Adventures in modeling: S-38 “Osa’s Ark” in 1:72, part 1

We take wildlife documentaries for granted today. Anyone with basic cable can flip on the television and see something about wild animals virtually any time of the day. But in the 1920s and 1930s, motion pictures themselves were a new thing, and so the first wildlife films were unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

African animals, of course, held the most appeal to American audiences, and the first people to capture images of these animals on film were the Osa and Martin Johnson. Martin Johnson was one of five members of Jack London’s often-harrowing 1907-1909 voyage across the Pacific, and, as something of a natural showman, took to the road with a collection of photos and artifacts from the expedition. While on tour in Chanute, Kansas, he met Osa Leighty, who was singing at the theatre where Martin was showing his travelogues. Even though she was only 16, the two eloped and for the next five years travelled the country with Martin’s South Seas show, now embellished by Osa singing Hawaiian songs dressed in native costume.

In 1917, the couple travelled to some of the destinations in the South Pacific that the London expedition had been unable to explore (the crew had all fallen ill with a skin ailment). During the nine-month trip, the footage they shot during the trip became the film Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas. They returned there in 1919-1920; they visited a tribe that had detained them on their previous visit (they were rescued by a British gunboat), this time with an armed escort, which proved unnecessary because the tribe was so completely disarmed at seeing themselves on film!

Martin and Osa Johnson during one of their African expeditions.

After two more films about the Pacific, the Johnsons set their sights on Africa, visiting the continent for four expeditions (1921-1923, 1924-1927, 1927-1928 and 1929-1931). The last film made during these tours, Congorilla, was the first film made with natural sound in Africa.

The Johnsons’ long trips were part of an economic formula that drove their lives: travel first, then earn enough for the next trip. “When Martin and Osa did return to the States, it was usually because of finances, or rather, no finances,” wrote Kenhelm W. Scott in Exploring with Osa and Martin Johnson. “These visits lasted only long enough to accrue sufficient funds for another expedition. As soon as possible, the Johnsons were off to the wilds on a well-planned trip that would last until their last dollar had been spent.”

In 1932, the Johnsons had an idea for a new way to explore Africa. Sikorsky had scored its first major success with the S-38, a twin-engined amphibian nicknamed “the Explorer’s Air Yacht” in the press. Back home in Chanute, the Johnsons learned to fly, then ordered not one of the Sikorsky planes but two of them: a zebra-striped S-38-BS named “Osa’s Ark” and a single-engined giraffe-spotted S-39-CS dubbed “Spirit of Africa.” They also hired Vern Carstens, an experienced pilot (and later the chief test pilot for Beechcraft), and, for the first weeks of the expedition, flight instructor Boris Sergievsky, who was helpful in teaching the Johnsons how to fly their new airplanes. Osa and Martin made their first water landings in Africa!

S-39 “Spirit of Africa” and S-38 “Osa’s Ark” airborne together in 1934.

“Both husband and wife displayed boldness, a good understanding of the material, and a strong desire to work on their piloting technique,” Sergievsky later wrote. “Mrs. Johnson, especially, showed herself to be a thoroughly able young pilot, quickly and easily absorbing all that I showed and explained to her.” Three film crew members, a mechanic and a pet monkey also embarked with the party for a two-year flying expedition across Africa in 1932-1933.

Though endangered by inadequate maps, unpredictable weather, and the generally primitive nature of aviation, the expedition met with remarkable luck. On one training flight, the gust lock was left on the control surfaces, and Osa and Sergievsky survived by using their combined strength to land the plane; on another occasion, Osa slammed the hatch just as a lion lunged at her. All in all, the planes completed 60,000 miles with no mishap more severe than the wheels sinking into a damp airfield’s surface at an overnight stay.

The Johnsons took “Spirit of Africa” on another expedition, this time to the area that would become Indonesia (the words “and Borneo” were added below the plane’s original name). They were planning further adventures in May 1937 when the Western Air Express Boeing 247D they were aboard crashed into a mountain near Newhall, California. Five people on the plane died, including Martin; Osa suffered back and leg injuries, but soon continued the tour and by October 1937 she was back in Africa on yet another expedition. In 1940, she published her autobiography, I Married Adventure, which was the best-selling book of that year. She continued to travel and write, and started her own clothing line. In 1952, she oversaw the use of expedition film to create television’s first wildlife series, “Osa Johnson’s the Big Game Hunt.” One of the century’s most influential women and a fashion icon, Osa Johnson died in 1952 at the age of 58.

But what became of their planes?

S-38 “Osa’s Ark.”

According to historian Mitch Mayborn, after returning to the U.S. in 1936 “Spirit of
Africa” “remained idle until late 1937 when it was sold to Charles H. Babb,
Glendale CA. After that it was owned by G&G Airlines Co., Ltd. of Tucson,
AZ, in 1939-1941.” During WWII, S-39CS was repainted in Civil Air Patrol colors, flying from the Beaumont, TX CAP base. On Nov. 11, 1942, it was
dispatched to a crash of a CAP Fairchild 24-C8F in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the S-39 was damaged on landing in rough waters
and the engine could not be restarted. It sank while being towed by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel.

The fate of the S-38BS “Osa’s Ark” is less certain. The plane was owned by Danny Dodge (son of John Dodge of the Dodge Motor Co.) at the time of his drowning death in Lake Huron on August 15, 1938. The S-38 was used to aid the search and to eventually transport his body − possibly the only time an S-38 was used as a hearse.

From there, the track gets fuzzy. One story holds that the S-38 was purchased by Floyd Foren Flyers in Detroit just prior to World War II and sold to the Royal Canadian Air Force a few months later. Mayborn wrote “Osa’s Ark” was “reportedly destroyed in a take-off crash in Canada during 1941-42.” An alternate story is found in
P.J. Capelotti’s book Explorer’s Air Yacht. Capelotti wrote that “Osa’s Ark” was “reported damaged by a windstorm in Cuba in February, 1945, while operating for Expreso Aereo Inter-Americano, S.A.” Whatever the case may be, “Osa’s Ark” lives on in the form of Kermit Weeks’ restored S-38, painted in the familiar zebra stripes of the Johnsons’ famous flying boat.

Kermit Weeks’ beautiful S-38 at Fantasy of Flight in Kissimmee, Florida.

My first exposure to the S-38 came when I saw a photo of “Osa’s Ark” in a magazine article long ago. The Johnsons’ list of firsts was impressive, but so was the S-38, which looked to me like a collection of airplane pieces flying in formation, held together with a few struts and wire. And those stripes!

When CMK’s 1:72 model came out, it posed a thought problem: how could you make a structurally sound 1:72 S-38 using resin parts? When I finally screwed up my courage to build the model, I realized that you couldn’t – but there are ways to make this model work.

Strategy one: treat it like it’s five different models: hull/fuselage, engines, tail, wing, and the connection of the various subassemblies. Strategy two: if resin’s not the best material for a particular job, go for something made of metal.

But first, I wrestled with whether to build “Osa’s Ark” in the first place. It’s the most famous example of the S-38, which served so admirably for numerous airlines. The kit has decals for Pan American and New York-Rio-Buenos Aires Lines planes, as well as a Navy example – plus “Osa’s Ark.” Of all S-38s, I thought, “Osa’s Ark” is the most overdone. Then I came to my senses: how many built-up S-38s have you ever seen? I can count them on the fingers of one hand while wearing mittens. Overdone? Horsefeathers! With such a great story, why not take on “Osa’s Ark?”

Well, one good reason is a lack of documentation. The exterior is well covered, but I knew from my reading that the interior was a custom layout built specifically for the Johnsons, and no photos of that arrangement were handy. Thus, while I did some research, I figured, I’d start with the windows.

The windows? Yes! The kit provides vacuformed windows for the side of the plane, which insert between window frames. I didn’t like the somewhat rounded edges of these windows and their unimpressive degree of clarity, so I cleaned all the frames away and inserted carefully-cut lengths of clear plastic, one on each side. These clear panels fit tightly, but I still gave them a bit of super-fine CA glue around the edges, then sanded them and polished them back to clarity. The frames would be painted in much later.

The kit provides a floor with the front cockpit bulkhead and instrument panel and the bulkhead separating the pilots from the cabin both molded in place. It took little effort to clean the basic parts up. Explorer’s Air Yacht said the floor was generally unpainted wood, so I airbrushed a coat of Testors beige on the floor areas, and once dry spattered on a few tiny drops of Minwax cherry stain – not because I had a plan, but because that’s what I use to stain my bases and it happened to be on my workbench. I quickly drew a clean cloth backwards across the floor, pulling the wood stain with it, and, miracle of miracles, I obtained a really convincing wood grain look! Once dry, it was durable and the stain didn’t react with the enamel base paint coat.

The floor after the accidental/miraculous wood grain experiment.

The S-38s were real art deco masterpieces; the interiors were trimmed in hardwood, with the structural formers in the cabin accentuated by decorative flourishes. I masked the floor and painted the bulkhead between the cabin and cockpit burnt sienna to replicate the hardwood. I also made the small built-in wet bar from styrene card, drilling holes to accept glasses and a pitcher. This was also painted burnt sienna and attached to the cabin side of the bulkhead.

The cockpit in the kit has a very cursory instrument panel, consisting of a collection of fairly deep and uniformly-sized holes filling in for instruments. The front bulkhead also has a hole where the access door to the nose compartment (home to things like lines for tying up the boat) should be. I was assisted in reaching these details by my three-year-old daughter, who snapped the front bulkhead/instrument panel off the floor. To her credit, she came and alerted me immediately, and I couldn’t be too unhappy because now I had much better access to these areas!

First came the nose compartment door. I made a new oval door from styrene sheet and CA-glued it in place. After the bulkhead was airbrushed a dark gray, hinges were simulated with bits of brass sheet, as was the handle for opening and closing the door. A contemporary photo of an S-38 cockpit showed there was a large placard on the door; I simulated the plate with a small rectangle of lead foil, and the placard was created from a re-purposed decal.

A view of two important things: the cockpit and the wet bar.

I cut out a styrene shape that replicated the instrument panel and used it as a template for a second panel shape. I marked out the locations of the instruments with a pencil, then pressed the two panels together hard, transferring the locations to the back of the second panel. To the first, still-white panel, I applied Reheat instrument decals, using the photograph to get the right instruments in the right places. I then drilled holes in the second panel for the openings for the instruments and applied Reheat photoetched bezels around the holes. Once the front panel was finished, it was airbrushed black, then given a heavy dry-brushing. The rear panel with the instruments was coated with Pledge with Future Shine and the front panel was dropped into place and allowed to dry. It was subsequently glued over the kit panel. Similar detail was added to the instrument cluster below the panel, and in keeping with the photos, a map case (swiped from a color Eduard set for the P-51D) was added below the panel center.

The center console in the kit was unlike any in my references, so I made a new one from styrene strip. The throttle and mixture lever openings were created from some 1:700 ship railings; styrene and wire made the large brass instruments at the front of the console. Wire and styrene details were added as appropriate, and I cut a rectangular opening at the back of the console to create the space through which the control wires ran to the cockpit roof. After the console was painted, a decal was used to create the placard on its center, and I used fine steel wire to replicate the control wires. Later, I added throttle/mixture handles made from short lengths of stiff wire. White glue was touched to the tops of the wire, resulting in a round bulb handle; once dry, these were painted black or red as appropriate.

Another view of the cockpit, showing the control cables running up to the roof from he throttle assembly.

The kit provides eight fairly generic resin seats. I picked the two that looked the most like pilots’ seats and painted them gray, the outfitted them with some likely-looking photoetched seat belts. I could find no photos of the seats themselves, but reasoned that landing on water, you’d want belts, lest you make an unplanned exit via the windscreen in the event of a hard landing!

The kit control column was wholly inadequate. I made a new one with two lengths of .035 rod, with the swing-over joint covered by a pair of keystone-shaped styrene plates. A piece of braided thread was run from the joint to the top of the column and covered with a .005 styrene sheet plate to mimic the control cable and the anti-fouling plate that protected it. The wheel itself came from a PART detail set for a 1:72 Tatra T-87, a pre-war Czechoslovakian car!

The control column, complete before painting.

I improvised a radio set for the right side of the cockpit based on photos from the instructions for the Little Fokkers 1:48 kit, complete with telegraph key! The rudder pedals were made with styrene rod and Reheat pedals; the pilot’s side had wooden footrests, which were also fashioned from styrene strip and painted the appropriate shade.

A view of the cockpit, showing the rudder pedals and the throttle quadrant to good effect.

Now came the cabin, which remained a mystery. I emailed the Osa and Martin Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas, and from there I picked up an ally in the project: Conrad Froelich, the museum director. It’s not every day that an airplane nerd asks about the interior of the Johnsons’ S-38, and Conrad was sure he had something, somewhere in the museum that could help. His search went into gear – first, he found some written descriptions of the interior, but the trail seemed to go cold. Then, six days later, stuck in the back of a filing cabinet, Conrad found them: four large photos, two taken front-to-back and two taken back-to-front, showing the cabin of “Osa’s Ark!”

This was an interior very different from any I’d built before! There was a three-cushion sofa on the left side of the cabin, and two leather recliner-like seats to the right. These seats folded down into a second sleeping area, and below them was room for storage. Back aft on the left side was an equipment rack made of a metal framework and metal mesh. In the very back was the rear bulkhead, with an opening to the restroom area; a silver boarding ladder was also kept in the rear.
Never having made furniture, I started with the sofa. Measuring carefully against the side of the model’s interior, I cut a robust piece of styrene strip for a base, then added the front, sides and back from styrene sheet. The cushions were also styrene, but I applied a fine layer of Apoxie Sculpt putty to them and gently shaped some creases and folds into them with a No. 11 blade. Less was definitely more here – too many folds made them look cartoonish. Subtle was better.

The right-side recliners came next. They were again made with styrene strip with a base, cushion, back and sides. The sides were carefully sanded to capture the contours of the real things, and I was careful to replicate the different seat backs needed for the fold-down bed arrangement. The leather backs and cushions were also given the Apoxie Sculpt treatment.

The seats, with their Apoxie Sculpt cushions. I made an extra, just in case…

Once the leather furniture was done, I gave it all a coat of Testors leather. At Bill Bosworth’s suggestion (he’s built a 1:32 S-38, so he should know!), I dry-brushed with raw umber, which made all the contours and folds really pop.

The cockpit elements all in place, just before the cockpit was sealed.

The rack was a real challenge. The frame was made from .015 by .020 styrene strip; it took several attempts to get the right proportions so that it would fit into the interior properly. When I had it together and the right size, I painted it black. The mesh came from an aquarium net I just happened to be retiring – small squares were cut to size and applied with CA glue. Once fully assembled, the rack was remarkably strong, considering its size.

The rack in place inside the fuselage.

The kit doesn’t provide anything for the bulkheads and openings at the rear of the cabin, so I made one myself. The forward-most bulkhead was most important, since it world show any seams around its edges if it was cut poorly. Once the shape was roughed out from styrene sheet, I cut out the center and added the sides. A second middle bulkhead was also cut out (it could be less precise than the first!) and its center was also opened in proportions that mirrored the first bulkhead. From there, I added the floor inside the center opening and boxed the opening with thin styrene strip, then added the rearmost bulkhead to create a small vestibule-like effect. The whole thing was painted raw sienna, and then I painted some fine lead wire beige and lined the two openings with it to re-create the art-deco trim on these areas.

The rear bulkhead in its very rawest form…

The boarding ladder was fashioned from styrene strip and two bits of bracing wire. It went into the fuselage just ahead of the rear bulkhead.

The rear bulkhead, with its art deco touches, and the boarding ladder.

With all the interior equipment ready to be installed I painted the interior – gray below the windows, beige above. The art deco flourishes carry up to the cabin ceiling, with black cross beams complimenting four mahogany beams that stretched the length of the ceiling. I made the lengthwise beams from styrene strip, but for the crossbeams I cheated – I used lengths of wing walkway decal instead! They were much easier to align at the top of the fuselage, and they snuggled down nicely over the lengthwise beams.

The detail on the cabin ceiling, replicated with black decal walkway strips.

At this point, the furniture was secured to the floor, which was glued into one fuselage side, and the rear bulkhead assembly was pushed into place. It was time to join the fuselage, if only to protect the interior!

I knew the fit would be a little sloppy, so I was ready with the shims, especially along the centerline at the bottom of the plane but also at the very rear “duckbutt” area. The result was an S-38 on a stick – or at least a set of small styrene sticks, all of which were trimmed away and sanded until the S-38’s beautiful contours returned.

Shims, anyone?

This process introduced another problem: my energetic sanding uncovers a host of tiny air bubbles in the resin, especially on the right side of the hull. Dave Parks was nice enough to loan me his bottle of Mr. Surfacer 500; this was applied to the problem areas and gently sanded, curing the bubble rash once and for all.

That’s all for now – next time, I’ll restore the detail on the fuselage and start work on the power eggs!