Airfix 1/48 P-40B/C Tomahawk II
Erik Shilling – The Tiger’s Tiger:
It was hot on Don Muang Airport outside Bangkok on December 10, 1941, as the humidity increased with the rising tropic sun. The crews of the 60th, 62nd and 98th Sentais sweated to ready the 48 Mitsubishi Ki.21 Type 97 bombers (later to be known to their Allied opponents as the Sally) to support the coming offensive against Burma. Had any of them looked up as they paused to wipe sweat, they likely wouldn’t have seen the small dot high overhead and – if they had – they wouldn’t have seen it as the threat it was.
Flying at 26,000 feet, where the Allison engine of his Curtiss H 87A 2 “Tomahawk” made a sound inaudible to those on the ground, Flying Officer Erik Shilling of the American Volunteer Group tripped the wire leading to the camera in the baggage compartment behind him, and began photographing the docks and surrounding airfields below. Having been involved in Army Air Corps long range photo reconnaissance experiments before joining the AVG, Shilling had convinced AVG Commander Claire Chennault to modify his airplane with a Fairchild camera to give the AVG such photo recon capability.
Shilling’s mission to photograph Bangkok was the first offensive operation undertaken by Americans in the Pacific War, 48 hours after news of the attack on Pearl Harbor had flashed around the world.
Off to the west of the city, AVG Group Intelligence Officer Allen Christman and future ace Ed Rector circled, awaiting Shilling’s rendezvous. The three Americans had left their base at Toungoo north of Rangoon before dawn, dropping in at the British base of Mingaladon outside Rangoon at first light to refuel, pausing one last time to top off at Tavoy on the Burmese Thai border, so they could make the flight all the way to Bangkok and return directly to Toungoo. The Japanese had word of the mission; twenty minutes after the trio left Tavoy, Japanese fighters attacked the field, strafing everything in sight.
Rector saw the approaching dot in the distance resolve itself as Shilling’s plane. As the three headed home, Shilling had photos revealing 90 Japanese aircraft 50 bombers and 40 fighters ready to strike Rangoon. Fifty-seven years later, the United States Government would officially recognize the AVG as members of the American armed forces; at age 80, Erik Shilling was awarded the U.S. Silver Star for this important mission.
The son of a World War I pilot, Erik Shilling had his first flight in his father’s Curtiss Jenny at age 5 and joined the Air Corps in 1938. By early 1941, with several hundred hours in the P 36, and time in the new P 40, he was reading newspaper reports of the Japanese assault on China. “It was apparent to anyone who paid attention that the war wasn’t going to be just limited to Europe. Like it or not, we in America were going to become involved, and it was going to spread to Asia.”
That April, President Roosevelt signed an unpublicized executive order authorizing recruitment of enlisted men and reserve officers on duty with the U.S. armed forces, and the British released 100 Lend Lease Curtiss H 87 A2 “Tomahawks” for transfer to China. With U.S. Japanese relations in a delicate position, the recruiting officers for the American Volunteer Group had to offer contracts that were “legally consistent” with official U.S. policy. While the operation had the blessing of the government, it was ostensibly organized by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), run by Edward D. Pawley, who was later described by Life magazine as “always able to be at the right place a few minutes before the right time.” The contracts made no mention of the true nature of their service, stating that the signatories were hired to “manufacture, repair and operate aircraft.”
The original plan included three groups of volunteers: two fighter groups and one bomber group. The first group would be equipped with Curtiss P 40s, while the next would have Seversky P 43s; the third – a bombardment group – was to be equipped with, Lockheed Hudsons. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the cancellation of the second and third groups.
“In fact,” Shilling told me in February 2002, a month before he passed on, “we were an official undercover operation of the American government. We were not mercenaries, though that cover story was so good everyone has believed it for the past sixty years.” Shilling buttressed his statement by pointing out that when the American Volunteer Group traveled to China aboard the Dutch passenger ship S.S. Jagersfontein, “we were escorted by two U.S. Navy heavy cruisers – the USS Salt Lake City and the USS Northampton – because there was a real fear that the Japanese had heard about the operation and would attempt to intercept us.” The cruisers stayed with them all the way across the Pacific, until the Jagersfontein entered the Java Sea and headed for Singapore.
In later years, many would believe that the American Volunteer Group (they received their popular name of “Flying Tigers” in news reports of their combat over Rangoon on Christmas Day, 1941) had fought in China against the Japanese for years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In truth, the AVG did not arrive in Burma until late July 1941, and did not reach their first base at Tongou, in central Burma, until early August. Their first operational mission was not flown until December 10, 1941, after Pearl Harbor; the 3rd Squadron’s first combat mission – intercepting the first raid by the Japanese Army Air Force against Rangoon – came on December 23, 1941, four days after the 1st Squadron saw combat when they intercepted a Japanese bomber mission against Chungking in which they shot down all ten of the bombers, a great surprise to the Japanese.
During training that fall of 1941, three squadrons were organized: the “Adam and Eves” (the first pursuit), the “Pandas,” and the “Hells Angels.” A member of the third squadron, Erik Shilling ended up creating the insignia that would forever be linked with the Flying Tigers. “It’s always been said that the tiger mouth came about after we saw a picture of a P 40 being flown by 112 Squadron in North Africa,” Shilling told me in his final interview. “That’s not true. I was looking through a British magazine one day and saw a photo of a Me 110 with a shark face on it. They were from the ‘Haifisch Gruppe.’ I thought it looked perfect for our squadron insignia.” Shilling chalked a sharkmouth on his P 40 to see how it might look; when he asked Chennault for permission to use it as a squadron marking, Chennault saw it as the group marking. Shilling ended up chalking the sharkmouth on all of the 3rd Squadron P 40s at Tongou before they were painted. “That’s why there were no two of them with the same mouth.” This idiosyncratic look was carried on in the other two squadrons as crew chiefs drew them on the airplanes and painted them.
After the Bangkok recon mission, Shilling’s adventures were far from over. He flew numerous solo reconnaissance missions over Burma, Thailand and Northern French Indochina, almost always unescorted. In late January 1942, he led three Curtiss-Wright CW 21 “Demons” on a flight from Chungking to Kunming. In heavy weather, he suffered engine failure and crashed in the mountainous jungle of southeastern China, while one of the others flew into a mountainside and was killed.
As Shilling climbed out of the wreck, he was surrounded by tribal villagers who had seen the crash. “I’m an American!” he exclaimed. It meant nothing to these people, who in the middle of the 20th Century were unaware there were Europeans. All they knew was that their country was at war with the Japanese, who flew in metal birds, and that this man who flew a metal bird was not like them. So far as they were concerned, this was proof he was Japanese and they treated him accordingly. Shilling was imprisoned in a hole, from which it was made clear to him he would not leave alive. His luck held when a Chinese Army patrol happened along a few days later before his captors could take action. “The boys in Kunming were very surprised when the Chinese brought me in,” he recalled. “They’d already listed me as dead.” It was Shilling’s experience that prompted the AVG to create the famous “blood chit” sewn on the back of their flight jackets it was in effect a branding to insure that indigenous people in the remote areas over which they flew and fought would know an American when they found one, and that they would be well rewarded for helping him.
In March, 1942, Shilling was chosen to lead six other pilots on a transcontinental mission to obtain new airplanes. After flying across the Himalayas to India, their two week trip involved a flight by Sunderland to what is now Iraq, then across to Palestine, and down to Egypt, where they continued across Africa to Accra in Ghana to pick up six ex USAAF P 40Es. The return flight took ten days. As Shilling recalled, “We took off early in the morning, so the engines wouldn’t overheat, flew as far as we could, then waited till the next dawn.” The airplanes arrived just in time to stop the final Japanese offensive across the Salween River in early April 1942; had they been successful, Kunming would have fallen, and perhaps Chungking knocking China out of the war.
In May 1942, the great battles with the JAAF ended as the monsoon arrived. That June, rumors abounded regarding their transfer to the USAAF. Unfortunately, Col. Clayton Bissell, an old enemy of Chennault, was in charge of the transfer. “That man was perhaps the most incompetent American Army officer I ever met in my entire life,” Shilling said. Bissell told the pilots if they did not voluntarily join the USAAF, they would be sent back to the United States and drafted into the infantry. The meeting was a disaster. “After he left, a couple of the guys taught this Chinese kid in the ground crew that met incoming aircraft to say ‘P-i-s-s on Bissell.’ They told him it was a greeting he should say to any American when they arrived.” The end came on July 4, 1942, when the AVG was deactivated and the 23rd Fighter Group was born in its place.
As one of those who refused induction into the USAAF and then did not return to the United States, Shilling went on to fly C-47s for the Chinese national airline, Civil Air Transport, once taking off with 82 passengers aboard and arriving with 83, after a birth on the plane. Between the summer of 1942 and the end of the war, he “flew the hump”, the dangerous cargo hauling missions from Assam, India, to Chungking, China, over the towering Himalaya mountains a record 700 times. “The weather over the Himalayas seemed to be permanently bad,” he recalled, “and the mountains were so high you could only fly through them with the equipment we had.” Flying the Hump was so dangerous, it was later determined that one crew in five crashed during the war, most never to be found. As if the mountains and weather were not enough, there was also the Japanese. “We spotted Jap fighters a few times. The best you could do was to go lower into the mountains, since the turbulence could be so bad it would make them crash if they were stupid enough to follow.” Shilling outflew Japanese fighters while piloting a C-47 through the Himalayas on four occasions, once after being hit by enemy gunfire that had set one engine aflame.
After the end of the war, Shilling remained in the Far East and flew in the Chinese Civil War until the Nationalist retreat to Formosa in 1949. An original member of what would later be known as Air America, in 1951 he flew a C-54 on a resupply mission for Chinese Nationalist Guerillas from Clark Field in the Philippines to Kadena air base on Okinawa via Chungking, China! The mission involved flight over the Chinese mainland in daylight in the unarmed transport at an altitude of 500 feet!
Erik also participated in the resupply missions for the French Army at Dien Bien Phu, diving his C 82 Packet through heavy anti aircraft fire from an entry altitude of 4,000 feet to a drop altitude of 1,200 feet leveling off just above stalling speed to make precision air drops on 45 missions.
Erik finally left America’s secret wars in Southeast Asia in 1966 – the only Tiger to fly in four wars – and returned to the United States to take a position with his old buddies in Flying Tiger Airlines. One of his jobs was interviewing new pilots, to determine if they had the “Tiger’s attitude.” He must have chosen well, when one considers that Flying Tiger Airlines was the primary organization involved in the American retreat from Southeast Asia in 1975, carrying orphans and other refugees in overloaded aircraft back to the United States, a mission in which Erik was a primary organizer and planner.
When he passed away on March 18, 2002, aged 84, Erik Shilling – Flying Tiger and supreme aviator – had lived a life filled with episodes such as these. Never an ace, but recognized by his comrades in the AVG as their best pilot, he never held the spotlight. But for 30 years he lived at the controls of airplanes that inevitably seemed to find themselves in harm’s way. Whether it was in a P 40 alone among the enemy, or a C-47 with a burning engine attempting to evade Japanese fighters with wild flying in the shadow of Mount Everest, or an unarmed C-54 on the deck in daylight deep within Communist China, Erik Shilling lived the quintessential aviator’s life. Preparing to fight lung cancer with chemotherapy in March 2002 at age 84, he died peacefully in his sleep the night before he was to begin treatment, a Tiger to the end.
I was privileged to meet Erik Shilling in 1977, when I flew down from Sacramento to photograph a practice session of the Los Angeles Aerobatics Club in Delano, California (he was their instructor), and parked my Bonanza next to a yellow Steen Skybolt with the Flying Tiger insignia on its flank; I thought to myself “That guy better be for real if he’s painted that on his airplane,” and was then introduced to Erik – who was indeed “for real” – by the guy I had come down to photograph. It was a kick to be one of the many “young guys” who spent the next 25 years running to keep up with him. Trust me, it was an effort.
Among the many things Erik Shilling taught me was how to barrel roll that old Bonanza at a steady 1G, because “someday you’re going to be on final approach behind a jet airliner and find yourself suddenly upside down at 700 feet on final – this will save your life.” I never had to use that skill, but it was always good to know I could do it if I had to. It was even better to be able to list myself as a good friend of one of the finest flyers and best people America has ever produced.
Modelers have longed for a fully-accurate early P-40 since Monogram released theirs 52 years ago in 1964. The first of Monogram’s “serious” kits (it had no toy-like moving parts), Monogram came very close in terms of shape, and the kit is the only one ever released that accurately portrays the fact the P-40 only had flush rivets on the wing leading edge back to the main spar. The molds have long been shot, and without a Squadron/Falcon vac canopy and either a scratchbuilt cockpit or a resin replacement, the kit has long been due for replacement.
Twenty years ago Hobbycraft took a shot, but missed the target when they used the wing of their P-36 kit, which had a very different lower center section than the P-40; modelers have managed to modify the kit into something more accurate, but it takes a degree of skill many lack. After botching the P-40B in 1/32, Trumpeter compounded their mistakes in 1/48 back in 2005. Hobby Boss multiplied the same errors in their kit released earlier this year.
Thus, when Airfix announced a P-40B/C in 2015, and stated it would be based on research involving an actual P-40C (the airplane restored by Matt Nightingale for The Fighter Collection in 2014), there was a degree of hope expressed. This was soon followed by the Great Red Line Game at a certain modeling discussion board that will remain mercifully unnamed. Hume Bates, who really does know the early P-40 better than anyone, demonstrated some mistakes the CAD drawings had, and it appears Airfix was listening since most of those he listed and described were corrected before molds were cut. Since release, there has been further angst and sturm und drang expressed at the same place regarding the shape of the “nun’s hat” – the center of the lower wing. Most people, Hume included, have concluded that what’s there is acceptable and that no one can really say whether the dimensions are right or not. When I compared my built-up model with a well-known “profile shot” of an AVG P-40 in flight, everything looked good to me. Personally, I think it’s time that modelers (who I am sure have read all of Tom Clancy’s books) adopt the theory of life expressed by his character John Clark: “Close enough is close enough and perfect is a pain in the a$$.” If necessary, medication is available to deal with OCD.
The kit is well-engineered, with panel lines that are not as deep as other Airfix kits and they really do “look OK under a coat of paint.” The cockpit is fully detailed, and there is provision for both the “round back” seat used on the P-40B/C and the “square back” seat used on the RAF Tomahawks. The kit includes a drop tank appropriate for the P-40C. Two different canopies are provided, as was done with the Hurricane kit, to allow it to be posed open or closed. Decals include a P-40C of the 15th Pursuit Squadron at Pearl Harbor and one of the Tomahawk Iis flown by R.T. Smith of the AVG.
The kit is easy to build if you follow the instructions. I did discover a couple of things that make assembly more precise. If you take your time and test fit before gluing, you can easily assemble this model without any putty or filler needed. I suggest you lightly scrape down the edges of the internal parts, because overall fit is very tight, and any little “edge” of flash will mess things up.
The one place that is more fiddly than elsewhere is gluing the lower front of the cowling in position to the radiator intake part. Airfix has you wait to do this until the fuselage halves are glued together. I found that if you glue that part to the intake part, and then glue that assembly into a fuselage half, and take the time to carefully align everything together, you will than have it perfectly aligned when you glue the other fuselage half to the sub-assembly. I also suggest that you assemble the upper cowling parts to each respective fuselage half before assembly (rather than after as Airfix suggests) because you can work the fit from both inside and outside, and get the alignment perfect.
When the wing parts are assembled, there is a noticeable gap along the trailing edge where the flap is. This is not Airfix screwing up the fit, but rather getting it very right. There is in fact a noticeable gap there when the aileron is raised on the real airplane.
Before gluing the wing parts together, I suggest you also scrape down the inner joint of the upper wing along its edges, to insure a good fit since again everything has close tolerances when you assemble the model. Be sure you have trimmed down all sprue nubs everywhere when you cut a part off the tree. Some of the sprue gates are a little thick and you need to be sure of this to insure the nice putty-free fit you want.
A note about the cockpit color: The early P-40 cockpit is painted “tinted green,” which is Yellow Zinc Chromate mixed with Black. It is NOT “Interior Green,” but rather a more yellowish hue. I found that using Tamiya XF-4 “Yellow Green” mixed with Tamiya NATO Black got the color I wanted. The interior of the wheel wells and gear doors, including the canvas “boots” in the main wells and the tail wheel, were painted Yellow Zinc Chromate at the factory. The main well boots were usually removed since it was easier to clean out the interior of the wing than to maintain the boots with the crud they picked up; if they survived long enough for the airplane to be repainted (as with RAF Tomahawks in North Africa that got their desert camo at the Aboukir maintenance facility), they would have been painted the wing underside color. The boots as they are molded by Airfix look very accurate from having seen the original on the restored P-40C when it was at Chino.
Also, all AVG P-40s had the pre-war US wide lap belt only. No shoulder harnesses. Tamiya 1/8″ tape works great for these. As British Tomahawks, they also used the “squareback” seat option, and the “cranked” British-style pitot tube.
The model was modified to make Erik’s photo recon airplane by opening a hole in the after section of the wing sub-assembly directly below the baggage compartment hatch, then fitting the camera that is included in the kit in position in the rear fuselage. The wing guns were installed and cut off to simulate the taped-over gun positions.
COLORS AND MARKINGS
The RAF Tomahawks were painted at the Curtiss Factory in “equivalent” US colors for the RAF colors. This was DuPont “Dark Earth” and “Dark Green” upper colors and a light grey that approximated what was mistakenly called “Sky Grey” on the lower surfaces. The “Dark Green” is actually US Medium Green 42, and the Dark Earth is more reddish and brownish than the actual RAF color. After examining close-up photos of the P-40C at the Flying Heritage Collection, which is painted in exact duplicates of these colors, I painted my model with the following paints: for Dark Earth, I used Tamiya XF-68 “NATO Brown,” and for Dark Green I used XF-67 “NATO Green. The “sky grey” was a mixture of XF-66 “Light Grey” lightened with White in a 2:1 misture (2 grey, 1 white). I “sun faded” the paint using XF-52 “Flat Earth” with the Dark Earth, and a bit of XF-4 “Flat Blue” with the green. Color photos of the real airplanes taken by Claire Boothe Luce when she visited the AVG in May 1942 show that the Dark Earth faded into a tan/yellow range, while the Dark Green faded into the blue range.
These photos also show a “hard edge” to the camouflage pattern, since Curtiss used spray mats. Also, the airplanes were painted disassembled, so there is varying discrepancy where the camouflage on the wings and fuselage come together, which varies from airplane to airplane (you won’t get demerits for not worrying about this). All the airplanes have a “hole” in the Dark Earth on the upper wing where a decal for the RAF insignia was applied after painting. The diameter for this in 1/48 is the size of a quarter, so pull one out of your change pocket and draw that on your masks made with low-tack drafting tape.
I used the Cutting Edge decals which provide markings for Erik Shilling’s airplane. This airplane was originally in the Second Squadron, for which it had a blue fuselage stripe, before going to the Third Squadron, where it received a white ID stripe. While the shark’s mouth on this airplane is the most detailed of those Erik chalked on the group’s airplanes (with “cheeks” in the grin), it did not carry the Hells Angels insignia at the time of the Bangkok mission, or most of Erik’s lone-wolf photo recon missions before the retreat to Kunming at the end of February 1942. Instead, it carried Erik’s personal insignia of a “Swami” (“Swami sees all, knows all,” as Erik explained it to me, a reference to the photo recon mission). These decals went down with no problems. I used the non faded national insignia on both upper and lower surfaces of the wings, since these had not had time to fade that much at this point in the airplane’s career.
For those looking to do AVG airplanes, Meteor/Cutting Edge made three sheets of 1/48 early P-40 decals, which are well-researched. You can probably find these on eBay if you weren’t lucky enough to get them and squirrel them away like I did 10 years ago; they include a winter-camo Russian P-40C and a USAAC P-40G. Also, Eagle Editions did three sheets for each AVG Squadron. These are also out of production (though they might be bringing them back now) and can be found on eBay. Aeromaster did an “AVG Special” release 20 years ago that includes a booklet that has all kinds of good information about painting and markings; this sheet is marred by having only the incorrect larger Chinese Air Force insignia, while the others have the correct smaller size. All sheets have the various idiosyncratic mouths for different airplanes.
Xtradecal has released two early P-40 sheets that include AVG airplanes, several RAF Tomahawks in various camouflage and markings, USAAC airplanes and Red Air Force, as well as Brazilian and Turkish. These are excellent decals and easily available.
When doing an AVG airplane, you should remember that during the early days prior to mid-March (i.e., the time they saw the most combat), most of the airplanes did not have squadron markings, and had tactical numbers in different locations (check photos). The Disney “Flying Tiger” decals didn’t arrive till March, and even then only the 3rd Squadron went out of their way to insure all the airplanes had them. By that time the paint was worn, so it was usual to paint the area where the decal would be placed using Chinese Air Force “Khaki” to get a smooth clean surface. If you’re doing an AVG airplane with all the markings, you are doing a well-faded airplane. The light blue “faded” Chinese Air Force insignia would be appropriate, on the upper surfaces only.
I attached the landing gear and unmasked the canopy. The scallops were attached with Micro Crystal Clear. Erik’s airplane had a silver (unpainted) prop, with dark maroon on the rear surface. I did that with Vallejo “White Aluminum” and Tamiya “Hull Red.”
Airfix has a real winner here. The kit is as accurate as we are likely to see from anyone, and head and shoulders above all other 1/48 early P-40s. One can do any version of early P-40 with the kit if you have the information for the modifications. Assembly is as easy as the Hurricane kit; any modeler of any ability can get a nice model from this kit by following the instructions. The kit is highly recommended and I suggest you buy as many as you can when you can, because this is going to sell out fast. It’ll likely be another year before Airfix brings out a second pressing (from what they did with the Spitfire I and the Hurricane I).
Highly recommended. Our 50 year wait is over.
31 additional images. Click to enlarge.