By John Lester
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At the outbreak of World War II, the P.Z.L.37 "Los" (Elk) was not only the most advanced bomber built in Poland - and one of the most advanced in the world at the time - it was the only Polish front line aircraft that could be considered of modern design. Smaller and faster (445 kph/ 277mph)than comparable aircraft in other air arms, it could also carry a heavier payload - up to 2580kg (5688lb) in the final variants. The aircraft was operated by a crew of four (pilot, bomb aimer/navigator, radio operator/gunner and another gunner), and armed with three 7.62mm machine guns in nose, dorsal and ventral positions. Bombs were carried in 8 bays (four per side) between the engine nacelles and the fuselage.
Designed in 1934, the first production run of 30 aircraft entered service in 1938. The first ten aircraft (P.Z.L. 37A) had a single tail and were used as conversion trainers. The next 20 (P.Z.L. 37B series 1) introduced the twin fins and rudders. Orders were placed for 150 Los 37B series 2 aircraft, which had more powerful engines, a revised cockpit canopy, twin wheel main gear units, and could carry a bomb load that was more than half the plane's empty weight. Only 70 were completed before the Polish defeat in September 1939. Interest, generated by exhibitions in Paris and Belgrade that last year before the war, was so high that a total of 75 were ordered by Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. These were never completed, however.
Only 36 aircraft were operational when the German blitzkrieg began, supplemented by nine more replacements in the first few frantic days of the war. Though they fought valiantly, they were too few to make any difference. By 17 September a total of 26 had been lost in combat. The remainder, plus about 20 almost-complete Los 37's, were flown to Romania, where they were used until attrition killed off the last one. The Luftwaffe also captured several examples, which were used as hacks and transports. No Los 37 of any variant survived the war.
I'm an unabashed fan of three things: obscure or under-appreciated aircraft, twin-engined aircraft, and 1/48 scale. Mirage's kit is all that. The box is big, sturdy and attractive - and on first glance, the parts inside are too. The kit comprises five flash-free grey sprues, plus one crystal clear sprue with various canopies.
Engraved panel detail is - again at first glance - very well done. The engineering of the kit is first rate; I especially liked the way the two part nose canopy goes together on a frame line, and that the cowls are separate pieces (and can be painted separately). A sixteen page booklet details the history of the aircraft, step-by-step exploded view assembly drawings, and paint/marking guide. Alas, it's all in Polish, but with a bit of study, I thought I could manage. A separate sheet, in color, shows side views of three aircraft. Decals for these three (2 Polish and one German) are provided; printed by Techmod, they are sharp and perfectly registered.
Reference material is hard to find, and what I found was contradictory. My completed kit scales out at either 8 scale inches too short in the fuselage, or 12 inches too long. Depending on which drawings you look at, panel lines and general shape is subtlely off. Given my sources (the lack of reliable ones, that is), I'll give Mirage the benefit of the doubt here and say they have made an accurate model.
Closer examination, however, reveals some problems. Not all panel lines are straight (some even look like they were free-handed!), though this problem seems confined to the fuselage halves. The surface of the fuselage and portions of the wings have a rough, pebbly texture in places, which is extremely noticeable under a light coat of paint. There were also a number of sinkholes in hard to reach, but visible, places that only are revealed by a coat of paint. The cockpit canopy, because of its shape, has some distortion when viewed from the front (this turns out to be a good thing, however). Assembly drawings are vague as to the placement of many interior details, and since there are no tabs, slots or other indicators inside, placement of many details is ... well, it's a challenge.
There are no alignment pins and very few other aids to getting everything matched up correctly, which definitely caused me problems . It also seems that the wing roots on each fuselage half are molded askew - which doesn't become obvious until you put the wings on and they're at a crazy angle. Finally, there are notes throughout telling the modeler which parts to use for the Los 37B series one and which to use for the series 2; not knowing the language, I ended up guessing a lot. This problem is made worse by the lack of reference material available; I managed to dig up three line drawings and some color profiles, but not one photograph.
Assembly (or why this one won't be winning any contests)
Without a doubt, this was the most frustrating aircraft model I have ever built. By the time I got the last seam filled and the last panel rescribed, I was ready to quit modeling and take up knitting. And the worst part? Had I known where the problems would crop up in the beginning, I could have saved myself a lot of heartache.
Approach this kit as you would a resin kit from a garage manufacturer and you'll have fewer problems. Almost every part needs some sanding and trimming to make it fit correctly. A lot of sanding and a LOT of dryfitting! After a few mistakes, I ended up sanding, testing the fit, sanding some more and taping the parts together before committing myself to glue. Had I done that from the start, I wouldn't have a cockpit floor canted to the right or folding seats that overlap each other.
I decided to do a series 2 aircraft, since that's the version covered by all the decals (and I had no references for a series 1 ship). I normally add a lot of detail to my kits, but I soon realized this one would be a challenge to complete "out of the box", so nothing that didn't come with the kit was used. I wanted to do this in-flight, and wasted several weeks looking for crew figures I could convert. Considering my lack of reference material on Polish air force uniforms, I gave up eventually. I also wasted several weeks looking for color references before I realized that the color chart on the second page has Humbrol paint call-outs. A quick check of Gavin Stratford's excellent Colour Matching Page and I had all the info I needed to start.
Assembly begins with the engines. These are pretty basic. Had I been able to find aftermarket Pegasus XX radials, I would have replaced them. Fortunately, the spinners and cowling cover most of the cylinders. Here's where the first problem crops up - there were different spinners for the different series. Assuming the color profile is correct, I have the correct (pointy) spinners installed. I finished the engines with Testor's Model Master (TMM) gunmetal; cylinder heads and crank cases are TMM Aluminum, and the pushrods silver. The engines were then set aside, to be installed at the very end of the project.
Next came the bombs - 16 of them, all with two halves and two fins to glue together. Getting rid of seams was an exercise in extreme tediousness, but it had to be done since I intended to display the bomb doors open. To paint these, I stuck them fins-down to a piece of scrap wood with poster putty. They were then airbrushed with TMM Graphite Metallic.
Now on to the cockpit and the rest of the interior. Leave off the "knee pads" (parts A23) that flank the bomb aimer's .... um, thing (part A20). If you glue them on in step VII, as the instructions would have you do, you won't be able to fit the assembly where it goes in step XII. Either way, once these are installed you won't be able to insert the bomb aimer's clear window from the inside (trim off the ledge that keeps it in and glue the part from the outside after all painting is done). Interior colors were a mix of TMM Black Chrome (for metallic black), Silver, and RAF Dark Sea Grey (for Humbrol 5, "Dark Admiralty Grey"). The instrument panel was painted black and details (such as they are) picked out with white and silver drybrushing. Each of the seats could have benefited from seat belts; since you can't really see them under the canopy, I didn't bother. The rest of the interior bits (steps XII and XIII) were painted and glued in to (approximate) place.
Note that the gunners' seats (A13) should be staggered- if you place them in the same spot on each fuselage side they will overlap when you close the fuselage up. I found this out the hard way, then had to break them off and reposition. I actually ended up folding them up against the bulkheads, where they would probably have been when in combat. I cut open the dorsal gun hatch and the small, port side window found on series 2 aircraft. This last necessitated scribing some new panel lines, something I accomplished with less than satisfactory results. I also learned dorsal gun mount is too narrow - actually, both flexible gun mounts are too narrow to fit where indicated. You can glue them to one bulkhead or the other, but not both at the same time.
I knew the cockpit floor, assembled in step IX, was too wide for the fuselage; however,I didn't realize how much. I shaved a good 1/16" off - and should have taken another 1/16th off. Even with all my dryfitting, the floor wound up being too wide - which I didn't notice until the fuselage was glued together and it was too late. The darn thing now sits at a noticeable angle, the port side being a good 3/32" higher than the starboard. Oh, well.
The fuselage and tail assembly presented their own challenges in alignment. Were I to be overcome by insanity and do this kit again, I would ignore the instructions here. I would glue the clear nose bubble, fuselage and tail half for the right side together, laying the pieces on a flat surface (with exterior side up) so that all three major pieces were aligned perfectly with each other. Then I'd do the same with the left side pieces. If you assemble the main fuselage halves and tail halves separately, then try to bring fuselage, tail and nose "bubble" together later, you'll get what I got - a tail canted to one side and a huge step to sand around the nose.
But I followed the directions. Fuselage together, it was time to turn to the wings. I sanded the inside surfaces down (as you would on a resin kit) to get them to fit (top to bottom). I then installed the bombs in their racks, something that turned out to be another exercise in frustration. There is only one small surface to glue the bombs to, which makes them hard to align properly. The 12 in the middle have mounting points to either side (once all three racks are installed), but the bombs themselves are too narrow to touch both! I lost several bombs on the first wing before I figured out how to get them properly secured (lots of super-thick superglue); were I to do it again, I would drill small holes through everything and use a thin wire rod to keep it all in place.
Landing gear bay covers were glued shut; if you want the gear down, you'll have to make your own detailing for the bays. There are two long thin spars that are supposed to run along the bottom of the bays - to keep the bombs in while flying, I guess. My bomb racks were so uneven I didn't even think about installing them.
With the wings together, it was time to mount them to the fuselage. The rest of the kit is well engineered, but the wing joins are not. Mirage would have you butt the wings against the wing roots, with no other support. This almost guarantees the wings will droop over time - especially if they are not supported by landing gear. There's not a heck of a lot of room for a spar either, unless you glue the bomb bay doors closed and use that space. I ran a thin brass rod through the wings and fuselage in front of the bomb doors, but I fear it won't be enough in the long run. Compounding the problem is the simply awful fit of the wings to the fuselage. The wing roots on the fuselage are actually thinner than the wings! Worse, they're canted at different angles. And, no matter how hard I tried, I could not eliminate gaps wide enough to grow potatoes in (big Idaho baking types). In the end, I used nearly a full tube of superglue to get both affixed and to fill the gaps. Forget the putty - with as much detail as you have to rescribe, any putty but Bondo is useless as filler. After much trimming, sanding, fitting, sanding, shaping, sanding, filling, and yes, more sanding, I finally got the wings on to my satisfaction. I don't know what stopped me from bouncing the kit off the wall multiple times....
Now it's time for the tail. Don't do as I did - glue the tail on after the wings. I actually put it together, filled gaps, and glued it on while only one wing was affixed. Big mistake. Because of the wing root problem, there was no way to line up the wings and still have the tail correctly aligned. I had to break it off and reglue - and it still looks canted. Be careful putting it together: the top and bottom (parts D1 and D2) look exactly alike, but the bottom one (D2) has a small, almost invisible ledge where the tailwheel goes (eventually).
With the major assemblies complete, I thought I could see daylight at the end of the tunnel. Not so - it was an oncoming train. Surprisingly, I had no troubles with the canopies - dipping them in future and masking them, that is. Like everything else, they did not fit where they needed to, resulting in yet more sanding, shaping, fitting and filling. And though I was careful, I still ended up getting a horrible coating of dust on the inside! The bomb doors were sanded down (they're too thick for the scale otherwise) and cut apart, then set aside. The rest of the "bits" were left off until after painting. Finally, I drilled a hole in the fuselage where the mounting rod would fit.
At long last, I could start painting. I was grimly determined to finish this kit by this stage, but it was getting to the point where my wife feared for my sanity every time I sat down at the bench. I masked off the bomb bays and other open parts and shot an overall grey basecoat. Then I broke out the superglue and the scriber, filling in things I'd missed and rescribing as needed. This done, I shot another light coat of grey. Satisfied with the surface, I broke out the TMM RLM 65 (Light blue) to do the undersides. I guess it was too humid when I put the first coat on, because it went down ... well, awfully ... and dragged a ton of cat hair from out of the atmosphere with it. I had to strip that coat, re-prep the surface and spray again. Then do it all over again, because the paint wouldn't dry. ARGGGHHH! The third coat managed to go down with out a hitch, fortunately.
Flipping the beast over, I shot the top with TMM Field Drab. This is called for in the instructions, and is shown in the artwork I've been able to dig up - but I'm not convinced I shouldn't have used a much darker shade of green (as seen on other contemporary Polish aircraft). Without better references, however.... I then went back and applied several random sprays of a slightly darker mix of paint, followed by streaks and patches of a slightly lighter shade of paint. This gave a nice illusion of uneven fading ... at least untill the clearcoats toned everything down.
I then painted the cowl pieces and exhaust grill Rust. Once this paint had dried (taking extra long because of the humidity) I gave everything a couple light coats of Future. Then I broke out the Windex and carefully cleaned it all off, since it had orange-peeled on me. Next I tried PollyScale "Semi-gloss" (which is actually quite glossy) - this worked.
Patience nearing an end, I decided to pre-empt any decal trouble. I've never used Techmod decals before, so I didn't know how they would behave. They did look admirably thin ... which can often lead to shattering, curling and other unpleasantness. I overcoated the sheet with two thin sprays of Micro Scale's Liquid Decal Film (you can spray this stuff undiluted through an airbrush), which ensures the decals will stay together when they hit the water. I wasn't sure the colored decals wouldn't be translucent, so I found a sheet of white decal film and cut out backings for the insignia and unit badge. This last was unneccessary, but all my preparation ensured the main decals went on without a hitch, aided with just a little MicroSol. Unfortunately, several of the stencils silvered badly.
Once the decals were fully cured I wiped everything down again with a damp rag (soaked in dish soapy water). Then I overcoated the entire model with Testor's Dullcote (sprayed through the airbrush, not from a paint bomb). Exhaust stains were made using a sooty black and an airbrush, followed by washes of dirty dark grey in places that would show oil leaks. As these aircraft were fairly well treated up until their brief combat tours, I did not apply much weathering. I did make a few random patches of fresh Field Drab to replicate patched up flak hits.
When that all had dried, I pulled off the masking from the canopies, and tried to figure out a way to get all the dust off the insides without breaking anything. I then touched up what needed it, and added the antennas, guns, and other "fiddly bits". I used Kristal-Kleer ( a heavy white glue) to fill in the small portside window. Prop blades were painted silver and individually (and carefully) attached. Wingtip formation lights were an especial pain; each consisted of two halves that I was sure would be lost in the carpet. More filing was needed to get them to fit properly.
The last step was to sand and stain an appropriate base and impale the model on a clear acrylic rod.
The kit looks so good on the sprues, it's just a shame it turned out to be the nightmare build from hell for me. Despite all the problems I encountered, I'm (mostly) satisfied with how it turned out - at least from 3 or more feet away. It looks good perched next to my other twins. Would I build another one? Perhaps - knowing what I know now, I could do a much better job. Would I recommend this kit? Only to die-hard fans of obscure aircraft - and then only to experienced builders.
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