Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Spitfire Part III : Most Numerous Of Them All

Historical Background
In 1931, Reginald J. Mitchell, the aeronautical engineer for Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers) Ltd (later Vickers-Armstrong (Aircraft) Ltd) began working on a monoplane aircraft designed Type 300. The proposal was submitted to the British Air Ministry in July 1934 but was not accepted. Mitchell then revised the design, incorporating a faired, enclosed cockpit, oxygen-breathing apparatus, smaller, thinner wings and a new engine, Rolls-Royce PV-XII inline engine, soon to be known as the Merlin. In November 1934, detailed design work for the improved Type 300 was begun and in January 1935, the Air Ministry formalised the contract with Vickers-Armstrong and Specification F10/35 was issued around the aircraft. In April 1935, the original two 7.7mm Vickers machine guns in each wing was increased to four upon recommendation by Squadron Leader Ralph Sorley of the Operational Requirement section at the Air Ministry.

On 5 March 1936, the prototype, registered K5054 flew for the first time. The subsequent test flights found that the aircraft was good, but suffered from over-sensitive rudder and with a top speed of just 330mph. The latter was cured by using a better-shaped propeller, allowing K5054 to reach 348mph during its delivery flight to the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down in mid-May 1936. Based on raw reports by test pilots, the Air Ministry placed an order for 310 aircraft on 3 June 1936. The aircraft was named 'Spitfire' by Vickers-Armstrong's chairman, Sir Robert McLean after the affectionate name he gave to his spirited elder daughter, Annie Penrose. The name was actually opposed by the Air Ministry and Mitchell himself, who favoured the name 'Shrew' but eventually Sir Robert's choice prevail. The first production Spitfire however only left the production line at Woolston, Southampton in mid-1938,as the Supermarine factory was working at full capacity producing Walrus amphibians and Stanraer flying-boats.

The Spitfire's fuselage was of streamlined, semi-monocoque design. The skins were secured by rivets: flush headed where uninterrupted airflow was required, and dome-headed elsewhere. But the most distinctive part of the Spitfire was its elliptical wings. The shape was chosen as it offered the best compromise between thinness (to avoid creating excessive drag) and the need to house a retractable undercarriage and armament and its ammunition. The wing tips were detachable, allowing it to be fitted with extended wingtips for the high-altitude fighter role (such as the Mark VI and VII) or fitted with fairings to create the 'clipped wing' versions for low-altitude work. Armament was eight .303 Browning machine guns, four in each wing. While they worked perfectly at low altitudes, they tended to freeze higher up, especially the outer two guns. The problem was not solved until 1938 when Supermarine added hot air ducts from the engine radiators to gun bays. Fabric patches were also doped on the gun ports to protect them from the cold, moisture and dirt until they were fired. Despite their numbers, the .303 machine guns were really too light to destroy enemy aircraft, especially larger bomber-type aircraft. Power for the Spitfire was provided by a Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 inline engine delivering 1,030 hp at 5,500 ft (Merlin II) or 1,310 hp at 9,000 ft (Merlin III). Subsequent variants of the Spitfire were fitted with more powerful versions of the Merlin and were then replaced with a Rolls-Royce Griffon for the later marks.

In late 1940, the RAF predicted the start of a new high-altitude bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe using pressurised Junkers Ju 86P bombers. As the high-altitude variant (the Mk VI) would take some time to be developed, an emergency measure was needed. Thus the Mark V was conceived. The Mk V was basically a Mk. I powered by a Merlin 45 engine incorporating a single-stage  supercharger. Power was rated at 1,440 hp at take-off. Improvements to the carburettor allowed the Mk V to make zero g maneuvers without any problems with the fuel flow which plagued the Mk. I.  Several Mk. Vs were converted Marks I and II airframes and they started joining line squadrons in early 1941. The Mk. VB with Merlin 45 and 'B' wing (one Hispano 20mm cannon replacing two inner .303 machineguns in each wing while retaining the outer two .303s) was the main production version. The round section exhaust stacks were replaced with the 'fishtail' type, allowing marginal increase in thrust. 

With the receding threat of invasion, the RAF decided to go on the offensive (or as Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory put it 'leaning forward into France'). The new policy entailed fighter sweeps (called 'Rhubarbs') and bomber escort missions ('Circuses') over France and other occupied territories. The Spitfires used for these missions found themselves having the same tactical disadvantages as the Bf 109 units faced during the Battle of Britain, namely their rather short range. The 'F' versions now equipping Jagdwaffe units on the Channel coast have performance closely matching the Mark V of the Spitfire. The introduction of the Fw 190 gave further shocks to the RAF, being 25-30 mph faster while having better acceleration and rate of climb and not to mention more powerful armament, making the Fw 190 the highest scoring Spitfire killers. This hastened the introduction of the 'interim' Mark IX but in the meantime, some Mark Vs received 'clipped' wingtips (being the first Spitfire variant to have this option). The clipped wingtips allowed a greater rate of roll and airspeed at low altitudes.

The Kit
Hot on the heels of their Spitfire Mk.I, Tamiya came up with VB variant in 1994. The parts are spread among two light grey and one clear sprues and feature nicely engraved details. The clear parts include both armoured and non-armoured windscreens and two styles of the sliding portion of the canopy. The one problem I see with the kit engineering is that the cannon barrels were moulded together with the upper wings, increasing the risk of breakage. The wingtips are separate allowing modellers to chose between the normal and the clipped wingtips. While cockpit details are reasonable, there are no seat belts included, not even in decal form. Also, while the separate cockpit door (to depict it in the open position) has better details than the one moulded with the fuselage. The decal sheet includes the wing leading edge ID strip together with the machinegun muzzle patches (separate patches for the third option as it does not have the ID strip). Three marking options were provided:
1. SN-M/EN821, No.243 Squadron
2. SZ-X/BL479, No.316 Squadron*
3. AGM, Fighter Command, Wing Commander A.G Malan

*No.316 was a Polish Squadron (with squadron ID 'SZ'). Most if not all aircraft in the unit featured the Polish checkerboard pattern on the nose while this particular aircraft did not. It was actually the personal mount of Group Captain M.W.S. Robinson, Station Commander of RAF Northolt where No.316 was stationed at the time.

Before assembling the cockpit interior, I first painted the parts and the cockpit sidewalls British Interior Green using XF-71 Cockpit Green. Yes, it's a Japanese colour but to my eyes it looks similar to British Cockpit Green. The details were painted X-18 Semi-Gloss Black with instrument dials in XF-2 Flat White. Although Tamiya has the modeller paint the seat in the same green (with the cushion in X-18), photos show that the seat is actually red brown in colour (it was made of bakelite) and the cushion looks like Buff. hey were therefore painted XF-64 and XF-57 respectively. The pilot's office was then assembled and the scars were cleaned up and retouched. Things on the cockpit sidewalls were cemented and the fuselage halves were mated. As Tamiya expected the included pilot figure be used by everyone, no seat belts, even in the shape of decals, were included. The cockpit assembly and a bulkhead was then inserted from below. Although the tailwheel are to be inserted at this time according to the instructions, I chose not to. The tailplanes were then cemented onto the fuselage.

Rather than continuing with canopy assembly and exhaust manifolds as per the instructions, I jumped to wing assembly first. The two separate upper wing halves were cemented to the one-piece lower half. Decision has to be made here as to whether to finish the model as a regular or a clipped-wing variant. Fit was again excellent. The engine radiator, oil cooler and carburettor intake were then cemented. There is a bit of a fit problem however with the carburettor intake inlet and the main body. The wing assembly was then mated to the fuselage. Oops! I almost forgot - the wing reinforcement ribs on each upper wings need to be removed (they were museum additions). The lower nose cowling was then cemented into place, finishing the initial build.

Painting and Decalling
The camouflage pattern for all three marking schemes are the same so that simplify things. The Medium Sea Grey, Ocean Grey and Dark Green colours were done using Tamiya XF-83, XF-82 and XF-81 respectively. Only then I have to make up my mind as to which markings to do. With the clipped-wing option out of the picture (as I used the original rounded wing tips), that left me with either the anonymous No.243 Squadron machine or the one belonging to ace 'Sailor' Malan. It was rather obvious that I would choose Malan's plane. Adolph Gysbert 'Sailor' Malan was a South African who joined the RAF in 1935 and was confirmed as a pilot in 1937. he was posted to No.74 Squadron at RAF Hornchurch.At the outbreak of war, Malan was involved in the so-called Battle of Barking Creek, a 'blue-on-blue' incident on 6 September 1939. As leader of 'A' Flight which attacked the unfortunate Hurricanes of No.56 Squadron, Malan denied responsibility and instead blamed pilys under his command. The court eventually dismissed the case and acquitted all pilots involved.  

During Operation Dynamo, No.74 was one of the squadrons giving cover to the evacuation and on 28 June 1940, Malan was awarded a DFC, having achieved the ace status. On 5 July he rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and on 8 August, he was promoted to acting Squadron Leader and took charge of No.74 Squadron. It was around this time that Malan and other senior pilots decided to abandon the RAF's 'vic' formation and adopted the looser finger-four formation. On 13 August, he was awarded a Bar to his DFC. Malan commanded No.74 with strict discipline and also reluctant to hand out decorations. Apart from being a force to change the RAF's tactical fighter formation, Malan also developed a set of simple rules for fighter and was disseminated throughout Fighter Command.On 24 December he received a DSO and in July 1941 received a Bar to the Order. On 10 March 1941, he was appointed as the leader of the Biggin Hill Wing - one of the first persons so appointed. He was rested from active fighter duties in August of the same year by which he has amassed 27 solo kills, 7 shared kills, 2 unconfirmed, 3 probables and 16 damaged, becoming the highest scoring RAF pilot at that time. He was transferred to reserve on 6 January 1942.

After tours to the United States and the Central Gunnery School, Malan was promoted to temporary Wing Commander on 1 September 1942. He was later appointed as the station commander for Biggin Hill and receiving promotion to war substantive Wing Commander on 1 July 1943. Malan however was keen to fly on combat operations, often ignoring the standing order for station commanders not to risk getting shot down. In October 1943, he became the CO for 19 Fighter Wing of the RAF Second Tactical Air Force. Later he became the commander of No.145 (Free French) Squadron and led a section of the squadron during the afternoon of 6 June 1944 over the Normandy beaches. Malan resigned his commission in the RAF on 5 April 1946 while retaining the rank of Group Captain. He returned to South Africa and joined the anti-apartheid movement. Malan passed away on 17 September 1963 of Parkinson's Disease.

Although no specific time was mentioned, I believed the markings in the Tamiya kit is for during his tenure as Biggin Hill Wing commander (or maybe later, when he was the Biggin Hill base commander as this option lack the wing leading edge ID strip and the armoured windscreen as base commanders were not expected to fly combat missions). The decals are fairly thick, causing visible bumps where the wing roundels overlap the walkway decals. I think that the fin flashes were too wide and need trimming to fit properly (which I did). I also believe that the instructions for the starboard wing walkway is wrong as it doesn't show the chordwise strip (the decal is on the sheet by the way) while the lengthwise strip goes all the way to the wing root (it was cut to the appropriate length before application). All decals then received an AK Interactive Decal Softener treatment. Ak Interactive Paneliner was the applied to the panel lines.

The rest of the parts can now be cemented onto the model. I started by assembling the landing gear and then cementing them onto the model and was followed by the tailwheel to allow the model to stand on its own. This was followed by the exhausts, aerial, pitot and ID lights on the top and the bottom of the fuselage. The gunsight was cemented into place before the canopy was added. Speaking of the canopy, Malan's plane used the 'regular' rather than the armoured windscreen (probably for the reasons I mentioned above). As luck would have it, my old friend Murphy came back for a visit during this build - I managed to smear the windscreen with cement! While it can be sanded back, I left it as it was as a lesson to myself. Finally, the propeller assembly was fitted. A final coating of Flat Clear finishes the build.

Another 'easy' Tamiya Spitfire kit to build, just like their Mark I. Almost everything falls in place together with no fuss. Some modellers point out the inaccuracies of this kit (and also the Mark I) such as the fuselage being 'fat' around the cockpit and also a bit short. The wing is too wide at the middle and some issues with the wing curves. To my eyes the model still looks like a Spitfire V. Short of shooting a shrinking ray at an actual Spitfire, these mistakes which virtually all kits have, would still be around  and most of us would still be happy (save a small percentage who suffered from acute and incurable level of AMS).  

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Hail To The Chief

Historical Background
The Centurion tank, despite being one of the most successful post-war tank designs, was not seen to have an ideal firepower to deal with the heavy IS-3 and T-10 tanks, armed with a 122mm gun. In 1955, the British fielded the 64-ton Conqueror heavy tank armed with a long 120mm gun but its mobility left something to be desired. A more mobile tank, with similar or heavier armament as the Conqueror was needed. In 1956, Leyland Motors built their prototypes of a new tank design which led to a request by the War Office for a Centurion replacement, known as Medium Tank No.2. The specification drew on the experience of the Centurions tanks during the Korean War as well as the operation of the Conqueror. It was expected to engage the enemy at long range from defensive position and proof against medium artillery. The gun therefore need to have a depression angle of more than 8 degrees, achieve a firing rate of 10 rounds per minute in the first minute of an engagement and 6 rounds per minute in the next four. It also needed to have a new, thicker, sloped frontal armour.

Design of FV 4201, as the vehicle is now designated, started in 1958 and the first prototype was ready in 1959. From 1961 to 1963, a further six prototypes and 40 pre-production vehicles were built. These were extensively used in troop trials, identifying changes needed for full-service vehicles. To assist in engine cooling and reducing engine vibrations, the rear deck was redesigned. This however increased the vehicle's weight, so that the suspension had to be strengthened. Track pads were also added to reduce damage to roads while increasing ground clearance. During the later stages of development, Israel was invited to join the programme with an eye for an Israeli purchase and licence-building the Chieftain (as the FV 4201 was named). The British decision of not to sell the Chieftain to Israel resulted in the latter leaving and pursuing their own tank development programme (eventually emerging as the Merkava). The Mk. 1 of the Chieftain was accepted for service in May 1963 with operational units receiving the Mark 3 in 1966.

The original Mark 1 was powered by a Leyland L60 two-stroke diesel engine designed for multi-fuel use but it proved unreliable and underpowered. Issues with the engine and the overall weight resulted in a high rate of breakdowns of the Mark 1 during exercises. In 1967, the power rating was increased but never fully resolved the problem. In 1974, the so-called 'Belzona' variant of the engine increased power output to 850 hp, improving the road, but not cross-country speed. The main armament was the 120 mm Royal Ordnance L11A5 rifled gun firing separate-loading ammunition. The propellant charges were encased in combustible bags, stored in 'wet' storages. 64 rounds were carried, comprising of HESH (High Explosive Squash Head) and APDS (Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot) rounds. Secondary armament consisted of a co-axial L8A1 7.62 mm machine gun and an L7 7.62 mm AA machine gun in the commander's cupola.

The initial fire-control system consisted of a Marconi FV/GCE Mk.4 12.7 mm ranging machine gun mounted above the main gun. The ranging gun was ballistically matched to the main armament and have a maximum practical range of 1,800 meters. On the left side of the turret was a large searchlight which can be fitted with an infra-red filter. The ranging machine gun was replaced with Barr and Stroud LF-2 laser rangefinder from Mark 3/3 onwards. This was later replaced with a Marconi Improved Fire Control using a digital ballistic computer. The Chieftain also introduced the supine driving position which lowers the overall height while allowing a more sloped front hull, improving protection. In the 1990s, in addition to the IFCS, the Chieftain received the 'Stillbrew' armour package (named after a Colonel Still and Mr. John Brewer of Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment) while the searchlight was replaced with a TOGS (Thermal Observation Gunnery Sight). The Chieftain was produced in several variants. Marks 1 through 5 were original versions with the later marks being rebuilds and upgrades of the original versions. Mark 11 was the last operational version of the Chieftain, incorporating the changes mentioned.

The Chieftain, like the Centurion before it, enjoyed considerable sales in the Middle East but unlike the Centurion, was not adopted by NATO (who mainly bought German Leopards) and Commonwealth countries. Chieftain users in the Middle East were Iran (the largest), Iraq (who operated captured Iranian examples during the Iran-Iraq War), Jordan (who designated their Chieftains as Khalid Shir - they were ex-Iranian order for an upgraded Chieftain variant, basically a cross between the Chieftain and its successor, the Challenger), Oman and Kuwait. Iranian Chieftains were used against Iraq with mixed results due to chronic engine problems and lack of spare parts. Kuwaiti Chieftains saw action during the Battle Of The Bridges against elements of the Iraqi Hammurabi and Medina Guards Divisions on 2 August 1990.

The Kit
Takom was a new company, being established in 2013 with the Soviet Obyekt 279 heavy tank being their first kit. After a number of World War 1 and unusual / less kitted vehicles, they came up with three Chieftain kits in 2015 - Mk. 5/5P, Mk.10 and this kit. The medium grey-moulded parts were spread among seven sprues, upper and lower hulls, one-piece turret and shell and turret bottom, separate track pads, brown-moulded separate (and loose) track links, a PE fret, two poly caps and a vinyl mantlet cover. All the parts are very well-moulded featuring sharp and intricate details. The diagram in the instructions are CAD drawings but looks clear and not confusing. A small addendum sheet is also included. The decal sheet provide markings for five vehicles:

1. 5th Iniskilling Dragoon Guards, British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS), Canada (2 vehicles)
2. That famous 'Unknown Unit', BATUS
3. Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Germany
4. A Sqn, 1 Royal Tank Regiment, Tofrek Barracks, Hildesheim, Germany 1992

As with the Marks 5 and 10 kits, the majority of British Army markings option were from BATUS. I just wish there were more BAOR marking options.

Before I start, I must mention that the kit's sprue gates are quite thick and square, requiring a bit more care. As with many other vehicle kits, construction started with the suspension units. The thick sprue gates almost made me broke the shock absorber arms on the front pairs of the Horstmann suspension. On other thing, I might be just me but Tamiya cement took a bit of time than usual to weld the parts together so I resorted to superglue for certain parts. The diagrams are also printed downside up so might want to have it well, upside down so that the images were oriented 'correctly'. Apart from that, there wasn't any problems with the lower hull and the suspension. Some might have an issue with the moulded springs as they look way simplified. The outer wheels was a multi-part affair to maximise details. The inner wheel on the other hand was a one-piece affair with less detail. Well, they would be mostly hidden from view, so why bother?

The instructions have you attach the rear hull plate to the lower hull after the tracks were put in place and after dry-fitting, I decided to do so as there won't be a good enough space to work the tracks if the rear plate is in place prior to the tracks. Takom has the track links already removed from the sprue a la Dragon's Magic Track. The track pads were however separately moulded. I took the route of least resistance by leaving the top run altogether as the side skirting would be in place, hiding the area from view. The tracks were not cemented to the wheels at this time in order to paint them and they were also separated into three segments to ease handling. In the meantime the wheels were removed and I painted the lower hull. When the tracks have cured, I painted them XF-64 and later washed them using AK Interactive Track Wash. The track pads were painted Tamiya XF-63 German Grey and were then then cemented into place. The cut scar was then retouched. The three segments for each track run was then cemented together and fitted to the wheels.

The upper hull was then cemented to the lower hull assembly. Logically, the rear plate was cemented first to make a stronger assembly before further work. The engine air filter(?) / exhaust system box on the rear plate was next and here the first PE part was encountered. The exhaust pipes themselves are of a split design with seam problems but the seams were mostly hidden from view by the stowage boxes on the mud guards. The spare tracks were left off at this time. Moving to the front of the hull, holes were drilled as indicated. The raised details on either side of the driver's vision block need to be removed but since my hobby chisel is too wide for this particular area, the cut wasn't clean. It actually didn't matter as the area was later covered by the add-on armour. Storage boxes were assembled but the fit was not great. The headlight brush guards were split into three parts and the best way to assemble them is by cementing the posts onto the hull first followed by the central bars, aligning them as you go. Oh, add the splash guard support strut before you do anything with the light guards - it was easier that way.

As for the turret, Takom has you add all the details first before joining the turret halves together. From past experiences, this may lead to broken parts. So the turret main body was assembled first. But before that the gun mount was assembled and put into place. I found that it was quite hard to get the turret shell to fit through the soft vinyl gun mask (but as usual, it might just be me) but in the end it was all OK. Nevertheless there was a sizeable gap around the gun mantlet which was quite fiddly to fill and sand. The well-detailed gun barrel is a two-piece affair and needed care in assembly to avoid ugly seam lines (and I took time admiring the details!). Before doing anything else (and hence forget about it later on), the addendum sheet was consulted and the not-needed detail was removed. After consulting various photos on the internet, I also removed the mounting for the rotating beacon on the turret roof (I believe the beacon was part of the 'laser tag' system used in maneuvers only and I wanted to have the model in 'combat-ready' posture...but the I might be wrong). The rest of the turret assembly went on without a problem, except for the stowage bins, which are a bit fiddly.

Painting and Decalling
I have decided early in the build not to finish this model in the BATUS scheme and leaves me with just the two BAOR schemes. Both schemes have NATO Green as the base colour and so Tamiya's XF-67 was used. I originally wanted to finish the model in the Royal Scots marking scheme, as it was single-colour and faster to finish. But I was having second thoughts about it, as most of my post-WW2 tank models are of single-colour schemes and adding another monotonous vehicle might not really a good idea. And so, the 1 RTR Chieftain it will be. The disruptive pattern was painted using Tamiya XF-69 NATO Black. However, during painting, I found that the pattern on the side and top elevations did not match. Turning to the internet, I found the build log of a modeller building the same kit and I copied the pattern he used on his Chieftain. The thermal sleeve was painted a mixture of XF-57 Buff and XF-49 Buff while the straps were painted straight XF-49.

The few decals were applied. They adhere with no problems although I still apply AK Interactive's decal setting solution, just in case. I deviated a bit from the instructions by placing a Union Jack on the front left fender. It wasn't on this particular tank but I have seen photos of other 1 RTR Chieftains sporting them. It might not be accurate per se but it was possible.  

To tell the truth there aren't many things to do by this time, and mainly it was concerned with further weathering. The commander's machine gun mount was assembled and finally put in place and followed by the towing cables. As many photos, and also mentioned by the said modeller above (who was a Chieftain tank commander) showed the absence of the side-view mirrors, they were left off permanently. No other accessories were provided with the kit and I have run out of British accessories in my stash. I however managed to try some other methods to create camouflage nets. I tried to replicate the type usually used by the NATO armies by using the regular bandage gauze as base and adding tea leaves from used teabags. However the brand I drink has been using granulated leaves without me realising it. The gauze was soaked in white glue and the contents of teabag was poured onto it. Since the tea leaves are granulated rather than pieces of broken leaves, they look weird, to say the least. Nevertheless I used them.It was painted XF-49 Khaki , and then folded and placed onto the left-hand side turret bin.

No paint chippings were done as the same modeller said that these tanks were regularly repainted and that tank crews were not wearing hobnailed boots. I however made the model look dusty by applying thinned XF-55 Deck Tan all over it (I have run out of the usually used XF-57 Buff but found Deck Tan to be a very good substitute).  The lower glacis plate and part of the forward portion of the RPG skirt was then washed with AK Interactive Mud Wash. The exhaust nozzles receive a rather thick wash of X-19 Smoke. Finally guitar string was used as radio aerials although I manged to cut the one shorter than the other. The shorter one was used on the turret roof while the other was used on the turret side. As the model has already looked as flat as it is, I did not finish the build by spraying a final layer of flat finish.

This was my first Takom kit and frankly speaking I was quite impressed with it. While originally buying the kit with some reservations, having images of 1000+ parts a la Hobby Boss and Meng kits dancing in my mind, the build process was more akin to a Tamiya. In general the parts fitted nicely while having fairly respectable details. Painting directions however was a bit 'off' and I wish Takom had more BAOR markings. Well, at least it was better than their Mark 10 kit which featured an Abrams stand-in for a popular TV show and a static target at BATUS (yes, a static target waiting to be blasted by Challys, what was Takom thinking?).

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Super Bug

Historical Background
In the 1980s, McDonnell Douglas proposed an enlarged F/A-18 Hornet, marketed as Hornet 2000. The concept envisaged an F/A-18 with a larger wing and a longer fuselage to carry more fuel (the Hornet's main shortcoming) and more powerful engines. The study was made official in January 1988. At the same time, the US Naval Aviation was having problems with the A-12 Avenger II stealth attack aircraft programme, which was intended to replace the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair on board US carriers. The Navy was also looking for a replacement for its aborted Navy Advanced Tactical Fighter (which was basically a navalised F-22 Raptor). The Navy also considered updating an existing design rather than designing a totally new aircraft, as the end of the Cold War led to budget cuts and considerable restructuring. As an alternative to the NASF and A-12, McDonnell Douglas offered the Hornet 2000 as the 'Super Hornet'. In 1992, the US Navy ordered the Super Hornet, partly to replace the venerable F-14 Tomcat and partly as all replacement aircraft should be based on the F/A-18 pending the introduction of the F-35. Despite basically a new aircraft, the F/A-18 designation was retained to help the Navy to sell the Super Hornet to the Congress.

The Super Hornet first flew on 29 November 1995 with full production begun in September 1997. In 1999 it went through the Navy's operational tests and evaluations and was finally accepted in February 2000. The Super Hornet is about 20% larger than the original Hornet (now dubbed 'Legacy Hornet'), it was also 3,200 kg (empty weight) and 6,800 kg (maximum weight) heavier. The Super Hornet also carries 33% more fuel, allowing a 41% increase in mission range and endurance by 50% over the Legacy Hornet. To make room for that extra fuel and additional electronics, the fuselage was stretched by 86 cm and the wing area was enlarged by 25%. However, although it was 5,000 kg lighter than the F-14, the Super Hornet still cannot match the former's range and endurance. Despite the extension and enlargement, the Super Hornet has 42% less structural parts than the Legacy Hornet. The Super Hornet was powered by a pair of General Electric F414 afterburning turbofan engines which have 35% more thrust than the original F404. The new engines also allow a higher 'bringback' weight. With the retirement of KA-6D and S-3B inflight refueling tankers, the Super Hornet was designed so that it can be equipped with an air refueling system ('buddy tanks'), carrying a 1,200 liter fuel tank/hose drum unit on the centerline and four 1,800 liter tanks under the wings.

The intake ramps were redesigned, from oval in the Legacy Hornet to a rectangular one. The wing root leading edge extensions (LERX) were also enlarged, improving vortex lifting characteristics in high angle of attack maneuvers. The Super Hornet also incorporated some stealthy features, including redesign of the intakes so that the engines compressor face is masked, reducing the aircraft's overall radar cross-section. Other measures include panel joint serration and edge alignment. Two extra hardpoints were added under the wings for a total of 11. The Super Hornet has quadruplex digital fly-by-wire system and also a digital flight control system that detects and corrects for battle damage. Initial production Super Hornets were equipped with the APG-73 radar as the C and D versions of the Legacy Hornet but were later replaced with APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. Main electro-optical sensor and laser designator was the AN/ASQ-228 ATFLIR. From May 2007, the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) was delivered to operational units, allowing, among others, off-boresight missile cuing. Like the Legacy Hornet, the Super Hornet came in two versions: the single-seat F/A-18E and the two-seat F/A-18F.

The Super Hornet achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in September 2001 with VFA-115 'Eagles'. The Eagles also became the first unit to use their Super Hornet in combat when a pair of them attacked two Iraqi SAM launchers at Al Kut and an air defence command and control bunker at Tallil Air Base in support of Operation Southern Watch on 6 November 2002. The mission also marked the debut of the JDAM. The Super Hornet was subsequently used in US operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and along the Somali coast. Unlike the Legacy Hornet, the Super Hornet was not operated by the USMC (who prefer to wait for the F-35). So far, only Australia is the export customer for the Super Hornet, curently operating 24. Other potential customers were sought, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Poland, UAE, Bulgaria and Belgium. The Super Hornet airframe is also used to build the EA-18G Growler, the replacement for the venerable EA-6B Prowler on board the Navy's carriers.

The Kit
Hasegawa introduced their 1/72 kit of the Super Hornet in 2003 by releasing the 'F' version and this was followed by the 'E' in 2004. The parts were spread among seven light grey and one clear sprues. The parts were well-moulded and featured finely engraved panel lines and hundreds of tiny dimples representing the flush rivets. The fuselage breakdown allow Hasegawa to make just one mould for the forward fuselage of both E and F models. The intake trunking, as with many other models are short and ended with a 'wall'. Other interior details, such as for the landing gear wells were sufficient in 1/72 scale. Unlike previous Hasegawa kits, there were some external stores provided : four 480-US Gallon external tanks, two AIM-120 AMRAAMs and two AIM-9X Sidewinders. Also included is a AN/AAS-38 NITE Hawk FLIR pod (strangely not the ATFLIR). Of course you need weapons from other sources to fully arm your Rhino. Two marking options were provided : NH 200 / 165861, VFA-14 Tophatters, USS Nimitz and NK 200 / 165781, VFA-115 Eagles, USS Abraham Lincoln.

As usual, construction started at the admittedly not-detailed-cockpit. It was painted Gunze 317 with the details (make that just the control stick) in Flat Black. The dials and switches were represented by decals. Rather bafflingly (as it would be invisible), Hasegawa instructed you to fill the holes in the shell of the rear crew position. The front fuselage of the kit is a three-piece affair. The left and right halves were cemented first. The cockpit was cemented to the lower fuselage and afterwards it was cemented to assembled upper halves. As with any other multi-part assembly, some extra care were needed to avoid seams. Although instructed to be fitted later, I decided to put the ejection seat into place. I however discarded the kit ejection seat and replaced it one from Aires. The nose assembly was set aside as I go through the main fuselage.

The main fuselage is another multi-part affair with the possibility of bad fit. Before doing anything, holes were drilled into the bottom of the fuselage to accommodate an external fuel tank later on. As the intake trunks ended in a blank 'wall', the latter was painted Flat Black while the intake trunking itself was painted Gunze H308. The decals representing the grille (I think) on the intake was done at this time as there might not be enough space for my fingers when the intake parts were joined together. A blanking plate closes the aperture for the WSO's cockpit. The mounting for the engine turbine face at the rear of the fuselage is also the mount for the horizontal tail and was provided with poly caps so that the tails can be removed for painting. As feared, there are some steps on the joint lines which needed attention but nothing major. The same goes when the fuselage was mated to the nose assembly.

The wings were two-piece affairs and holes were drilled into the lower half before the two of them were mated together. The wingtip missile rails were separate and the instructions have you cement the rail and missile together before cementing the assembly to the wings. I digress by cementing the rails to the wings first and leave the missiles for later. But the way the wingtips were engineered meant that I have to apply the decals for the wingtip slime lights (after painting the relevant areas first) before cementing the missile rails. The separate hump on the spine fit well but there was a bit of a gap between it and the fuselage towards the rear. The twin vertical tails were cemented while the horizontal tails were pushed into place. The latter would be removed during decalling to ease things. As usual, all the small parts, landing gears and doors were left off until after painting. The pylons wera also left off at this time to ease handling.

Painting and Decalling
As with most US modern military combat jets, the Super Hornet is painted a two-tone grey scheme, specifically FS 36375 and FS 36320. The former was applied using Gunze H308 while the latter was mixed from Tamiya XF-66 Light Grey, XF-54 Dark Sea Grey and XF-2 Flat White as didn't realize I have run out of Gunze H307. The still-separate parts were also painted while still on the sprue and will be touched-up later. The area next to the cannon muzzle was painted Burnt Iron. For markings, instead of kit decals, I used TwoBobs' 'F/A-18E Rockin' Rhinos #1' decal sheet featuring a CAG bird from VFA-22 Fighting Redcocks and VFA-143 Pukin' Dogs. Both schemes are attractive but in the end I chose the Pukin' Dog scheme. Having used their decals for my  F-117, A-10 and F-111 projects before, I am very sure of their quality. One complaint though : some of the decals were not shown in the instructions. The decals then received an application of AK Interactive Decal Adapter solution. I however slipped my hand while applying the said solution on the right hand side diagonal stripe, resulting in a crooked line underneath the LERX.

There really wasn't much to do at this stage, for this kit. The landing gear was assembled, given some wash and was then cemented to the fuselage. The horizontal planes were simply pushed into place. The panel lines were then highlighted with AK Interactive Paneliner for Grey Aircraft. For underwing stuff, I did not have really clear idea on what were hung underneath the pylons during combat missions. In the decided, using stuff found in Hasegawa's Weapons Sets, two GBU-16s, two GBU-31 JDAMs and an AGM-88 HARM were used while the Sidewinders and AMRAAMs came from the kit. However I decided to use the 'L' family of the AIM-9 instead of the newer X. Liquid cement was stippled on the GBU-16s to replicate the thermal coating used on USN bombs. before cementing the external stores, certain panel lines were enhanced using AK Interactive Paneliner while pencil was used for the rest. After the external stores have been attached to the model, it was sprayed with a couple of layers of Flat Clear.

The Hasegawa 1/72 F/A-18E Super Hornet got a 'fair' rating from me. The overall shape is nice  although the fit wasn't, especially from the intake forward. Detail-wise, the interior was as as expected form the kit of this scale although should have added a bit more to spruce up the deck behind the pilot's office. And apparently, for this particular kit, some of the external details / panel lines are of the prototype's (or imaginary?) - I came to this conclusion after perusing the instruction sheets of subsequent reboxings of this kit, showing the required trimming/sanding/filling. And there is no need for me to go on about the relative lack of underwing stores, but at least, Hasegawa has the decency of providing modellers with the pairs of Sidewinder and AMRAAM missiles.  

Monday, 30 January 2017

Stalin's Iron Falcons

Historical Background
With the tide of war turning against the Axis Powers in 1943, Soviet engineers can now devote their work to develop an indigenous turbojet of their own design in order to catch up with the West. To help the indigenous jet engines move along, captured German BMW 003 and Jumo 004 engines were used as basis. These engines, developed under shortages in wartime Germany were unable to generate thrusts of more than 2,500 lb. While the engines (now designated RD-20 and RD-10 respectively) were used to power the Soviet's first-generation jet fighters - the Yak-15 and the MiG-9, they were more seen as developmental efforts rather than 'proper' jet fighters. Mikhail Khrunichev, the Soviet aviation minister and Alexander Yakovlev suggested to Stalin that the USSR buy the conservative but fully mature Rolls-Royce Nene from the UK to conserve development time but was rebuffed by Stalin as he did not believe anyone would sell their secrets to the Soviets. nevertheless Stalin gave his consent to the proposal and a delegation which include Vladimir Klimov and  Artem Mikoyan travelled to London to request the engines.

To the Soviets' surprise (especially Stalin), the British Labour government of the day, specifically the Minister of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps, was perfectly willing to provide technical information and a license to manufacture the Nene. Sample engines, together with blueprints were duly purchased and brought back home. After evaluation and adaptation to Russian conditions, the Nene was manufactured as the Klimov RD-45. To take advantage of the new engine, the Council Of Ministers ordered Mikoyan-Gurevich OKB to build two prototypes of high-altitude day interceptor. German research and experience during the war years showed that swept wings would give better performance at transonic speeds and with the wealth of German documents captured at the end of World War 2, the MiG design incorporated that particular feature, among others, for their I-310 prototypes. The I-310 has 35° wing and tail sweep with two wing fences on each wing to improve airflow over the wings. The RD-45 was fed by a split-forward air intake. It made its first flight on 30 December 1947, demonstrating excellent performance, proving itself superior to the rival Lavochkin La-15 design.

The MiG was approved for mass production and was designated MiG-15. Entering service in 1949, it was given the NATO ASCC reporting name of 'Fagot' (meant to be 'a bundle of sticks' rather than the 'other' meaning; and it was originally intended to be given the name 'Falcon'). The MiG-15 was originally intended to intercept large American bombers such as the B-29. To ensure the destruction of such a large target, the MiG-15 was armed with two 23mm and a single 37mm cannons. These weapons provided tremendous firepower in the interception role but the low rate of fire and the low muzzle velocity made it more difficult to shoot at the more maneuverable fighters. The cannons also have different ballistics trajectory making aiming difficult and subjecting the UN fighter pilots in Korea the sight of 23mm rounds passing over and the 37mm rounds passing beneath their aircraft. Although the RD-45 have excellent performance, it was quite a gas guzzler while having a short service (reputedly less than 100 hours). Klimov came up with the improved VK-1 generating 5,952 lb of thrust (legally speaking, the VJ-1 and the RD-45 were illegal copies of the Nene but the Soviets claimed that they had re-engineered the engines to the extent that they are now indigenous Soviet designs). This plus a number of small upgrades, including a more closely placed 23mm cannons resulted in the MiG-15bis ('second'), Although overall an excellent machine, the MiG-15 was not without shortcomings. Its lack of an 'all-flying' tail meant that it cannot exceed Mach 0.92 where flight controls become ineffective. Additionally, it tended to spin after a stall and the pilot was often unable to recover.

The MiG-15 first saw action during the final stages of the Chinese Civil War when the Soviets sent the 50th IAD to the Chinese Communists aid in February 1950. On 28 April 1950, a Captain Kalinikov scored the first kill for the MiG-15 - a P-38 Lightning of the Kuomintang. When the Korean War erupted about two months later, the KPAF, equipped with World War 2-era Soviet prop fighters was completely overwhelmed with the numerical and qualitative superiority of the USAF using the F-80 Shooting Star and the F-84 Thunderjet. The 50th IAD was transferred to the northeast of China and back in the Soviet Union, pilots were recruited to serve in Korea. Volunteers had to be under 27 years old and preference was given to World War 2 veterans. They formed the 29th Guards IAD. Although widely suspected by the West and constantly denied by the Soviets, the end of the Cold War finally revealed the role played by the Soviets. The pilots wore Chinese uniforms or civillian clothings. Cards with common flying terms in Korean (and spelt phonetically in Cyrillic) was issued to them. They were also prohibited from flying over enemy-held territory where they might be shot down and captured, thus revealing the Soviets' participation. The aircraft was also painted in Chinese and North Korean markings.

On 1 November 1950, eight MiGs intercepted 15 F-51Ds, shooting down one of the Mustangs. On the same day, another three MiGs intercepted around 10 F-80s and 1st Lieutenant Semyon F. Khominich scored the first jet-to-jet kill when he shot down 1st Lt. Frank van Sickle's F-80. The presence of the MiGs also forced the B-29s to operate during the night. However, on 9 November, the MiGs suffered their first loss when Captain Mikhail F. Grachev was shot down by an F9F Panther piloted by Lt. Commander William T. Amen from USS Philippine Sea. To counter this threat, three squadrons of North American F-86 Sabres were rushed to the theatre. More experienced units were sent by Stalin including the 324th IAD commanded by Col. Ivan Kozhedub, the Allies' highest-scoring ace during World War 2. Records show that the 64th IAK (the parent MiG organisation in Korea) shot down 647 F-86s, 185 F-84 Thunderjets, 118 F-80s, 28 F-51s, 11 F-94s, 65 B-29s, 26 Meteors and 17 various other aircraft. 659 were lost, mainly to Sabres and with the Americans' claimed loss of 78 Sabres, the kill : loss ratio was around 6:1 in favour of the F-86. Nevertheless, the highest scoring ace of the Korean War was not Col. Joseph C. McConnell (16 victories) as previously believed but Colonel Yevgeny Pepelyaev with 22.5 kills.

Although a few damaged Sabres were salvaged for evaluation, the USAF wanted an intact example and initiated Operation Moolah, offering a reward of US$100,000 and political asylum to pilots who defected with their MiG-15. On 5 March 1953, Franciszek Jarecki brought his plane to Denmark where his plane was inspected by American specialists before the aircraft was returned to the Poles. The more celebrated defector was No Kum-Sok, who landed his MiG at the Kimpo Air Base on 21 September 1953. The plane was thoroughly inspected and tested, including by Chuck Yeager, who reported the MiG's dangerous handling faults. The MiG-15 was also used to intercept Western reconnaissance aircraft and other conflicts such as in the Middle East and between Taiwan and China where it suffered the distinction of being the first victim of the Sidewinder missile in 1958. The MiG-15 was widely exported (and license built as the S-102/S-103 (Czechoslovakia) and Poland (Lim-1/ Lim-2). Apparently over 18,000 was built, making it the most-produced jet fighter of all time.

The Kit
There has been a number of MiG-15 kits in 1/72 scale but they are either inaccurate or no longer available. The best available before the Eduard MiG-15 was Hobby Boss's. They are good but a bit simplified. Eduard came up with their family of MiG-15s in 2014, initially releasing the baseline MiG-15 and followed by the bis. As per their usual practice, the simplified 'Weekend Edition' followed not long after. Simplified it may be, but for Eduard aficionados and modellers in general, it just meant that the PE, resin (if any) and masks are not included and the choice of markings reduced to just one (or two). This allows modellers inexperienced with the said media  (or loath them) to still enjoy their kits as the basic styrene parts are well-detailed and moulded. This particular kit has 74 parts in grey plastic, 7 parts in clear plastic, Eduard's Super Fabric seat belts and a small decal sheet. Parts for the basic MiG-15 was included but one cannot be made as some bis parts were already moulded / engraved (such as the airbrakes). The decal sheet provide markings for 'Yellow 30' (ex Red 1976) in the mid-1950s.

As usual work started at the pilot's office and as usual I painted the parts while still on the sprue. They were painted according to Eduard's directions of mainly Gunze 308 Light Ghost Grey with Flat Black upholstery and the top of the control stick and blue for a detail on the cockpit floor. The cockpit details was then enhanced with a dark grey wash. My copy of the kit must be of a later batch as the instructions showed the seat belts (the ones on the internet I have seen lacked it in the instructions) although there is no mention on how to apply them - I managed to do so by checking out Eduard's website. It should be gently removed from the backing paper using a sharp blade and a pair of tweezers and sticking them using white glue. Although without PE detailing, it may be a blessing in disguise as the Profipack version have the pre-painted PE in Russian cockpit blue-green whereas MiG-15s have their cockpit painted grey. The nose wheel well was assembled and cemented to the front of the cockpit where care has to be given else it might not align with the fuselage bottom. The cockpit tub was then cemented together. I couldn't suitable weight to fit in the designated area so I crammed as much plasticine as I can inside the cavity.

At the back of the plane, Eduard provided a two-piece exhaust shaft  with a bulkhead already moulded with a rear end of a jet turbine (to avoid the see-through effect while having some detail). They were painted Burnt Iron although I shouldn't have bothered painting the whole length of the thing. before the fuselage halves were jointed, the interior walls were painted Gunze 8 Silver. The cockpit assembly and the exhaust assembly was cemented to the right half (and I think the exhaust assembly was handed). Caution: the rudder need to be cemented to either fuselage half before closing up (ask me how I found that). The fuselage fitted beautifully except at the front but it was nothing a clamp can't overcome. The instrument panel was then inserted into place. I used the flat face and decals option than the raised details as they looked way oversized while not having instrument face details. (As a matter of interest, the instrument face decal included a vertical white line slightly off centre - the line is there on the real aircraft as it was a reference point for pilots to shove their control stick against, should they got themselves into a spin)

The lower half of the nose is a separate piece to allow Eduard to mould the original and bis cannon arrangements separately and accurately and before it was cemented to the fuselage, more plasticine were crammed into the cavity. After the piece was securely in place, the nose / intake lip was assembled and cemented. Holes for the external fuel tank were drilled and the wing halves cemented together. The wings were then joined to the fuselage where I found that the fit was not good. Well, it's time for the filler then. The tailplanes however went on without any problems. I was thinking of cementing the cannons at this time but seeing how close they would be to the landing gears and that they may interfere while I work the gear and the doors, I left it for later. The two clear parts for the bottom of the fuselage was dry fitted at first, showing that the round one (the cover for the ARK-5 radio compass) having a rather poor fit and needed some sanding before it can fit in the recess.

Painting and Decaling
Although it was clearly stated in the diagram that the MiG is painted overall silver (specifically Mr. Color Super Metallic 'Super Fine Silver'), I suddenly had doubts whether it was actually silver, or bare metal or painted aluminium. After consulting various sources, I concluded that the MiGs were left in bare metal. However, I have run out of Tamiya AS-12 and so with a heavy heart, I sprayed Tamiya TS-30 Silver Leaf. The lower portion of the extreme nose is painted SM 04 Super Stainless - another colour I did not have at the time. However I believe that portion of the nose was reinforced to withstand the cannon blasts. I thus looked to photo references of MiG-19s, which have reinforced skin next to the cannon muzzles, for ideas and came up with my own concoction for that colour (which may or may not be accurate). There is no mention about the clear parts underneath the fuselage. So after hunting down pics on the internet, the clear rectangular part was painted over while the ARK-5 radio compass cover was left off as it is.

As mentioned before, there is just one marking scheme, a Korean War veteran back in Mother Russia in the mid-1950s. The scheme feature faded original Bort number 1976 and the North Korean insignia overlaid with the V-VS Red Star and new Bort number 30. Ideally, the original markings should be printed with lower colour density but Eduard have them in full colour and instructed the modeller to lightly overspray them before applying the newer markings. After giving some thoughts, I decided to have the model in the original markings only. After the decals have recovered from their setting solution bath, the panel lines were enhanced with Ak Interactive Paneliner (I used the 'for blue and grey camouflage'). At this time I sort of have an idea of transforming the all-silver paint job into something that mimicked, more or less, a natural metal finish. Random panels were given washes or maybe something akin to a filter layer of aluminium, metallic grey, smoke (Tamiya X-19). It wasn't perfect of course but at least it gave that natural metal-ish look.

As usual I started by fitting the landing gears first so that the model can stand on its own. It ended up with the tail on the worktable - not enough ballast in the nose! Thankfully the rear cockpit decking was not yet in place so I can fit some more plasticine in the cavity behind the cockpit. I also realized that the left wing have more anhedral than the right wing and the same goes with the right tail plane! The wing is not much of an issue as the model look balanced on its landing gear but the same cannot be said for the tail plane! Anyway, the finishing stage goes on and I drilled holes into Part B12 as photos of the real aircraft show it to be perforated. The final, more fragile parts were cemented after the drop tanks have been fitted - although the kit also provide slip-on style external tanks, only the finned type were used with different attachment pylons for variety.

The Eduard MiG-15 family definitely filled the void in 1/72 scale. While the Airfix and Hobby Boss kits are still available, the former still retain some inaccuracies while the latter was a bit simplified (although still accurate). The Eduard kit is well moulded with very nice surface detailing and although lacking the extras such as PE parts and paint masks, it still represents a value for money. Fit is generally very good although the hiccups I encountered may be purely as the result from my clumsiness. A must if you build and collect 1/72 jets due to its place in history. Now I'm off looking for its adversary, the Sabre.....