P-26 Peashooter: The Best Fighter of World War II?
This design was actually a big deal for the time and helped the Air Force modernize between the World Wars.
With a nickname like “Peashooter” you’d probably not think much of such a fighter aircraft. In 1941 the Boeing P-26 essentially lived up to the despairing moniker. But go back to 1932 and it was quite a different story, and at the time the P-26 was actually quite the airplane.
It was considered a technological breakthrough when it first took flight, and it was also notable for being the U.S. Army Air Corps’ first all-metal monoplane in regular service, and the first to introduce flaps to aid in landing. It actually earned the nickname as it could fly much faster in level flight than the older wood and fabric biplanes, while it could also land at much higher speeds, upwards of 83 mph. In the skies it could reach a top speed of 227 miles per hour and had a range of 360 miles.
It was also notable for its place on the aviation evolutionary tree.
Even with its modern monoplane design and all-metal construction, the Peashooter retained some traditional features from earlier aircraft including an open cockpit, fixed landing gear and notable external wing bracings. While it was revolutionary in its design, it was still the last Air Corps fighter to have such obsolete characteristics.
After the first of three prototypes took to the skies in March 1932, the Army Air Corps ended up ordering a total of 111 of the original P-26A production version, and then twenty-five of the later B and C models. It officially entered service in 1934, and despite the progress that was made in aviation design in the 1930s, the Peashooter remained the Air Corps’ front-line fighter until 1938 when it was quickly replaced by the Curtiss P-36A and the Seversky P-35. Even as late as 1938, it was among the fastest fighters in the skies.
It was initially armed with two .30 caliber machine guns, while one was later upgraded to a .50 caliber. It could also carry either two 100-pound bombs or a total of five 31-pound bombs for use in ground-support missions.
In addition to service with the United States Army Air Corps, the P-26 Peashooter also was exported to the Republic of China, where it was used in combat against the Japanese, and reportedly proved capable against the Mitsubishi A6M Zero; while in 1941 the government of the Philippines also employed the P-26 against Japanese forces. The last of the Air Corps’ P-26s served to defend the Panama Canal until 1942, when the seven aircraft were subsequently exported to Guatemala. In service with the Fuerza Aérea Guatemalteca (Guatemala Air Force), the planes were only retired in 1956—well into the early days of the jet age!
Only two original Peashooters remain today, and only one is airworthy. Obtained from Guatemala, it is owned by the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California and has been regularly featured in the Planes of Fame Air Show. The second aircraft is in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, and it had also been transferred to Guatemala before ending its service.
Three replicas are also on display respectively at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the San Diego Air and Space Museum and the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach. There have also been efforts on-ongoing since 1991 to build airworthy replicas of the most evolutionary of Army Air Corps fighters.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.