The classic American-originated Boeing P-26 "Peashooter" arrived between the wars and was a product of its time. America's first all-metal fighter, the design still carried several more traditional elements of a bygone era of flight such as an open-air cockpit and fixed, spatted tail-dragging undercarriage. The P-26 would be the last quantitative fighter of the United States to feature these throw-back elements as the shift to more modern systems was had heading into World War 2 (1939-1945).
The P-26 began as a private venture by Boeing with the Model 248. This specimen, designed around the Pratt & Whitney R-1340 air-cooled radial piston engine, was brought to the attention of U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) authorities who became interested in the type back in September of 1931. In a short nine week period, a fully-flyable prototype (XP-936) was completed and first-flown on March 20th, 1932. Three prototypes eventually emerged for the program - all fitting the PW R-1340-21 "Wasp" radial.
The basic design incorporated low-mounted monoplane wings well-ahead of midships. The cockpit, too, was set ahead of midships with generally decent views over the nose and wings. A headrest was set behind the pilot and protruded from the dorsal spine line. The large radial engine sat ahead of the pilot and the tail incorporated a traditional single-finned arrangement. The large, spatted main landing gear legs were set under each wing. Performance from the engine was impressive for its time - allowing the aircraft to reach speeds of 227 miles per hour, much faster than anything available to the USAAC.
Armament centered on 2 x 0.30 caliber Browning M1919 air-cooled machine guns or a combination arrangement of 1 x 0.30 caliber and 1 x 0.50 caliber Browning M2 heavy machine gun. In addition to this, the fighter could take on light bombing sorties by carrying 2 x 100lb bombs into action. This could also be substituted with five anti-personnel bombs as needed.
The USAAC liked what it saw and ordered the type into service to succeed the line of Boeing P-12 biplane fighters (these managed a max speed of 190 miles per hour). Such was the interest in the nimble machine that the P-26 order became the largest in USAAC history when placed in January of 1933.
Initial models were the P-26A which sported a taller headrest to protect the pilot during nose-over accidents (one pilot was killed during such an accident, prompting a revision to the structure). 111 were produced to the standard and these were outfitted with the PW-1340-27 engine of 600 horsepower. Just two were completed in the P-26B guise which featured the fuel-injected R-1340-33 radial of 600 horsepower. The P-26C then followed in 23 examples and these were completed with carburated R-1340-33 radials sporting a new, revised fuel system. It was exported as the Model 281 by Boeing with eleven examples shipped to China and a single example delivered to Spain.
Beyond the United States, China, and Spain, the Peashooter was used by the Guatemalan Air Force and the Philippine Army Air Corps.
In practice, the lightweight fighter was a pilot favorite with key qualities being responsiveness and handling. Landing speeds were fast (about 73 mph), however, and took a steady experienced hand at the controls particularly when attempting a landing on a rough airstrip - split flaps were added to remedy this. Still, the P-26 remained the fastest USAAC fighter mount even into 1938
The P-26 was something of an outclassed relic by the time of the official American involvement in World War 2 as modern all-metal fighters with enclosed cockpits and retractable undercarriages were appearing in greater numbers. It was nonetheless pressed into service particularly by the Chinese in their war against the invading Japanese where the P-26 acquitted itself rather well as a bomber-interceptor. P-26s were also pressed into service during the Philippines campaign by the Americans and Filipinos and were in use as defenders over the critical Panama Canal Zone. During the war, Guatemala received their P-26 stock. In time, the value of the P-26 dwindled and it was overtaken / overshadowed by more advanced mounts. It continued to serve in second-rate air services globally and flew its last combat-minded sortie (with Guatemala) in 1954.
In all, 151 of the type were produced. The P-29 and XF7B-1 were both offshoots of the P-26 by Boeing as engineers attempted to advance the product along - though neither of these aircraft succeeded.