands as a significant milestone in the history of aviation.

This unique aircraft, the first American all-metal monoplane fighter, straddled the line between the old and the new, marking the transition from an era of biplane fighters to modern monoplane designs.

The Peashooter not only witnessed an evolution in aircraft technology but also paved the way for the aerial combat tactics of the Second World War.

Contents

Development

The development of the Peashooter began in the early 1930s.

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This period was characterised by significant advancements in aviation technology and the gradual shift from biplanes to monoplanes.

Recognising the need for a more advanced and manoeuvrable fighter, the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) issued a request for a monoplane design, to which Boeing responded.

The XP-936 prototype.
The XP-936 prototype.

The Boeing team, led by chief engineer Claire Egtvedt, presented the Model 248 to the USAAC in 1931. The Model 248 was a low-wing monoplane, a design feature that was a considerable departure from the traditional biplane configuration.

The USAAC was impressed by the capabilities of the Model 248 during the evaluation and trials and consequently ordered three prototypes. These prototypes were designated XP-936.

The XP-936 was later evolved into the P-26A, the first production variant of the Peashooter.

The P-26A made its inaugural flight in March 1932.

Despite its innovative design features, the P-26A retained certain elements from older aircraft, such as an open cockpit and a fixed undercarriage.

These features were characteristic of the transitional period in which the P-26 was developed, an era that straddled the line between the old and the new.

The success of the P-26A led to the development of further variants like the P-26B and P-26C, as well as the Model 281, which was built for export.

However, these subsequent models featured only minor alterations and adjustments from the original P-26A design.

The P-26A.
The P-26A.

In conclusion, the development of the P-26 represented a significant step forward in aviation technology and design, marking a clear transition from the era of biplanes to the age of monoplanes.

This is why the Peashooter is often regarded as a pioneering aircraft in aviation history.

Design

The Boeing P-26 Peashooter was a unique amalgamation of both traditional and innovative design elements, setting the stage for the evolution of future fighter aircraft.

In terms of its structure, it was an all-metal monoplane, the first of its kind in American military service.

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This was a stark departure from the previous era’s fabric-covered, wood-framed bodies and biplane designs.

The Peashooter’s monoplane configuration and its semi-monocoque fuselage construction – where the skin of the aircraft supports the load along with the underlying frame – significantly improved the aircraft’s structural integrity and aerodynamic efficiency.

A P-26 Peashooter. Photo credit - RuthAS CC BY 3.0.
The monoplane wing design was cutting edge. Photo credit – RuthAS CC BY 3.0.

The aircraft was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney R-1340-27 Wasp radial engine, which could deliver around 600 horsepower.

This allowed the P-26 to reach a maximum speed of approximately 234 mph and gave it a service ceiling of around 27,400 feet. The aircraft had a range of about 360 miles, making it a potent asset for short-range operations.

Despite these modern features, the P-26 also retained elements reminiscent of previous-generation aircraft.

For armament, the Peashooter was equipped with a combination of machine guns and bombs.

Standard armament included two .30 calibre machine guns or one .50 calibre and one .30 calibre machine gun, depending on the model. It also had provision for mounting two 100 lb bombs under the wings for ground-attack roles.

Many early US aircraft utilised the Browning .30cal machine gun.
Many early US aircraft utilised the Browning .30cal machine gun.

Aesthetically, the P-26 was distinctive. Most units were finished with bright aluminium paint, giving them a visually striking appearance that set them apart from their contemporaries.

The Peashooter’s unique combination of futuristic design and remnants of the past made it a truly distinctive aircraft during its operational life.

Variants

The Boeing P-26 Peashooter, the first all-metal monoplane fighter to enter service with the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC), was produced in several variants.

Each version of the P-26 brought subtle refinements and improvements to its design and capabilities, reflecting the rapid pace of aviation development in the 1930s. In this article, we’ll dive into the specifics of each variant and their contributions to the Peashooter’s legacy.

The P-26A was the initial production model of the Peashooter.

The P&W R-1340 Wasp. Photo credit - Sanjay Acharya CC BY-SA 3.0.
The P&W R-1340 Wasp. Photo credit – Sanjay Acharya CC BY-SA 3.0.

Powered by a 600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1340-27 Wasp radial engine, the P-26A was capable of reaching a maximum speed of approximately 234 mph. It could climb to an altitude of 27,400 feet and had a range of about 360 miles.

The P-26A was armed with two .30 calibre machine guns and had provisions for two 100 lb bombs under the wings. The USAAC ordered a total of 111 P-26As, making it the most produced variant of the Peashooter.

The P-26B was an experimental variant. It was essentially identical to the P-26A but with one key difference: its engine.

The P-26B was fitted with a fuel-injected Pratt & Whitney R-1340-33 Wasp engine. This modification provided the aircraft with a slightly increased power output.

However, due to the high cost of the fuel-injected engine and difficulties with its maintenance, only one P-26B was ever produced.

It was later converted back to a P-26A.

The P-26C was a slightly refined version of the P-26A. The main difference between the P-26A and P-26C was the latter’s improved fuel system. This allowed the aircraft to manage its fuel more efficiently, increasing its range and operational flexibility.

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Visually and performance-wise, the P-26C was almost indistinguishable from the P-26A. The USAAC ordered 23 P-26Cs, making it the second most produced variant of the Peashooter.

P-26s of the 9th aircraft formation, 20th Fighter Group.
P-26s of the 9th aircraft formation, 20th Fighter Group.

The Model 281 was an export version of the Peashooter. Outwardly similar to the P-26A, the Model 281 was produced for the international market. It was essentially a P-26C but was made with slight modifications to meet specific foreign military requirements.

A total of 11 Model 281s were produced, all of which were sold to the Chinese Nationalist Air Force. These aircraft saw extensive service in the Second Sino-Japanese War, where they were used against Japanese forces.

Operational Use

The Peashooter, despite its relatively short period of active service, has a fascinating operational history, marked by pioneering advancements in aviation technology and significant military engagements.

The first P-26A models were delivered to the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) in December 1933, entering service with the 20th Pursuit Group at Barksdale Field in Louisiana.

There are not many P-26s that are still whole today. Photo credit - Aaron Headly CC BY-SA 4.0.
There are not many P-26s that are still whole today. Photo credit – Aaron Headly CC BY-SA 4.0.

As the primary fighter of the USAAC in the mid-1930s, the P-26 served both in the continental United States and overseas, particularly in Hawaii, Panama, and the Philippines.

The Peashooter, due to its advanced design and impressive performance, quickly became a crucial asset in the USAAC’s pursuit squadrons.

Despite being designed primarily for air-to-air combat, the P-26 also performed ground attack missions when needed, demonstrating its versatility.

Outside of the United States, the P-26 saw active service with several foreign air forces.

The Chinese Nationalist Air Force, which had purchased the Model 281 export variant, used the P-26 extensively during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937.

Chinese Model 281s.
Chinese Model 281s.

Despite being relatively outdated compared to some of the Japanese aircraft, the P-26s flown by Chinese pilots proved effective in several engagements.

Additionally, the Spanish Republicans operated a handful of P-26s during the Spanish Civil War, although the details of their service are somewhat unclear.

By the time World War II broke out, the P-26 was essentially obsolete compared to newer, faster, and better-armed fighters.

However, due to the desperate circumstances, some P-26s did see action in the early stages of the conflict.

The most notable engagement involving the P-26 during the Second World War occurred in the Philippines following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The Philippine Army Air Corps, operating a number of P-26s, used these aircraft against the invading Japanese forces.

A P-26 A with the Philippine air force in 1941.
A P-26A with the Philippine air force in 1941.

Despite their best efforts, the P-26s, outclassed by superior Japanese aircraft, were largely unsuccessful in halting the invasion.

By the mid-1940s, most P-26s had been withdrawn from front-line service, replaced by more modern aircraft. Those that remained were used primarily for training or secondary duties.

Conclusion

The Boeing P-26 Peashooter was a key player in the transitional period of aviation history, representing the move from fabric and wood to metal construction, and from biplanes to sleeker monoplane designs.

Its design, its service, and its influence in the evolution of fighter aircraft remain remarkable.

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While it was operational for only a short period, the P-26 played a pivotal role in various conflicts and marked a significant point in the history of military aviation.

The legacy of the P-26 Peashooter endures, a testament to its pioneering design and its place as the herald of a new era of fighter aircraft.

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Specifications

  • Crew: One
  • Length: 23 ft 7 in (7.19 m)
  • Wingspan: 28 ft (8.5 m)
  • Height: 10 ft (3.0 m)
  • Empty weight: 2,196 lb (996 kg)
  • Gross weight: 3,360 lb (1,524 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Pratt & Whitney R-1340-27 Wasp 9-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine, 600 hp (450 kW)
  • Maximum speed: 234 mph (377 km/h, 203 kn)
  • Combat range: 360 mi (580 km, 310 nmi)
  • Ferry range: 635 mi (1,022 km, 552 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 27,400 ft (8,400 m)
  • Rate of climb: 719 ft/min (3.65 m/s)
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