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av_academy_p-39-boxtop.jpg (35726 bytes)The Academy P-39N/Q in 1/72 Scale

 

By Mark Schynert

This recent kit portrays a subject that is often considered a second-rate fighter, though the Soviet Union happily accepted about 5000 of the type via Lend-Lease and used them to good effect in the fighter-bomber role.

Prior to this kit, the best available in this scale was the Heller offering. While not a bad kit, it seems to have a too-narrow rear fuselage, and the surface detailing is not up to present standards. The old Revell kit is crude, the ancient Airfix is little better, and the only other 1/72 kit I've seen is a Polish vacuform which might be good, but I would rather not have to build a vac kit to get a model of a mass-produced (9500+) WWII fighter. Happily, the Academy kit is an improvement on the Heller in a number of ways. As I intended to build this kit out-of-the-box, I have noted possible fixes for problems I have found, but I did not implement any of these fixes if they required additional bits, with one exception.

Upon opening the kit, I found three sprues of light gray plastic with more than fifty pieces, a small sprue of five clear pieces, and decals for a Soviet P-39N and a USAAF P-39Q. The surface detailing is delicate, and, except to the extent noted, appears accurate.

av_academy_p-39-front.jpg (21937 bytes)Alternate parts for the N and Q model are included, and there are also12-port exhausts and a spinner nose with an extended gun barrel, which are not used by either variant. These are clearly intended for an Airacobra I/P-400 release but the parts are there already if that's what you want. For the N, you will have to open the receiving holes in the leading edge for the .30 wing guns, while the Q variant requires that you drill out holes on the inside of the lower wing to mount the underwing .50 guns. I did the latter now, as I intended to build the kit as a Q.

One external defect with this kit is the fuselage-mounted gunports. The gunports are fairly long troughs, more appropriate for the P-400, and they do not show the gun muzzles; they should be much shorter and have small "eyebrow" fairings over the muzzles. This ought to be correctable without too much trouble, by filling the aft part of the troughs and scratchbuilding the fairings and muzzles.

The clear pieces are interesting, in that they include an armor glass insert for the overturn structure aft of the pilot, and the complete port door. The idea is to allow the modeler to mount the door in the open position, and the door can be easily masked and painted, avoiding fragility and alignment issues that would arise if the door and glass were separate. A great concept, but there are a couple of flies in the ointment. First of all, the port door has some nice detail molded into it, including the throttle controls. The problem is, this quadrant was not mounted on the door, but next to it. It would in fact obstruct getting in and out of the cockpit, which is why most photos of open doors on P-39s show the starboard door open. So, if you mount the port door open, recognize that the throttle will be with the open door instead of with the cockpit, where it really belongs. Molding the throttle to the port door would have been okay if the kit were designed so that the starboard door could be mounted open instead of the port door. Except that--oops--the starboard door inside has mirror-image detail of that on the port door. A P-39 with two throttles? Oh well. In fact, if you want to accurize the cockpit detail, the dominant feature of the starboard interior door was a chart pocket, which would be easy to scratch-build and attach after sanding away the misplaced throttle quadrant.

The other details of the cockpit are pretty good, being far better than anything you get with the Heller kit, and everything fits together therewith a minimum of fuss. The gunsight is nothing to write home about, and is probably the only other thing I would correct, as it is fairly obvious even with a closed cockpit.

av_academy_p-39-ltside.jpg (18977 bytes)There is ample room ahead of the instrument panel to mount weight so that the P-39 will sit on its tricycle gear. The instructions specify seven grams, but that's not nearly enough; I used seven BB-sized split lead shot before I got it to pivot forward of the wings on a dry-fit of major components. But it turned out even this was not enough, because the nosewheel strut is so long the plane pitches backwards anyway; you need at least eleven of that size lead weight! As I'd already sealed the fuselage by then, I later put weight in the drop tank and nose wheel well to get the right ballast. But there is enough room in the nose for at least a dozen weights of the size I was using.

The wing is another problem area. First of all, I didn't care for the attempt to represent fabric on the lower surfaces of the ailerons. It looks more like melted plastic, and in any event, I've seen no photos or drawings that look anything like it. This would be easy enough to sand flat. The top-half wings attach to the bottom full wing exactly at the trailing and leading edges, aided by three guide pins on the inside, but you must approach this with great care. The bottom wing has some washout at both tips, so that the top and bottom tips do not want to stay glued to each other. Even with care, I was left with some separation along the leading and trailing edges.

Dry-fit (taken after the three-piece wing was glued together, and the cockpit assembly glued to the starboard fuselage) showed that the central gap in the wings was actually too narrow to receive the completed fuselage. This excessive tightness might be because the cockpit floor was too wide, bowing out the bottom of the fuselage. Some judicious filing of the wing roots, upper wing interior ends and cockpit floor eventually resulted in a snug but satisfactory fit.

The belly of the aircraft has two oil cooler exhausts flanking the radiator outlet. The kit pieces do not blank off the inside of these exhausts; the radiator outlet (at least) needs something to block the view inside. This is the only place I deviated from a strict OOB build, as I attached a small piece of .020 card to the inside of the radiator exhaust to block it off.

av_academy_p-39-rtside.jpg (21316 bytes)Before gluing the fuselage halves together, I built up the prop assembly (spinner front and back, sandwiching the 3-blade prop.) Because of injection gate residue, the spinner takes a bit of finishing, but goes together well. The 37mm cannon barrel in the spinner is substantial enough that it can be carefully drilled out to a depth of about 1/2 mm, giving a much nicer appearance. I also attached the stabilizers before completing the fuselage. I found that applying the glue from the inside of the fuselage worked very well, leaving almost no seam.

Now came the .50 MGs under the wings. These guns each consist of a housing and a separate barrel. The housings snapped into the wings so firmly and symmetrically on dry fit that I didn't even need to glue them. I left attachment of the barrels for later.

I found the suggested assembly of attaching the nosewheel to the fuselage before mating fuselage and wings unappealing. It seemed like I would risk knocking the nosewheel off during subsequent assembly. So, instead, I placed the retraction strut into its two guides (and positioned the propeller) as I glued the fuselage together, letting the strut swing free for the time being. Seam reduction was for the most part straightforward, and not even necessary for most of the tail area. The only really difficult spot was the arch above the overturn structure in the cockpit area. Here the arcs of the arch don't touch, leaving a 1/2 mm gap. Although I eventually filled this with CA, it took three tries to completely expunge the seam; I was constrained by the presence of the armor glass in the bulkhead directly below the arch, which I didn't want to fog over.

Once the fuselage was glued together I mated the fuselage and wings. The aft extension of the bottom wing where it met the lower fuselage did not fit well; this took a lot of work to resolve, both because of the joint and because the wing extension didn't quite true up to the fuselage. However, I was able to file and sand it into shape without losing any detail.

At this stage, I re-scribed a few spots where seam reduction had obliterated or thinned the panel detail. I then attached the external store braces to the belly. The kit comes both with a 500-lb bomb and a 75-gallon drop tank. I couldn't get the bomb's fins to true up when I assembled it, but in any event, I decided to use the drop tank, which was the more common external store in the Pacific. A nice touch is that the filler cap is a separate part. Unfortunately, the braces don't fit the tank very well; they aren't wide enough. I did not attach the tank at this stage, as it would get in the way of painting. But its eventual attachment required trimming of the braces so the tank would slide deeper inside them and mate to the ventral hook-up.

av_academy_p-39-top.jpg (21627 bytes)Painting and Future application was straightforward. I used the kit decals for the USAAF Q variant, which appeared to be 5th AF (SW Pacific). They were commendably thin, and settled well with the application of MicroSol. However, they were correspondingly fragile, which was a problem with the wing walkways. Fortunately, the kit decals include two walkway sets, so after I destroyed one on the starboard side trying to shift it into place, I got another try, and did much better. One of the star-and-bars for the fuselage also tore; with no spare in sight, I managed to piece it back together, more or less. Suggestion: use only water to position these decals, then apply your decal solvent after you have the decal where you want it. I think part of my problem was that the Micro Sol softened the decals very quickly. The decal sheet did not include drop tank or propeller markings, but otherwise seemed complete.

After another coat of Future, I attached the fragile bits (antenna, guns, landing gear, etc.) The landing light on the underside of the starboard wing was a bit too big for the hole provided, so it needs to be widened just a little bit. Also, the base of the pitot needs trimming for a better fit. After touch-up painting, more Future, and Dullcoating, the last step was the transparencies. I painted the fore and aft canopy framing, and dry-fit them. I was surprised to find that the aft piece would not fit flush on both sides. There was nothing wrong with the transparency, though; the radio lodged on the aft deck stands too tall. Had I to do over again, I would sand the radio shorter. However, at the stage I was at, I used my Dremel Mini-Mite to grind off the left and right edges on the top of the radio, then touched up the black paint. After that, the aft canopy fit just fine. I attached the two pieces with white glue. The door also presented a problem, because of the misplaced throttle. After thinking about this, I concluded there was no good OOB solution, so I simply removed the throttle detail from the door. The other side still had the throttle; now I have a cabin area the mirror image of what it should be! I mounted the door open at about 40, and mounted it with CA glue.

Verdict: If you want to build the P-39 in 1/72, look no further. This kit is not a box shaker, but the problems are few, and easily corrected by a modeler of fairly limited experience. For the super detailer, most of the additional effort will go into the cockpit, adding a gunsight, proper throttle, chart pocket, seat belts and so on. This is not an expensive kit; I picked mine up locally for $9.00. By the way, for those who want to do a passel of Soviet 'Cobras, Aeromaster offers a whole sheet for the P-39N (and a solitary P-400) entitled "Stalin's Cobras" (sheet 72-037.)

References:

[1] P-39 Airacobra in Action by Ernie McDowell (Squadron/Signal; Carrollton, TX, 1980)

[2] Bell P-39/P-63 Airacobra & Kingcobra (Warbird Tech V.17) by Frederick A. Johnson (Specialty Press; North Branch, MN, 1998)

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