There is something special about the pre-World War II military aircraft of the 1930s. While they are military planes, they almost have a naive and innocent look to them. Many were based on air racing designs of the day. Some seem to have huge engines and stubby bodies. Most of the pre-war war planes look more like hopeful advances in aviation than refinements of hardcore military machines.
Here are five of the pre-war military aircraft of the 1930s that I find most appealing in terms of appearance. These are the “cute” planes:
1. Grumman F3F “Flying Barrel” – One especially toy-like aircraft is the U.S. Navy’s Grumman F3F. Known as the Flying Barrel, the F3F is a short, stubby, biplane. However, the F3F topped out at 256 miles per hour. It also had the basic lines of great fighters to come like the F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat. However, for this early model, the landing gear were raised and lowered via a manual hand crank which must have made flying interesting in a time before auto-pilot.
2. Boeing P-26 Peashooter – The Boeing P-26 Peashooter was the first American all-metal fighter plane. It is marked by a large cowling around a radial engine and fixed landing gear. The P-26 first flew in 1932 and was faster than the biplanes of the era. With a 600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engine, the P-26 was capable of 234 miles per hour. The Peashooter actually did see combat during the Spanish Civil War and in China’s struggle against invading Japanese forces. According to Boeing, “funds to buy the export version of the Peashooter were partly raised by Chinese Americans. Contribution boxes were placed on the counters of Chinese restaurants.” While the P-26 Peashooter was flown valiantly over China, the Philippines, and Spain, it only had two machine guns–usually two .30 caliber machine guns or one .30-caliber and one .50-caliber. Unfortunately, the Peashooter lived up to its name.
3. Seversky P-35 – The Seversky P-35 was a short and stubby monoplane. But, it had the lines that would inspire one of best fighters of World War II, the P-47 Thunderbolt. In the 1930s, however, the P-35 only hinted at what was to come. It didn’t have self-sealing fuel tanks and like the Peashooter it was seriously under-gunned for the war to come.
4. Stearman Kaydet Trainer Biplane – The wooden biplane with canvas covered fuselage and wings was a mature, almost outdated, technology by the 1930s. However, when it comes to cute, nothing beats the bright blue fuselage and yellow wings of the Stearman Kaydet. While it wasn’t a combat aircraft, it was instrumental in training thousands of combat pilots. According to the Boeing history page, “its simple, rugged construction made it ideal as a trainer for novice pilots for the U.S. Army Air Corps (PT-13/-17) and U.S. Navy (NS/N2S).” It had an open cockpit and was only capable of 125 miles per hour. According to a Fox News report, the Stearman Kaydet inspired the Disney “Planes” movie character Ledbottom. Many of these aircraft still fly today. In fact, I saw one a Stearman Kaydet fly over my Atlanta home just two weeks ago.
5. Martin B-10 Bomber – According to Lockheed-Martin, “the B-10 was America’s first large all-metal monoplane, boasting a range of 1,400 miles and a top speed of 207 mph, 22 mph faster than its competition.” It was a large plane for the time and it had a big belly due to an internal bomb bay. Thus, it wasn’t surprising to that the B-10 was nicknamed “the Whale.”
All of these planes pioneering planes were vital–if sometimes awkward–steps in aviation progress. They also laid the foundation for future designs that proved vital in the war to come.
Biplane Rides Over Atlanta
Boeing.com, Boeing Kaydet
Boeing.com, Boeing P-26 Peashooter
Dwyer, Larry, “Seversky P-35” The Aviation History Museum Online.
Fantasy of Flight, “1938 Grumman F3F-2”
Gutman, Robert, “Boeing P-26 Peashooter” Historynet.com
Shaheed, Aalia, “Tuscon exhibit brings ‘Disney’ planes to life” Fox News, January 8, 2014