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After a decade of dedicated effort, the San Diego Air & Space Museum’s P-26A reproduction is nearing completion.

Amid the din of pounding rivet guns, skilled workmen are busy building a cutting-edge fighter—cutting-edge for 1933, that is. The scene is reminiscent of a 1930s-era Boeing factory floor, but it’s actually taking place in 2009 at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, where for 10 years craftsmen have been building a classic Boeing P-26 “Peashooter” using plans obtained from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

In an age of fabric-covered biplanes, Boeing produced the revolutionary Mono – mail 200, an all-metal commercial monoplane with a cantilever wing and retractable landing gear. Boeing hoped to build on that project by offering the Army Air Corps a monoplane fighter with retractable gear, but knowing the Depression-era Army wasn’t ready for such a radical and expensive design, the firm instead proposed the low-cost P-26. Powered by the proven 550-hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340 engine, the P-26 was America’s first all-metal monoplane fighter, and was considered the most advanced fighter in the world when it entered squadron service in 1934. Yet due to the conservative nature of the Army brass, it also had the distinction of being the last American warplane with an open cockpit, wing-bracing wires and fixed landing gear.

Nicknamed the “Peashooter” because of the long tube-like optical gunsight mounted just ahead of its windscreen, the P-26 first saw combat over Nanking, China, in 1937. Led by Chinese-American squadron leader Wong Pan-Yang, eight Chinese air force Boeing 281s (export versions of the P-26C) shot down two Japanese bombers in a 20-plane formation on August 15. Hopelessly obsolete by the time the United States entered World War II, P-26Cs flown by Filipino pilots fought the Japanese in the dark days just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, P-26s soldiered on after WWII, used by the Guatemalan air force until 1956, perhaps because the nimble little fighter was a joy to fly.

The P-26 project got its start because of one man, Jerry Heveron, a former toolmaker and museum volunteer who as a youngster had built wooden models of the Pea shooter back in the 1930s. In 1999, when he was well into his 70s, Heveron approached the museum’s board with the idea of building a reproduction of the P-26, offering $5,000 in seed money to launch the project. Because it was considered a transitional airplane between World War I’s primitive biplanes and World War II’s high-performance mono – planes, the board approved the project.

Jerry Orr, who once worked as a preliminary design manager on Boeing military programs, is leading the effort. Besides being a talented metalworker, Orr lives and breathes the bumper sticker slogan “If it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going”—just the man to manage this complex project. He acknowledges that a big part of his job is ensuring the authenticity of the P-26 reproduction. His research into the methods and materials Boeing used in the early 1930s has turned up odd little details that he delights in sharing with visitors, such as, “Did you know that Boeing used only slot-headed screws in this airplane?”

The team obtained microfiche copies of original plans, which can sometimes be frustrating to use, since the images are not always clear. Seeking clarification, volunteers examined old P-26 photos looking for clues. During the project’s early days, if a detail remained elusive, they would take a road trip to the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, Calif., for some reverse engineering. Ed Maloney and his friendly staff there welcomed the San Diego team, allowing them to closely inspect their ex–Guatemalan air force P-26.

The San Diego museum is constructing a P-26A reproduction, meaning an airplane using original plans and materials along with some authentic components such as the R-1340 9-cylinder radial engine. Used on thousands of military trainers during WWII, the engine is readily available. But the P-26’s streamlined, low-drag tires (V-shaped from hub to tread)—mounted on fast fixed-gear aircraft in the 1930s—are no longer manufactured. Most people don’t know that the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum preserves historic aircraft tires in a tire refrigerator located in Suitland, Md., but Orr did. Two years into the project, he contacted the Smithsonian, only to be told that streamlined tires were unobtainable.

An accomplished scavenger, Orr was thrilled to discover a pair poking through a pile of P-40 parts in a Los Angeles hangar. Curious as to how these rare tires got into the pile, he stopped asking questions when the generous owner casually said, “Someone gave them to me—you want them?” Orr thinks they may be among the last such tires in existence, which will make the airplane that much more authentic.

The Peashooter was America’s hottest warplane when it debuted in 1934. Boeing obtained a top speed of 234 mph by using a big engine and paying close attention to drag reduction, particularly around the fixed landing gear. Assembling the museum Pea – shooter’s gear are three men in their 80s: mechanical engineer Dan Lemay, who holds several aerospace patents, and former U.S. Navy pilots Alan Ferguson and John Eckstein. Following lengthy careers, all three men volunteered for the P-26 crew when they figured out that they were way too young to retire.

To reproduce the P-26’s streamlined landing gear, Lemay first built an elevated jig replicating the gear/wing attachment points, so work could be done away from the airplane while team members were standing up rather than bent over beneath the wing. From the jig they hung the gear struts fabricated by the museum’s machine shop. Then they handmade the streamlined strut fairings and wheel pants, using hammers to shape sheet metal around wooden molds. Any of the numerous fairings could easily have been made out of fiberglass—but true to the plans, these dedicated volunteers painstakingly fashioned the airplane out of original materials.

Asked about the most difficult part of the project, 86-year-old Jim Caldwell mentioned the lack of assembly-line tooling used during Boeing’s production run of 139 P-26s, pointing out the wing root fairings as an example. Caldwell, who has 44 years of experience in aircraft manufacturing and has been working as a museum volunteer since 1988, is a “major producer” on the P-26 project, riveting the aluminum sheet metal skin onto the wings and fuselage.

But even with all his expertise, Caldwell didn’t attempt to craft the wing root fairings, with their compound curves. That job went to “Zack” Ezakovich, ace metalworker and boisterous free spirit. An occasional volunteer, he specializes in the tough jobs and generally announces his arrival at the worksite with a loud shout. Boeing made quick work of the intricate fairings, stamping them out by machine. While they enhanced the airplane’s appearance, their primary purpose was to reduce aerodynamic drag—increasing the fighter’s speed and range. Working with a practiced eye and an artist’s touch, Zack shaped the long channel-like fairings by hand, using an English Wheel (a simple machine used to roll compound curves into sheet metal), sandbag and mallet.

Normally a museum reproduction takes four to six years to complete. But many of the volunteers on the P-26, mostly men in their 80s who work three days a week, have died in the decade since the project began. Jerry Orr’s voice betrays a sense of urgency when he says: “We’re working against time now. Gotta get this done before we’re all gone.”

Over the years, San Diego Air & Space Museum volunteers have restored many legendary aircraft and built reproductions of others, among them a WWI Fokker E.III fighter, a Sopwith Pup and a superb Gee Bee R-1 racer. Museum President Jim Kidrick, a former Navy pilot, points out, “Our museum maintains the highest standards; we don’t take the easy way out when building an airplane.” But Kidrick sometimes wonders whether the museum’s future efforts might be better directed toward projects that are more appealing to young people, such as interactive computer displays. There are rumors that this may be the last reproduction that the museum undertakes.

Kidrick figures that $50,000 has been invested in the Peashooter project so far, with a planned completion date of later this year. It will be truly a rare bird, an early variant of the P-26A, without landing flaps. When the painstaking construction process is finally finished, the plane will be painted in the colorful markings of the 95th “Kicking Mule” Pursuit Squadron, based at Southern California’s March Field during the 1930s.


Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.