POLIKARPOV'S LAST BIPLANE: THE I-153
By Terrence J. Meisle
The Polikarpov I-153 Chaika (Gull) is one of several biplanes that struggled into WWII, including the Fairy Swordfish, Gloster Gladiator and Henschel Hs-123. The Polikarpov fighter first saw combat in Mongolia during the short war in the summer and fall of 1939 between the Japanese and Russians known as the Nomonhan Incident. The airplane was outflown by the Nakajima Ki-27, and was no match for the Bf-109s two years later during the Germans' Blitzkrieg advance in 1941, where the majority were destroyed on the ground. The Chaika fell victim to poor strategy and aging technology. Stories of great bravery surround the Chaika, however, including ramming attacks into the tailplanes of enemy bombers. The pilots reportedly bailed at the last instant, allowing their airplane's prop to chew the bomber's tail to bits.
The original aircraft of the series was the I-15, the first Soviet fighter to perform as well as or better than its western contemporaries. The agile fighter performed so well in the Spanish Civil War that the Germans released the Bf-109B before it had even achieved squadron status in the Luftwaffe. The I-15s four 7.62mm machineguns made it a very heavily armed biplane, fast for its type with maneuverability to spare. The Bf-109 proved the only fighter to truly threaten the I-15, so long as its pilot stuck to dive and zoom tactics against the agile Chaika.
The performance of the I-15 in the Spanish Civil War was such to give force to the arguments of those who claimed there was still a place for the biplane in modern air war. As a result the type was further developed into the I-152 (I-15bis), which gave up the faired-in upper wing and managed to see service at the end of the Spanish conflict. The I-153 appeared in service in 1939, being immediately sent to the fighting in the Khalkin Gol where the first squadron to see combat tried to spoof the Japanese by entering the area with gear down, appearing to be the earlier I-152.
The I-152 is the last but one (the C.R.42 appeared in service two months later) and arguably the best, biplane fighter ever built. It featured retractable landing gear which was a questionable weight/ drag payoff benefit and returned to the gull-wing of the original which allowed the pilot phenomenal visibility over the wing. The result was a very clean airframe, with few bracing wires and struts, an enclosed cowl and flush exhausts. It was the end of the line for biplane fighters, and the Chaika paid the price for that distinction.
Classic Airframes is carving out quite a niche producing the lesser-known, or at least lesser modeled, 1/48 scale European WWII aircraft. The I-153 kit is rendered in two injection-molded sprues, two resin-cast sprues, one photo-etched sheet, one vacuformed canopy sheet (with two windscreens), instrument panel film, and one small set of decals. The markings sheets are well-printed, and allow for two aircraft.
Upon first opening this kit two years ago, I was somewhat disappointed. It seemed rudimentary, with thick plastic parts reminiscent of old SMER kits. I shouldn't have been so harsh without checking the fit. Upon dryfitting the parts, they fit remarkably well, and shouldn't be a problem for any modeler with reasonable experience.
I started by cleaning the parts, then painting the interior color. The paint colors are not listed on the instructions. I used a medium grey Gunze-Sangyo H317 for the interior parts, detailed out with drybrushing and black parts. The seat received GS-H315 light grey, with brown belts and headrest. The photo-etched cockpit details build into a small cage-like structure that is glued into the fuselage. This can be tricky. When it comes time to glue the four machine guns into place, note that the upper guns are on the inside of the cage while the lower guns are outside the structure. I had trouble placing the instrument panel. The instructions are a bit vague, and I think mine is too low. I particularly liked the instrument panel film backing; remember to put a coat of white paint behind the dial faces after it's glued together.
I drilled small holes in the fuselage to accept the rigging wires. The gun holes were also drilled out, as were the small holes around the propeller shaft in the engine shroud. I did not open the engine cowl flaps, because I don't have an engine to place behind it. The cowl fit together without incident, though I had to file the propeller shaft part a bit for the cowl to fit far enough onto the fuselage. I drilled engine exhaust openings in the cowl, merely to liven up the cowl.
All fuselage and wing parts fit together like a charm. I have come to expect troubles with kits from smaller manufacturers, but was completely and pleasantly surprised with the buildup of this kit. I glued the photo-etched cockpit details in one side of the fuselage, aligning the cage with the cockpit rail. This was superglued in place. I then glued the fuselage halves together with MicroWeld, then reinforced after it dried in a couple of places with GFS. I had to do a small amount of sanding here and there to even things up, though this was more cosmetic than fit troubles. The tail end of the inset fuselage half needed a bit of cleaning to mate well with the other half.
I glued the top wing in position with GFS, then placed the cockpit seat in position from below. Once satisfied with its security, I glued the bottom wing in place with GFS. I cleaned the joints up a bit; very little sanding was needed. A couple of small gaps and recesses required a bit of GFS.
I glued the assembled cowl in place next, followed by the wing struts. The struts are the only frustrating part of this kit. The locating pins are of little use, and it required some GFS to fill the gaps. I was able to clean these gaps adequately, but I remain disappointed in the fit of the struts compared with the rest of the kit.
The small carburetor nose intake requires a bit of cleanup, as does the trough in the cowl. The tailplanes fit without trouble after standard cleanup with a bit of GFS. The photoetch oil cooler outlet needed some grinding with a moto-tool to fit the area near the wing root. Once trimmed and in place the rolled photoetch strip draws the eye to the nose section, which looks more realistic. If I do another Chaika with a more detailed nose and engine section, I'll use a similar technique for the exhaust pipes.
When the model was cleaned to my expectations, I painted the whole aircraft with TMM Chrome Silver. This was allowed to cure for a couple of days, then sealed with Future Floor Polish. I then hand-brushed the irregular splotches of green with Gunze-Sangyo H-303 Green (FS34102), since it appears these splotches were applied with hand brushes on the real aircraft. Unfortunately, these splotches obscure Classic Airframes' fine detailing on the wings and fuselage. The appearance of fabric-covered wood structures would be better seen with the dark green and light blue color scheme.
The wheel wells were painted the interior grey, as were the interior surfaces of the landing gear covers and wheel hubs. The landing gear was attached and the joints reinforced with superglue, as the fit was a bit loose. Once these were in place, I applied the decals.
The Propagteam decals supplied with the kit are very well printed, but are extremely thin. The stars broke apart a bit when I removed them from the paper. I was able to touch the areas up with a bit of paint. The decals laid down easily (perhaps too easily), but would have benefited from a couple coats of Microscale liquid decal film.
After the paint was sealed with Gunze-Sangyo dullcoat, I set to work on the rigging. Four-pound test monofilament line was attached to the wing sections with superglue first. I let this cure overnight before proceeding. A drop of superglue was placed on the fuselage holes I drilled earlier, then the line was held with tweezers until the glue set. This let me keep enough tension on the line to avoid sagging. I had not rigged a plane for a long, long time and it took me a few tries on a number of these lines. Note the front wire set are actually double wires.
A quick black wash brought out some of the panel lines, which was followed by selected highlighting with a Micron 0.005 black drafting pen. I did not want to overdo this, to avoid making it look like a toy. It may not photograph as well, but it looks good on the shelf. I sealed the aircraft again, and used a bit of various grey pastels to add some oil and exhaust stains.
Is this a good kit? Yes. Is it for beginners? No. An experienced builder who is not afraid of photoetched parts will have no problems. An inexperienced builder will have troubles with the rigging wires, wing struts and photoetched cockpit, but no troubles with the fit of major parts.
I put very little time into this kit, perhaps 10 hours total, built straight from the box. It is good enough to detail with scratchbuilt or aftermarket parts if one wanted to open the cowl flaps, add an engine and guns; do a bit more work on the cockpit and landing gear and produce a showstopper.
Many thanks and much encouragement to Classic Airframes, who continues to release good models of those aircraft which have fallen through history's cracks, from the eastern front which saw savage action with some very sturdy aircraft to lesser known WW2 European aircraft to the "golden wings" era of aviation.
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