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Classic Airframes' Boeing P-12E and F4B-4

By Tom Cleaver

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The Airplane(s)

Before the McDonnell F-4 Phantom series, what was the last U.S. Navy fighter whose performance was such that it was adopted over competing designs by the American Air Force? C'mon! Quick-quick!! If you answered the Boeing F4B/P-12 series, you win the exploding cigar.

Known today as a designer and manufacturer of really big airliners, in the late 1920s Boeing Aircraft Company was the premiere supplier of superior fighters to the U.S. Navy's nascent carrier-based air arm. The FB-1/5 series were based on the Army PW-9 fighter, and were first adopted in 1924. In October 1926, the F2B-1 appeared, the first fighter designed from the outset to serve aboard a carrier, powered by a reliable Pratt & Whitney 450 hp "Wasp," which committed the US Navy to radial engines in its aircraft from then to the jet age; 32 were built and delivered in 1927. This was followed by the F3B-1, with a larger wing to lower landing speeds; 74 began entering service in February 1928.

The Model 83, prototype for the F4B series, first flew June 25, 1928. Smaller than its predecessors, it was powered by a 500 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340B, later known as the "Hornet." The performance of the Model 83 was so superior to the then-current Curtiss P-1 Hawks that the Army ordered the new fighter as the P-12A at the same time the Navy ordered it as the F4B-1 - the only difference between the two being the tailhook on the F4B-1.

In December 1930, Boeing offered the Model 218 with a metal fuselage and a larger rudder to both the Army and Navy; the F4B-1/2 and P-12A-D had fabric rear fuselages and much smaller rudders, which had contributed to some directional instability. This led to orders as the P-12E for the Army and the F4B-3 for the Navy, though the 21 F4B-3s served with the Marines. These began to appear in 1932. 54 of the 75 F4B-3s were delivered as F4B-4s, powered by an R-1340-16, with an enlarged headrest and rudder as the primary distinguishing characteristics. 38 more F4B-4s were ordered a year later, and the type was the primary Fleet fighter during the mid-1930s.

According to Navy dive bomber ace Dick Best, who became a Naval Aviator in 1935 and was fortunate enough to fly the F4B-4 with VF-2, "The Flying Chiefs," just prior to their re-equipment with the Grumman F2F-1, the Boeing fighter was the most maneuverable airplane he ever flew. The airplane was so responsive that a pilot could initaiate a turn by merely sticking out his arm to one side or the other, ands was the first airplane the Chiefs could regularly fly in the famous "crazy formation."

By 1938, the Boeings were entirely supplanted in Fleet squadrons by the later Grumman F2F and F3F series, and were passed on to Training Command, where they lasted until 1942. Boeing passed from the field of fighter design, though this will change with the coming adoption of the Advanced Tactical Fighter. It would be 33 years before another Navy fighter would so satisfy the Air Force that a single type would be the leading fighter of both services.

The Kits

I first built Boeing fighters with the old Aurora releases of the P-12E and F4B-4 as a kid in the mid-50s. I had all my father's pictures of Navy Boeings at Alameda and Army Boeings at March Field, and this was probably the first model I built multiple versions of for the different markings I could create. The Aurora kit saw re-pops by K&B in the 70s, and has passed into Collector's Heaven, despite its many inaccuracies. In the early 70s, Monogram brought out a 1/72 F4B-4, which is still an acceptable model in that scale if you can find it. 40 years after the release of the Aurora kit, Classic Airframes has now brought out the first 1/48 offering of this classic American fighter.

Boeing F4b Boeing P12E

As befits their mutual design background, the kits are differentiated primarily by their fuselages, which come on separate sprues. The wings, being the same for each, are on the same sprue, as is the bag of resin which provides parts for a nicely-detailed R-1340 and a detailed cockpit.

The injection-molded parts are some of the best to come from Classic Airframes to date, with thin fuselage halves and nicely-scribed surface detail. The restrained rib detail on the wings is commendable, and the corrugated tail surfaces look quite realistic. In terms of overall quality, these Boeings are what I hoped the Curtiss Helldivers would be.

Befitting its status as a Golden Age classic, the F4B-4 is the more colorful of the two, with decals provided for the Fifth Section Leader of VF-3B aboard the USS "Ranger" in 1935, and the Fourth Section Leader of VF-6 aboard USS "Langley" in 1932 - one of the first manifestations of the famous "Felix the Cat" squadron insignia. The P-12E provides markings for an olive drab fuselage-yellow winged fighter from the 26th Pursuit Group in Panama in 1932, or a silver fuselage-yellow winged airplane from the 308th Observation Squadron of the Organized Reserve in 1939. One hopes that someone like Aeromaster will come out with some of the really outstanding markings both airplanes carried at various times with various units throughout the 1930s.


The kit decals provide markings for VF-6 aboard USS Langley and VF-3 aboard USS Ranger in 1935. In fact, the F4B-4 first etnered service in 1932 with VF-6B aboard "Saratoga" and VF-3B aboard "Langley." For the modeler who wants to make the cover art airplane, which served on "Langley", it will be necessary to mix-and-match decals, replacing the "6" with the "3" from the alternate markings, to create a VF-3B aircraft.


If you've been resisting biplanes so far, here is your starter set. These kits are well-designed, and - as far as biplanes go - easy to assemble, with a minimum of rigging necessary. Bright and colorful, they'll be a very nice addition to any collection.

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Air Intelligence
1999 Modelers'
Reference Guides

1/32 Scale Guide $18.00
1/48 Scale Guide $25.00
1/72 Scale Guide $25.00
HH-43 Huskie Color
Reference Guide $15.00

Please add $3.20 Postage in the US.

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PO Box 90933
Albuquerque NM

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