Building Alex Vraciu's Hellcat in 1/72

By Chris Bucholtz


When people debate then great fighters of World War II, the same names come up time and again: the P-51 Mustang, the Fw 190, the Spitfire, the Bf 109, the F4U Corsair, the P-38 Lightning. While each of these aircraft was a shattering surprise to the enemy when it first appeared, none of them had the impact of the F6F Hellcat. The Hellcat carried the war to Japan in 1944 and 1945, and although opposition pilots were sorely lacking in training, the type's 19-to-1 kill ration is hard to ignore.

The Hellcat

On June 19, 1941‹the same day production orders for the Corsair were issued‹the Navy contracted with Grumman for two prototype Hellcats. One of the secrets of the Hellcat's success was its ease of manufacture. Grumman used techniques similar to those used for the Wildcat and the TBF Avenger, avoiding any compound curves and minimizing the use of flush-riveting. By 1944, after Wildcat and Avenger production had been transferred to General Motors, Grumman was cranking out 500 Hellcats a month. In just two and a half years, Grumman built 12,274 Hellcats, the epitome of America's ability to win the war through her industry at home. In the meantime, the Hellcat ran up an astonishing total of kills. By war's end, F6Fs had downed 4,947 enemy aircraft in the Pacific; all other Navy and Marine types accounted for 1,530.

The Hellcat's record was enhanced by some huge totals in key battles. Chief among these was the Battle of the Philippine Sea, better known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot. Hellcats decimated Japanese aircraft, knocking down 371.5 in the two-day battle. (In the battle, FM-2s claimed four, TBFs two and SB2Cs two and a half.) The battle made Alex Vraciu the Navy's leading ace, a position he would hold for four months.

Alex Vraciu

Vraciu came to VF-19 aboard U.S.S. Lexington after a successful tour with Butch O'Hare's VF-6, where he'd bagged nine enemy planes. His first kill, a Zero, fell to his guns during a raid on Wake Island on October 10, 1943. On Nov. 25, he destroyed a G4M "Betty" over Tarawa, and on Jan. 29, 1944, he became an ace by flaming three more "Bettys" in a strike against Kwajalein. It was the first indication of his predilection for multiple-kill days.

On Feb. 16, Vraciu tagged three Zeroes and a "Rufe" floatplane on a fighter sweep against Truk, but VF-6's carrier, the U.S.S. Intrepid, was torpedoed that night and forced to retire to Funafuti for repairs.

Showing an inability to stay away from action, Vraciu requested another combat assignment when VF-6 was sent back to the U.S. He was sent to VF-16, commanded by 9-kill ace Paul Buie, aboard the U.S.S. Lexington, as assignment that gave him ample opportunity to visit the Japanese fortress at Truk again. On April 29, 1944, he knocked down two more Zeroes over the island, and on June 12, he picked off another "Betty" while it attempted to shadow the fleet. Two days later, he skip-bombed a Japanese freighter, sinking it with a direct hit to its stern.

Five days later came Vraciu's most famous mission. Task Force 58, which included the Lexington eight other fleet carriers, plus five light carriers, and Task Force 52, an escort carrier force with 11 more flight decks, struck the Bonin Islands, then turned southeast as part of Operation Forager. The mission was to gain air superiority over the Marianas, a group of islands that included Guam, Saipan and Tinian. If these islands were taken, Army Air Force B-29s could strike the enemy homeland and destroy his ability to manufacture the weapons of war.

The Japanese counter to this operation was A-Go, a plan to use both carrier- and land-based aircraft to stop the American fleet. The Japanese First Task Fleet included nine carriers and 439 aircraft, while Marianas land bases housed 630 more planes.

On June 19, Japanese commander VADM Jisaburo Ozawa launched four waves of planes at the American fleet, starting with a 64-plane strike launched at 0830.

Nearly 200 Hellcats met the strike, hacking down 42 of them at a cost of three of their own number. By this time, Vraciu was airborne in his aircraft, and was struggling to keep up with Buie. Buie's own wingman, LTJG W.C.B. Birkholm, suffered a malfunctioning propeller, forcing him to ditch and spend the next 14 hours adrift in his dinghy.

Meanwhile, Vraciu's own engine was having problems. It was throwing oil on the windscreen, and worse yet, it wouldn't go into high blower, limiting his altitude to 20,000 feet. He had another problem he was unaware of. His wingman, ENS Homer Brockmeyer, frantically gestured at his wings, but Vraciu thought he had spotted the enemy and tried to turn the lead over to Brockmeyer with no success. What Brockmeyer was trying to tell Vraciu was that the red safety barrels on the folding wings, which indicated whether the wings were locked in place, were still up!

The incoming aircraft the VF-16 elements had been directed toward were gone by the time Vraciu and his squadronmates arrived, so they turned to orbit the task force. Just after they'd reached this position, they were vectored to a new group‹either the last bits of the first strike, or the beginning of the second strike of 109 planes.

Vraciu spotted about 50 planes 2000 feet below him, with a disorganized fighter cover. He started a high-side run on a D4Y1 "Judy" dive bomber, but another Hellcat started after the same plane. Sensing the other pilot didn't see him, Vraciu broke off his attack and shot below the enemy formation, then pulled back up near the edge of the formation.

He picked out another D4Y1 and moved in close in spite of the rear gunner's best efforts to deter him. The plane quickly caught fire and slanted out of formation, trailing smoke. Two more "Judys" were flying a loose wing and Vraciu quickly set both of these afire. A fourth "Judy" was hit "right in the sweet spot," and it caught fire and twisted crazily out of control.

By now the action was getting close to the U.S. fleet. Trying to ignore the anti-aircraft bursts, Vraciu spotted three D4Y1s flying in a row, about to start their dives on a battleship. A short burst took apart the engine of the closest "Judy," and Vraciu caught the next plane in its dive and detonated its bomb, causing the plane to vanish in a huge blast. The last plane was beyond his reach, but just as Vraciu radioed that he didn't think this plane would make it, a direct hit from the battleship's five-inch battery disintegrated the diving D4Y1. In destroying these six "Judys," Vraciu used just 360 rounds of ammunition.

The next day, Vraciu claimed his 19th kill, a Zero, while escorting a strike against the Japanese fleet on the epic "Mission Beyond Darkness." Over the course of the battle, VF-16 rang up 46 kills.

After he got word that he was soon to be stuck on a War Bond tour, Vraciu talked himself into another combat assignment, with VF-20. But on his second mission with the squadron, Vraciu was shot down while strafing Clark Field. He spent the next five weeks fighting with Philippine guerrillas, and returned to the U.S., where he served as a test pilot at Patuxent River. After the war, following assignments at the Navy Department, the Pentagon, the Naval Postgraduate School and aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, Vraciu was given command of VF-51, a squadron flying FJ-3 Fury fighters. In 1957, Vraciu won the individual Air-to-Air competition in the Naval Air Weapons Meet by doing two things‹boresighting his own guns and getting in close to the banner before firing. Even 13 years after his last kill, Vraciu still knew how to gain an aerial victory.

The Model

I first met Alex Vraciu in 1999 at the "Celebrate History" event in South San Francisco, and at that point I decided to build his Hellcat, when the time rolled around for me to build a Hellcat. The war in the Pacific is the portion of World War II that interests me the most, but even two years later, I still had no representative of this most important aircraft in my collection. When I decided it was time to build a Hellcat, I found that modeling clubs and contests have been kind to me; I had three Academy Hellcats, a Hasegawa Hellcat, brass from Eduard and Airwaves and two Verlinden sets, all of which I either won at raffles or picked up for next to nothing in auctions!

The Academy kit, since it had recessed panel lines, was a good starting point, but I found a few things that were dismaying. The trailing edge of the rudder was very thick, and thinning it would endanger the raised rib detail present on the kit. This was because the rudder is provided as halves, and the point where they join at the trailing edge is not very good. I broke out the Hasegawa kit and found my solutions by sawing off the rudders from each kit, then substituting the single-piece Hasegawa rudder for the two-piece Academy rudder. The Hasegawa kit would also provide a donor cowling; having championed the Obscureco 1:48 Hellcat cowling for four years, I couldn't allow the Academy cowling on my model. The two support vanes in the intake below the engine are too close together. Although Hasegawa messed up their big Hellcat's grin, they got it right in 1:72. Other bits that were better the first time: the landing gear struts and the tailwheel.

The very first thing I did was to make sure I was building an F6F-3. The major identifying feature of the -3 was the windows behind the pilot's sliding canopy. I carefully opened the flashed-over positions for these windows and cemented the clear pieces in place with superglue, then made sure the outer seams were sealed by adding even more superglue. These were sanded flush, then polished back to clarity with successive grits of sanding sticks and an application of Blue Magic auto body polish. I did this early on, because such polishing can create a static charge that draws all the dust collected in the fuselage to the area being polished. Since I had yet to add any of the cockpit pieces, let alone join the fuselage halves, this was the ideal time to put in the windows and eliminate their seams and the resulting dust.

I masked the newly-installed windows and set about building the interior. I used many of the brass features from the Verlinden kit, including the kickboards, the sidewalls and the throttle quadrant, trim wheel, map case and other details. I painted these first with a coat of Model Master interior flat black, which is really a dark gray; this was airbrushed at a bottom-to-top angle on the sidewalls. Then, using a top-to-bottom angle, I sprayed a coat of bronze green over this. The result was a shadow effect that showed off the structural detail present in the set.

After the basic structure had been drybrushed with a lightened shade of green, various details were picked out in gloss and semi-gloss black, red and white. Then, I used Model Master steel to weather the cockpit, paying attention to the edges a pilot might scuff with his elbows and the kickboards where his feet often came to rest.

The rear bulkhead was taken from the kit, and was installed unmodified except for one major modification. I used a round file to create the cutouts present in the F6F-3 rear head armor; these were needed so the pilot could use those rear windows.

The resin seat from Verlinden was painted bronze green, then "scuffed" with steel before the brass seat belts were added. The fit of the seat was rather snug, to the point of endangering the other cockpit components!

The control panel came from Verlinden, whose photo-negative approach to the instruments themselves I really like. I painted the back of the film white; next, I painted the rear part of the panel bronze green and the instrument cluster black. After I drybrushed the panel lightly, I coated the front of the instrument transparency with Future floor polish and lined the panel up with the instruments, then set it aside to dry. This approach lets the Future work as both an adhesive and as "glass" instrument faces when dry.

The Eduard center pedestal was also used; the Verlinden part is simply incorrect in that it connects to the panel. In reality, the two are not connected. The rudder pedals wen in next; I offset one, anticipating a slight offset of the Hasegawa rudder later on.

Joining the fuselage was fairly easy; the fit of the Academy parts was, in general, very good. Next came the lower wing, followed by the upper wing halves. At this point, the shortcomings of the kit's wheel wells are obvious. There is very little detail on the top of the wells, no sides to them, and no representation of the leading edge of the flaps, which make up the rear of the main gear bays.

I went at this problem using a solution I learned about while building another R-2800-powered machine, the P-47. I made rounded sections for the flaps from lead foil, cemented them in place and sanded them out. Next, I carefully lined each side of the wells with another piece of lead foil. The foil is flexible enough to allow you to mold it to the curves of the wheel wells, yet structurally sound enough to maintain its shape. I superglued the lead foil in place, trimmed it off with small scissors, then filed the remainder away and polished the surface plastic. I also made sure that I washed my hands after each use of lead foil; I like building models, but I'm not willing to set myself up for any form of chemical poisoning in the process!

The tops of the wells were detailed with styrene strip, rod and a little wire. The Verlinden set provided two catapult hooks in photoetched brass; this was all the detail needed to replicate the Hellcat's gear bays.

The horizontal tail went on easily, with only a trace of a gap on the right side, which was quickly eliminated with a little superglue and sanding. The very tip of the vertical tail was cut out with a Dremel tool; no kit has quite captured this squared-off shape. Verlinden provides a replacement fin tip; this was superglued in place and blended into the vertical tail.

In sanding out some of the seams, some areas on the top and bottom of the fuselage needed to be rescribed. I did this by lining up a number 11 X-Acto blade along the panel lines, then carefully sliding it over until I connected the line. A little sanding took the sharp edge off these new lines. I also used a Bare-Metal scriber and some Dymo tape to sharpen up a few lines on the wings where they joined the fuselage.

Next, I built an Aires R-2800 engine to power my mode. The Aires engine is a kit in and of itself: 18 cylinders in a crank case, with separate dual magnetos, distributors and front-section oil scavenge pump, plus a photo-etched wiring loom and a rear accessories section. Detail is so perfect that there's even a tiny disk on the lower reduction gear cover; that's the Pratt & Whitney logo plate! The only thing not provided are the push rod tubes. I made 18 of these from stretched black sprue and carefully installed them after the engine was mostly assembled.

I recommend painting the cylinders and crank case first, then assembling the engine. I painted the cylinders grimy black, then drybrushed them with chrome silver; the crank case was neutral gray and the magnetos were black. I put the cylinders in place first, followed by the 18 pushrods, the wiring loom and then the magnetos, distributors and scavenge pump. Having built five of these engines now, I've found this is the only way to get all these parts in place without having to modify them.

The Hasegawa cowling was given the exhaust blisters from the Academy kit, and the engine was put in place, braced by a sturdy length of styrene strip. The rudder was installed at a very slight angle, and the Verlinden bomb racks were put in place under the wings. The Verlinden gunsight was installed and given a reflector made from a bit of cellophane from a decal sheet envelope. I masked the canopy using Bare Metal foil, then glued it into place on the fuselage and cleaned up the resulting seam. I modified the brass parts in the Verlinden set for the small fairings at the lower edges of the windscreen and superglued them in place. I also drilled the openings for the machine gun tubes, expecting to add stainless steel tubing later, and filed open the wing-tip formation lights.

With the model ready for paint, I chose Model Master colors for the intermediate blue and dark sea blue upper camouflage and Humbrol matte white for the lower colors. The cockpit was masked, and I sprayed the intermediate blue first, followed by the white lower camouflage and the dark sea blue upper colors. I spent considerable time going over these lines free-hand, trying to get the borders just right according to the photos I used as a reference. I began to obsess a great deal over the demarcation line on the fuselage, until I realized that the enormous star-and-bar marking would cover this entire area!

The model was given a coat of water-based Varathane, thinned with water and a drop of Windex, to prepare it for decals. This was perhaps the most challenging part of the model, because Vraciu's Turkey Shoot aircraft has never been provided on a decal sheet. His VF-6 aircraft, "Gadget," which wore a number 19, is probably the second-best known single Hellcat (second only to David McCampbell's "Minsi III"), but VF-16's Hellcats have never been on a sheet in 1:72.

My friend Suzi Racho had given me a book of aviation art for my birthday two years ago; two paintings depicted this aircraft. One, by Robert Taylor, shows this plane taking off with the dawn sun behind it; Vraciu says this is inaccurate, because of the time of day, the fact that he was deck launched and not catapulted, and several other details. Roy Grinnell's painting however, was done with Vraciu's assistance. In any event, both paintings agree on the markings of this aircraft on June 19: number 32 on the sides of the cockpit, and in smaller numbers on the tail and front of the cowling; 12 kill markings; the VF-16 logo, and the standard national markings. I wrote a letter to Vraciu and asked whether the squadron and personal markings were on both sides of the plane; he responded that they were, so I could proceed with confidence that I was getting the markings right. I bought AeroMaster sheet 72-111, "Fighting Hellcats," for the correct size national insignia; naturally, Vraciu's VF-6 number 19 was also on this sheet! The kill markings came from AeroMaster 72-177, "Southeast Asia Mustangs;" one scheme had two sets of kill markings, which were cut out and rearranged to represent Vraciu's 12 kills. The large number 32s came from a generic sheet of white 45-degree letters, while the cowling 32s came from the AeroMaster Hellcat sheet (one of the schemes happens to be a number 32 from VF-12), while the tail 32 came from a SuperScale sheet for Bearcats. The various stencils came from SuperScale 72-737, another Hellcat sheet. The marking on the gear door was snipped from a serial for a 1:144 F-100. Projects like this prove the value of a big decal collection!

The one marking I didn't have‹and could not buy‹was the VF-16 "Airedales" logo. Luckily, my friend Robin Powell is adept at printing decals with his inkjet printer. He scanned an image of the logo from a book, reduced it to a mere .018", gave it a dark blue background, and printed several copies for me. These worked perfectly, requiring only a bit of touch up with sea blue paint to blend in.

With the decals in place, I gave the model another coat of Varathane and washed the entire model with dark gray watercolor paint. When the wash was dry and to my liking, I added a flat coat made up of Testors Dullcote thinned heavily with lacquer thinner. Then, I added exhaust streaks in pastel, starting with light gray and graduating through black, dark brown and white. I also added some black exhaust on the lower fuselage and some gun residue around the machine gun ports.

The wheels in both the Hasegawa and Academy kits were sub-par, so I grabbed a set of wheels from Hi-Tech's set for the F4U-5 Corsair. The struts from the Hasegawa kit needed a little trimming to sit right in the Academy bays, but they looked very good once installed. I added anti-torque links from Eduard and brake lines made from fine solder to the struts before adding the wheels. The Academy gear doors had nasty knock-out pin marks in them that needed to be drilled away with a fine bit in a Dremel tool; once they were cleaned up, they were painted white and put in place. When this was accomplished the entire landing gear and wheel well area was given a heavy wash with thinner and black paint.

The tail wheel came from the Hasegawa kit, although I cut most of it away. I used brass pieces to make the tailwheel mounting arms, which have lightening holes drilled in them, and made my own door fairings from styrene. When these parts were assembled, I had a detailed but still sturdy tailwheel.

The drop tank had to come next. The kits provided the tank with the lateral reinforcement rib, which was the later style of tank. The Verlinden kit provided the vertically-reinforced tank, but it took considerable work to correct flaws including air bubbles, out-of-round portions of the tank and a misshapen pylon. Styrene strip was used to create the mounting braces and attachment arms.

I'd painted the propeller some time before in my usual way‹yellow first, then, after the tips had been masked, semi-gloss black. The shaft on my Aires R-2800 was cut back and the prop was mounted in place, followed in quick succession by the tail and fuselage antenna masts, the pitot head, clear and blue lights on the aircraft's spine, and a clear light in the tail. The tailhook point was mad by cutting part-way through .030 styrene rod, then sanding and cutting the rod to the shape of the protruding hook point.

The Squadron vacuform canopy was cut from the carrier, masked and airbrushed, then put in place with a little superglue. I also added brass shim to the cockpit sill to provide a track for the canopy to slide over.

I drilled three holes in a row (not as easy a trick as you might think!) and added red, green and amber MV lenses to simulate the signal lights. Next came the machine guns. In most references on the Hellcat, the guns have solid outer jackets, but in a photo Vraciu had sent, the guns clearly have perforated barrels. I dug out some Aires .50-caliber machine guns, which have amazing barrels whose perforations are visible, even in 1:72, and cut four sections of barrel (the outermost guns have only the ends of the tubes visible, and I made these from stainless steel tubing). The resin barrels were painted, then superglued into the wings. Then, I added photoetched sway braces to the bomb racks from the Verlinden set, and painted them in place. The same process was used to add the forward gear doors.

The aerial was made with a few strands of nylon from a smoke-colored pair of panty hose. The tail-to mast length came first, followed by the lead-in, which went to an insulator in the side of the fuselage made by inserting a wire into a very fine hole carefully drilled with a pin vise. The final detail was the wingtip lights. I painted the notches I had filed earlier chrome silver, then drilled small holes and inserted bits of wire painted red and green into the appropriate wingtip. These were covered with three successive layers of Krystal Kleer, giving me a clear cover with a colored bulb inside.

And, just like that, I had a historic Hellcat! I want to thank my friend Suzi Racho for providing the inspiration to get this project off the ground, Robin Powell for his help in making the crucial VF-16 logo, and especially Alex Vraciu for graciously providing his time and advice to get this model's details right!

pragolog-sm.jpg (5410 bytes)

< Vraciu Interview

next >