Monday, 9 May 2016

HPH Models 1/32 PBY-5A Catalina (Cutaway)

There seems to be a real movement in the world of mainstream kit production these days to produce the "ultimate" model kit. HK Models and HPH Models are two of the main protagonists seemingly wanting to outdo each other with sheer awesomeness, offering subjects in 1/32 scale that until a few years ago were well served in 1/72 and considered ambitious even in 1/48.  Difficult to say who is winning, as their products, whilst both spectacular, are very different. HK's offerings are "traditional" plastic injection moulded kits, albeit taking the technology to new levels. HPH, on the other hand, have stayed in the "limited edition" vein with their high end resin and fibreglass composites.

The Catalina cutaway is a specially produced version of their standard 1/32 Catalina kit, designed to be built as a "half" aircraft showing the details of the interior. As such, it includes many parts from the full kit, and a number of new or modified parts to realise the cutaway detail. This is not a new idea, many modellers have done this themselves with kits that feature detailed interiors, and a few kits have ventured into this territory from the factory end. However these are almost always crudely hacked versions of the complete kit. To give HPH their due, whilst this is plainly a modified version of their "normal" Catalina, they have gone to the trouble of adding many specially moulded extra parts (notably interior ribbing and struts) that would simply be a waste of time on the "closed" version of the model.

The kit comprises a single fibreglass fuselage half (the right hand side) and many, many resin components. Some of the components are on traditional resin pour stubs, and the smaller parts are moulded on to thin sheets which require careful removal and cleaning up. Worth mentioning at this point that due to this rather painful parts extraction process, this kit is not exactly a weekend project. It will take a LOT of time and patience.

Also in the kit is a very nice photo etch set made by Eduard (not all of which is used in the cutaway version), a small sheet of decals (many of which again, not used in this version), a set of paint masks (more on those later) and the instruction manual on CD. Also included is a comprehensive fabric seatbelt set from HGW, which also includes sheets and straps for the aircrew bunks.

The instruction manual (on PDF) is well presented, but turns out to be a little problematic when actually used. The build process is represented by a series of photographs with part number call outs. There are six pages of parts recognition photos at the front of the document and matching these to the build process by attempting to find the correct part by eye (there are no numbers on the actual parts, of course), is a rather tedious affair. The manual being electronic actually helps here because at least you can use the PDF search functionality to help find what you are looking for. BUT, and it's a big but, the manual is full of mistakes. Many parts are incorrectly numbered in the build sequence, and many are not numbered at all, and a few numbers simply do not exist. This all means that you need to keep your wits about you to get through this. I think part of the problem is that the cutaway manual has been cribbed from the "full" model version and everything renumbered to match the new parts breakdown. And it looks like it was done in a hurry. I also found quite a few missing parts, or incorrectly handed (left side rather than right) and I did need to do a fair bit of adapting and scratch building to get through this build. Also, many parts need additional work in order to get them to fit.

The fuselage body is made of fibreglass, not resin or plastic (both of which would probably not be strong enough in this thickness) which is an extremely difficult material to work with. Very strong, but extremely brittle and near impossible to cut (and it does need some trimming). Be very careful when working on it as well, airborne fibre glass particles are seriously unhealthy for your bodily airways so wear a mask when cutting or sanding it.

So in summary, the faulty (and not always very clear) instructions, horrendous parts extraction and clean up, scratch build requirements and many fit problems as well, this is not a kit for the novice. It is for advanced modellers only.

But that's the bad stuff out of the way. On the upside, the parts are moulded brilliantly. A lot of work has gone into producing this kit and it shows. The detail is sharp and the kit engineering does actually work well. Scanning the instructions is a little scary, but follow the sequence and it does actually work, and with a fair bit of work and patience, it will build into a spectacular model.

I will not bore you with a blow by blow construction, just a few highlights and lowlights.

The first thing to mention is something that caught me out at first. The fuselage half is highly polished, and in it's natural state pretty much nothing, paint nor glue, will stick to it. Ask me how I know. Before you start, give the fuselage half, inside and out, a good firm rub down with some medium micro-mesh to roughen the surface. This will give the glue and paint a good key to bind on to.

One of the first jobs is to fix the stringers to the inside of the fuselage. This was 50% of the build work. It is an unbelievably tedious process. What's more, as well as having to extract them from the resin sheets, they need to be carefully cut to size to fit between the various ribs and bulkheads. There are lines engraved into the fuselage to aid positioning, but still this was probably the most painful build stage I have ever undertaken. I also found it necessary to use epoxy resin to fix them (and many other components). Super glue dries too fast and you will find you need to adjust them as the glue sets. A very messy and time consuming process this was too.

Once the stringers were (finally!) done, I chose to paint the inside of the fuselage at this point. After which, all parts added would have to be painted before installation. Once the bulkheads are installed, access to areas that need painting is extremely difficult, if not impossible, so this is the only way to go.

After this, it is largely a matter of filling in each of the sub sections with the appropriate details. Of course, there are no locating pins or notches anywhere and it really is a matter of using care and intelligence to get everything secured. Once you have resigned yourself to the painful process of finding the part, extracting it from the resin sheet, cleaning it up, painting it and glueing it in place this is actually a pretty straightforward, if lengthy, process. But for me the process was somewhat plagued by a number of missing and/or incorrectly numbered parts, and in some cases references to numbers that simply did not exist on the parts breakdown at all. Not being sprue based, and there being so many parts, you do have to convince yourself that you have looked hard enough before deciding that a part is not present. In some cases it was no big deal to simply ignore the part, in others I had to scratch build a replacement.

A word on the glazing. The kit provides a number of clear resin parts which are actually very nicely moulded, although extracting them from the pour stubs without damaging the part was tricky in a few places. Do NOT expect any of the side window parts to fit
the holes in the fuselage, they simply do not, and you need to trim and sand as necessary to get a good fit. Welcome to the world of the advanced modeller. The main cockpit canopy is in two main parts and additional side glazing. Of course the main parts or designed for the full kit and have to be carefully cut in half which was a nerve racking moment. But it fits well. Unlike the "dimple" glazing for the side gunner, and although it may have been me, this simply would not line up correctly and a lot of smoke and mirrors were needed to make it look acceptable. But the overriding point I wish to make on the glazing are the paint masks. They look great in the box, everything you need to mask off the large number of glazed areas neatly. However, they do not fit. Any of them. There is a schoolboy error somewhere in the design, so throw them away. In the end I had to resort to good old Kabuki tape and a sharp knife.

Another point worth mentioning, and this is not a fault of the kit as such, is that when building aircraft models, out of necessity you have to complete the interior work first, the close up the fuselage and then worry about the exterior. I naturally defaulted to this approach, but it did make masking the internals for exterior painting very tricky. Combined with the fact that the completed cutaway model is seriously unstable (see later) and is very awkward to handle whilst building, I would propose that there is probably a good case for affixing the glazing and painting the exterior up front, before any internal work is started. Unfortunately I did not really think this through and had to do it the hard way.

Any model that effectively represents half a plane as this one does, is going to be unstable and not sit comfortably. You are, of course, missing the left hand undercarriage for a start, which leaves only two points of contact with the ground so additional support will be required. I have built Catalina models before, and next to the B-25 Mitchell and B-24 Liberator they are one of the hardest models to sufficiently weigh down the nose to avoid tail sitting. Obviously with a cutaway there is no option to fill the nose section with lead either. You could build a custom full length stand to take the model, complete with properly raked sides, but there is a much quicker way, and it is suggested implicitly by the completed model shots in the instructions. You need to add a stand roughly underneath the rear gunner position to take the weight, and in combination with the nose wheel and main right hand wheel you do actually get a fairly stable result. I manufactured one from plastic tubing with a shaped top to accept the bottom of the fuselage.

However, I then encountered a further problem, after admiring the result for some minutes the main undercarriage collapsed under the weight. Fortunately no serious damage was done, but it did prove what I had suspected, which was that the main undercarriage arrangement was simply not strong enough to cope with the weight of all that fibreglass and resin. The undercarriage parts are actually reinforced with metal rods, which stopped them from snapping, but the joints between the parts could not be made strong enough to take the weight given their angles. After considering my options, I opted for another custom made stand which I fixed to the fuselage right next to the undercarriage to take the majority of the weight on it's behalf. It was the only reliable solution as I saw it.

One of the final jobs was to add the seatbelts, using the HGW fabric set. These things are all the rage with their supposed authentic fabric finish and crumplability but you know what, I'm not actually a big fan. They are incredibly fiddly to put together, and very hard to get to hold their shape where you need them to. Yes, they may be real fabric, but come on guys, a real Catalina is made out of aluminium, steel, and lots of rivets. I would certainly not use that approach to build this model. Yes it looks like fabric, but not in scale. it looks like 1:1 fabric. Not good in a 1:32 scale model. AND it resists sticking by pretty much any glue I could throw at it, certainly sticking positively and quickly enough for me to form it into the required shapes. Sorry if you disagree folks, but give me a decent set of photo etched metal belts any day. Carefully shaped and crumpled, they look as good as anything else. But I soldiered on with the HGW belts and finally got them the way I wanted.

The "part" wing that sits atop the aircraft is possibly the trickiest piece to install. The actual section, including the engine (I added some wires to this myself, I felt the kit parts alone were arguably a little basic for a model of this size and quality) goes together fairly well, however mounting it onto the fuselage with the wing struts (which are reinforced with metal rods, mercifully) was like playing twister with a world champion gymnast, due mainly to the instability of the fuselage section and the lack of positive location points. In the end I glued some spare stringers in place to locate the wing on the top of the fuselage but I still had to stand holding the model for 20 minutes straight whilst the epoxy glue set sufficiently to hold everything together.

The model was built pretty much from the box overall. I did add a few pieces of fuse wire as cabling in places. This was a commission build and I'd blown the budget already, so that is where I stopped. However, there is almost unlimited scope for adding further detail if that is what you desire. What is there is good - really good, and looks great. But if I had the time I would probably add control cables through the bulkheads, more electrical cabling and, well, the imagination runs riot. It's the kind of model that you could very easily never finish.

So to sum up, this is a truly awesome model kit. I have no hesitation in recommending it to advanced modellers, but only those who have a lot of time to spend on it. It is not for the novice or even the mildly competent. You need to understand the materials, know your solvents and glues, be up for a fair bit of scratch building, improvisation and not to mention MENSA level interpretation of the instructions in places. If you want a huge, spectacular model that's a breeze to build, check out HK Models B-17 or B-25. But if you are prepared to put in the time and effort to this one, you will end up with something very special. Very special indeed.

You can see the full set of build progress photos here.