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The Smallest Boeing Ever Made Was Maneuverable But Couldn’t Fly Very Far

Caught Between Fighter Design Evolution and Revolution, The Peashooter Did Its Best

This Tiny Boeing Was Used To Field The First Production Monoplane Squadron

On March 20th 1932 the first Boeing P-26 Peashooter took to the skies for the first time. A rare sight nowadays, the P-26 was an important step from biplane pursuit ships toward the future of fighter aircraft designs. The stubby little fighter was significant in many ways, but none so much as being the first production monoplane in squadron service with the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC).

The USAAC ordered 111 P-26As from Boeing on January 11th 1933. The order was later increased to 136 aircraft. During the 1930s aircraft development moved quickly, and the P-26 was overtaken just as quickly by more advanced closed-cockpit, retractable landing gear, cantilever winged fighters like the British Hawker Hurricane and German Messerschmitt Bf-109. When introduced the P-26 was capable of impressive 234 miles per hour speeds, which would be far too slow to be effective in aerial combat…and way too soon.

Photo Credit: Greg Goebel

In actuality the P-26 was practically an antique by the time it had been in service for only a couple of years. It was indeed the fastest pursuit ship in use by the USAAC when it was introduced. Another fact of life during the 1930s was lean times. The USAAC directed P-26 outfits to paint their aircraft in colorful schemes that would promote good will with the public, which is why so many P-26s were painted in outlandishly bright colors and art deco-inspired schemes.

Powered by the Wright R-1340 single-row radial engine, the same engine that powered aircraft like the North American T-6 / SNJ Texan trainers and later the Kaman HH-43 Husky helicopter, pilots reported that the P-26 was easy to fly but tricky in the pattern. A rash of landing accidents, caused by the high approach speeds required to land the P-26, resulted in another first for the stubby little Boeing fighter- landing flaps.

Photo Credit: Flying Legends

22 USAAC Pursuit Squadrons flew the P-26 at one time or another, but when the new Seversky P-35s and Curtiss P-36 Hawks came into service the Peashooter was replaced by these newer fighters featuring all-metal construction, enclosed cockpits, and retractable landing gear. P-36s first saw combat when used by the Chinese Nationalist Air Force against the invading Japanese beginning in 1937. In fact, the first dogfights between all-metal monoplane fighters occurred when the Chinese P-26s took on the Japanese A5M Claude fighters.

Photo Credit: National Air and Space Museum

There were a few P-26s being operated by the Philippine Army Air Corps when the Japanese turned their attention in that direction. Filipino-American Captain Jesus A. Villamor shot down a Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 Nell bomber and one of his wingmen shot down one of the vaunted Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeroes. Courage was a common virtue among the outgunned P-26 pilots, but in the end the last surviving Filipino Peashooters were burned to prevent their falling into Japanese hands on Christmas Eve 1941. Villamor was awarded not one, but two, Distinguished Service Crosses for his actions in defense of the Philippines during mid-December 1941.

Long since retired by the USAAC, Guatemala actually used P-26s until 1956 when they were replaced by P-51D Mustangs. Another P-26 distinction is that the Peashooter was the last Boeing-built production fighter aircraft until the company absorbed McDonnell-Douglas and hung its name on the F/A-18 Hornet in 2002.

Photo by Kevin Trotman

Other than the USAAC, P-26s were operated by the Nationalist China, Guatemala, the Philippine Army Air Corps, and the Spanish Republican Air Force (demonstration only). Seeing a flying example of a Peashooter in this day and age is a rare treat. Enjoy!

 

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.