Esci 1/72 S.E.5a, and Some Thoughts on Small Biplane Models
This article is part of a series:
No sane person specializing in World War I fighter models would choose 1/72 as his scale. When I started modeling in the 1970s, 1/48 was the main scale for WWI models, dominated by Aurora kits, with a few 1/32 and 1/24 offerings. Lately with the dramatic entry of Wingnut Wings, 1/32 has been the scale of choice, especially if you have $80 per kit burning a hole in your pocket. But for someone seeking to capture the grand scope of aviation, from small to large(ish) planes of all eras, 1/72 is still the scale, and that inevitably means messing with some really-too-small WWI fighters to fill out that part of the collection.
In the 1960s and 1970s the 1/72 WWI niche was catered to mainly by Revell and Airfix. Mostly, they stayed out of each other's way by choosing types the other had not kitted. Although both did the obligatory Camel and Dr.I, Airfix did the Pup while Revell did the Tripe; Revell did the Albatros D.III while Airfix did the D.V; Airfix did the SPAD VII while Revell did the XIII; and so forth. The Revell kits generally were a bit better detailed, but Airfix offered a broader and more adventurous selection, including not just the famous scouts but 2-seaters like the Avro 504K, D.H.4, R.E.8, and Roland C.II. Airfix even went big with the Handley-Page 0/400. Other major companies like Frog, Monogram, Heller, Hasegawa and Matchbox had interwar kits in this scale, but avoided WWI. Cottage makers like Pegasus and the vacuform companies filled in most of the gaps left by Airfix and Revell. All of these kit were simple but basically sound, and you could amass a World War I collection with just a few frustrating gaps during the golden age of the hobby.
Then, of course, during the hobby's resurgence in the 1990s, eastern European manufacturers stepped in with a much more detailed and varied selection of kits, and recently Airfix has surprised us with a few updated WWI entries in 1/72. Many (but not all!) of those old kits are now obsolete, and life has never been as good for the 1/72 WWI builder.
In the late 1970s, the Italian maker Esci issued half a dozen 1/72 WWI fighters that were basically clones of 1960s Revell issues. The clones were somewhat degraded in that they reduced Revell's already minimalist cockpits to just a blank solid shelf, and introduced some ugly pseudo-detail like raised spoke lines on the wheel covers. But basically, like the Revells, they were sound kits, with only modest accuracy errors except for the Fokker D.VII, where Esci copied the completely wrong Revell wings. They were offered singly and as a set called the Red Baron Flying Circus, consisting of Camel, S.E.5a, Nieuport 17, SPAD XIII, Fokker D.VII, and Albatros D.III. The set was offered very cheap by pre-Internet Squadron mail order at the time, and I bought three or four of them. They have been sitting unbuild in my stash even as Toko, Roden, Eduard, etc. rendered them totally outdated.
A couple of years ago it occurred to me that I have been saving many biplanes and other types that need rigging, for the day when I have the skill to build them properly, but I'm now past 50 and my skills aren't going to get any better, and my eyesight and fine motor coordination are going to head downhill soon. At a quick count, I have over 150 rigging-needed planes in my stash. It is time to build these things. The jets can wait until I can barely see! The old Esci kits, being basically worthless but not bad looking when built, seemed like a good way to hone my rigging, wing-aligning, and other needed skills.
This S.E.5a was first started a couple of years ago but was temporarily abandoned in frustration after I dropped something heavy on it and comprehensively smashed the struts. I recently dug it out and completed it in the markings of G-CYAY of the young Canadian Air Force at Camp Borden, Ontario, circa 1920 to 1921 (when YAY was lost in a crash). This is the third of the Esci Flying Circus kits I have completed, all with different rigging methods (sometimes more than one per plane). This is rigged with .004" monofilament using the drill-through-the-wing-and-hang method of achieving tautness. Relative to EZ-line, the monofilament doesn't stretch, but it takes CA glue better and looks nicer, having no weave to it. Relative to stretched sprue, it's more durable. It's also stiff enough that once straightened, you can do short lengths just by gluing it at either end, with no need to drill holes. I straighten it by hanging a weight from it and running a heat gun past it a few times.
To do the specialized lettering on this plane, common to several Canadian military types of the early 1920s, I created a custom TrueType font in order to print the decals. My next article will describe that process in more detail and tell you where you can get it for yourself.
4 additional images. Click to enlarge.