The many, many P-61 models in my display case -er, I mean, mind

Last night, I picked up a kit that’s been out for a while but which I had not managed to add to the collection: DML’s P-61B Black Widow. The latest edition has a fret of color photoetched parts, which include cockpit details, brake lines, seat belts and other details, and although I still think elements of the interior could use some attention these go a long way toward dressing up the cockpit. The kit’s decals are also pretty nice; the national insignia are iffy in color, but the nose art, especially for “Lady in the Dark” (the plane credited with the last two kills of World War II), is really nice – and her swimsuit is the correct red color, not blue as on past sheets.

Thinking about this subject, my mind raced through things the way it usually does: first, I wanted to do the historic “Lady,” then I thought about doing a less-known subject, since I don’t always like the obvious set of markings, then it drifted to the NACA P-61C that dropped an aerodynamic shape on Sunnyvale, then to the idea of an F-15 Reporter conversion. That would be a neat Obscureco item, wouldn’t it? The F-15 was a hot-looking plane, combining the twin booms with a streamlined fuselage – it would be a real show stopper! Especially as a fire bomber…!

Then, the second part of the thinking kicked in: well, the F-15 might be a bit of work, and it had a natural metal finish; the DML kit has a slightly pebbly finish to the plastic, which would take work to rehabilitate for a natural metal bird (not to mention the kit’s infamous engineering, which requires some judicious filling, shimming and sanding). And a NACA bird would have local interest, but it’s not really what I’m after. Okay, the mental bargaining went, here’s how it’ll go: the first P-61 I build will be a Pacific war combat aircraft; the next one I make will be an F-15, and then No. 3 will maybe be the TEST bird.

Now, the odds of me building three P-61s are off the map – who knows when I’ll get to this one, even. But your plans can be awfully big before you actually start working on a model. I have long said that the only perfect models in our collections are the ones we haven’t started on yet; the vision you have of that finished model (or line-up of three models!) is a flawless image indeed. It takes practice and experience to bring the reality of your work closer to that original image, and few of us really ever get there. It can be a bit of a letdown when you finish a model because of this – but you can also surprise yourself. I aspire to more self-surprising in the future!

The real reason I went for the kit last night was not my fantasy of a completed P-61, or even the photoetched parts. I was because I have a mini-library on the P-61 and it seems kind of asinine to invest that kind of bread without having the kit to justify it. Nothrop’s Night Hunter, P-61 Black Widow Units of World War II, Northrop P-61 Black Widow: the Complete History and Combat Record and Warbird Tech 15, plus the obligatory In Action volume, clutter my shelves. And, until yesterday, for what? (Yes, I know: for my own edification. But as a modeler, there’s got to be another reason!)

The real modeling work this week has been on a 1:72 jet pilot figure; different shades of dark green (harness, flight suit, etc.) don’t make for a very exciting uniform, or a very exciting bit of painting, but he’ll be holding his helmet with the Sundowners’ red rays on it (I’ll do those with decals) and that might add some interest. The face looks good, at least – the Rapidograph pens did wonders for the eyes and eyebrows, and a very subtle line of red applied with a .005 pen right below the lower lip defined the mouth quite nicely. Now, you do have to get pretty close to see this, but that’s what I really want to get people to do – move in close and keep seeing more detail as they get closer. Lt. Ho-hum achieves this. Maybe the next jet jockey I do will have a Marine Corps camouflaged flight suit…

Random pre-holiday stuff

Some collected odds and ends:

Memorial Day Weekend always involves these two things: 1. the flag on the front of the house all three days and 2. watching the Indianapolis 500 from start to finish. The rest of the weekend, I’ll improvise.

Negotiations with Elizabeth proved fruitful and I will have two and a half hours of uninterrupted scale modeling on Saturday.

In a related note, the backordered Falcon canopy set that includes the Maryland’s canopy arrived from Roll Models this week. Thank you, Roll Models! I was afraid this would have gone into back-order purgatory, but you coaxed the New Zealanders to send a new order. I am grateful. (I also got some photoetch for my Mustang, the new A-1 Skyraider units book from Osprey and Aires’ English Electric Lightning exhaust set, so there’s a little preview of future activity.)

Gene Martin sent me eight excellent photos from his time in the 379th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group from around April 1945. Four showed him and his living conditions (tent!), and four showed his P-47 “Bonnie Lynn.” If you’ve seen the Aeromaster sheet with “Bonnie,” this is the same plane, only with the addition of “Lynn” to commemorate Bob Shaw’s daughter, a yellow surround to the codes and a yellow cheat line down each side of the anti-glare panel. It is one sharp Thunderbolt. I will start bugging Roy Sutherland of Barracudacals immediately.

Gene also sent his log book, which helped fill in a lot of blanks regarding the 379th, and I also had an e-mail interview with Joe Hunter of the 378th which I’m currently working into the text. Joe provided details on his three victories and some great insight into the ground attack mission. Totally invaluable stuff! I’ve said that the only bad part of finishing a book is that I no longer have an obvious excuse to talk to these veterans, and that’s very much the case with this project.

Last night I picked up IBG’s Chevrolet C15A No. 13 General Service Truck in 1:72; I believe I saw a long-bed version of this vehicle at El Alamein (actually, a Ford-manufactured version of this vehicle; the two companies used a common cab pattern) and again in photos of the 332nd Fighter Group’s ground crews. It might make a nice conversion and diorama item. Here’s the truck in Egypt:



I took a lot more photos of this vehicle (and a second one like it that had been turned into a half-assed APC with the addition of two sheets of 1/8-inch steel  around the bed) not knowing what it was or whether a kit existed. This particular vehicle was apparently found on the Libyan border around 1998, with the driver’s body still in it and the bed loaded with supplies and ammo. After it was towed to El Alamein and the wiring harness was replaced and some oil was added, the engine actually turned over. The major difference between the cab here and the kit is the Ford logo in place of the Chevrolet bow tie!

Models keep coming up aces…

Last weekend was the P-47 Fighter Aces Symposium at the Hiller Aviation Museum, featuring four aces – Richard Fleischer of the 348th FG, Frank McCauley and Les Smith of the 56th FG, and David Thwaites of the 356th FG. It was an entertaining afternoon, and perhaps this nugget was the most interesting to come out of it: McCauley and Smith had been assigned the same flight and had flown many missions together, but this even was the first time they’d seen each other since 1944!

Unfortunately, we didn’t stage a model display at this symposium; I didn’t hear back from anyone about it, and so I decided to take this one off and go simply as a spectator. However, a couple people at the event asked me about the model display, since they’d enjoyed seeing it in the past, which is nifty incentive to work up a display for the next event, featuring Navy and Marine aces, on July 19 at the Hiller Museum (I’ll have names when they become available to me). I’d try to knock out a Corsair between now and then, but that would probably result in an extra-bent bent-winged bird, so I’ll fall back on my Alex Vraciu Hellcat instead!

That got me to thinking about the ace machines I have in my collection of built-ups. I’ve always tried to shy away from the over-done aircraft and leaned toward the “rank and file,” but I do have a big splash of aces in the case. To wit:

It’s pretty obvious why the aces command so much attention from modelers – they grabbed fame while flying and still command attention today, so people want to build their aircraft. Decal manufacturers respond to demand, so the aces are disproportionately represented in decal form. So that cycle continues. And, of course, a single-engine plane’s a quicker build than a multi-engine bomber or even a multi-place attack plane, so more fighters get built than any other type.
Here’s what the build queue at the workshop looks like right now:

  • Martin 167 Maryland (this week’s subject for work)
  • P-40E Warhawk
  • P-51D-5 Mustang
  • P-47D Thunderbolt
  • Fairey Firefly V

Of those, two are ace machines – the P-40E of Jim Morehead and (oddly enough) the Maryland of Adrian Warburton. So the pattern continues!

What proportion of aces ends up in your collection? And is it because the decals available happen to be aces, or do you seek out ace subjects for your models? I’d be interested to know.

Book Report: Hell Hawks!

I’m working on a book on the 362nd Fighter Group; Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones recently published their book on the 365th Fighter Group, Hell Hawks! The Untold Story of the American Fliers who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  I’ll write a full review of this for the IPMS/USA Journal; here I’ll discuss the differences between the approach taken by Dorr and Jones and my approach.

First off, Hell Hawks! Is targeted at a much wider audience than the work I’m doing. I say that not because it lacks in detail, but because the authors have to spend some time explaining things that I took for granted. For instance, I don’t feel compelled to describe the P-47 in detail; I think readers who come to my book will already know a bit about World War II aviation. Also, the style is very different from my approach; it’s much more florid and action packed. To be honest, when I was reading the first chapters, I was a bit put off by the emphasis on details that the authors had no documentary evidence of – the appearance of clouds, the way the ground looked and other things that were not recorded back in 1944. I’m reluctant to add those embellishments, but they do help paint the picture of what’s going on and to be fair, many action reports at least include notations like “8/10ths cloud,” from which an author could extrapolate such things.

I also feel more compelled to get everyone in a unit into the story if they scored a victory, commanded a squadron and, especially, if they lost their life. This is the one shortcoming of Hell Hawks!; at times, the fallen go unnamed, and there’s no listing of the losses the 365th suffered in combat. To be honest, one of the most rewarding side-effects of writing these books is providing family members with insight into how a grandfather or uncle was lost, since many still do not know. Hell Hawks! Certainly includes many stories of pilots’ losses, but it sticks to the ones that are most useful in telling the story, which strengthens the narrative and keeps it uncluttered but also lessens it as a history of the group.

The other difference in approach is that Dorr and Jones use flashbacks and fast-forwards at times to group similar experiences, a device that works reasonably well here. I prefer to let the narrative roll, because I find that a chronological telling has a dramatic effect that’s just as powerful as any that a writer could craft. In my book on the Tuskegee Airmen,  there’s a report from a pilot about escorting a crippled bomber to Corsica, where he receives the thanks of the bomber crew and indicates exactly how the airmen’s escort broke down racial barriers 10 men at a time. You really get to know the man through his words and the way he tells the story. Later, when the same pilot is killed in action, the reader feels the loss – we may know him as a character, but no character is invulnerable to the realities of war.

By centering a lot of the book around the veterans the two men interviewed, a bit of that is lost – obviously, those men survived the war. One notable exception is Grant Stout, whose letters are prominently featured though the book’s first three quarters; Stout’s final mission is detailed toward the end. Showing up in a book like this in letters is sort of like beaming down in a red shirt on “Star Trek;” your chances of being alive at the end are pretty slim, and the savvy reader knows it.

Those are really small points, though. The book is darned good, and the 180-plus people the two authors interviewed over a long period represent an awesome effort to get first hand-documentation in place. I also like the inclusion of brief post-war biographies of the major figures covered in the book, although I wish there had been more of them. I’ll be borrowing that idea for my own book! The Ninth Air Force and its vast efforts during the war are still little-known, and this book will help that story reach more people through good story-telling. It’s a good book and well worth a read.

Two P-47s named “Bonnie” in one collection? There would be a good reason…

I just got off the phone with Gene Martin, a pilot with the 379th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group during the last phases of World War II. Gene served from the very end of the Battle of the Bulge until the war’s end; he flew the wing of Ralph Sallee on many missions. Ralph and I have been carrying on an e-mail correspondence for about a month, showing just how small a world it can be when you start delving into aviation history.

(An aside: I was down at the Estrella Warbird Museum  in Paso Robles a few years ago, and got to talking to a docent, who was wearing a hat from a Navy patrol squadron. He mentioned he had been a pilot, and I asked him if he’d flown Catalinas, which was, numerically speaking, a decent guess. “No, I was in the PB2Y – the Coronado!” said Mr. Smith, with obvious pride. I’d emailed back and forth with another Coronado pilot, so I ventured, “Do you know Frank DeLorenzo?” “Know him?!? I was his co-pilot!” came the response. Small world, indeed!)

Anyway, Gene shared a bunch of great information with me that will go straight into the book – from the mud and cold at Etain to the two victories he scored (he was only credited with one) to the attack on the aerodrome at Muhldorf on April 26, 1945.

Gene flew a P-47 briefly named “Bonnie,” which he later changed to “Bonnie Lynn.” The name, he said, was given to the plane to honor the wife of his crew chief, Bob Shaw; “Lynn” was added in honor of Shaw’s daughter. “Shaw was the best crew chief in the world,” Gene said, owing to his dedication and hard work, even in the miserable weather that the maintenance guys had to put up with in the winter of 1944-45. Gene was assigned the plane after the death of its previous owner, Capt. Tim Ruane, who went down after hitting a tree while strafing the same day as the Muhldorf mission. Ruane had flown it as “Bucephalous II” – meaning it was perhaps the second longest-lived bit of George Rarey nose art, after Joe Laughlin’s “5 By 5.” “Bucephalous II” started out as Clough Gee’s plane; after Gee was killed, it was apparently passed to Kent Geyer, based on some photos of Geyer visiting another base. In them, the nose art is clearly visible, as is a data block with the name of Geyer and his crew. The cowling must have then been transferred to a bubbletop Thunderbolt and Ruane (who had been a cavalry officer earlier in his career), then finally was discarded or painted over in April 1945.

As a scale modeler, it was a really interesting conversation; not only will it help with the book, but I have decals for “Bonnie” (as illustrated in my listing of 362nd FG decals), a bubbletop devoid of invasion stripes. Perhaps I can work in another “pilot and his plane” entry on Internet Modeler on Gene and his machine. The funny thing is that I already have Bill Dunham’s “Bonnie” in my collection – a very different looking P-47, since it’s a natural-metal razorback with huge black stripes on the wings and fuselage. Time to pick up yet another Tamiya Thunderbolt…

Pleasant painting: the P-40 gets its warpaint

This week’s work on the P-40 has been quite gratifying; I have a couple areas to touch up (just ahead of the windscreen; the left wing root; the very front of the top intake) to correct construction errors, but otherwise it is proceeding very nicely. These errors were shown up by a bit of preshading followed by an application of my own mix of Olive Drab 41, the color used to paint Army Air Corps aircraft until the advent of Olive Drab 612. Although OD faded and varied quite a bit, there’s a difference to these colors; OD 41 is lighter and browner, and OD 612 is darker and “cleaner” looking (if that makes any sense). OD 41 is close to FS 34087, but, according to Dana Bell in Air Force Colors Vol. 1, a little redder.

I picked up a bottle of Testors FS 34087, added 15 drops of insignia red, and shook like a maniac. The final result was an entire bottle of OD 41, or at least as close as I could get in a hurry – and it went on the model very nicely through my Paasche VL airbrush. I’m not sure what neutral gray I’ll use to finish the bottom of the plane, but as of now I’m just pleased the model is as far along as it is. I’m planning a Stupid Decal Trick (SDT) with this model. When American forces painted out the red dot at the centers of their insignia in May, 1942, they found that painting white over red was a pain in the rear end, giving them something else in common with modelers. The red often showed through the white, giving the center of the star a ghostly pink cast. I’ve covered the red center with additional white decal material in the past; this time, I have a better idea. Several vendors have sold these insignia with separate red centers; my idea this time is to apply the red dot to the model first, then place the star and disk over it. Since most white decals are a little translucent, the red center should show through faintly, capturing the effect with a minimum of hassle.

One question I’ll throw out to you here (and which I can probably answer for myself, given a little time with my library): did the USAAF planes have shoulder straps in early 1942? I know that Navy planes lacked them until about October 1942, resulting in many airdales having smiles that resembled your typical NHL player. I have not yet installed the seat or stick in my Warhawk’s cockpit, so I have time to cogitate over this; if they did have shoulder straps, I’d like to fling them over the side of the cockpit in the case of this machine to replicate an aircraft on alert.

Mustang and Thunderbolts…

This week I switched allegiances from the P-40 to the P-51D. This Mustang ought to come out well, if only I can get enough time in to get her painted and get the decals on her. I’ve been away from her long enough to appreciate the build: Obscureco P-51D-5 tail, Obscureco P-51 wing with dropped flaps, Tamiya kit, Cooper Details interior. I’m going to add some photoetched rails to the side of the cockpit (a prominent feature; why don’t more detail sets include them?) and a vacuformed canopy in place of Tamiya’s silly two-piece sliding canopy. The prop is done, the wheels are done, and it’s mostly a matter of painting.

This model will become Lt. Bartolomeo Tenore’s “The Prodigal Son” of the 354th Fighter Group, and it’s largely devoid of trim except for the very large inscription under the exhaust stacks on the left side and the star-spangled blue band on the nose. (Does anyone have any biographical information on Tenore? I have precious little, and I’d like to flesh out the story of this pilot as I’m building the model.) This week, I hit the decalled band with flat coat and carefully masked the decals off with small bits of paper, then masked over them to preserve the blue nose while I painted the anti-glare panel and the rest of the model. It’s never easy, this natural metal stuff.

In the meantime, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of some photos from Ralph Sallee’s collection. Ralph lives up in Montana and was a member of the 379th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group, and he scored two kills on Boxing Day, 1944. He’s contributed some priceless material for the book I’m working on about the group, and these images may really help preserve the record – and maybe, If I can nudge certain people, result in some decals. Also this week, Sean McCleary, grandson of Lt. Ken McCleary, sent me a photo of his grandfather by his plane, hand-colored, by the looks of it. That plane appeared on the 1998 IPMS Nationals Decal sheet, by the way; “Wheelboy”/”The Tennessee Cannonball” was a P-47D-15-RE and was one of the many planes painted by George Rarey. Sadly, the site Damon Rarey kept that initially interested me in the group is gone, but I hope I can unearth more images of the real paintings on aircraft during my research.

Speaking of George Rarey, here’s a shot that Andy Anerson snapped back in 1944 of Rarey’s crew chief, John Benson, showing the mission markings applied to this Jug. Other group P-47s had similar markings – was Rarey painting those, too?