Czech Master Resin's 1/72 Sikorsky S-39

By Chris Bucholtz


Martin and Osa Johnson were pioneers in three disparate but interconnected fields: motion pictures, aviation and environmentalism. As a husband and wife team of nature photographers, they were the first to eschew staged scenes for real-life footage, and in the days before telephoto lenses it often placed them in harmís way. Martin often brought his camera as close as ten feet of animals like rhinoceros and elephants; Osa stood by with a rifle in case things did not go as planned. On one occasion, a rhino charged Martin, but before it could reach him Osa shot it dead - an impromptu sequence that Martin captured on film! The Johnsons often captured scenes of nature they simply stumbled upon, and helped bring true images of the South Seas, Africa and Borneo to an audience raised on tall tales and myths and inspired hundreds of people to take up the study of natural science as a career, helping to provide a foundation for todayís greater respect for environmental issues.

For their 1933 and 1934 expeditions across Africa, the Johnsons purchased two Sikorsky flying boats: an S-38 called 'Osa's Ark' and an S-39 dubbed 'Spirit of Africa'. These aircraft provided a platform for remarkable footage of vast herds of wild animals on the plains of East Africa; they also made the Johnsons (and pilot Vern Carstens, who flew the ìSpirit of Africaî) the first to fly over Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.

The Johnsons continued to explore the world and take their films on tour until 1937, when the Boeing 247 they were flying on as passengers crashed, killing Martin and badly injuring Osa. She stopped her explorations but turned to writing, penning her autobiography 'I Married Adventure' in 1940. She died of a heart attack in 1952.

The S-39 was one of Sikorsky's remarkable flying boat designs of the 1920s and 1930s. Even at the height of the depression, the company sold 23 of the boats, which went for $20,000 fully equipped. The S-39 was deceivingly rugged; on its first flight, the test pilot looped the ungainly-looking craft! Powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. engine, the plane was capable of a top speed of 119 mph, a decent pace for a civilian aircraft of the era.

The Kit

Czech Master's kit of the S-39 is delight even in the bag it's shipped in. At a recent show, spectators were engrossed by our review examples of S-39 and its sister S-38 kits, almost more so than they were by the built models on the table! The kit is all resin; this presents some worrisome issues regarding the struts and tailplanes, but since only an experienced modeler should even consider building a spindly S-39, solutions to these issues should be easy to come by.

The kits hull/fuselage comes in top and bottom halves, with vacuformed window inserts. In many ways, it assembles like a model car would. Inside the cockpit go a control panel, two pilots' seats, an exquisitely molded rudder bar, and a control yoke, throttle control and landing gear position handles. All are well done in resin, but the control panel is provided as a decal. This is the only shortcut in the entire kit. Behind a bulkhead is the passenger's cabin with a comfy-looking sofa and a rear bulkhead; the sofa's center panel can be positioned as the movable boarding step. The S-39's rear compartment was accessed through a large hatch in the roof; this can be positioned open if the modeler cares to do so. Since the interior was a lovely mix of leather, wood and black and gray paint, this could be an inviting option to many modelers. There was a break in the paint scheme of the interior below the window line, so it could be easiest to install the vacuformed windows into the top and paint around them from the inside before attaching the roof to the hull.

The landing gear is simple but robust looking – a single-piece tail wheel and strut and a triangular braced set of struts with separate wheels for the main gear. Over time, this arrangement may start to sag; I recommend replacing the main struts with metal tubing.

The engine is spectacular. It's a front-to-back sandwich of a propeller, ventilated crankcase cover, ignition harness, cylinder bank, exhaust manifold and exhaust collector ring. The crankcase cover is not used on the 'Spirit of Africa.' This attaches to the upper wing, a spectacular casting in that its entire nine-inch length is completely straight, a difficult technical achievement. My example had a little mold offset at the nacelle, but nothing that is insurmountable. The detail in the wing is spectacular, and builders of fabric-covered aircraft will admire the subtle effect on the top of the wing.

The horizontal tail and its booms are a single piece, which butt-join to the wing. Drilling small holes in the struts and the wing and adding some small bits of wire for strength is strongly recommended. The single piece vertical fin goes atop this.

Once the wing/tail combination and hull are built, the modeler should probably paint the subassemblies. Because of that, nowís the time to discuss decals. 'Spirit of Africa' is one option; a vast quantity of reticulated giraffe spots is provided, along with good instructions on where to put them. The rest of the plane is a mix of gray, yellow and black; propeller markings, manufacturers' logos and warning stripes are also included in this comprehensive sheet. The other option is the very attractive livery of Varney Air Ferries, which flew a cross-the-bay service from San Francisco to Oakland before the completion of the Bay Bridge; this scheme is predominantly blue, with white booms and upper fuselage. As a resident of the Bay Area, I'll probably have to bag two kits; both schemes are that good!

When the hull and wing are finished, the modeler is faced with the most daunting task: mounting the hull and floats to the wing via a complex set of struts. These are in scale, meaning they are thin; I would suggest replacing the 'N'-struts connecting the fuselage to the wing with sturdy metal rod to support the weight of the wing and tail. I'd also substitute a metal strut in place of the strut connecting the tail cross-brace to the fuselage. The rest of the struts will be there for show rather than structure on your model, but be prepared: there are lots of them! Braces for the tail and a set of three control horns for each lower aileron are also provided. For a final touch, Czech Master provides a diagram showing the placement of the rigging and control wires, which are not as numerous as youíd see on a typical World War I fighter, but which add a final touch of spindly-ness to what was in reality a rugged airplane.

This model has a little flash on the parts and surely will require care in the final assembly, but it's one of the rare short-run kits whose potential is immediately clear. The though in engineering and quality of casting make this model a real winner and a reward to all those who had been waiting for a 1:72 model of this historic aircraft.

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