The Model 281 was the export version of the P-26A. It differed from the P-26A only in the details of military equipment. The first flight of the Model 281 (carrying civilian registration X12271) took place on August 2, 1934, and early tests indicated that the landing speed was too high for the small grass strips from which the fighter would be expected to operate. Split-type wing flaps were developed and installed, and were tested by the Army for comparison with experimental flaps that the Army had installed on a standard P-26A. As a result of these tests, all P-26As were returned to the factory for installation of the new flaps, as previously described.
The Model 281 had the high headrest, wingflaps, and carburetor-equipped R-1830-27 engine of the P-26C model, but actually preceded the P-26C on the production line. The aircraft incorporated low-pressure Goodyear tires for operation from unpaved airfields.
The Boeing company carried out a vigorous sales effort, but only China granted a contract. Eleven Model 281s were shipped to China. The first was shipped on September 15, 1934. The last was shipped on January 16, 1936. The engine was the Pratt and Whitney R-1340-33. Maximum speed at 6000 feet was 235 mph. Initial climb rate was 2210 feet per minute.
The Chinese Model 281s were on duty at Nanking when the Japanese attacked that city. One Chinese squadron operating the Model 281 saw continuous action against the Japanese invaders, and a considerable number of kills were registered. On August 20, 1937, eight of these fighters engaged six Mitsubishi G3M2 bombers during a raid on Nanking and destroyed all of them without loss to themselves. However, the Model 281 fighters were eventually forced out of service due to lack of spares. By the time of the fall of Nanking on December 13, 1937, the Model 281s were no longer operational.
The second Model 281 demonstrator (civilian registration X12275) was shipped to Spain in search of more customers. Test pilot Les Tower demonstrated the aircraft for the Spanish government at Barajas airfield near Madrid in April of 1935. However, the Spanish government opted not to order the aircraft, but it did buy the unarmed Model 281 demonstrator and equipped it with a pair of 0.303-inch Vickers machine guns in underwing pods. The aircraft saw service on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. It was shot down on October 21, 1938.