Monday 27 April 2020

Platz 1/144 scale Nakajima Hayabusa Ki-43-1 'Oscar'

The recent Platz kit of the Nakajima Ki-43-I in 1/144 scale provides two identical sprues to make up two models together with a decal sheet offering four markings options. The kit bears comparison with and should complement the earlier LS kit of the Ki-43-II to the same scale. The LS kit was released in 1976 as a double kit with the Ki-84 Hayate but was most recently available from Arii under the affiliated Micro Ace label. However, examining the two kits together it appears that either the Platz kit fuselage is under scale or the LS kit fuselage is over scale as there is a significant difference between them, especially in the size of the fin and rudder. The dimensions have not been checked against published figures to determine which one is more accurate to scale.  

The note for the wing advises care in cutting off the thick sprue tags as shown

The Platz kit is finely molded in grey plastic and consists of 29 parts including a one piece cockpit canopy in transparent plastic. The parts include cockpit detail absent from the LS kit, consisting of a floor with integrally molded seat, a separate control stick and an instrument panel. The seat is unconvincing even for this scale as the seat back bears little resemblance to the real thing, but the size of the cockpit aperture probably negates that concern. The cockpit colour is called out as metallic blue-green - aotake - with Mr Color 57 or Model Master 4662 suggested. The engine and a firewall with exhausts are separate parts whereas in the simpler 12 part LS/Arii kit the exhausts were molded integrally with the fuselage halves and the cowling and engine were molded as a single piece. The optical gun sight is molded integrally and very neatly with the port fuselage half. The wings of both kits are single piece moldings with integral pitot tubes. In the Platz kit alternative parts are included for an extended undercarriage with separate legs and wheels or a retracted undercarriage with integral one part wheels and covers. The kit also includes under wing racks and drop tanks, the latter each in two parts. The spinner and prop is a single piece, and there is a separate antenna mast, not included in the LS/Arii kit. In both kits the props are designed to spin freely after assembly. 

A highlight of the kit is the decal sheet featuring markings for two camouflaged and two natural metal finish aircraft and sharply printed by Cartograf. The two camouflaged options are for 64th Hiko-Sentai commander Tateo Kato's well-known white-striped machine and a 3rd Chutai, 50th Hiko-Sentai example flown by Sgt Satoru Anabuki. The two natural metal options are for an 18th Hiko-Sentai example in 1944 with white Homeland Defence 'bandages', included on the decal sheet, and a 59th Hiko-Sentai aircraft at Hankow, China in 1941 with a large red lightning flash on the fuselage. The sheet includes two anti-glare panels. All four schemes are shown in four-view colour on the instruction sheet and in profile on the reverse of the attractive box with profile-style artwork by Yukio Furutachi which also features photographs of the assembled and painted models on one side. 

The LS/Arii kit only contains basic decals for a 3rd Chutai, 64th Hiko-Sentai aircraft. Painting instructions are limited to a suggestion to refer to the box art (shown above) which depicts an Oscar in brown 'giraffe' style mottle over grey or natural metal with a yellow fuselage band and white senchi hiyoshiki not included on the decal sheet. This unusual scheme appears to originate from Richard Ward profile E4 in the 1970 Aircam Aviation monograph No.13 'Nakajima Ki.33 Hayabusa I-III in Japanese Army Air Force, RTAF, CAF and IPSF Service' (shown below) perhaps from a tonal interpretation of a photograph in the book or from an earlier Japanese pictorial source?  Originally molded by LS in dark green plastic the Arii Micro Ace release is molded in white plastic. The under cowling oil cooler is molded integrally with the wing and the panel detail is finely engraved.

In the 1972 Revell Japan also released a 1/144 scale Ki-43-II kit as H-1005. This kit was released in the UK a couple of years later in the third issue box shown below. The kit was molded in silver plastic on a single sprue frame and included one-piece droptanks and racks as well as a two-piece black plastic stand and small tube of glue. Although the box art depicted a 64th Sentai Hombu aircraft the decal sheet provided only six hinomaru. The painting instructions suggested dark green upper surfaces over light green under surfaces. The antecedence of this kit, if any, is unknown and the molding is different to the LS kit with a cylindrical cowling with integral exhaust outlets but without intake or gun muzzle detail. The under cowling oil cooler is a separate part and panel detail consists of fine raised lines.     

Frederick Boucher of the AeroScale website has since published a full build review of the Platz kit here.

Image credit:- Platz Ki-43-I images © 2020 Platz; Arii-Micro Ace Ki-43-II images © Arii-Micro Ace; Profile E4 © 1970 Richard Ward & Osprey Publications Ltd; Revell H-1005 box art © 1970s Revell (GB) Ltd

Thursday 23 April 2020

Jim Anderson's 1/72 Willow in Sea Boots

Jim Anderson has kindly shared another collection of images and build notes, this time for his 1/72 LS model of the Yokosuka K5Y2 'Willow' trainer in floatplane configuration. This venerable kit was first released in 1973 in both wheeled and floatplane versions and is still intermittently available from Arii. Over to Jim then:-

"Firstly, let me say 'thank you' to Nick and the Aviation of Japan audience for all of the encouraging comments I’ve received in response to my previous postings.  I started this 1/72 LS Yokosuka K5Y2 ‘Willow’ with floats in August 2010 with the build lasting about 3 weeks.  For a vintage model it was nicely molded, being about to 1970s Airfix or Hasegawa quality.  The box art was very colorful and the surprise was inside as I laid eyes on the shockingly brilliant orange plastic!  

"There were no issues with the kit although some might consider replacing the kit supplied windscreens, which I chose not to  The only scratch building being two simple instrument panels and two pilot seats.  Attaching the upper wing to the ‘N’ struts went well.  I used the kit supplied decals which by that time had to be well over 20 years old but were in remarkably good shape. 

"Painting was as follows: the interior from a 50/50 mix of 'old school' Pactra M-7 Artillery Olive (FS 34088) and Pactra XF-19 Flat Battleship Gray - fine. Now to priming in preparation for the color coat.  I airbrushed everything with a light coat of Testors Flat White but that was not enough.  In hindsight it really needed another coat of opaque light gray as the glaring orange plastic was too much for my casual attempt to hide it.  

"I figured it was  going to be orange anyway – famous last thoughts.   The rudder and vertical stabilizer were painted with Testors 1/4 oz. Red 1103.  The overall color is 60% Model Masters Chrome Yellow FS 13538 with 40% (approximate) Pactra Insignia Orange X-13.  I think that using a regular yellow would have been a better choice than the chromate version I used, as I was never satisfied by the way it looked.  The upper pontoon struts were painted Humbrol HF1 Khaki, the engine cowling was Humbrol Matt Black #33 and the cockpit coaming was Model Master Leather. 

"The decals and rigging were applied next then a diluted coat of Testors Dullcote Lacquer was applied to the model to complete the project.  The combination of pontoons on a biplane can be vexing to a modeler, but with this kit proved not to be the case.  I’d suggest 'Willow' with floats to anyone wanting to 'have a go' at one."

Jim Anderson

'Willow' was the Imperial Japanese Navy's Type 93 Intermediate Trainer, popularly known as 'Akatonbo' (赤蜻蛉 - red dragonfly) from its orange and red plumage, the design originating in 1932 as a joint project to improve on the Type 91 trainer by Kawanishi and the First Naval Air Technical Arsenal at Yokosuka. The wheeled version was designated K5Y1 and the floatplane version K5Y2. The K5Y2 type was produced at five different aircraft factories with production stretching from 1933 at Kawanishi Kokuki K.K. to 1945 at Fuji Hikoki K.K. and Nippon Hikoki K.K. The best English language reference to this long serving and iconic biplane is undoubtedly the superb and highly recommended Arawasi Eagle Eye Series No.2 monograph which includes a wealth of detailed information, plans, photographs, inspiring colour profiles and a translation of the Fuji company's painting specifications.

In addition to the LS kit there have been more recent kits of 'Willow' in 1/72 scale from Valom and AZ Model. There is also a classic 1/48 scale kit of the K5Y1 wheeled version released by Otaki in 1972 and subsequently available under the Arii label. 1/32 scale kits of the K5Y1 and K5Y2 were released by Nitto Kagaku in the same year as the LS kit. The Nitto Kagaku kits were also issued by Entex Industries and from 1991 were issued by Doyusha and are still available under that label.  The 1/32 scale 'Willow' floatplane was featured here in November 2010.  

Image credit: All model photos © 2020 Jim Anderson; LS Box art via Scale Mates

Saturday 18 April 2020

V-8s, Eight Tracks, and Twins

And now for something completely different Mark Smith takes us on an evocative trip down memory lane. In this age of over-boxed, over-engineered and over-priced kits (now ducking) I very much enjoy modelling nostalgia and do hope that others might be encouraged to contribute their own tales of 'When We Were Young' as they relate to modelling in general and modelling Japanese aeroplanes in particular. Over to Mark:

"Dedicated to Chris Luevano, who is still building and still rocking.

"When I wrote Nick recently to send him that new Hasegawa Betty art featured in the March 20 post, I mentioned that as a kid I built this one, and remembered it being a very nice kit which had turned out to be one of my best models at that time. He asked me to write about it, including what I was up to then, anecdotes and popping off allowed.  So, a disclaimer…this is Nick’s fault! (It always is! Ed.)
"Believe it or not, children, that kit now so long in the tooth was once one of the nicest twin-engine plastic models in the world.  So it was sobering, that almost casual mention that it was now half a century old.  But it works out - I remember buying it here in Texas under the AMT label around 1970.  It was in a flimsy end-opening box and with a very different box art than Hasegawa’s Japanese release (See heading image above. Ed.).  It pictured, improbably, AVG P-40s attacking G4M1s of 761 'Dragon' Ku during their training period in Japan in 1943, one of the kit's decal options!  761 first went into action with G4M2s from Pelelieu in the Palau Islands in March 1944! Who cared?  It looked cool.  And only later would I learn to nitpick such details.  

"I made and survived some bad decisions, like all 16-year-olds, and was wearing some dreadful clothes (it’s a good thing the Polaroids of the day washed out so badly that most were tossed) . . . but somehow I was buying and listening to some great and groundbreaking records which included, to mention only a few:  Moondance by Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, The Who’s Live at Leeds, Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die; Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, James Gang’s Rides Again, Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley, Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, Dylan’s New Morning, Benefit by Jethro Tull, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, The Beatles' Let It Be, Creedence’s Green River, and Neil Young’s wonderful After the Gold Rush.  While I’ve cited here examples that still stand up after all these years, many other candidates would serve as well, and all released during the same two years, 1969 and 1970.   

"They were good fuel for modeling, especially when my parents were out and I could turn them up.  As the James Gang LP stated on the sleeve, “Made Loud to be Played Loud.”  I was restless in my skin without really knowing why.  Some things were starting to crowd out model-building.  I had my first job,  had just gotten my driver’s license, and my stern father shocked me wonderfully, by buying me a 1965 Buick Special with a 310 V-8 for $800, with the caveat that if he ever heard of me hot-rodding it, it would disappear.  (In retrospect, that was probably the work of my mother, behind the scenes, who was my quiet and often underappreciated advocate).  In those days a General Motors car would run about 80,000 miles or so if you took good care of it.  After that, enough things started to go wrong that it was no longer a paying proposition.  With an eight it didn’t get very good mileage, but gas was around 30 cents a gallon!  This bonus was offset, however, by America’s minimum wage then of $1.60 an hour.  My friend Jack Joy, who had an eternally spotless MGB with wire wheels and cocoa-mats (if you didn’t wipe your feet before you got in, you didn’t ride) knew about all things electronic and set up his own guitar pickups, so he came over and helped me install an 8-track tape deck, one of the worst music-delivery systems ever invented, in the car’s glove box.  I started recording my favorite vinyl to blank eight-tracks.  I was set for life.  Almost.  All I needed was a girlfriend and a little confidence - if not in that order.  

"The AMT Betty seemed a little expensive - either two or three dollars, but I was thrilled when I got it home and saw the kit.  AMT issued many airplane kits in those days.  l only knew quite a bit later that almost all were Matchbox and Frog molds of quite varying vintage.  This was responsible for the hit-and-miss nature of the kits themselves; good box art beneath secure shrink wrap convinced me to buy poor kits too often!  But this one was obviously special, with good fit and detail, and beautiful transparencies. 

"Airbrushes, which I had only even heard about a couple of years before, were too expensive for my budget and I still hand-brushed everything.  A very fine modeler and artist, Raymond Waddey, encouraged my work on seeing it at IPMS meetings.  He found things to praise where such were scarce, and I know now that instead of telling me what was wrong, he showed me how I could make things better.  I was pretty young for this group, a little awed by the quality of their models, and most of the better builders remained fairly distant.  Ray’s models were hand-brushed but magnificent, and as a natural artist, his weathering astounded me, along with an ability to scratchbuild cockpits and make new vacformed canopies to show them off.  He showed me how to blend colors at their demarcations, though I could never do it as well as he did, and he gave me three very expensive Grumbacher brushes which I used for years.  He would later give up modeling for painting full-time.  I will always remember his kindness and example. 

"On the Hasegawa  Betty I used those brushes, along with Pactra paint mixes, to model 'K-325'-  the one illustrated in color in the Men and Machines title “Japanese Naval Bombers” by Rene Francillon.  This was in the green and brown segmented camouflage, with natural metal undersurfaces.  I hand-painted the tail codes which turned out pretty shaky, but the AMT decals were useless even if I’d gone for one of their schemes.  For the undersides I used a mix of Testors Silver, which was a very bright and finely pigmented paint, mixed with a bit of Pactra Flat Black and Flat White (oddly, Testors Flat Black and Flat White always looked terrible compared to their Pactra counterparts when brushed, but in this case combining the two brands proved compatible, and made for a nice Aluminum shade.  I tried the same mix around 2000, however, without success).  These were the little square bottles which cost a quarter.  I liked the rivets on the kit just fine, as while out of scale, they weren’t too bad for the day, and with a fairly wide brush one could achieve a finish with hardly any visible brush strokes.  I’m convinced that few modern day paints brush as well as the ones from those days (Me too! Ed.).  Imrie-Risley, the military miniaturists, made a wonderful line of paints called Military which I managed to discover just as they quit making them.  They were superior for white, red, yellow, and a beautiful Prussian Blue.  I believe they were formulated fairly ‘hot,’ to paint white metal figures, but with care could be used without damaging plastic.  The Imrie-Risley website still lists these colors and equivalents, though admitting that they no longer carry the paints which are available from certain vendors.

"For decals, I used hinomarus from either A.I.R. or the ones from IPMS-USA, I can’t remember which.  Both were a sort of rusty red, favored at the time by the cognoscenti, but they went on nicely.  At that time there were hardly any available options for aftermarket decals, much less for  Japanese aircraft; these, as well as a few aftermarket sheets from ABT of France and ESCI in Italy, were the only ones that offered any Japanese choices at all, and they were in 1/72 only.  But both those brands had very yellow carrier film, at least by the time they reached me, and suffered from a dead flat finish which always silvered.   I wish I had some pictures of that finished 1/72 Hasegawa Betty (or even knew what eventually happened to it).  I do recall it looked the part and went together beautifully.  If such photos existed, they wouldn’t be any good, remembering the Instamatic and Polaroid cameras we had.  Back then taking decent photos of models was difficult and required expensive equipment and some expertise.  

"In fact, remembering as best I can the process of building this kit reminds me how much the hobby has changed just in its basics.  Using tube glue neatly on such a large model, for instance, proved a challenge.  Glueing the fuselage meant covering a large mating surface area and getting it together fast while it would still bond best.  Too much would soften and foul the plastic.  (Shortly afterward the US government stepped in to make the product safer, which may have foiled glue huffers, but rendered new tube glues useless for any permanent join. Thanks, government).  Though the parts fit well, doing the seams was an exercise in compromise due to the rivets unavoidably removed.  Back then I was using Squadron “Green Stuff” to fill seams, which was nothing more than fine-grain auto body putty and couldn’t be scribed.  The advent of superglue, or cyanoacrylate, proved a big leap forward for general assembly, with the benefit of filling the same gap it bonded, as well as taking sandpaper and re-scribing well.  But that would be a few years away.  (Before its arrival, however, Lee Thomas, an ace builder in our IPMS North Central Texas group, had a trick of mixing MEK with sprues from the subject kit to provide a liquid sympathetic filler that could be easily scribed.  In conjunction with Tamiya Thin Cement, superglues make construction and prep far easier than I remember from those days.  In fact in every area modelers are now spoiled for choice.  Yet compared to those simpler days we can be somewhat paralyzed by such bewildering variety as well as a surfeit of fine online work, the quality of which is often breezily narrated, but hard to match.      

"Whilst I don’t know the final resting place of that Hasegawa Betty any more than the Buick Special, the photos here are of another classic G4M1 Betty model, the 1/144 scale kit by Imai which I built in the late eighties and was part of a treasured gift of several Imai 1/144 Japanese WWII airplane kits from friend Dennis Naylor.  (Coincidentally the Imai kit featured the same 'Ryu 01' on the box art as the AMT kit! Ed.) This was well before they were briefly reissued by Hasegawa, box art and all, and back when they were impossible to find and highly prized – at least by me!  It remains a very good kit, much better to my mind than the old Crown Betty mold in the same scale, the same one Minicraft has remorselessly flogged in countless boxings for thirty years.  However you can now buy the original Imai mold from Aoshima (old kits never really go away), which has nice decals.  Try HLJ or eBay.

"I sanded off the main canopy frames because they looked a little heavy and vac-formed a new canopy, along with new vac-formed landing gear doors (one is missing in the photos) to replace the over-thick ones.  There were no other changes or additions to the kit.  I like the shape, the flared cowl flaps, and the nicely molded propellers, rare then, and a deal-breaker in 1/144 it seems.  The remainder of the clear parts were used as is, and their raised framing made them surprisingly easy to paint with a sharpened toothpick to hand for removing the shaky lines.  I made a very small diorama using some of the figures that came with the larger Imai kits.  One had a box camera on a tripod, and was snapping a photo of two officers, while another figure looked on leaning against the front fender of a fueling truck, another bonus in one of Imai kits.  (These figures were in a different tan plastic, and were never included with any of the re-issues).  The diorama was damaged in transport though, before these photos were taken, and the Betty torn off the groundwork – the landing gear doesn’t quite point in the same direction anymore.  The basic color was the then-new IJN Green from Tamiya (airbrushed this time), with light grey lower surfaces, which should properly be natural metal.  The national markings were masked and sprayed this time, with the tail codes provided by Railroad Scenics transfers and the weathering done with silver-gray paint and chalk pastels.  One unusual feature of this Betty is the anti-glare area between the dorsal gun position and the tail fin, which has been a point of discussion elsewhere, but for me seems apparent in an in-flight photograph.     

"I agreed with WD in the Comments section for 20 March; I too was puzzled that Hasegawa has never seen fit to match their newer-generation 1/72 G4M2 with an update of the historically more important G4M1.  But in the meantime, don’t write it off - the company’s old soldier from the late sixties is still in Dad’s Army, and still does credit to a beautiful airplane.   

"Another old soldier of sorts from that era, The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend, was asked by an interviewer from Artist Direct in 2006, “What goes through your minds now when Roger Daltrey sings that immortal line from your song My Generation: “Hope I die before I get old”?  His answer is a great one for considering anything one loves doing, for a living or a hobby.
“I spoke about this earlier. But I can say a little more . . . this time I am not being ironic. I am 61. I hope I die before I get old. I hope I die while I still feel this alive, this young, this healthy, this happy, and this fulfilled . . . If you are 24, you have plenty of time to work it out. Trust me, in the end it becomes possible . . . For many years, when we were still really children, we stopped playing 'My Generation' because we thought we were too old. That was the Who themselves buying into the wrong interpretation of the lyric 'I hope I die before I get old', which is more about a state of mind than actual age.” 

"Daltrey and Townshend recently announced that The Who will perform at Wembley Stadium with symphonic accompaniment on Saturday 6 July this year, with special guest Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.  Here’s hoping that by that date, or at least very soon after, such a vast crowd can once again gather in ways so long taken for granted, and enjoy such a moment, perhaps with a new and deeper appreciation.  

"In the meantime, almost all of us have a lot more time on our hands around the house or apartment than expected or wanted.  As I was writing this, local authorities here in the Dallas area announced a shelter-in-place order for at least the next two weeks due to the Corona virus.  And from here it looks like more time will be needed.  I had thought I would not be able to focus on a model airplane in the middle of the larger angst, but it’s already helped, although such times can put model-building in proper perspective as well.  I would be interested in hearing others’ memories from the Way-back Machine, the particular builds that opened doors, books or films that were the kindling, and people that have made a difference.  For myself, as I have the dais here for a moment, I want to say thanks particularly to Nick Millman / Straggler, chief cook, bottlewasher, and purveyor of Aviation of Japan, who over many years has been such a friend and facilitator among those who love Japanese aviation.  
"Anyway…if you’ve binged enough quarantine television to be approaching burnout, try putting on a little of whatever music fueled some of your early models, be it Bach, Miles, John Legend, or Flock of Seagulls; and if you need a subject…well, I can think of one that is the eight-track tape of 1/72 twins . . . "     

Mark Smith

Image credit:- AMT box art via; Imai box art via Scale Mates; Model photos © 2020 Mark Smith

Thursday 16 April 2020

Danilo Renzulli's 1/72 Ki-44 Type 2 Tan-sen

Danilo Renzulli has very kindly shared these images of his splendid 1/72 scale Nakajima Type 2 Tan-sen (二式単戦) Ki-44-II Hei Shoki model made from the Sword Models kit. The model represents aircraft # 63 of the 3rd Chutai of Hiko Dai 70 Sentai at Kashiwa airfield in early 1945 which Danilo interpreted from photographs of the actual aircraft in the excellent 2008 Dainippon Kaiga book 'Shoki Fighter Group - A Pictorial History of the 70th Sentai, the Tokyo's Defenders'. Aircraft # 63 shows evidence on its rudder of former ownership by Hiko Dai 47 Sentai which had transitioned from Shoki to Hayate. By July 1945 the 70th, with 29 aircraft, was one of two Sentai still equipped with the Type 2 Tan-sen within the 10th Air Division as part of the Permanently Stationed Air Defence Forces covering the Eastern District and Tokyo. The other being Hiko Dai 23 Sentai at Imba with 20 aircraft. A third Sentai still with Type 2 Tan-sen as main equipment was the 246th at Taisho within the 11th Air Division covering the Central District with 18 aircraft. Production of the Type 2 Tan-sen had ended with the last two aircraft rolled out in January 1945 from a total run of 1,226. 

Danilo elected to paint the wing leading edge IFF strips as red from his interpretation of the photograph on page 71 of the book. But he remains uncertain as to whether that might just be a trick of the light. His conclusion was that the pictures of  # 63 do not appear to be from orthochromatic film as the other images of that series would otherwise show the yellow Sentai emblem as a darker shade of grey - almost black. (The night time shot on page 50 of the book seems to confirm the red colour, originally authorised for uncamouflaged aircraft Ed.)

Danilo considers that the Sword kit captures the general lines of 'Tojo' well and offers a good amount of detail. The only obvious error are the undercarriage legs which, according to his calculations, are  1-2 mm. too long in scale resulting in a 'stalky' posture. Danilo didn't correct them as he only noticed it once the legs were fixed to the model which was almost finished. It was too delicate a task to re-work the undercarriage at that stage.

The cockpit was ennhanced with photo-etch details included in the kit while some external details came from a Brengun photo-etch fret. The kit canopy was replaced with a Rob Taurus vacform. Danilo also added red and blue-green navigation lights to the wing tips and white at the tail with tiny drops of coloured Microscale Kristal Klear. 

The model was finished in Alclad Semi-matt Aluminium with the other colors from Humbrol. The white color of the Home Defence bands was slightly toned down by adding a tiny drop of brown and blalck to the mixture - just to imitate some weathering. (Try viewing the images in monochrome and note the way that the white bands change in tone compared to the aluminium finish Ed.) The hinomaru and sentai insignia were sprayed using home made masks whilst the numerals came from a Revi decal sheet.

With special thanks to Danilo for sharing these superb images of his Shoki model. The Shoki represented only 9% of total IJAAF fighter production but by the end of the war nevertheless represented 18% of total fighter strength and 31% of the Permanently Stationed Fighter Defence Forces (whereas the Ki-84 and Ki-100 represented 66.5% and 33.5% of the Mobile Air Defence Forces respectively). The last combat fatality of the 70th Sentai occurred on 10 August 1945 when the 1st Chutai leader Captain Kanji Honda was killed in combat over Tokyo with long range Mustangs of the US 15th and 506th Fighter Groups. 

Image credit: All photos © 2020 Danilo Renzulli

Saturday 11 April 2020

Gloster's 'Zero'

The similarity between Gloster's F.5/34 'Unnamed Fighter' (above) and the later Mitsubishi Zero is self evident. But pondering what aircraft designs, if any, might have influenced Jiro Horikoshi's sparkling fighter design is something of a speculative cliché, if not a conspiracy theory per se, and one which is unlikely to be unravelled now. There has always been an element of chauvinism in the idea that it was so good that it must have been copied from a Western design. In November 1985 the magazine Airpower published a rather sensationalised speculation by Warren M Bodie that in July 1935 the Northrop 3A prototype had been flown to a rendezvous with a Japanese aircraft carrier off the coast of California (the aircraft had disappeared over the Pacific ocean on its maiden flight) from whence it was used as the basis for designing the Zero. Whilst the Northrop 3A was touted as a rather improbable and chunky inspiration for the sleeker and more deadly Mitsubishi design, the author did not consider Gloster's F.5/34 in his collated suggestions for other possible inspirations, which included the Bristol Type 133 and Vickers Type 279 'Venom'.  But wait one, is there perhaps an aspect to this story that has never been revealed? This slightly off topic if not unhinged flight of fancy, far too tenuous for Zero Aces, explores two avenues of intrigue.

In October 1937 (the same month that Horikoshi received the formal specifications for the 12 shi fighter that would become the Zero) the British Air Stories magazine* cover art by S R Drigin (as shown above) depicted the Gloster F.5/34 in speculative RAF 56 Squadron service to accompany a brief description of 'A New British 300 M.P.H. Fighter' and a feature on 'British Warplanes of To-Day' described and illustrated by A C Leverington (as shown below). The cover art depicts the aircraft in a somewhat similar composition to the box art for the original Airfix Zero by Roy Cross - the aircraft diving obliquely towards the viewer with a background of cumulus. Interestingly A C Leverington's illustration seems to include an opening like a gun muzzle aperture just behind the cowling which was not present on the Gloster prototype.  Russell Mallinson's story 'The Zero Plan' tagged on the cover is a spooky coincidence but has no connection to the Japanese fighter.  Air Stories undoubtedly touted the potential of Gloster's design, uncensored and widely available at many newsagents. If it had escaped the notice of the Japanese air attaché in London that would have been a miracle. But there is more.

From 1932 to 1936 the notorious Lord Sempill, who was being investigated for passing secrets to the Japanese, reportedly represented Mitsubishi in Europe.  Sempill had been instrumental in acquiring the Gloster Sparrowhawk for the Imperial Navy when he had led he British Air Mission to Japan in 1921, a type that had continued successfully in IJN service until 1928. In 1927 the Imperial Japanese Navy, seeking a Sparrowhawk replacement, acquired the Fleet Air Arm rejected Gloster Gambet (a carrier-based version of the Gamecock with extended wingspan, flotation bags and arrestor hook) as a pattern aircraft with licence building rights. The Gambet design, with modification, then became the basis for the Nakajima A1N1 and A1N2 fighters and that type was just going out of service when Gloster began work on the F.5/34 as a much more advanced type.

Lord Sempill - Gloster - Mitsubishi - the Imperial Japanese Navy - those connections are a matter of historical fact.   By June 1941, MI5 had intercepted messages between London and Mitsubishi and Field Marshal Yamagata's Tokyo headquarters indicating that payments were being made to Sempill: "In light of the use made of Lord Sempill by our military and naval attaches in London, these payments should continue". There is also strong evidence that Sempill was in contact with Makihara Satoru, head of the Mitsubishi Shoji Company's London office. It is quite possible that Sempill had also maintained contact with the Gloster Aircraft Company and when the Air Ministry rejected their F.5/34 design there was perhaps an aspiration to try to sell the design to the Imperial Navy for licence building, to repeat the Sparrowhawk and Gambet successes through Sempill's contacts with Mitsubishi. Horikoshi was unlikely to have admitted being influenced in any way by general arrangement drawings and data from the F.5/34 project, especially if acquired covertly through espionage and intelligence channels or more prosaically via the Air Stories magazine. 

The Gloster F.5/34 design project began in early 1935 under H P Folland in collaboration with H E Preston and two prototypes were built, K5604 being flown for the first time in December 1937 and shown at the Hendon Air Display in 1938. The second prototype was K8089 and both were experimentally flown at the Royal Aircraft Establisment under Air Ministry charge until May 1941 when they became the ground instructional airframes 2231M and 2232M. The armament in keeping with the Air Ministry specification was eight wing-mounted Browning .303 machine guns with 2,000 rounds of ammunition - but there was that distinctive hump above the cowling that in the Zero housed the two 7.7mm machine guns synchronised to fire through the propeller and plenty of armanent weight capacity in the wings for two 20mm cannon, 102 lbs vs 188 lbs.

1/72 scale kits for the F.5/34 have been released by Magna Models as 7572  in cast resin and white metal and by Planet Models as PLT258 in cast resin in 2014. The Planet Models kit (shown above and below in completed form) is  a neat and crisply moulded production which does the original justice and makes up into an interesting comparison piece to the Mitsubishi A6M2. Potential 'what ifs' include an example in IJN markings with cowling guns and cannon wing armament, or an RAF production version replacing the Brewster Buffalo and squaring up to the Mitsubishi fighter in a fantasy dogfight double.

* Air Stories: Flying Thrills and Aerial Adventure in Fact and Fiction, Volume 5, No.4, October 1937, published by George Newnes Ltd., Tower House, 8-11 Southampton Street, Strand, London. 

Image credit: Heading photograph via web: Air Stories magazine cover & excerpts author collection; Airfix box art © 1976 Airfix Products Ltd.:3-view plan via web; Magna box art © Magna Models date unknown; Model photograph © 2014 Planet Models/Special Hobby s.r.o.