For the last three months, I have been building a two-thirds sized replica of a Boeing P-26 Peashooter. The airplane was an advanced design in the early 1930s and was in service with the US Army Air Corps until 1942. P-26s were stationed in Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone and it the Philippines. A Filipino pilot actually shot down two Japanese Zeros and a G3M Nell bomber during the invasion of the Philippines. The Guatemalan Air Force operated the Peashooter until 1956. One of their last two planes was donated to the Smithsonian and it is now at the National Air & Space Museum at Dulles Airport.
Eleven years ago, I visited the Hawkins & Powers airplane junk yard in Greybull, Wyoming. The company was selling interesting airplane parts at yard sale prices, so I bought a P2V Neptune wing fuel tank and two rudders from a Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar. I thought at the time that I would build an “art” project out of the parts. Of course, life got in the way and I pushed these parts around the garage for the next decade.
In September, I bid on a wrecked World War 2-era Ryan PT-22 trainer with the idea that I would bend it back into shape and put it on display at my house in Hot Springs. Friends discouraged me from bidding higher on the plane, so I decided that it must be time to finish the project in the garage.
The Neptune wing tank is 13 feet long and each rudder is 11 feet tall, so the plane, with “engine” will have a wing span of 25 feet and a length of at least 15 feet. My garage is big, but not that big, so I had to figure some way to build the plane in easily attachable pieces. I intend to finish it in Hot Springs where it will rest on a 10 foot tall pole. I hope it will turn in the wind like a weather vane.
So far, the hardest thing to do is start. I was reluctant to cut a huge hole in an object that is not replaceable. Steeling myself, I centered the wing tank on my motorcycle lift and strapped it down. It was important to establish a reference line on the top of the tank that I could measure from. The tank had a tail cone with a fin on top. Since I had two fins (the other from a second tank that I sold years ago), I decided they would be the horizontal stabilizers. Unfortunately, the tank and the tail cone were not exactly matched so the tail cone became the basis of the reference line and the tank was of center.
I cut out a cardboard template of the cockpit hole and strapped it down. After drawing a line around the template, I got out the jig saw, screwed a metal blade in it and started to make ugly noises. The Aluminum cut easily and the hole was not too ragged. Ah Ha, the fear of failure is gone. I have officially screwed up a perfectly good airplane part and there is no going back. Next, I had to fill a big ugly hole in the top of the “fuselage” that was where the wing tank fit on the Neptune’s wing tip. I dug through my stack of airplane aluminum and found a piece of a Snow S2C crop duster fuselage skin. I made another template and cut the sort of dented sheet aluminum with tin snips. Turned out OK, so I drilled a bazillion holes in it and screwed it in place with some of the thousands of tiny aircraft quality screws that I kept after selling off the last of my airplane parts.
I also retained a pair of landing gear from a small four seater plane, a cockpit windshield from a Stearman PT-17 trainer, and some instruments and cockpit widgets that I set aside for this project. I also found a Snow landing gear fairing that looked a lot like a vertical stabilizer (the up-right tail piece). It turns out that serendipity is playing a big part in this project. When I needed something, I would find it in my parts pile. I held back a pair of wheel pants for the landing gear and a headrest fairing for the project. Unfortunately I let a few things go in that final sale that I could have used. I spent real money to buy two aluminum Harley wheels for the landing gear and put them on the shelf until now.
After finishing covering the hole on the top of the fuselage and seeing how ugly the job was, I regretted not flipping the tank over and cutting the cockpit hole out of the smooth bottom of the tank. Too late now for recriminations. Next, I built the vertical stabilizer. I braced the inside with a piece of aluminum tubing that came out of the fuel tank. The mounts to the tail cone were fabricated by cutting up airplane L angle pieces.
My nephew left me a Walmart street sign when he moved out, so I cut it up for my rudder. The sign was covered with a vinyl coating that I had to melt off with a heat gun. That really stank and took an afternoon or two. I used a set of P-26 plans that I bought with a one-eight scale balsa wood model. I had the plans duplicated and mounted on cardboard. It is my reference for where to put stuff and how it should look when finished. I copied the P-26 rudder, cut it out with a jig saw and painted it with 13 red and white stripes about 2.25 inches wide. A blue vertical stripe runs along the forward edge of the rudder. It was pop riveted on using a piano hinge that I found.
I would normally run down to Ace Hardware to buy expensive rivets and bolts but one day I went to Home Resources, a used building material recycling shop and found a bucket of rivets for a few dollars, instead of 100 rivets for $8 at Ace. I also found an aluminum street sign and some 3.5 inch steel tubing for cheap. I kept going back to Home Resources for one thing and came home with something I had not looked for. I found a 16 inch spare wheel and tire from a Chrysler. The tire was perfect for my needs, since a fat Harley tire would not fit in the wheel pants. This led me to try to find a mate for the ‘donut’ spare. I had to visit three auto junk yards to find a matched pair of tires and ended up not using the one I bought at Home Resources.
The steel tubing I bought there turned out to be a dead end too. I thought it was 3.5 inches internal diameter, which I wanted to be my wing box. A wing box is where the wings join the fuselage. It is heavily reinforced because it takes all the strains of the flexing wings and all the load of the weight of the fuselage. The Flying Boxcar rudders had a 3.5 inch hole in the bottom edge and a series of 3.5 inch holes in the ribs of the rudder. I planned to use steel tubing in spine of the rudder ‘wings’ but it was too heavy. I chose plastic PVC water pipe and then found an aluminum inner pipe at Pacific Steel recycling to stiffen up wing spar.
I had to go back to Pacific Steel and buy a 32 inch long, 4 inch diameter steel tubing for $23 to use as the wing box, having discover the light tube was swedged at one end to 3.5 inches ID. Some times serendipity ran the wrong way. But, while at the recyclers, I found a dozen aluminum panels for about $40. I had intended to buy new aluminum sheet for $60 each. So I saved my self hundreds of dollars there.
Between trips to get parts, I build an instrument panel using the rest of the Walmart Sign. I had a bunch of old broken aircraft instruments that I stuck in holes I cut into the aluminum. It turned out looking pretty good and sort of real. I also found a pitot tube that will be the plane’s “gun sight”. A pitot tube measures airspeed by creating air pressure inside the tube’s venturi. Anyway, it looks a lot like a gun sight so I went with it. I also found a WW2 airplane seat that was cut down. I riveted it together again and put it in the cockpit. The control stick is out of a helicopter I am told.
After making lots of visible progress, I got stalled doing lots of small things. I finally cut holes where the wing spars enter the fuselage. Since I do not measure all that well, the holes got a lot bigger than they should have been so I spent hours making little decorative plates that cover the gaps. That was a waste of time because the wings cover the area any way. Sometimes I really strive to make this look professional.
I looked at the Art Deco paint jobs of on P-26s in the 1930s and wanted to copy that. The wings and stabilizers were painted bright yellow and the fuselages were either bright green or blue with lots of stripes. I went with an Olive Green paint scheme with blue strip and an orange pin stripe between them. My skills with masking tape leave a lot to be desired so the orange stripe is pretty gobby and needs touch up. I plan to paint a buffalo skull logo on the tail and intend to polish the bottom of the fuselage to a bright aluminum finish. If that is too much work, I will paint the belly of the plane OD green or Aluminum. I do not yet have polishing tools but I do have paint and a brush.
I mocked up a radial engine using a crappy 16 inch Harley wheel and bolting on seven Volkswagen 1600 engine cylinders and heads. I spent a day cutting 4 aluminum heads in half to mate to the cast iron cylinders. After completing the fake engine, I decided that seven cylinders was not enough. I found another head to sacrifice and will make the engine a nine cylinder, like the original. I used a wok pan as the gear case for the engine and pulled a broken wooden propeller off my living room wall to be the plane’s prop. I covered the prop with aluminum paint and it looks just OK. But it was better than buying a fake prop off of E-bay for $250 plus shipping.
I painted the wheel pants in Olive Green after hammering out the dents. The landing gear needed to be de-rusted and lubed so that the springs work. They were pained silver too. I need to engineer a way to mount the landing gear to the fuselage because the wings are not strong enough to hold them. I am thinking a piece of angle iron that runs through the bottom of the fuselage, in the same way the wing box tube does. That will have to wait until the wings are on. The tail wheel is off of a Piper Cub or some other small private airplane.
I lined the cockpit edge with a piece of garden hose. Serendipitously, it had a yellow strip down the center of the hose, allowing me to cut it in a straight line. The rubber is pop riveted to the fuselage. So far, everything I have needed was found in my piles of junk or at the recycling yards around town. The only new things I have had to buy are two pieces of steel, some rivets, screws, bolts and all thread and paint. Even so, I have invested $1400 in the project and there is no end to the project and the cost yet.
I am building the plane so that it can be easily dis-assembled and removed from the garage to be reassembled outside, where it will be put on display. So far, all the pieces are manageable my me alone but the sections are getting heavier and bigger to deal with. I hoped to finish by Christmas, because I need to clear out the garage for my next project.
Photos of the build:https://www.flickr.com/photos/organize/ ... 5427967459