Building The Airfix 1/48th Spitfire Mk.Vb
People far more knowledgeable than I have written copiously about the Supermarine Spitfire. Any history I would add here would do little except paraphrase the work of others. So let's skip the history and get right into the build.
The latest Airfix Spitfire Mk.Vb is an all new tooling. The kit is molded in light gray plastic and it includes decals for two different aircraft.
I started with the 29 part cockpit assembly. The construction is pretty typical and straight forward. I found the cockpit to be very well detailed, but felt that it could be improved by decals for all of the placards and miscellaneous signage one sees in photos of the actual aircraft. The entire cockpit assembly is completed in the first fourteen assembly steps, fifteen if you include the pilot figure.
One issue with the cockpit is the instrument panel decal: all of it's faces line up with the molded-in faces except for the instrument on the bottom left side on the panel. A fellow modeler experienced the same problem, so I know it wasn't something I did wrong. The good news is that no one will ever notice it unless they go looking for it with a flashlight. One could either cut that section from the decal and put it in the right spot (the easy method) or skip the decal and paint the panel (the more difficult method).
The builder is asked to make a choice in Step 16 as to whether the cockpit will be modeled open or closed. Either option requires a bit of surgery. If the canopy is closed, the top edge of the cockpit opening must be removed from each fuselage half. If the canopy is open the access door must be removed, and replaced with an open door for later installation. This could be a bit intimidating to a modeler who has never modified a kit before, though the softer than typical plastic should prove to be more challenging in theory than in practice. I opted to leave the side door closed with the canopy bubble in the open position, and skipped the surgery altogether. I wish Airfix had molded some little tabs for the open bubble to fit into the slots on the fuselage that the canopy would slide in.
Which brings up the matter of the plastic: it's softer than the plastic of many other makers. I didn't have any problems with it but one fellow modeler reported that the plastic was unaffected by tube cement, and instead used a liquid cement. I typically use straight MEK (Methyl Ethyl Ketone) to assemble models and I had no problems bonding the plastic with it. And while I'm on the subject of the plastic, I will also say that I was a little disappointed with the actual molding from an engineering perspective: many of the pieces had the mold separation on the flat edges of the part. Other kit manufacturers might separate the mold on the corners. This made for a lot of scraping that didn't need to happen. Because the plastic was soft it wasn't an especially labor intensive task. But due to the precise fit on so many parts, scraping away the mold seams affected the fit in some areas. This is a minor issue, but one to be aware of.
Once the cockpit tub is completed, it goes into the fuselage and the fuselage halves are joined. The rear section of the fuselage fits together really well, but I found the forward section wouldn't close without a fair amount of scraping on the forward most bulkhead.
In Step 19, the builder must decide which style of windscreen to use. Either style requires a different part for the section between the cockpit and the engine compartment. I like the way Airfix handled this and it eliminates the need to work a seam on the fuselage center line where there shouldn't be one anyway. This is also the case for the lower cowl, where the builder is given the choice between the standard "chin", or the enlarged chin with the scoop. Either option eliminates what would typically be an unnatural seam requiring attention, and it puts the mating seams where they would naturally occur: along the bottom edge of the cowl panels.
Once the fuselage is closed up, assembly moves on to the wings. Airfix did a nice job with the wheel wells, but I was very disappointed with the design of the landing gear itself. Airfix engineered the landing gear struts and their pivot blocks as two separate parts, and the way the parts go together leaves a lot of room to get it wrong. The blocks themselves have some room for installation error. The tires are also molded with a flat section where the rubber meets the pavement. If the landing gear struts aren't installed right the wheels will not sit correctly on their flats. This challenge is compounded by the fact that the wheels fit on their struts via rectangular blocks; the blocks in turn fit into slots. There's no way to adjust the tire's rotation to compensate if the struts aren't at the correct angle. Following the recommended instruction sequence, the pivot blocks are installed in steps 22 and 23, while the struts are installed in step 41. I opted to join the struts to the blocks before the blocks were put in the wings. I thought I took great care to get the right strut with the right pivot block. But when I went to install the gear in the wing, my wheels were pointed at least 30 degrees outward from the longitudinal axis. In the end, I removed the struts from the blocks. When I went to install them later, it was a struggle to get them right. In the end, my strut-to-block attachments are a cyanoacrylate mess, and my tires don't sit on the flat section like they're supposed to. I would advise anyone building this kit to search for other build articles to see how others dealt with this issue.
Airfix also neglected to mention that the navigation light under the cockpit is supposed to be amber colored. This is not to say that painting it after the fact is especially challenging, but some modelers might like to paint it before installation. Either way, the instructions make no mention of the amber color.
The wing is added on the fuselage after its assembly. I had a sizable gap at the wing root on the top side. The bottom fit just fine. I used tape and elastic to try and close the gap while the glue dried, but I was still left with gaps. I filled them with a bead of gel super glue that I quickly smoothed out with my finger. I don't have to sand the glue afterward with this method, but the gaps were a bit surprising, given how precise the fit was on most of the other parts. I'm willing to give Airfix the benefit of the doubt here and chalk it up to something I did wrong in a previous assembly step. Maybe I shouldn't have glued the fuselage halves to the flat section of the forward bulkhead where it flares out into the wing root.
From there, everything else is straight forward with no issues or challenges. The separately molded control surfaces can be posed as the heart desires, and so can the wing mounted radiator flap. The kit also includes a "slipper" type fuel tank, under wing bombs and other ordinance not mentioned in the instruction sheet. Alternate exhaust headers, prop and spinner are included. There will be lots of parts for the spares box regardless of which version one builds.
The well printed, matte-finish decals include all stencils and they went on with no problems, although multiple applications of Solvaset were needed in a few spots. I would have appreciated a fuselage band on the decal sheet. If one is using the full wing-walk markings, I recommend applying those first, then the roundels. This will ensure the roundels go in the right spot with the wing-walk outlines meeting them on the edges. A full color painting guide is provided for each decal option (BM597 of 317 Polish Sq., and the aircraft flown by Pilot Officer Robert "Buck" McNair, DFC, Royal Canadian Air Force, Malta, 1942). The recommended paint colors reference Humbrol enamels, which I used. I also tried a new masking technique involving wax paper masks raised off the surface with masking tape loops. I was pleased with the results and will try it again in the future.
I think this is a very nice kit, aside from the landing gear issue. I think I would remove the blocks that the wheels fit on to allow for better positioning of the wheels, if I built another. I've heard others call this kit the "ultimate" Mk.Vb. I am primarily a WWI modeler and I haven't built any other Spitfires except the old white box Monogram kit, so I have nothing to compare it to. But I enjoyed it, and I like this subject so much that I think I will get my hands on some of the other Spitfire kits on the market, such as those from Tamiya (Mk.I and Mk.Vb) and Eduard (Mk.IXc and IXe-Ed).