Contrail 1/72 Scale Handley Page HP 42E

By Russell Bucy

As a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s, I built my share of Aurora, Revell and Lindberg box scale kits. Among them were plenty of WWI biplanes. My Brother-in-Law, a physician, practiced rigging biplanes to perfect his suturing skills. As I grew up, he encouraged me to build aircraft of the Golden Age of aviation, so naturally I was interested in some of the first biplane airliners and mail planes. Then college, a commission as an Army Officer, a family, and thirty years of a military service took me away from modeling except for sporadic efforts as time allowed.

When I retired from the military in 2006, I took on a few modeling projects for friends and acquaintances, most of them 1/350 scale ship models. Then in the fall of 2006, a friend introduced me Derek Hughey, a local airline pilot who had just purchased a collection of Imperial Airways memorabilia in England. Some of you might know that Imperial Airways was the predecessor of BOAC. Among the collection were two out of production Contrail (I believe Contrail is out of business) vacuform kits of the Handley Page HP42. Derek also had a source for original HP42 Photographs through the G. Eric and Edith Matson collection, which is in the public domain. Since I’d had some practice with vacuform kits when I was in high school, I took on the challenge of building one of the HP 42 kits, and the original photos were a great help.

HP 42 History

The Handley Page 42 was the world’s first luxury long distance airliner. Handley Page is known for large multi-engined bombers, and a few interesting civil aircraft designs from the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps one of the most unusual designs was a corrugated aluminum and fabric skinned biplane airliner—the HP 42. Focusing on a heavy 28,000 lb airliner with an emphasis on long range and luxury rather than speed, the Handley Page designers came up with a four engined (four 555 hp. Bristol Pegasus Jupiter nine-cylinder engines) biplane with a fuselage easy for passengers to enter and exit, easy to maintain, and could be flown off unimproved runways in distant lands. The HP 42 had a maximum speed of just 126 mph with a range of 500 miles. It had a huge wingspan of 129’ 8” and a fuselage length of 91 feet making it the largest passenger aircraft in the world in 1930. The massive 2,990 sq. foot wing area was supported by a Warren-truss strut system which was so strong it required no external bracing or rigging (lucky for model builders!)

Each of the eight HP 42s produced by Handley Page was named for characters in ancient history beginning with Hannibal, Heracles, Horsa, Hanno, Hadrian, Horatious, Hengst, and ending with Helena. As the first true luxury intercontinental airliner, it boasted two bathrooms, a full kitchen designed to serve gourmet meals to 38 or 18 passengers— depending on which air route was flown. From 1930 to 1940, the eight HP42s were operated over a million miles without incident. The HP 42 “W” (western) flew routes in Western Europe as far as Constantinople and carried 38 passengers. The HP 42 “E” (for “eastern”) versions flew from London to Cairo, then on to either India or South Africa with 18 passengers. With the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the entire class was pressed into military transport service. The flagship, “Hannibal” disappeared in the Persian Gulf in 1940. By 1941 all HP 42s were scrapped or destroyed by severe weather. Fondly known as an aircraft built for “speed without hurry” or “the aircraft with the built-in headwind (due to the large wing area and struts), HP 42s existed at a time when flight was an adventure.

The Model

Contrail’s 1/72 scale HP 42 comes in a sturdy end-opening cardboard box with a black and white profile of an HP 42 on one side. Inside the box are two large (about 10” x 24”) vacuformed sheets containing fuselage halves, upper and lower wing halves, tail surfaces, landing gear struts, and a full interior molded in a unique “capsule” shape which fits inside the vac-formed fuselage. In 1/72 scale the finished Contrail HP 42 is huge with a two foot wingspan and nearly 20” in length. There’s a separate strip of clear acetate for the windows, a bag of resin wheels, control columns, and a tail wheel yoke. Another small bag contains four nicely cast white metal Bristol Pegasus engines along with their exhaust rings. One of the really nice features of this kit is a bundle of Contrail’s famous styrene strut material— which makes strut building a snap. All one has to do to produce a respectable HP 42 is cut the parts out and glue them together, with a little sanding between glue sessions. OK—so it’s not really quite that simple. Now, on to the build.


Contrail provides a huge sheet of short but thorough instructions with some exterior and interior photos of an HP42. A similarly large and fairly good set of scale plans is also included. One thing I highly recommend when building any vacuform kit is a good set of references and photos of the real thing if possible. There are a couple of good internet build articles and quite a bit of historical information, but what really helped me were original HP 42 photos from my airline pilot friend’s collection, which proved invaluable for details.

I started building the traditional way (sitting down and asking myself why I took on a vacuform in the first place, followed by a “high energy” drink with an aspirin chaser). Then I began outlining the vac-formed parts with a medium point laundry marker. Builders of vac-kits recognize this technique as a prelude to cutting out and sanding the parts. After the parts were suitably outlined, they were trimmed away from the styrene sheets with a pair of surgical scissors. Thankfully, Contrail embosses part numbers on the styrene sheet next to the part, so as I trimmed the part away, I simply used the laundry marker to mark the appropriate part number directly on the part. After wet sanding the individual parts down to the point where the laundry marker outline was gone (this takes lots of time, so when you tackle a vacuform kit this big, think in terms of weeks and months to complete), I had a neat pile of parts just like a “shake the box” kit (well, not quite).

I began assembly of the passenger compartment “capsule” which forms the interior of the A/C by gluing the floor, seats and bulkheads into place per the kit plans for an HP42 “E”. Once accomplished, I removed excess styrene from the “capsule” where the windows are located (the HP42 had white curtains at each passenger window which are thoughtfully molded on each side of the capsule- creating an effective guide for cutting openings). I gave the inside of the passenger compartment a shot of Model Master medium brown with my Badger 155 Anthem to represent wood paneling. When the paint was dry, I added a strip of red “pile carpet” made from the decorative “fuzzy” plastic found on “Rocher” brand chocolates at Valentines. This makes a respectable 1/72 scale carpet. Once everything was glued solidly together, I attached the capsule to the inside of one of the fuselage halves with Ambroid Pro-weld liquid cement.

After cutting out the appropriate crew doors, windows, etc. to match the external details on the fuselage, I glued the fuselage halves together with the passenger “capsule” sandwiched inside. I noticed the cockpit area in the kit’s scale plans didn’t match the kit layout, which didn’t match any of the photos I had of the real thing. This necessitated the building of a new cockpit floor and bulkheads to match the photos. After a deep breath, I cut away all the window framing in the cockpit area to be rebuilt later. In the Contrail kit, no two windows are the same size so this necessitated cutting out each oval passenger window. This was perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of the kit. My first attempt was done by tracing the outline of each window onto the sheet of clear acetate, then cutting out the windows and gluing them in from the inside. This turned out to be a fiasco, simply because there is too much handling, interior painting and alignment to be done.

When I finished the process and stepped back for a moment, the formerly clear acetate windows had become opaque, cracked or spotted with dust on the inside where they were beyond redemption. Back to the drawing board! I popped each of the 21 windows out and started again. This time I measured each window (they’re all just a wee bit different) with a caliper, drew an oval shape just a little larger than the four cardinal points of each window, cut them all out and then proceeded to sand each to the shape of the individual window opening —this took a long time. I then drew a diagram of window positions, placed the corresponding window on the diagram, and taped them down and set the windows aside for the opportune moment to install them.

Setting the fuselage aside, I concentrated on the wings. The engraved detail on the upper and lower wings is petite and handled with care, will show nicely through a coat of paint. I carefully removed the ailerons and leading edge slats. Using a 1/8 inch slab of balsa between each wing half for support, I assembled the wings. Thankfully, the separate engine nacelles on the wings fit nearly perfectly, and required only a small amount of filler. Large vacuform kits like this can be problematic over time and will sometimes split at glued seams or droop. I solve this problem by using a product called “Liquid Nails” to attach the balsa formers to inside the insides of large surfaces. Once set (about an hour), the wings are almost indestructible. I then blanked off the aileron and slat positions with Evergreen strip.

Next, I filled the large voids inside the wings (and at the rear of the fuselage) with spray foam insulation material. I simply made a small hole in several places in the wings and fuselage, stuck the tube that comes with the can of insulation material into the hole and shot a small amount of foam into the void. If you use this technique, be sure you err on the side of too little, as too much foam expands until it splits the seams of your model—and when that happens, the gooey mess will not make for an easy clean up. The end result is a solid and durable fuselage and wing which will stand the rigors of handling and time. I then detailed and reattached the ailerons and slats with brass wire and styrene strip.

After the wings were assembled, I tackled the tail surfaces. This was a bit of a challenge. For some reason, Contrail molded the tail surfaces with very thick styrene, requiring the upper and lower surfaces of each “wing” of the biplane tail surface to be sanded for what seemed like weeks (but was done over a two hour period of constant sanding and dry fitting). I like to sand vacuform kits on a “sanding” jig. This is merely a thick sheet of picture frame glass with 120 grit sandpaper masking taped on one side, and a sheet of 440 grit sandpaper taped to the other side. Because a lot of micro-pulverized styrene is produced during sanding, I take my model part and the “sanding jig” to my laundry room basin and actually sand under running water. If you don’t have a laundry basin, wear a gauze surgeon’s mask at a minimum when sanding. Either way, be prepared for lots and lots of styrene sanding dust. Once I had “knife edge” tail surfaces (or as close as I wanted to get before my arm fell off), I glued the parts together and used .010 brass wire and styrene rod to approximate the tail rigging and control wires.

I soldered together some brass tubing and wire to represent the shock absorber and steering mechanism for the large tail wheel. The poorly molded resin part that came with the kit was sent to the trash bin. I also decided to assemble the main landing gear at this time. I used the kit parts for the main gear struts, but I ran brass rod through the length of each strut into the lower wing for added strength. Contrail supplies a length of wire for the main landing gear strut support which runs through the fuselage and below each lower wing engine nacelle to the end of the landing gear strut. The kit plans were consulted and the wire strut was bent to length. This wire also forms the axles for the massive main gear wheels. The resin wheels were way oversized, so I chucked them in my Moto-tool and used a Xacto blade to cut them down to size. After the lower wing was attached to the fuselage, I trimmed down the vac-formed mud guards for the landing gear and attached them to short lengths of brass rod which suspended the mud guards above the tire—just like the real thing.

Attaching the upper wing was actually one of the easier parts of the build. I used the appropriate Contrail strut material included in the kit and cut each sized strut for the Warren-truss strut system to the exact length of the kit’s scale plans. Rather than just gluing the strut to the wing as the instructions called for, I like to reinforce all my biplane models with a short length of brass rod “pins” at either end of a strut. After drilling the locating holes at the proper locations on the wings, It’s just a simple matter (well, almost) of gluing the struts to the lower wing with cyanoacrolate glue and attaching the upper wing. This is where Contrail’s scale plans really paid off—with only minor adjustments, the wing struts lined up perfectly.

Back to the cockpit—I ended up rebuilding the kit cockpit floor, instrument panel and bulkheads to conform to the existing shape of the cockpit walls. This entailed a large amount of filing, filling, and shaping the appropriate surfaces. I purchased a packet of Evergreen corrugated roofing material which I used to rebuild the cockpit rear wall and the forward wall of the passenger compartment. After detailing the cockpit with the appropriate controls, trim wheels and control columns (the HP 42 used a control column similar to an automobile steering wheel—again the kit parts went to the trash bin and I built the “steering wheels” from brass strip stock). I added a set of Eduard British seatbelts and straps to the seats, a Preiser HO scale model railroad conductor painted as a pilot (1/87 scale is fairly close to 1/72—there are few “civilian” pilots and passenger figures readily available in 1/72 scale) standing between the seats, and another figure in uniform as the “plane captain” walking through the radio compartment behind the cockpit. I also added a complete radio station and 9 seated passengers in the passenger compartment.

After the interior items were finished, I rebuilt the cockpit framing and upper decking with Evergreen strip styrene and corrugated roof material and added the flat acetate panels for the cockpit windows. The cockpit framing is painted shiny Alclad aluminum. This normally would cause problems with the attachment of the windows—but I solved this problem by dipping each window in Future, letting it dry and then using a needle to apply minute amounts of cyanoacrolate at each corner of the windows after setting them in the frame. When dry, I used more Future applied with a small brush to seal the window into the frame. Using the same technique, I attached the passenger compartment windows. Finally, I added scratch built roof vents, crew doors, the Pitot tube and a wind generator made from styrene and brass. I built a crew access stairway and passenger step from strip styrene using parts from the scrap box based on period photos. The engine exhausts were made from brass tubing reamed out at the open end to scale thickness, with a brass sleeve as an expansion muffler. These were about the only items weathered on the model. I dipped each brass exhaust assembly into “Blacken It” for about 10 minutes. To get the compound curves in the upper wing exhausts, I annealed the brass tubing with a mini-torch and carefully bent them to shape with my fingers.



Painting the Model

Normally, painting models is a straightforward process for me—shoot on a coat of flat gray primer, then the basic color, some weathering and a coat of Future prior to decaling. It didn’t work that way for this model. I decided to try several shades of Alclad aluminum. The Alclad was fine, but over the flat grey primer, I just couldn’t get the polished metal look—so I ended up using steel wool to polish up the flat grey primer all around (except in the fabric covered areas of the rear fuselage, tail-plane and wings- it looked OK there). Of course, this ruined the passenger windows in the passenger compartment, sooooo-- I cut out 21 more windows. I can report that Alclad aluminum over steel-wooled flat grey primer does look very nice after hours and hours of polishing. Next time, I’ll follow Alclad’s direction and apply it over a gloss black undercoat.




The Contrail kit comes with a massive decal sheet of perfectly registered decals for all eight HP 42s. Also included are markings for the camouflaged HP 42s that were “militarized” in 1939-41. My pilot friend and I agreed Hannibal was the logical choice for a build of this type, since it was the prototype A/C and was never scrapped (it went missing over the Persian Gulf in 1940—so it’s still out there somewhere). I was concerned the yellowed, 30+ year old decal sheet was shot. I half heartedly copied the decal sheet into a JPEG format on my computer, but it was really too large for my printer to handle well. Opting to cut stencils of the block letters just in case I had to airbrush the markings, I decided to give the decals a try. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry, as the ultra-thin Contrail decals went on perfectly over a coat of Future with a little Solvaset over the corrugated surfaces. A final coat of future over the model, some exhaust weathering (the HP 42’s were kept in spotless condition while they were in service) and some final details completed the model.



Final Details

I added a flag staff and Union Jack just behind the Pilots sliding overhead window. When the HP 42s were on the ground, the Cross of St. George was always displayed. I also added a stepped-height radio antenna behind the cockpit fashioned from brass wire and “magic” sewing thread. I’ve read a lot about this “magic” thread—and endless searches and requests for it at craft and fabric stores only met with blank stares from the staff. I finally discovered where to obtain it—from a second hand pair of spandex bike shorts! Spandex threads stretch ad infinitum, and one pair of shorts will supply enough thread to last forever. There you have it—I even threw my “shorts” into this project!


Vacuform builds are not for everyone, but until mainstream manufacturers produce more of these obscure aircraft from the Golden Age, vacuforms models are often the only game in town. Despite the challenges, the finished product looks good and is an unusual subject of aviation history. Modelers should try a vacuform kit at least once—the results and personal satisfaction might surprise you. Many thanks go to Derek Hughey, my airline pilot acquaintance who supplied the kit and many original Imperial Airways photos, and my lovely wife Lynne who took the photos and supplied untiring “morale support” during the project.


1. The Aviation Factfile, Biplanes, Triplanes & Seaplanes; Winchester, Jim Ed.; Grange Books, 2004, ISBN 1-84013-641-3, pg 158-159.

2. The Age of the Biplane; Bower, Chaz; Crescent Books, 1981; ISBN 0-517-39939—3; pg 50-51.

3. Internet article: Where is Flight CW197? A search for information; Copyright
R. W. Hobby 2005.

4. G. Eric and Edith Matson Negative Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

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