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Douglas A-4M Skyhawk
MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, 1976
Why this plane?
The Skyhawk is a marvel of good aeronautical engineering. The story of how engineer Ed Heinemann designed this plane in a way that exceeded all design specifications set by the Navy, but came under the allowed unit cost, is well worth knowing.
I decided to build an A-4 after visiting the USS Midway museum, and learning a lot about what a cool little plane this is: one of the smallest jets in the exhibition, but enormously popular with its crews for being nimble, rugged, able to carry a heavy punch, and easy to maintain. Skyhawks remained in production between 1956 and 1979, with nearly 3,000 built. Even though the US retired its last one in 2003, they remain in use to this day (2020), with highly upgraded systems, in other countries.
The A-4M was the last production version of the Skyhawk. The Hasegawa kit offered two decal options: VMA-331 ("Bumblebees"), or VMA-214 ("Blacksheep"). I opted for the blacksheep livery, on account of many afternoons spent watching "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (aka "Black Sheep Squadron") on TV.
This was in fact my second attempt to build this plane. My first A-4M, finished almost exactly 2 years ago, had a horrible accident from which very few parts survived. If you are curious, check out the photos of my first Skyhawk, to see what difference 2 years of practice can do.
What was added
Hasegawa kits don't come with external weapons. So, although the kit itself was out of the box (including decals), I did add some bombs from the Hasegawa weapons set A. These parts were in fact recycled from my first A-4M (the centreline multi-ejector rack and Mk 82 bombs were about the only things to survive intact).
I also wanted to include some air-to-air capacity to this plane. My spares box had no Sidewinders, but it contained a couple of Matra R550s which came with the Super Étendard Modernisé (thank you Kinetic for providing several weapon options). I found that these could be made into relatively accurate AIM-9Hs by reshaping and slightly moving the fins, scribing and painting the rollerons on the wings, and adding an IR dome (the latter being just tiny drops of Micro Krystal Klear).
Based on many pictures from this great "walkaround" web site, I realised that the undercarriage provided with the kit missed some obvious hoses/ conduits that wrap around the gear. I added these just by bending some hobby wire into shape and using cyanoacrylate to secure it.
Arrows indicate where some detail was added to the undercarriage
The pilot's seat also had a few homemade details added, as explained below.
Finally, this kit requires a fair amount of weight added to the nose, to sit appropriately. This is appropriately indicated in the instructions sheet. To avoid problems, I basically filled the entire available space with line sinkers, held together with blu-tac.
Notes and lessons learned
This is a relatively trouble-free kit. A few notes:
There are several small antennas that protrude upward from the nose, fuselage and vertical stabiliser. If you attach them according to instructions, these will break frequently during the construction as you turn the model upside down to work on steps like the undercarriage and ordnance. Keep them in a safe place until the end. The exception is the little one that sticks upward from the tail; this one comes pre-attached, so not much you can do here, other than not lose it when it first breaks (and reattaching at the end).
After deciding to arm my A-4 with Sidewinders I stressed for a while about getting the right adaptors to link them to the pylons. Fortunately, the simplest solution was found in this web site: the Hasegawa kit actually gives you the ADU-299 adapters and LAU-7 rails as part of sprue F, but they are labeled "not for use". Easy...
This was my first experience with SMS lacquers, which I used for the lower surfaces (insignia white) and the red details around the air intakes, flaps and slats (insignia red). I found them really easy to use, suitable straight from the bottle to the airbrush, and quick drying. Importantly, the red tone exactly matched that of the decals, thus removing any visible junction (a problem I had with my first attempt to build this kit).
The upper surfaces were painted with Vallejo light gull grey FS36440, slightly diluted in water. One important lesson I learned: not all acrylics are the same. More specifically, diluting Model Air paint with isopropyl alcohol or Tamiya X-20A (like I tried) creates a mess that clogs the airbrush. My simple rule from now on is: Vallejo Model Air + water, Tamiya acrylic + X-20A (or isopropyl).
In what has now became my standard routine, following all painting the model was covered with a thin layer of floor polish. Then, decals, another layer of floor polish, and weathering (see below). Everything was then sealed with Vallejo satin varnish.
One of the things I didn't like in my first build was that the weathering looked exaggerated. This time I went easier, only slightly highlighting the panel lines and recessed details, by running a 0.5 mm pacer over them (following the decals and second floor polish application). Everything else was done using the Tamiya Weathering Master sets. To my eyes, the final effect looks more like the real planes than my first attempt did.
The A-4M cockpit
These images give you some idea of what type of cockpit detail you can get by combining out of the box basics with a couple of home-improvised upgrades.
Based on photos of the real thing (which I got here), I added hoses to the left and right sides of the Escapac, using hobby wire. I also added a "helmet knocker" made from a spare piece of photoetch (the yellow lever just above where the pilot head would be; pushing it up arms the seat). Also based on the photos, I kept the "tiger pattern" in the D-shaped handle subtle, and only in front (see also here).
You get decals for the instrument panel, left and right consoles, but these require many applications of Microset and Microsol. Extra detail added with acrylic paint, using as reference photos like these. The weapons guidance screen was covered in Tamiya clear orange.
The only tricky part is two get the angle between the seat and the rear bulkhead right. I advise not cementing the bulkhead in place until you have test-fitted everything against the fuselage.