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chris-mustang-cover.jpg (35868 bytes)Making a Perfect A-36 in 1/72

By Chris Bucholtz



There are several aircraft I feel a personal connection to. One of my grandfathers was a materials engineer and counted the B-17, T-38, XB-70, B-1 and the Mercury and Apollo spacecraft among the most memorable of his career. He also played an important role in the development of the shuttle’s heat-resistant coating and carbon fiber.

My other grandfather, who’s still kicking at 78, is linked to two airplanes in my mind: the B-25 (he was bombardier on aircraft number 3!) and the A-36 Apache. He worked on the development of the Mustang at Wright-Patterson Army Air Base as a weapons expert, and he says the chin guns were his idea, since guns mounted atop the fuselage somehow vibrated themselves out of synchronization and shot the propeller off! I can’t find any corroborating evidence of this, but nevertheless Allison Mustangs—especially those with chin guns—have always appealed to me.

My pen pal in Prague sent the Model News kit to me in December 1996, but I could tell the model would be a real challenge and put it off. Then, the Italeri kit arrived, but it had poor scribing and a wing that was completely inaccurate for an early Mustang.

chris-mustang-built-18.jpg (24253 bytes)Kit number three was the Condor kit—not a perfect kit by any stretch of the imagination, but a better start than the other two kits, in my eyes. The wing is currently the only choice for an A-36, with nicely molded dive brakes. While the leading-edge wing root still looks too much like a P-51D, the kit’s landing gear wells and doors are correct for an early Mustang, and the external stiffeners on Italeri’s wing (which were added in the "B" model) are absent. There are a lot of other small touches that set this kit apart—the correct wide landing light cutout on the port wing, lovely surface scribing, and a pitot boom that’s the finest I’ve seen in any 1:72 kit. The gun fairings that are left closed, for once, allowing the modeler to put the openings in the right place!

There are also problems typical of short-run kits. The small parts—gear struts, interior parts, exhaust stacks, wheels—are lacking in crispness, and the surface of the plastic is marred by small scratches that needed to be sanded out. The kit’s bombs resemble post-war Soviet items—handy for the jets awaiting construction in the basement, but useless for an A-36. Also, the three cooling louvers on the starboard fuselage were missing, and the nose intake needed to be drilled out.

chris-mustang-cockpit-sidewalls-1.jpg (13529 bytes)I decided to superdetail this model, using bits from the Italeri kit where possible to bring the model to life. I started by dressing up the interior with the Hawkeye Models set intended for the P-51B. This set includes a seat, cockpit floor, sidewalls, armored headrest, stick, gunsight and control panel, and is a work of art in itself. I prepared the floor and sidewalls by airbrushing them grimy black, aiming the airbrush to cover only the bottom half of the detail. These parts were then airbrushed with interior green, angled toward the fronts and tops of the parts. In this way, I could create a "forced shadow," adding some depth to the cockpit components.

chris-mustang-cockpit-sidewalls-2.jpg (15496 bytes)My biggest problem with resin interiors is that, often, they don’t fit as well as they should. While the Hawkeye set fits well into a Hasegawa P-51B, I created my own problem by trying to cram it into the Condor A-36! I discovered that the sidewalls, even after I had sanded them to the thinnest possible point, were too thick to allow the seat and control panel to fit into the cockpit! Out came the Dremel tool, and down went the thick fuselage walls. By the time I had reduced the thickness enough to let the resin sidewalls fit comfortably, the plastic was very thin—so thin, in fact, that when I painted the rest of the interior with Floquil’s interior green, the color could be seen quite clearly around the pre-fitted resin sidewalls!

The sidewalls went in first, followed by the exquisite Italeri exhaust stacks. In the case of these stacks, the real items had casting lines—don’t slip into "automatic modeler" mode and sand them flat! The stacks fit the Condor kit perfectly, and the fuselage was sealed. The seam between the two fuselage halves was very manageable, presenting problems only around the rudder. The entire vertical fin is included on the left half, and when the two sides were attached there was a step along the rudder. Sandpaper, superglue and patience remedied this.

chris-mustang-exhaust-stubs.jpg (19963 bytes)The cockpit floor was installed from below; this part also includes the fuselage fuel tank and shelves for the radio sets. I also made an oxygen hose for the right side of the cockpit by wrapping fine wire around a larger piece of wire and painting the assembly dark green. A length of solder with a round photoetched bit was used to provide the heating unit on the floor, and some brass wire with a dab of dried white glue for a knob became the hydraulic hand pump installed on the pilot’s right. The Hawkeye radio went on the shelf behind the seat, and I used two more radios from the Eduard P-51A detail set behind this one to correctly represent the crowded rear shelf. The Eduard instrument panel went into the front of the cockpit in place of the Hawkeye part, since I prefer the look of the photonegative instruments to a painted resin piece. I left out the seat, armored headrest and stick on purpose—these would have gotten in the way during the masking of the cockpit—but I did add the red canopy jettison handle to the right side of the cockpit. This detail is very simple but its color adds a lot to the interior, and its placement helps carry the "clutter" of the resin set up into the canopy area.

At this point, I drilled out the nose intake, a process that sounds more difficult than it actually was. I started by drilling two holes in the intake with my pin vise and then carved them to a square profile with a fresh #11 blade.

The belly scoop is a two-part affair that joins to the radiator area. This allowed Condor to include different intakes for the A-36 and the Mustang I. I joined the front and back sections of the scoop and blended them together before adding them to the fuselage, where I cleaned up a third seam. The fit here is somewhat dubious, and patience was required.

chris-mustang-spinner.jpg (16826 bytes)The prop and spinner came next. Condor’s spinner is too blunt and suffered from a blemish at the nose, so I initially expected to use the Italeri prop/spinner combination. However, test fitting showed the Italeri spinner to be too wide for the Condor fuselage, and worse yet, the openings for the prop blades didn’t line up on my kit. The propellers were also too blunt, so I went back to the Condor combination. I glued the spinner nose to the back plate and chucked the two pieces into my Dremel tool, using the long pin at the back of the spinner to secure it. By doing this, I was able to use the Dremel like a lathe, and it took just a few minutes to alter the spinner to the proper profile and eradicate the blemish in the nose. I also used this opportunity to put a panel line on the spinner, using a #11 blade as a scribing tool and the rotation of the Dremel tool to ensure a straight line. Once the spinner’s cosmetic surgery was completed, I mixed up a combination of insignia red and black to yield a brick-red mixture and airbrushed the nose. This was a common identification marking used in the Mediterranean Theater. The prop blades were then cut from the hub, painted, and inserted into the spinner to finish the nose area.

chris-mustang-flaps-1.jpg (9321 bytes)The wing is a trouble spot on the Condor kit. The lower wing has molded-in gear bays, with a separate keel part that divides the two bays. The upper halves fit the lower wing poorly. I had to grind away much of the top of these bays to make the wing fit together at all. Luckily, I never ground completely through the top of the bays. There was a small gap at the inner leading-edge root of each wing, which I filled with large volumes of super glue. This later would prove to be a boon.

chris-mustang-flaps-2.jpg (16665 bytes)Early on, I decided to drop the flaps on the A-36. This would help remedy the dull trailing edges of the kit’s wing, and the kit’s wing is set up well to accommodate this modification. The kit flaps were cut away and the openings filed clean. The flaps were taken from a Hawkeye P-51B wing set, and were repeatedly test-fitted to ensure a clean joint between the parts.

The kit’s biggest fit problem is the wing-to-fuselage joint. The wing roots aren’t unusually bad, but the section of lower fuselage provided on the lower wing is far too long. I repeatedly cut back this section and test fit it to the fuselage, eventually getting a solid fit.

With the wing in place, I could modify the lower fuselage to accommodate the flaps. These retract into small cutouts that are not cut out on any Mustang kit that doesn’t include dropped flaps. The now-ubiquitous Dremel tool, fitted with a variety of dental drill bits, made short work of this task. To finish up the flap area, I added small triangles of sheet plastic to enclose the fillet at the wing root along the flap’s openings. chris-mustang-wheelwells.jpg (16023 bytes)

Looking at the model from above showed that the Condor wing wasn’t quite right at the all-important leading-edge root. The root lacked the dramatic forward sweep of the "D" wing, but it did have a noticeable forward kink (as visible on the left wing in the photo). I attacked this with flexible files and sandpaper, and soon these kinks were smoothed down and the roots corrected to a profile that matched my photos and drawings.

The wheel wells on Condor’s kit have lateral ribs, but lack any cross-wise ribs or other details. I used strip styrene and an assortment of parts robbed from leftover photoetched sheets to dress up the wells and used wire and plastic rod on the keel, suitably busying up the wells.

The horizontal tail surfaces went on with very little problem. I was impressed with the fit, especially for a short-run kit, and it took very little work to blend the parts into the fuselage and vertical surfaces.

At this point, I went back to the cockpit. I sanded the instrument shroud straight—the kit parts leave a "V" shaped notch at their center—and painted the instrument shroud with Floquil’s grimy black. The Hawkeye gunsight was fixed in place, and then I decided to get cute. The Walk-Around title on the Allison Mustangs includes a photo of the gunsight area that shows a braided wire running from the back of the sight to a plug ahead and to the right on the instrument shroud. I braided fine copper wire and drilled a minute hole on the shroud; the wire was painted gray, threaded into the hole and then glued to the back of the gunsight. Once the windscreen was in place, this detail is readily visible, and it’s my favorite detail on the model. Following these parts came the seat (now dressed up with seat belts from the Eduard brass set), stick and armored headrest.

I wanted to depict the canopy open, but opening an early Mustang canopy isn’t an easy thing unless you’re example has a Malcolm hood. At first, I considered using a Squadron vacuform canopy for the entire transparent area, but cutting one out and testing showed it to be a poor fit. Even more frustrating, I had a tough time cutting open the left side window and overhead transparency without ruining the rest of the canopy. My next approach was to try the kit part, but while trying to cut to appropriate panels away with an X-Acto knife I managed to crack the left forward windscreen! Try number three used a Hasegawa P-51B canopy and that lifesaver, the Dremel tool, and a sanding disk. Cutting the clear plastic with this required some care, and I had to file down the edges of the opening, but it proved to be the right approach. I save the vacuformed left and overhead panels for use later.

The next hurdle: the Hasegawa "B" canopy was slightly too large for the Condor kit’s opening. I trimmed as much as I could from the back of the quarterlight area and did some strategic sanding on the windscreen, and soon the part fit acceptably well.

I dipped these transparencies in Future floor polish and let them dry. Then, to busy up the radio compartment, I added a small bit of styrene strip to the top of the quarterlight panel, followed by two bits of wire extending down from where the antenna aerial would eventually be. Test fitting allowed me to place these details in such a way that the transparency could be dropped into place and the ends of the wires would disappear into the area between the armored headrest and the fuel cell.

To attach the clear parts to the model, I first used with glue to prevent fogging, then applied superglue from the outside to fill any seams. I sanded the gaps out, just as I would with any other kit parts, then went back and polished the clear parts using successive grits of sandpaper, followed by a buffing with Blue Magic car polish. This restored the clarity of the parts and blended the rear quarterlight panels and windscreen into the fuselage. At this point my biggest fear was that a radio set or other detail inside the quarterlight panels would break loose, since it would be painfully visible yet completely inaccessible for repairs! Luckily, this didn’t happen and I was able to move on.

I went over the model and restored any lost panel lines using Dymo tape as a rule and a Bare Metal scriber to cut the panel lines. The belly, wing roots and fuselage sides near the leading edge of the wing required the most attention.

chris-mustang-canopy-taped.jpg (21165 bytes)I masked the cockpit with moist tissue and used thin strips of Tamiya masking tape to outline the canopy framing. These strips were placed over the frames and served as templates. I stretched parafilm over all the clear areas and then cut around the Tamiya tape. When the yellow tape was pulled off, the excess Parafilm came with it. This method was very helpful around the curved quarterlight panels; cutting the Parafilm freehand on these was not a task I looked forward to!

Drilling out the machine gun ports came next. The nose guns were a breeze—the troughs for the guns are squared up perfectly with the nose and present no problems. The wings, however, are a different situation, since the gun ports were parallel with the ground and not with the wing. This meant the inner gun was higher than the wing center line and the outer gun was lower than the center line. Further complicating things, the guns were recessed into rather large holes in the wings. I eyeballed the positions of these gun ports and drilled them out with a pin vise; through some miracle, the two wings’ ports were symmetrical on the first try. I also drilled out the three signal lights on the plane’s lower right wing for attention after painting.

The next frustrating area was the leading edge landing light fairing. I sanded the area clean and drilled two holes in the wing to accept MV lenses, which went in after the area was painted interior green. Next, a small triangle of plastic card was added to replicate the structure of the light compartment. The difficulty came in making the clear fairing. The kit part was too thick for the kit’s transparent light cover, so I thermoformed plastic over the wing to get the appropriate shape, trimmed the part chris-mustang-silver-painted.jpg (22327 bytes)from the sheet and cemented it in place. Unfortunately, it took five attempts to get this right; the clear plastic was harder than the kit plastic and I ran the risk of distorting the wing’s profile while sanding it down. On four occasions, I was on the verge of having the fairing blended in when I broke through the front of the transparency. When the fifth attempt succeeded, it was cause for a minor celebration. I masked this area so that a bit of the transparency is covered by paint, giving an illusion of depth to the light fairing.

It was now time to paint, but I went about it a little backwards. First, I masked the back half of the canopy with a strip of wet newspaper and sprayed black over the windscreen, so that the frames would look black from the inside. Then, I reversed the process and sprayed interior green over the rear part of the canopy and the quarterlight area. Once this was done, I airbrushed the entire model with Testors aluminum buffing metallizer. This helped point out any flaws in the surface finish and prepared the model for weathering later.

chris-mustang-painted-top.jpg (39431 bytes)The ID bands were painted next, using ModelMaster insignia yellow and multiple coats. These were also added to the flaps and were masked off. Next came a coat over the upper surfaces of Floquil’s olive drab. This color is the subject of many debates, and Internet Modeler editor Tom Cleaver made one of the more astute observations when he pointed out that O.D. in Africa ended up looking different than O.D. in England thanks to the difference in the weather. While the bright African sun caused O.D. to go lighter, to an almost brown shade, the European weather faded olive drab to a purplish tint. Taking this shift into account, I selected Floquil’s olive drab, which is browner than the ModelMaster color, and added a big dollop of military brown to it, and airbrushed it over the upper surfaces. Once this was dry, I masked off the division between upper and lower colors with Tamiya tape cut with a dull X-Acto blade to present a frayed edge and airbrushed Floquil neutral gray. This paint is darker than I’m used to seeing on models or in color profiles, but it’s accurate; the USAAF recipe for this shade was 50 percent black mixed with 50 percent white. This process was repeated for the flaps as well.

chris-mustang-painted-bottom.jpg (27925 bytes)I removed the masking from the ID bands and started weathering the Mustang by making a series of short scratches on the leading edges, around the cockpit, near the ammunition doors and other areas of likely wear. These scratches exposed the aluminum beneath the olive drab or yellow, replicating chipping better than small dabs of silver paint could. At this point, the flaps were also added to the wings.

The model was now shot with a mixture of 50 percent water-based Flecto Varathane, 40 percent water and 10 percent glass cleaner. The glass cleaner prevents the Varathane from beading up; in turn, the Varathane provides a smooth, glossy surface that’s hard as a rock within five minutes, allowing me to rush into the decalling process.

The plane I selected was "Dorothy Helen," an oft-photographed A-36 flown by John Crowder, CO of the 524th Fighter Bomber Squadron, 27th Fighter Bomber Group. Crowder scored two kills in P-40s after the squadron transitioned out of the A-36, but never tallied an air-to-air kill in the Apache.

Not surprisingly, no decals are available for this plane in 1:72, but it is depicted in profiles in both the Walk-Around title and in Osprey’s "Mustang Aces of the Ninth and Fifteenth Air Forces and the RAF" (never mind that this is a 12th Air Force plane…). Remarkably, both profiles are wrong. Furthermore, a 1:48 sheet from SuperScale is also wrong, using incorrect colors for the nose art and the crew block. A color photo in the Walk-Around book provided me with an accurate outline of the markings.

chris-mustang-built-22.jpg (31440 bytes)"Dorothy Helen" received stars and bars with the red-surround in June 1943; interestingly, these were applied in all six positions! The plane’s call letters, "AA," were stacked on the vertical fin; the last six digits of the plane’s serial number was painted in large yellow letters immediately behind the fuselage star and bar. Above the first two digits of the serial on the left side was a yellow gas-detection patch; this would change color if exposed to poisonous gasses and provide pilots with some warning if chemical weapons were in the area. A string of yellow mission markings was painted below the exhausts, and the crew’s names were painted above the port wing root. The name "Dorothy Helen" was written in yellow cursive letters with a red surround on the nose.

Most of the decals came from the spares box. AeroMaster’s sheet of yellow numbers provided the serial; two SuperScale sheets donated their stars and bars; a sheet for P-38s yielded four "A’s" of the proper size. The mission markings came from a sheet for B-25s, and the crew names, being fairly small in real life, were replaced by a yellow data block intended for B-24 propellers! The gas detection patch was cut from a signal light decal for an F-14, which was the proper sickly yellow color.

chris-mustang-built-23.jpg (30806 bytes)That left the "Dorothy Helen" legend. I drew my own example of the artwork and Al Superczynski graciously offered to print it on his ALPS printer. Unfortunately, if there’s one color printers hate it’s yellow; the red surround completely overwhelmed the yellow. My next try was to do the name in yellow only on the office color copier; while the images came out fine, I discovered to my dismay that the office’s color copier is an inkjet type when the ink simply floated off the decal paper when I put in water!

Once more, I drew the art and, this time, took it to a professional copy shop. The technician there reduced it to the proper size and shot it no fewer than 550 times on two sheets of decal paper! This time, the yellow name and its red surround printed clearly and distinctly, and I thought my problems were solved.

Unfortunately, the yellow was utterly translucent and the decal disappeared on the chris-mustang-built-24.jpg (25912 bytes)model! Ultimately, I placed a decal on white decal paper and cut the excess white away, using a very sharp knife and a powerful magnifying glass! Any leftover white—and the centers of the e, h, l and –was painted olive drab using a toothpick.

All decals were applied using SuperSet and SuperSol, which convinced the decals to snuggle down, even over the dive brakes. Another coat of Varathane sealed them and provided protection for a wash of black watercolor paint, which popped out the panel detail nicely.

As an experiment, I shot the still-glossy model with Floquil dust, which killed the gloss and gave the model an even more beat-up look. The exhausts were painted with a mixture of ModelMaster burnt sienna and black, and a bit of exhaust staining was added using pastels.

A-36s in the Mediterranean used a unique antenna. I made one of my own from a small section of airfoil-shaped styrene and a length of stiff wire and added it to the top of the quarterlight area.

chris-mustang-signal-lights.jpg (31159 bytes)Next, I shot the model with a light coat of Testors Dullcoat heavily thinned with lacquer thinner. This evened out the finish. When the masking was removed from the cockpit and clear parts, I was relieved to see that no paint had crept under the Parafilm.

Now, it was time for the "fiddly bits"—landing gear, gear doors and other small details. I used the wheels from the Italeri kit, but installed them on struts from the Hasegawa P-51B. Brake lines were fashioned from copper wire and were threaded down the back of the strut, between the gear door retraction arms and attached to the wheel. Anti-torque scissors from the Eduard brass set replace the plastic scissors, and the wheels were attached to the model. The tail wheel came from the Italeri kit, and, despite the fact that I’d completely missed the need to install the wheel before attaching the fuselage halves, it went in with a minimum of fuss. Brass tailwheel doors from Eduard were used in place of kit doors.

chris-mustang-pitot-boom.jpg (20315 bytes)The outer main doors came from the Italeri kit, and a bit of trimming of the door retraction struts was needed to make them sit correctly. The Italeri wheel doors, since they fit the "D" wing in the kit, are wrong, and the Condor wheel doors suffer from molding flaws, so I used a set from the Hawkeye "B" wing set. Two pieces of fine telescoping tubing were used to replicate the wheel door retraction struts. Since the flaps are dropped, the wheel doors must be dropped as well, since these worked off the same hydraulic system Conversely, if you build your Mustang’s flaps in the raised position, the wheel doors should be raised as well.

I drilled a tiny hole in the right wing and added the petite pitot boom from the Condor kit. Next, I painted the signal lights and the formation lights silver, followed by tiny drops of 5-minute epoxy tinted the appropriate color with food coloring. A rear-view mirror was carefully added to the cockpit, and the open canopy panels were installed in place with white glue. A small red handle was added to the upper corner of the lowered panel. Fine tweezers greatly assisted the addition of tubing to the machine gun blast tubes to simulate barrels.

The final touch was the propeller. Study of photos revealed that the backs of these blades were scoured of paint in the desert, so I airbrushed the backs of the blades with Floquil silver, using a business card as a mask, and glued the spinner in place. Done!

chris-mustang-built-25.jpg (24247 bytes)Well, not quite. For all my research, I managed to overlook one important mistake, pointed out to me by my friend Mike Meek, who has worked on Mustangs "Ridgerunner III," "Dago Red" and "Voodoo" and knows the type inside and out. Mike pointed out that, to my chagrin, I’d put the propeller blades in backwards! I had to pull them out of the spinner carefully, repaint them and re-bore the spinner, followed by the re-installation of the blades. After that, it did indeed look better!

To sum up, the ingredients for my A-36 were:

  • Fuselage, wings, horizontal tail, propeller, spinner, pitot: Condor A-36

  • Exhausts, main wheels, tail wheel, outer gear doors: Italeri P-51A

  • Flaps, inner gear doors and cockpit: Hawkeye P-51B wing and interior sets

  • Control panel, anti-torque scissors, armored headrest, extra radios: Eduard P-51A set

  • Canopy, main gear struts: Hasegawa P-51B

All that mixing and matching has produced a fairly nice looking replica! Thanks to John Thompson and Brad Chun for canopy assistance, Al Superczynski for decal help, and Mike Meek for knocking me down a few notches by spotting my silly mistakes!

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