Monday, August 13, 2018

How to Handle Being Short on References

Collecting references for an upcoming build is a part of life for most modelers. I would say that we hoard images of military vehicles almost as much as we hoard collect kits. We tuck the high resolution eye candy into tidy folders named "F-16 pics" or "Weathered Aircraft" in hopes that one day we might come across a kit worthy enough to replicate what we've discovered. They are prized possessions. To a modeler, indeed a picture is worth a thousand words. The right shot can reveal otherwise hidden detail, correct part placement, appropriate color choice, weathering patterns, and of course, ordnance options.
But what if you can't find the right reference photo? 
How many times have you been dying to build a model of an aircraft but a search of the tail number yields only one or two bland or grainy images. Or worse, nothing at all. What then? Do you just follow the kit instructions and move on? Some people are probably content to do so, and there is nothing wrong with that. What some of us glean from various resources are insignificant to others - weathering especially - and a model glazed with all the kit recommendations is fine. But there are modelers who may want more.

So what do you do if you're looking to add your own spin to a model but can't find specific references to suggest the aircraft you're modeling was anything other than basic? 

Before I continue, I should be clear in stating that if you are keen on building a model as an exact representation of how it appeared in a photograph then this article really isn't for you. This is less about a strict adherence to the reference so as to build the aircraft the way it did look and more about gathering evidence to finish the aircraft the way it could have looked.

Think of a reference photo as more of a guideline than a set of hard rules. Clearly, the moment the shot was taken, that is how your aircraft was weathered, how it was configured, what color it was, and so on. But a reference is only a single moment in time captured on film or in the digital realm so you need to decide if it is that moment you want to depict or not. In 2015, the United States Air Force determined the average age of its aircraft was 27 years. That leaves you with a lot of other moments in which your aircraft could have appeared differently. But if you only have one or two images worth saving to your desktop, what do you do?

Let's call it "amalgamation". Amalgamation is a fun word to say and is defined as the action, process or result of combining or uniting. And you say, hey, idiot, what am I combining if I only have one or two photos? Fair question, but let me finish.
I will give you an example. Below are two photos of an F-4C representing tail number 63-7683 of the 497 TFS based out of Ubon, Thailand. The builder is unknown to me but the work has been circulating the internet for some time now.

A Google search for 63-7683 does not reveal much and I was only able to find one decent photo tucked away in the recesses of the internet, a photo which I have used below with permission from Ron Picciani. Perhaps the modeler found this photo for use, but perhaps not and I think judging by how he finished his F-4C it seems unlikely. Notice that the weathering and wear patterns on the real Phantom are not accurately reflected on the model. You may also see that the model has gray canopy frames and a light gray trailing edge on the left wing, characteristics not present on the real thing.

I can only speculate as to why they appear decidedly different. Some would argue that it weakens the value of the overall model because it looks nothing like what is seen in the photo. This assumes that the modeler even used the photo as a reference. I would argue he did not but instead created his version of 37-7683 using amalgamation.
Using the same source I located some images that more closely resemble the model F-4C above.

F-4C 64-0708 of the 433 TFS, a different unit than 63-7683, has both a gray trailing edge and canopy frame.

This F-4C of the same unit as 63-7683 is cleaner but has a gray canopy frame as well.
While I can't be sure the modeler used these images as references either, you can see they bear a greater resemblance to the finished product than the actual photo of 63-7683. Just looking at the last two photos one can assume that it was common maintenance for the F-4s at Ubon to have their canopies either replaced with one still in ADC gray or to be repainted with a gray paint on hand. It is almost as though the modeler replicated what the average Phantom may have looked like at Ubon rather than exactly how that specific tail number appeared. Though it strays from the single reference photo, it is still an accurate depiction of how the aircraft could have appeared at some point in its service in South East Asia.

This is how amalgamation works. Gathering images of not only the tail number you are modeling but a series of images of aircraft that served in the same unit or even the same location at the same time. The swapping of aircraft parts and mismatched colors is a common occurrence even in today's Air Force.
Say hello to F-16C 86-0251 of the 64th Aggressor Squadron. 

As far as reference photos go, this is very nondescript. The color is uniform throughout and the weathering is minimal. Perfect for a basic build.
Below is a photo of the same aircraft as it appeared two years later.

Notice anything different?
For the most part she looks just as clean but the right horizontal stab has been replaced by one wearing a remarkably different pattern likely cannibalized from a jet within the squadron painted like this one.

An F-16's horizontal stabs are interchangeable, left to right and right to left and of course with ones from other F-16s. It is a common practice in F-16 maintenance.

Two of these F-16Cs of the 119 FS have had their left horizontal stabs replaced with the underside gray showing on the top.
Vipers and Vietnam era Phantoms are not the only jets to experience maintenance driven visual interest. Perhaps some of the most well known examples are F-15E Strike Eagles.

Note the F-15C light gray style rudder on this Strike Eagle of the 493 FS.

Several more Strike Eagles of the 493 FS with light gray rudders, indicating how frequent these replacements are made.

It is not only a 493 FS practice as the light gray rudder on this 391 FS F-15E proves.

Another example for good measure.
The Strike Eagles are also known for having mismatched speed brakes, ailerons, and even radomes. 

The point to all this is for you to understand that there is far more flexibility to how you finish your model than you might realize. An aircraft can change a lot in the span of 27 years, after all, the F-16 of the 64th Aggressor Squadron changed its appearance in only two. Aircraft swap parts and panels constantly which may result in an off-colored rudder or an eye catching mosaic like the patchwork on this Tornado...

Even a pilotless drone can be inspiring...

It can be extreme, like this South Vietnamese A-1...

Or subtle like the slight misaligned camo on this USAF Skyraider...

So, if you're unlucky enough to be building an aircraft that spent most of its life undocumented, consider yourself lucky. Collect references of other aircraft of that type and unite them until they result in a model that accurately represents how that plane could have appeared at some point in its history. Modeling is about history and story telling but what you build doesn't have to tell the same story that is in the picture.

Monday, August 6, 2018

One Vietnam Era F-4 Characteristic You're Probably Missing

The F-4 Phantom is an iconic aircraft, earning its renown not only through its unique aerodynamic properties but also through its distinguished service with the United States military and the air wings of eleven other countries. Despite its appearance which earned it such nicknames as "Double Ugly", "Rhino", and the "Flying Anvil", the Phantom smashed world records and soared into the hearts of admirers, proving that with enough thrust any thing can fly.

The F-4 remains a popular subject in scale modeling. Even I, the guy who struggles to complete anything lately, have finished Hasegawa's F-4E in 1/48. Though I painted mine in the two tone gray Hill scheme, the pattern that I think suits the Phantom best is SEA camouflage. Indeed, it is hard to separate the F-4 from the Vietnam war so its natural to see the majority of scale models of them built to depict the various green and brown MiG killers of the era.

But as I continue to waste countless hours of my life browsing the darkest corners of the web looking for the next great reference photo, I stumbled across a common feature of SEA Phantoms that modelers have seemed to neglect.


What? No. Chipping is reserved for World War II aircraft and armor, not sleek modern fighters! Right? Think again. It is time to examine some Vietnam era photographs of F-4 Phantoms and discuss how this oft overlooked characteristic could add some flair to your model.

Take it all in

Being stationed in South East Asia must wreak havoc on the surface of an aircraft. The constant exposure to the sun, sweltering humidity, and torrential rains would have put a beating on the paint. Phantom radomes appeared to have suffered immensely.

Though shocking to look at, it actually isn't that easy to find photographic evidence of radome chipping as extreme as this. However, what is easy to find are images of Phantoms with chipping along the intake lips and splitter plate - ranging from moderate to, well, insane. It appeared to be such a common occurrence that it stood out to me as an aspect most modelers do not address with this airframe. Because of this, we're missing out on some interesting finishes that we'll explore below.

You can see the splitter plate in front of the intake is starting to show wear on this 35 TFS F-4 stationed at Da Nang, 1972.

This F-4C of the 433 TFS on the other hand shows extensive paint loss on the splitter plate. Don't worry, I used all of Ron Picciani's photos with expressed permission.

This Phantom parked at Da Nang exhibits chipping along the splitter and an interesting wear pattern on the radome.

Robin Olds. You may have heard of him. Never the less, the chipping is clear in this glamour shot.

It does not take long to notice the wear on this Phantom's splitter plate.
 You will notice that so far all those examples are of USAF versions. That isn't to say the Navy did not suffer the same fate, however, it may not have stood out as much against the gray.

This Navy Sundowner shows some corrosion control efforts applied throughout the aircraft's surface, including the splitter plate.
Though you can see clearly in this photo the intake lip is showing signs of wear.

This should be enough to keep most modelers intrigued, wait, there's more. The common wear patterns on Vietnam era F-4s are fascinating but what is even more fascinating was the effort to remedy them.
Naturally if you have a section of aircraft with chipped paint you would assume a spot touch up here and there would do the trick. But that wasn't always the case and what we are left with are surprisingly contrasted finishes that would make any model stand out.

Note the large section of intake and entire splitter plate has been painted on this 433 TFS F-4C out of Ubon. The shade of brown stands out compared to the lighter, perhaps more faded, tan.

An even better example shows the newly applied brown and green extending even further down the fuselage and forward toward the radome - which also looks fresh I might add.

This F-4C of the 497 TFS could use a whole new coat of paint but it looks as though it was only touched up on the splitter and in an awkward splotch around the intake.

An excellent close up of an F-4C of the 555 TFS showing the comparatively new paint on the intake and splitter and some touch ups along the fuselage.

A 497 TFS F-4C with fresh paint on the splitter.

A repainted splitter plate on a 435 TFS F-4C.

Most of the area of the splitter has been touched up on this Phantom.


It has not been lost on me that the majority of the photographs depicting the repaints are from once source, and at least one base in all of South East Asia so perhaps the evidence isn't as common as I would like to think. However, according to the dates on the photos, one can assume the practice of repainting intakes and splitter plates covered a span of possibly ten months and four squadrons. It would seem reasonable to believe the finish was maintained in a similar manner throughout the conflict across multiple squadrons and locations.


Sunday, August 5, 2018

Get a Basic Understanding of Ordnance Markings

To scale modelers, the ordnance world can be complex, confusing and when it comes to assembly, tedious. If your WIPs tend to grind to a halt once it comes time to build the weapons you may rest assured that you are not the only one. Bombs and missiles do not get the attention they deserve and are over shadowed (literally if they're hanging from the wings) by the overall subject.

Granted, it is much simpler to slap a coat of olive drab on a little bomb, paint a sloppy yellow ring around the nose and call it done, especially if you have half a dozen or more to assemble. But I have seen plenty of otherwise decent models fall short (at least in my eyes) because not enough attention was paid to the weapons it was carrying.

The IPMS Nationals was in Phoenix, Arizona this weekend. I was not in attendance though I have seen plenty of images shared on the internet by now. There were a lot of outstanding entries this year and one stood out to me in particular. It was an A-6 Intruder with an intricately detailed cockpit, tight weathering and a crap ton of bombs loaded on it. However, the bombs were painted blue yet each nose had a single yellow stripe. To the average observer, this is a meaningless critique but to someone who fancies their ordnance, it was a faux pas. 

Believe it or not, the colors painted on various munitions have specific meanings. To understand them, I've created a basic outline for, at the vary least, ordnance of the United States.


You probably cringe a little bit every time you have to mask the tips of your bombs to apply a yellow stripe around the nose. Tiresome and monotonous, yes, but it is important. Yellow markings denote the bomb is a high explosive hazard, or live as it were. 


If you have built air-to-air missiles then you should be familiar with the brown stripe that goes around it. The color indicates a low explosive hazard. In regards to a missile, the low explosive hazard is the rocket motor. There are other places you may see brown which I will go over later.


Not nearly utilized enough in the modeling world, blue indicates there is no explosive hazard and that the ordnance is inert. A modern aircraft spends the majority of its life hauling around inert ordnance.


Not a color you see very often on today's ordnance but may be familiar to those who build Vietnam War era subjects. Red is indicative of an incendiary hazard and would most often be seen on napalm canisters.

One of my blog posts would not be complete without photo references so let's dissect a few.

Aerial bombardment hit its stride in World War II and the yellow stripe on bombs became a staple of aviation ordnance and a thorn in the side of modelers. The AN/M64 500 lb bombs below have a single yellow ring around the nose. Though you may also make out a ring around the mid-body and aft section as well on a few of them. During the war, a single ring meant the bomb had a TNT explosive filler.

These bombs have a pair of yellow rings, forward and aft. Two of such rings meant the bombs were filled with Composition B. Look closely at the first two bombs in the photo and you can actually read the stencil. Also note how some bombs have complete rings while others are sectioned like a stencil.

When a bomb was filled with Tritonal it was marked with three yellow rings. This remained true through Vietnam and it was not uncommon to see A-1 Skyraiders carrying AN/M series bombs with three rings.

On today's bombs, the yellow ring remains the same though tritonal has replaced TNT and Comp B. A standard tritonal filled high explosive bomb will only have one yellow stripe.

However, the Navy has a different set of standards. After the 1967 fire aboard the USS Forrestal, Navy regulations dictated that munitions had to be treated with an ablative thermal coating which would improve the cook-off time in the event of a fire. Therefore, post 1967 to present day shipboard munitions are painted with two yellow stripes - one to indicate the high explosive hazard, the second to indicate the ablative coat. The thermal insulation is also recognizable by the rough textured appearance of the bomb body as seen below.

More modern NAVAIR munitions that are thermally protected may appear gray instead of green as seen on the two striped Mk82s below.

Though the NAVAIR Ordnance Safety Program required all munitions to be manufactured or refurbished with the ablative coating after 1967, keep in mind this was in the middle of the Vietnam War and ships were still at sea. Aircraft carriers were forced to deplete their allotments of single striped non-protected bombs as the mission required. Therefore, it was not uncommon to see a mixture of one and two striped munitions on the deck.

NAVAIR brought the third yellow stripe back when they started filling their bombs with PBXN-109. Note the sets of two striped bombs as well.

Inert bombs are fairly straight forward. If the bomb body is completely painted blue, it means the munition is inert and is also approved to be flown and dropped as a practice bomb from an aircraft. These BDU-50s are about to be loaded on an F-15E.

On the other hand, if the bomb is green with blue stripes, it still indicates the munition is inert but is not a practice bomb and will not be delivered by an aircraft. Instead, they may be used for load crew training purposes or static displays. These inert Mk82s are likely being used for load crew training on the F-16 in the background.

Napalm can be easily identified by the red stripes.

Missiles generally display two different colored bands, the quantity of each varies depending on the weapon. The AIM-9M below has the yellow stripe for the high explosive warhead and the brown stripe for the rocket motor. Between the two stripes you may notice a red and green sticker. Do not confuse those for stripes as it is the safe/arm indicator. A T-handle is turned and when oriented toward the red sticker, as it is in the photo, the missile is armed. 

These RAF Sidewinders share the same markings except you may notice a brown stripe around the guidance and control section - look carefully between the canards and you'll see it. This is only common on NATO AIM-9s, I have yet to see a US example with such a marking. It is used, presumably, to indicate the seeker head is live.

In some instances you may see black markings, especially on older versions of AIM-9s and Sparrows. The black rings do not indicate any kind of explosive hazard and were applied around the various missile section seams. Sometimes modelers get confused, aided by faulty kit instructions, and apply only black stripes to their Sparrows, Sidewinders and Phoenixes. Black and white photos make it difficult to decipher brown from black and yellow can often be washed out. Dark blue inert stripes may appear to be black from a distance. Don't be fooled. You can see below several black rings around this Sparrow which also has the yellow ring and brown ring furthest aft.

Here is another good example of the black rings on a Sparrow.

Generally speaking, for missiles, a blue stripe in place of a yellow or brown one indicates the warhead or rocket motor are inert. The entire AIM-120 below is inert as indicated by three blue stripes. However, though the warhead and rocket motor of the AIM-9 are inert, notice there remains a brown stripe around the guidance and control section of this Italian F-16. This means the pilot may use the Sidewinder to acquire targets during mock dogfights but clearly can not fire it.

Conversely, US versions, called CATM-9s have a live guidance and control section but do not have the brown stripe.

Bombs may also split inert and live functionality. The GBU-12 below has a blue BDU-50 and brown Computer Control Group. So the munition will guide to the target with the live seeker head but will not explode.

You may also see a completely blue GBU-12 CCG. By now you should realize it will not function at all. In this case, they are used for load crew training and static display.

Now that you've got a basic education on ordnance markings, I hope you can see why the bombs on that A-6 at the Nats were not accurate - blue and yellow can't go together. Take your time and research your references. Understand that there is a particular formula for ordnance depending on if you want to display it live or inert. Certain colors may look more attractive than others but they have meaning in the real world that, in order to maintain an accurate level of modeling, must be adhered to.