The P-12 Comes Home

July 1, 1986

The telephone jangled. “Alice Price here,” came the voice over the wire. “Remember the P-12 that you want to paint?” I did, and Alice had not forgotten. The P-12E restoration project by the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, was, she advised, at last com­plete. After nearly ten years of painstaking effort, all the parts and pieces had been found or fabri­cated, and the final assembly, re­covering, doping, sanding, and painting were at an end. If I wanted to get my photographs, value stud­ies, and sketches of the airplane be­fore it was moved from the shops to the Museum floor, she would call the Director, Col. Richard L. Upp­strom, and make arrangements for me.

Alice is Mrs. Alice B. Price, Chief of the Air Force Art Program. This program began officially in 1950, and today its collection numbers more than 5,500 items. Air Force people, aircraft, and hardware gen­erally provide the center of interest in paintings depicting Air Force actions, moods, and operational en­vironment, both on the ground and in the air. These paintings, in all media, are donated by participating artists and are made available for viewing by millions of people each year. I am an ex-Air Force pilot and am now an Air Force artist.

Was I interested in doing a paint­ing of the last P-12E? Is the Pope a Catholic

I suppose that everyone has dreamed of flying. But did you ever feel that you really could fly? That the experience of zero gravity and controlled buoyancy was yours? That you actually possessed the power of levitation? I did. And the chances are that you did, too, as you daydreamed your way through Arithmetic I or Geography II.

I still remember the Penrod and Sam stories by Booth Tarkington. Penrod could fly. When his teach­er’s attention was diverted, he would levitate silently upward from his seat, hover face down over her desk, and, at just the right moment, swoop over the heads of his admir­ing classmates and flash through an open window into the warmth of a bright spring day.

I fantasized about flight, but, for­tunately, my illusions did not have to end there. I was of the generation of pilots who were privileged to fly the P-12 before it passed into histo­ry. The P-12 pilot used to be de­scribed as “a man with an engine in his lap and a feather in his tail.” It was a fitting description. In flight, the little airplane gave the pilot the impression that its taut, stubby wings were firmly attached to his shoulders—a part of him.

A Nudge Was Enough

Most P-12 pilots whom I have talked to can’t remember ever delib­erately moving the controls in flight. All that seemed to be necessary was the desire to initiate a maneuver and, with imperceptible pressure on the controls, the little ship would respond. Old-timers said, “Trim her up for hands off. Poke your left hand out. She’ll do a nice turn to the left. Pull it back in, and push your right one into the slipstream. She’ll roll out of the left turn and continue on through into a smooth bank to the right.” And she would! That was real hands-off, wind-in-the-face fly­ing.

With her prop disc, two wings, wing struts and bracing wires, fixed landing gear, gear struts, and spreader bar, she was “dirty.” And for fun, that wasn’t all bad. She would split-ess into a vertical dive and stabilize her speed, all-out, at about 270 as I recall. And except for crosswinds, she was an “old-wom­an’s” airplane to land. And, after all, there wasn’t much excuse to get crosswind on a grass field.

The Boeing Co. called the proto­type of the design the Model 83. The second ship off the line was dubbed the Model 89. They were identical, except for the landing gear. The Model 83 had a spreader bar with diagonal bracing from the belly cen­terline to the center of the spreader bar itself, while the 89 had a split-axle gear and carried a rack for a 500-pound bomb between the wheels. Both had arresting hooks for carrier operations. Navy and Marine aviators knew it as the F4B. To the Army, it was the P-12. Flyers of the commercial version called it the Model 100. But regardless of its designation, pilots who flew the lit­tle biplane were unanimous in en­thusiastically classifying it as a gen­uine “fun machine.”

Prior to the Model 83, Boeing had built fighters for both the Army and the Navy. The company’s first fight­er was the MB-3A, which was not a Boeing design at all, but one that came from the drawing boards of one of its competitors, the Thomas-Morse Corp. of Ithaca, N. Y. Boeing built 200 of the Thomas-Morse air­craft for the Army under a produc­tion contract that resulted from an early and peculiar practice whereby the Army bought the prototype air­craft from a designer and, at the same time, obtained its manufactur­ing rights. If the performance proved satisfactory, the Army might build follow-on aircraft in its own facilities in any number desired. On the other hand, it might decide to select a builder, or it could invite production bids from the aircraft in­dustry at large.

Boeing’s Gamble

With the production experience of the MB-3A behind them, the Boe­ing team decided to field a fighter aircraft of their own design, which they called the Model 15. The gam­ble paid off when the Army bought the prototype and awarded Boeing a production contract for thirty air­craft, which they called PW-9s (for Pursuit, Water-cooled, Number 9). The Navy followed with an order for the same airplane for the Marine Corps. They called it FB-I (meaning Fighter, Boeing, Number I). This led to yet another Navy order for the Model 15 with arresting hooks and modifications for carrier opera­tions. This airplane was the FB-2. Boeing, now with both design and production experience in military fighters, decided to launch a second privately funded venture, a fighter called the Model 83.

The 83 was designed with the Navy in mind. It emerged from the Seattle works in mid-June 1928. Its first flight proved that Boeing had a world-class fighter on its hands. Speed was in the 170-mph range, and rate of climb was close to 3,000 feet per minute.

The 1928 National Air Races were just commencing down at Mines Field in Los Angeles, and the jubilant Boeing team had the pro­totype there, still in company colors of French gray and Boeing green and sporting the Boeing logo on each side. It was entered in the races as the “New Boeing Naval Fighter.” Redesignated as the XF413-1 and with Navy Lt. Thomas P. Jeter at the controls, it made the Aero Digest Trophy Race a “no-contest” affair as it was clocked over the 120-mile course at 172.6 mph.

Second place also went to the Navy and to Boeing as Lt. Edgar A. Cruise, in a 17313-1, turned the course at 159 mph. The Army Air Corps, flying a P-1D Hawk, came in a poor third at 147 mph. The exul­tant Navy pilots promptly chal­lenged the Army to a race from the deck to 10,000 feet. In this un­scheduled event, the XF4B-1 climbed to 10,000 and was touching down at the takeoff point after a flight of 5.92 minutes while the Army’s Hawk was still struggling toward the required altitude.

Although the Model 83 had been designed as a Navy fighter and, along with the Model 89, had been loaned to the Navy for testing, it would be the Army Air Corps that would get the first production. Ac­cording to Paul R. Matt, an aviation historian and writer, the 83’s perfor­mance at the races had made such an impression on one of the attend­ees, the Air Corps Chief, Maj. Gen. James E. Fechet, that he placed an on-the-spot order with the Boeing officials at Mines Field. His order was confirmed later in writing from Washington. Thus the Army, soundly defeated at the races, won the procurement race for the sensa­tional new design.

The First P-12

The first ten deliveries to the Army were identical to the Model 83. The first P-12, serial number 29-353, was completed on February 27, 1929. It came off the line in a special paint scheme of cream wings and struts, a dark blue fuselage, and orange for the empennage, wheel discs, and the cylinder streamline fairings. It was devoid of military markings, but bore the name “Pan American” on each side of the fuse­lage. It was accepted by one of the Army’s rising superstars, Capt. Ira C. Eaker. Captain Eaker would use the airplane on a speed run, but this time it wouldn’t be over a 120-mile triangular course. Instead, it would be flown from Bolling Field, at the nation’s capital, on a goodwill mis­sion into Central America and re­turn.

The most numerous variant of the 83 series was the P-12E. It was an open-cockpit, single-place biplane powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1340-17 nine-cylinder radial en­gine driving a Hamilton Standard fixed-pitch, ground-adjustable, two-blade metal propeller. The en­gine developed 500 horsepower at 7,000 feet, which gave the E a top speed of 189 mph and a cruise speed of 160. The combat ceiling was list­ed at 26,300, and it had a range of 580 miles.

The airplane was small, having a wingspan of thirty feet, a height of nine feet, and an overall length of twenty feet. Empty weight was 1,999 pounds, and, fully loaded, it totaled 2,690 pounds. Internal fuel capacity was fifty-five gallons. It could carry another fifty-five gal­lons in an external belly tank. Two .30-caliber machine guns (or one .30 and one .50) were mounted in gun troughs in the turtle deck and were synchronized to fire through the propeller arc. Weight was the opera­tional consideration in gun selec­tion. There was no armor, and self-sealing tanks were unknown. Racks for light bombs were provided.

Initially, streamlined fairings were provided just aft of the cylinders, but these were soon dispensed with because of engine-cooling diffi­culties. During the production run of the E series, the engines were provided with Townend rings—nar­row circular cowlings that enclosed the cylinder heads, improving cool­ing and perhaps reducing drag to some extent. The P-12 ailerons and the entire empennage were covered with thin corrugated dural, a prac­tice Boeing had first used on the F3B-1.

Colorful Transformations

With the introduction of the E, Boeing discontinued the use of doped fabric for the covering and skinned the entire fuselage with thin metal. The airplane was provided with a steerable tail-skid. When the F model was introduced, it was equipped with a steerable tailwheel, and the entire E fleet was similarly retrofitted. The day of the turf-sur­faced airfield was ending.

P-1 2s were delivered in standard Army olive-drab paint for the fuse­lage, struts, and landing gear, with chrome yellow on the wings and em­pennage. The rudder received spe­cial attention. It had a wide blue stripe from top to bottom just aft of the vertical stabilizer and was com­pleted with thirteen horizontal red and white stripes like those on the American flag.

The US international identifying roundel, a red-centered, five-point white star superimposed on a cir­cular blue field, was displayed at each wingtip on the top of the upper wing and the bottom of the lower one. Unit insignia were later painted on the sides of the fuselage. Cowl rings and wheel discs were painted in unit colors and designs. Com­mand aircraft received identifying bands, stripes, and chevrons in con­trasting colors.

With such embellishments, the Army’s “drab” gave way to colorful transformations. But the Army would have the final say. “U. S. ARMY” in large block letters was painted in black across the bottom of the lower wing, the lettering ex­tending from roundel to roundel, with the depth of the letters approx­imating the chord of the wing.

As advanced designs entered the inventory, the P-12s were phased out of the combat squadrons. Their fuselages received a dark blue paint cover, and they were reassigned to Kelly Field, Tex., for advanced pilot training. Many were relegated to ad­ministrative flying work, and a large number of others went to multi-engine bombardment and recon­naissance units in order to provide their pilots with the opportunity to “maintain single-engine proficien­cy.”

And then, in 1940, the P-12 was declared obsolete. Its flying days were over. The little airplanes re­ceived an aluminum paint cover and were assigned to School Squadrons or were donated to civilian contract maintenance schools to be used as maintenance training devices. Fi­nally, in 1941, the Army transferred the last twenty-three flyable P-12s to the Navy, which converted them to radio-controlled target drones. The Navy called them F4B-4As.

A Handful of Survivors

Within a short time, P-12 aircraft had all but disappeared. There is a P-12E at the Royal Thai Air Force Museum at Don Mating Airport just north of Bangkok. It is one of two that were delivered to the Thais as Model l00s in November 1941. Both fell into the hands of the Japa­nese and were flown by them. One was lost, and one was returned when the Japanese withdrew.

The National Air and Space Mu­seum has a nonflyable 174134 in Ma­rine colors on display. A nonflyable P-12E is reported to be in the On­tario Air Museum in California. A restored Model 100 in the colors of a P-12 of the 95th Pursuit Squadron is based in the Seattle area, where it is flown by its owners, Robert Mucklestone and Lew Wallick. From the same area, a P-12E resto­ration project at the Clover Park Vo-Tech School near Seattle is in progress.

From the Air Force Museum comes the story of another P-12E, the one that I used as the model for a painting. Joseph A. Ventolo, Jr., of Wright-Patterson and Robert L. Cavanaugh of nearby Kettering, Ohio, have traced this airplane from its rollout at the Boeing Plant in Seattle to its final disposition.

It came off the line in September 1931 and was delivered to the 95th Pursuit Squadron at Rockwell Field, Calif. About three weeks la­ter, the 95th moved north to join the other squadrons of the 17th Pursuit Group at March Field, near River­side, Calif. While assigned to March, the aircraft was involved in a minor accident during a landing at Burbank, Calif. In August 1933, it went to the Air Depot at Rockwell for overhaul prior to shipment to the Hawaiian Department.

On December 29, 1933, it was sent to the 6th Squadron of the 18th Pursuit Group at Wheeler Field on the island of Oahu and assigned the squadron number “20.” The follow­ing July, it was involved in a taxi accident. During the repair period, its tail-skid was replaced with a tail-wheel, and it was fitted with an “overseas headrest,” an enlarged headrest that included space for a one-man liferaft. In March 1939, it was shipped back to the Air Depot at San Antonio, Tex., for overhaul.

On completion of that work, the airplane, 31-559, was assigned to Chicago’s Midway Airport for use by Air Corps and National Guard pilots stationed in the area. The left gear collapsed during a landing at Chicago on May 11, 1940. It was her final touchdown. In August, with 1,716 airframe hours, the airplane was declared obsolete. It was re­tired from active service and do­nated to the Chicago School of Aeronautics.

Many years later, a dilapidated garage in Chicago was scheduled for demolition. In a debris-filled corner of the building stood the remains of A/C 31-559, without wings. The painstaking restoration of the bas­ket case took almost ten years.

Finally, on August 20, 1983, 31-559, once again in fully flyable condition, complete in every detail from machine guns and bomb racks to a new Form I and gleaming in the fresh colors of the 6th Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group’s #20, was placed on permanent display in the Air Force Museum.

And that’s the way I saw and painted her—but over the Pacific, south of Waikiki, moving fast at about 7,000 feet, with Diamond Head, the heavy cumulus buildups over the Koolau Range, and the af­ternoon’s fleeting rainbow in the background. I called it “Hawaiian Punch—’34 Style.”

The P-12E had come home.

Steve McElroy is a free-lance artist and writer who lives in Austin, Tex. He joined the Air Corps in 1938. His first operational assignment was to a B-18 unit at Kelly Field, Tex., and this is where he first flew P-12s (used by the unit for single-engine proficiency training). During World War II, he flew B-24s out of England and, later, B-32s from the Philippines in the Pacific. During the Korean War, he flew B-29s out of Okinawa and served a three-year tour with SAC, flying B-47s and B-29s. He retired in 1967 as a brigadier general and then worked for Hughes Aircraft during construction of the NADGE (NATO Air Defense Ground Environment) system. Eight of his paintings are in the Air Force Art Collection.