Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Every Dog Has Its Day and a Battered Cat

The Tale (Not Tail) of the Iron Dog in 1/48th Scale

You gotta love the internet. There's lots of information out there to be had for nothing more than a little effort, although you have to be careful because a whole lot of that information is either re-hashed stuff that was wrong in the first place or, worse than that, somebody's opinion and not fact at all. Today's main topic, the Bell P-39 Airacobra in 1/48th scale, is a good case in point, having suffered from internetitis more than most kit subjects. It seems as though every Instant Expert on the planet has landed squarely on the three available kits of the airplane and figured out that this one or that one is the only Good One. I personally don't agree with that, not at all, and am going to borrow the next few minutes of your lives to explain why. (If you're an Instant Gratification sort of person you can skip what follows, because I think you can get a really good P-39 from any of the kits we're going to discuss. See, I just saved you all that reading! You're grateful, right?)

Honkin' With An Oldie

Let's go back to those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear which, for the purpose of this ramble, would be 1969 or so. There was a lot going on back then, including Monogram's release of a ground-breaking P-39 kit. That particular Airacobra has stood the test of time better than you could ever imagine, and has been released in several guises (including one in the late, lamented Monogram's "ProModeller" line). It was The First One, for many years The Only One, and is still a Darned Good One. Let's talk about that kit and a couple of others for a minute, taking great pains to remember that this isn't a review, or even a P-39 shootout. OK? OK.

The folks who have complained about the admittedly-ancient Monogram kit have landed squarely on two "issues"; the raised panel lines and the lack of detail. Both complaints are relative. Those panel lines are finely-drawn and look just great under a coat of paint, and you can get around the Loss-of-Detail-When-You-Sand tragedy by carefully sanding the panel lines that will be erased until you get to a panel line you want to keep, thus preserving the appearance of complete panels. At the end of the day I'll bet you're the only one who'll ever notice you did that, too. If your personal Holy Grail includes having every single panel line that ever was or could have ever been on your model, then you can sand those horrid raised lines entirely off and scribe everything in place instead. This is the part where somebody gets to chime in with a resounding "Some Modeling Skills Required". It ain't nothin' but a thang, ya'll!

Mommy, Mommy, look at the dinosaur! Actually it ain't all that bad a kit, and definitely captures the shape and sit of the real thing. This is Monogram's 1969 offering of the Airacobra, complete with hand-made personal markings---there was no aftermarket available when this was built. Note the cloudy canopy, which is the major thing that shows how old this model really is. It was completed in 1983.

As for the detail, this kit represented a benchmark in that department when it was first released, although time and technology have since passed it by. There's adequate, albeit minimal, detail in the wheel wells, and either Eduard or True Details (I think TD has a set, anyway) can help out that cockpit more than you might think.

Here's a shot showing a little bit of the canopy and the poorly-fitted (because it's removeable) gun panel on the nose. You can also make out some of the interior detail in this shot. It's definitely not up to contemporary standards, but that's why Eduard makes those nifty photo-etch sets. It doesn't take all that much work to make this kit a real contender if you happen to be so inclined.

The model is basically accurate too, with some minor issues on the lower center section of the wing (as found on the real airplane), probably due to molding limitations at the time the kit was produced. Monogram used to love to open up panels and in the P-39 you can display the gun bay in the nose and part of the starboard engine compartment and no; the covers for those areas don't fit very good. The starboard door is also provided as an open item, which is a nice touch, while the roll-up windows in the doors are separate clear parts which means you can display the thing with a window "rolled down" if you'd like. And, in keeping with the way The Big M used to do things, the kit includes enough pieces to allow you to build any Airacobra variant from the P-400 through the P-39Q. Hasegawa and Eduard could both take a lesson from that one!

Those Czechs Make Pretty Good Model Airplanes

Eduard started out in the kit business by making limited-run stuff, then graduated to The Big League after a short time in the saddle. Their P-39 was one of the first really good Eduard kits and still holds up well. It's also dimensionally close enough and is, even in its "standard" version (as opposed to the ProfiPack range of kits they also market), a pretty good representation of the real thing, albeit with a couple of minor caveats. It's also an excellent value for the money in its "Weekend Edition" incarnation. Let's talk about those caveats, though.

First, there's the wing. It's a little too thick pretty much anyplace a wing can be a little too thick although, in all fairness, virtually nobody will ever notice it even though it got a fair amount of internet exposure a few years ago. It's not a deal-breaker sort of problem, although I personally wish they'd represented the wash-out at the tips a little more convincingly.

The Big Gripe, and it's one with some merit, is the way the cockpit doors mount to the airframe. They're molded in clear, which is a really nice thing, and they look great when they're posed in the open position. They don't fit very well when they're closed, though, and that's caused quite a bit of tooth-gnashing with the folks who've tried to do that. Once again, we're simply going back to Modeling 101 to fix the problem. Those doors can be closed if you want. Repeat after me: "Some Modeling Skills Required". Say it again. And again. Now we can move on to another problem in the same area of the kit. The cockpit sills are a little bit wider than the clear parts that fit to them, which results in a tiny step where they join. It's not a particularly big step, but it's there. I didn't fix it on the one Eduard "Dog" that I've built, but the simple substitution of a vacuum-formed canopy would make the whole problem go away.

The Eduard kit complete with extensive photo-etch, most of which you can't really see. One thing you can see is that step between the canopy and the fuselage. It's not a Deal Breaker but you'll need to address the problem if you want the model to be accurate. Eduard definitely nailed that Airacobra "sit".

You'll also need to clean up a few minor details, and you'd be best served by picking up one of the seemingly endless range of ProfiPack releases of the kit., but no matter which iteration you chose, you'll be happy with what you end up with once it's all been said and done. Note also that all the Eudard P-39s contain all the parts you'd need to build anything from a P-400 to a P-39Q already included in the box, including the 4-bladed prop for the P-39Q-25 variant, but Eduard doesn't tell you that going in. The major difference between their various kits is the selection of decals, the inclusion (or not) of masks and photo-etched details, and the picture on the box.

And Then Came The Big H

Which would, of course, be Hasegawa. In my opinion (never humble, as you've been reminded so many times before) it's the best of the lot, although it's got a couple of problem areas that, quite frankly, make no sense at all. On the other hand, it's extremely accurate in shape and dimensions and is well detailed right out of the box. It's one you can just build if you're so inclined, but you really ought to know about a couple of things (and they're neat things because they're so exceedingly minor, and because they had some folks out there in Internet Land hopping up and down about them when the kit was first released!).

First, there are the fuel caps on the upper surfaces of the wings. Somebody at Hasegawa must have been going through their very own bas relief phase when they were working on the molds, because those caps stand well proud of the wings and don't look like anything ever found on a real airplane as a result. There's a Quick Fix for the problem, though. There's a highly technical term for the necessary operation; it's called "Sand Them Flush With The Wing". That will take you all of 5 minutes to do, which will allow you to move on to the other problem with this kit; the rudder.

And the Hasegawa kit. I didn't fix those fuel caps because I wanted to see just how bad they really looked, and because I had a major case of The Lazies the day I did the wings on this one. I don't like the way they look but it probably bothers me more than it does anybody else. Still, if I had it to do over again (and I will, because there are a lot of P-39s I intend on building) I'd sand them flush with the wings. There isn't a step between the fus and the canopy, but this shot hints that there might be. It just ain't so...

Once again we aren't facing anything major. The molds were cut by that same bas relief guy that we met in the paragraph just before this one, except that this time he provided the detail in an overly-recessed manner instead of making it stand proud from the adjoining surfaces. It will, for all intents and purposes, go away when you paint the model, particularly if you like to squirt floor wax all over everything and then coat it with a flattening agent after you've applied the decals. You could also do a very minor bit of filling (maybe with something like Mr. Surfacer 500 or similar) and sanding if you wanted to. Either way the problem's pretty much a non-player.

And a nose view. This kit is well-detailed and honestly doesn't require the use of aftermarket, although there's a boat-load of Eduard in that cockpit! This is the one to buy in terms of fine detail, and is easier to work with than the other two. It's also far more expensive, for whatever that might be worth.

Hasegawa loves to market kits in different versions and, unlike either Monogram or Eduard, they don't give you everything you'll need in order to build almost every variant of the P-39. There's some commonality ("parts not for use") but it's not comprehensive. The model will also benefit from a little bit of good old fashioned Eduard Zoom, but it's not necessary should you choose to pass. This is a pretty good kit right out of the box.

Now we're to the part where I remind you that this is neither a kit review nor a "shootout". All three of these kits are good enough to grace anybody's shelf, although you'll end up putting a little bit more effort into the Monogram Oldie than you will the others. That said, my personal First Choice would be the Hasegawa kit, but if all I could find was an Eduard or Monogram offering I'd build it and feel very well-served. Each kit has its own peculiar problems, and in each case those problems are minor and easy to correct.

So what are you waiting for, Amigo? Go build yourself a 'Cobra!

Here's a shot showing you the three different kits (L to R: Monogram, Hasegawa, Eduard) plus a bonus glimpse of one of my desk drawers down there in the corner. These kits are basically produced to three different levels of molding technology but all will produce an excellent P-39 model if you do your part. The Monogram kit was built in the early 80s but holds its age well, while the Eduard was finished about 3 years ago. The Hasegawa kit was done shortly after it was released.  Oh yeah, and that white spot on the wing root of the Eduard kit is a white spot of Mystery Something-or-Other. I noticed it after I took this photo. Such is life...

And a comparative view of the undersides. This is one place where Hasegawa wins hand's down. It's far better detailed down there than the others, and has the proper washout on the wingtips. Note that Monogram provided a raised circle to represent the landing light (and provides not even a hint of that wing-tip washout we mentioned), while both Eduard and Hasegawa offer that part as a separate clear piece. What do you think of the hi-tech model stands those 'Cobras are resting on? I worked a really long time to do that...

Iron Dogs on The 'Canal

These shots were provided to me several years ago by Bruce Smith during his tenure as Superintendent of the Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas; he had the name of the original photographer but, unfortunately, that name didn't make it to the backs of the photos. They're a pretty neat way to end the day, though.

A P-400 of the 67th FS/347th FG at Henderson Field in early 1943. This airplane is in RAF-contract camouflage although it isn't that evident here; the only place you can really see the demarcation line is on the rudder. Note also the natural metal prop blades, the 250-lb GP bomb on the centerline, and the way the Insignia Blue background of the fuselage corcarde appears to blend into the OD of the fuselage.  It actually doesn't do that!  Nimitz Museum via Bruce Smith

A shark-mouthed P-400 of the 67th all bombed-up and ready to go. Of particular interest is the manner of exhaust staining and the prop blades, which are black with yellow tips---stencilling is evident at the base of the blades. In the original photograph the number 22 can be made out on the fin. The Bell fighter's shape makes the sharkmouth design particularly aggressive looking, although the AAF never enjoyed the same level of success that the Soviets had with the type.  I've seen better reproductions of this particular photograph but this is what we've got so it'll have to do! Nimitz Museum via Bruce Smith

A 'Cobra in the raw. "Pair a Dice", arguably the most famous 67th FS P-400, has definitely seen better days; note the missing windscreen quarter-panel and the opened access panels. The gun panel exhibits the remains of a sharkmouth, while the 20mm cannon is notable for its length and is well-depicted here.  The aircraft may be undergoing maintenance, but her general condition makes one wonder if she hasn't been recently consigned to the scrap heap instead.  Nimitz Museum via Bruce Smith

A Salvaged Cat

Oh heck, let's do another couple of photos of something that isn't an Airacobra before we go. The F6F-3 you see below is a recent salvage and was shot by John Kerr, presumably at NAS Pensacola. (John?) I don't really follow the warbird scene and know next-to-nothing about the stuff that's being recovered and salvaged these days so there aren't any captions other than the credit lines for these shots. Apologies!

Be good to your neighbor. We'll see you again real soon.

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