Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Airfix Model Planes - Spitfire, Lancaster & horrible glue



I was talking to my friend Micky this week and don’t ask me why but the conversation turned to Second World War fighter planes and the difference between the Spitfire and the Hurricane.

Although the Spitfire is probably the most famous of all the British planes used by the Royal Air Force during the war the Hurricane was in fact the principal fighter in the Battle of Britain and not the Spitfire as most people think. In 1940 there were thirty-two squadrons with Hurricanes and only nineteen squadrons of Spitfires. They looked similar but there were differences between them and they complimented each other and worked closely together to shoot down enemy aircraft. The quicker Spitfires were best for engaging the Luftwaffe’s fighter planes, like the Messerschmitt, whilst the Hurricanes took on the fleets of bombers like the Junkers and Heinkels.

I can tell the difference between them because when I was a boy I used to like making model aircraft from Airfix self-assembly kits. The Spitfire was much better looking with elliptical wings, a slim body and a long raking nose. The Hurricane was chunkier with a higher cockpit and stumpy little wings. My first Airfix kit was the Hawker Hurricane and I have to say that after that it was always my favourite of the two.

In the beginning Airfix was sold in F.W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. for two shillings (that’s 10p today) and the first in the range, in 1952, was a very small scale model of Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind. It was so successful that Woolworths than began to ask for additions to the range and soon Airfix began to produce more polybagged model kits. The famous duck-egg blue Spitfire model appeared in 1953.

An Airfix kit was notoriously difficult to assemble and the only absolute certainty was that once it was finished it definitely wouldn’t look anything like the picture on the box. Getting the fuselage and the wings snapped together was usually a fairly straightforward procedure but things quickly became increasingly complicated after that, with fiddly little bits and pieces that required huge dexterity, great precision and unnatural amounts of patience to position into exactly the right place. I was often a bit over eager at this stage and would prematurely glue the obvious parts together without reading the instructions properly and then realise that some of the fiddly bits needed to be planned for and carried out before the larger bits were put together. Two good examples of this was the propeller on the Spitfire and the tail gunners position on the back of the Lancaster bomber which would only turn or swivel as intended if placed in position before permanetly attaching the fuliage section together.

What made things especially difficult was the Humbrol plastic cement glue with its curious smell and a habit of exuding the tube nozzle in far greater quantities of stringy ooze than you could ever possibly need for such a delicate operation and it would end up in sticky white flakes on the end of your fingers or big dollops on the dining room table that would strip the varnish off and end up in a telling off. I always found the gluing together part of the operation especially tricky when finally putting the cock-pit window into position at the end and my model was always left with smears on the plexi-glass that if this was a real plane would have made it virtually impossible for the pilot to see where he was flying. And thinking about the pilot, one of the most irritating things was to discover that I had got the cockpit in place and the whole thing finished before I had placed the pilot into his seat and there he was rattling around in the bottom of the box along with all of the bits of discarded plastic and the double sided page of assembly instructions.

After the gluing together stage came the painting and this was an equally messy affair with paint dribbling down the fuselage, bits of wool and hair getting stuck on the model and fingerprints in various places where I had tried in vain to rectify the damage. Paints came in little tins and it was sensible to let one colour dry before applying the second but I rarely had enough patience for that. Finally came the delicate process of applying the decals which had to be separated from the backing paper by soaking in water and then requiring a most delicate touch to manoeuver them carefully into position on the fusilage and the wings. Sometimes if I was lucky they could be used to cover up the dodgy paintwork but mostly they would end up on first contact in the wrong place and crease and tear as I tried to correct the error.

I finished the Hurricane and the Lancaster to some sort of sub-standard but I can recall making such a mess of a Westland Lysander that as soon as it was completed I was so ashamed of it that I immediately consigned it to the bin. Airfix was also popular in the United States, France and Germany, but here the swastika transfers on Heinkels and Messerschmitts were banned.

Airfix model aircraft were an important part of my childhood in the days before computer games and a really significant thing about Airfix was that it taught important life skills like reading assembly instructions that were as deeply impenetrable as the Amazon rainforest and which were useful later in life for dealing with flat-pack furniture assembly.


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