Started: Mar 2020
Finished: Mar 2020
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The North American P-51 Mustang is considered one of the world's most iconic warplanes from the Second World War, seeing action in nearly all theaters, as well as the Korean War and many other conflicts thereafter. However, one of the lesser known stories of the Mustang is its service with the Communist Chinese forces who would go on to form the People’s Republic of China shortly after. A total of 39 Mustangs were obtained from the Chinese Nationalist forces either by capture or defection.
These Mustangs were used in various roles with the Communists, and nine of them even had the honor of flying over Beijing on October 1st 1949 for a parade to commemorate the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Although never seeing combat, the Mustangs still had served with the Communist Chinese forces as one of their most advanced fighters until the arrival of Soviet aid. [source: plane-encyclopedia.com]
To this day, only two Mustangs formerly in PLAAF service survive in museums. The first one is a P-51K-10-NT “Red 3032” with the serial number 44-12458. This P-51K is on public display at the Chinese Aviation Museum (中国航空博物馆), sometimes also known as the Datangshan Aviation Museum located in Datangshan, Beijing. The other surviving PLAAF Mustang is a P-51D-25-NA “Red 3” with the serial number 44-73920. This Mustang can be seen at the China People’s Revolution Military Museum (中国人民革命军事博物馆) in the Haidian District of Beijing. What is notable about this specific plane is that it was one of the nine Mustangs that flew over Beijing on October 1st of 1949 for the Founding of the People’s Republic of China parade.
Bronco have once again dipped their toe into the murky, unforgiving waters of 1:48 scale aircraft modelling. Since I built their first kit (the Mk.IIB Tomahawk (P-40C) a little while back I was wondering if they would have another crack.
I admit to being a little surprised when they settled on the P-51 Mustang. Surely no other subject has been more studied, researched and kitted by model manufacturers over the years. What would make Bronco's kit different?
Well Bronco had an ace up their sleeve, the little known fleet of Mustangs used by the Chinese Army following the end of WW2. This was certainly a differentiator but would a P-51 with very bright and distinctive PLA markings appeal to the aircraft modeling community?
Well it certainly caught my eye and whilst I am not a fan of seeing P-51s with roundels, for some reason I had no such reaction to the idea of a Mustang being flown in China. Perhaps it was the novelty of seeing something a bit unusual instead of yet another "Old Crow" or "Big Beautiful Doll" that appealed to me.
The pre-release marketing material from Bronco looked encouraging. Three sets of marking options for P-51D's and K's with colorful PLA insignia, both cuffed and uncuffed propellers and a generous assortment of external stores. The 3D CAD renderings looked passable shape wise so perhaps Bronco had learned and improved since the Warhawk/Tomahawk release.
The timing for the release of the kit was unfortunate with Eduard not long before having released their "ultimate" P-51 in 1:48, comparisons were bound to be inevitable.
Many modellers were rightly skeptical about this Bronco release and based on past performance, so was I. Lets see how it held up when actually subjected to some glue and paint.
Three marking options are provided, all very similar, with natural metal schemes. Two are P-51D models (with hamilton standard cuffed props) and the third (which I will build) is a P-51K with the un-cuffed propellers.
Kicking off as usual in the cockpit I was impressed with the level of detail provided by Bronco out of the box. Most of the expected details for a P-51D were present and accounted for. Color callouts seemed generally on the money and several placard decals are provided
As I began to assembly some of the cockpit parts the kit seat pan jumped out as being way off shape wise. I considered re-working it but instead decided to dig through my spares box and was able to find a lovely Ultracast resin replacement which had the bonus of being a near perfect drop fit.
I have learned that pouring hours of effort into WW2 aircraft cockpits ends up giving very little return on investment as much of the detail is hidden away. I'll make the effort to fix things that are glaringly wrong but adding lots of extra detail was not on my agenda for this build. Besides what Bronco gives us is pretty good and once painted up would more than do the job.
I have been testing out some of the new AK Real Color range and this is what I used for the Interior Green color here. I have applied the Green over a black base coat as I find that helps get some variation in tones without too much effort. This build was also one where I made more use of the Tamiya Panel Liner washes and I have to say I wish I had started using these products sooner. Being enamel based they have a very fine pigment and behave almost like oil washes as can be seen here in and around the raised rivet detail.
The small details on the seat and cockpit were hand painted using Vallejo acrylics and the kit decal was used for the main instrument panel. A final light oil wash was applied to all the interior surfaces to give a dusty worn look.
The tailwheel mounting strut on my part was broken off the sprue and rather than just try and glue the small mating area back I decided to use a brass rod instead for more strength. I used some square evergreen rod sandwiched between the fuselage halves as the mounting point for the new tail wheel support. This solution had the added benefit of allowing me to leave the tailwheel assembly off until the end of the build.
Bronco have followed the lead of most other manufacturers of P-51 kits by modularizing the engine cowlings and rear fuselage spine parts. Remember this kit is billed as a "quick build" and meant to be assembled with little or no glue so anything they can design to minimize the need to sand seams is a sensible measure.
Of course if you are not using glue to hold the parts together you need some sort of mechanical solution to keep things tight. Bronco (much like Meng) have designed each part of the model with large male and female joiners that are a force fit. You can see the female mounts here. For modellers who want to use glue instead these mechanical mounts are nothing but a nuisance and so I made a point of cutting them all off, flush with the model surface. This of course meant I needed another method to keep the parts aligned and so you see the small evergreen tabs I have added for that purpose.
I have learnt from my previous Tamiya and Meng Mustang builds that the best way to deal with nasty internal seams on the belly radiator intake is to mold it as a separate part. Bronco did not see it that way and molded the intake lip onto each fuselage half instead. I chose to correct this by simply cutting each half of the intake off the fuselage halves and gluing them together separately as shown here. This meant I could easily deal with the internal seam and once the main fuselage was joined, I could just glue the intake lip back on the model. Remember, we don't always have to assemble a model the way the manufacturer gives it to us :)
Another quick tip is to always check the fit of the wing roots to the fuselage at this point in your builds. If there are small gaps a simple fix is often to insert a "spreader" inside the fuselage to close up the gap with the wings. Spreaders can be fashioned using most anything but I like to use some spare sprue as it's a cheap and easy option.
Turning my attention to the tail I was surprised to see that Bronco have given the elevators both a fabric and metal riveted finish. Talk about having an each way bet. Earlier blocks of the P-51D did have fabric covered elevators but these switched to metal from the P-51D-20-NA onwards and were often retrofitted to earlier blocks. It's a reasonable bet that the aircraft provided to the PLA after the war would have all had metal elevators fitted.
The easiest way to eliminate the fabric finish was to sand it smooth. I also wanted to "drop" the elevators so I killed two birds with one stone. The elevators were cut away from the tail, sanded flat (to remove the fabric scalloping) and rivet detail re-applied. All in all a relatively easy fix for this blunder by Bronco.
The engine cowling likewise needed a little bit of TLC in the form of scribing in the main join line which runs the full length of the cowling panels. Bronco gives you the parallel rows of fasteners along the center of the cowling but for some reason left off the join itself. I also enhanced the look of the DZUS fasteners that hold the two cowling panels in place on the frame. These simple additions greatly improved the look of the cowling.
With these few small corrections complete the fuselage parts were glued together with no significant gaps or misalignment resulting.
The wings also use the glue-less "friction fit" design with the leading edge gun ports sensibly provided as separate single pieces. The flaps as supplied are designed to be installed in the up or retracted position, which is an odd choice because you almost never see P-51s on the ground with the flaps up. To display the flaps down you need to cut off the locating pins and glue them on freehand. Not a sensible design decision by Bronco in my opinion
To keep the wings together without glue, Bronco has liberally covered the interior with friction fit connectors. These work reasonably well but I found that even when you pushed the parts together tightly you were still left with small gaps along the edges. As I intended to use glue anyway I proceeded to cut off the alignment connectors and as expected this also fixed the fit problem with the gaps all but disappearing.
Perhaps the biggest inaccuracy in this Bronco P-51 is the main wheel. They have fallen trap to the age old error of mistakenly placing the rear wall of the main well in line with the gear door cutouts. On the P-51 the rear wall of the well is actually the main wing spar, which of course runs perfectly down the centerline of the wings as shown by the red line. A quick comparison with the accurate Meng kit highlights the error. It's no excuse but Bronco are in good company with this mistake as Tamiya infamously did the exact same thing on their 1/48 scale Mustang. I pretty quickly decided that this issue was one I was just going to live with as I did not want to undertake major surgery.
Another small correction you will need to make if you plan to drop the flaps is to fill the triangular cutout on the inboard edge of the flap. Again many kit manufacturers have made this mistake to allow them to fit the flap fully flush with the wing root fillet when closed. On the real aircraft the flap does of course not have or need a cutout to retract flush with the fuselage wing fillet. I filled the cutout with some .020" Evergreen sheet and sanded smooth.
With the wings now mostly dealt with I turned my focus to the main landing gear. I was quite impressed with the shape and detail on the inner clamshell and outer gear doors. The gear struts are pretty simple on the P-51 and Bronco have done a solid job of reproducing them. Note also that the main wheels are designed with separate tires and rims which makes painting that much easier.
I was pretty impressed with the job Bronco had done on the main gear until I did a test fit to the wings. They probably felt quite proud of the job they did in designing the gear to fit perfectly perpendicular (ie 90 degrees) to the wing. Problem is, this is wrong :( The main gear on the P-51 is actually offset by 11 degrees from the perpendicular and gives the aircraft that characteristic raked look as the wheels extend out forward of the wing leading edge. This was one problem I could not ignore as it would fatally impact on the overall look of the finished model. With some effort I re-worked the wing locating hole for the gear, inserted a brass rod for extra depth and strength into the strut and changed the angle. I would classify this work as non trivial and was perhaps the most involved correction I had to make on this kit.
After I cut out the main wheels I noticed that the block tread only appeared on the sidewalls, with the main surface of the tire being bare. I assumed this was an error by Bronco and so sourced some True Details resin wheels instead. However, later in the build I was looking more closely at photos of a preserved museum P-51 in China and to my surprise the tires were exactly as provided by Bronco. So I'm not really sure what to make of this, but clearly Bronco used the museum aircraft in their research and maybe these were tires made in China at some point and fitted to their P-51 fleet.
Another part that underwhelmed me was the kit shrouded exhaust stubs. The Bronco parts had only a passing resemblance to the real P-51 shroud and exhausts and so once again I looked for replacement options. I raided a Tamiya P-51D kit (for which I had some resin exhausts) and used the kit shrouded exhaust parts. Only a little trimming was needed to get them to fit into the cowling holes on the Bronco kit. I later drilled out the ends of each stub using a 0.6mm drill-bit.
Unlike most of their contemporaries, Bronco only provide a single style of canopy in the kit. It has a mold seam that needs to be removed and some weird bulges in each side of the forward section. I assume that Bronco has tried to reproduce the "blown" effect of the bubble canopy but have not quite pulled it off. The end result looks like a canopy with bug eyes and is just distracting. I was not convinced this would be acceptable once painted and on the model so just be safe I sourced and painted in parallel a spare canopy from the Airfix kit. In the end I went with the Bronco canopy as the bug eye effect was not so pronounced when painted and fitted to the model.
One area I will give Bronco full marks for is the windscreen. They have included a section of the fuselage into the clear part and the whole assembly fits like a glove. This is so much better than trying to carefully glue a clear windscreen to the fuselage with only a thin frame. Tamiya used this same method in their beautiful 1/32 P-51 kit. The armored glass panel is missing but I can live with that in 1/48. The canopy frame is also molded into the clear part, which again is a much better option than a separate frame that must be glued to the clear part.
Any hope I had that someone could truly build this kit without glue went straight out the window when it came time to mate the fuselage to the wing. The wing part would not sit flush (or anywhere near flush) unless you glued or taped it. As the glue was drying I applied a clamp to hold everything in place.
Several of the join lines needed to be removed completely as they are not along natural panel lines. I marked these with a pencil so I knew exactly which ones to fill.
With all of the main assembly complete and seam work done it was time for some primer. I prefer to apply a primer to check my surface work and this is particularly important when you plan on using metaliser paints. One of my goals for this build was to use it as a testbed for the new AK Xtreme Metal paints. I have read several reports that these work best with a solid primer coat, rather than applied to bare plastic. My go-to primer these days is Mr Color Finishing Surfacer 1500. I normally thin it with Mr Color Leveling Thinners but recently discovered that Gunze themselves recommend to use their Rapid Thinner instead. I had never heard of this product but a quick eBay search and purchase had a bottle in my hot little hands in short order. The result of thinning the Finishing Surfacer 1500 with the Rapid Thinner was a super thin, silky smooth primer coat that would do perfectly for my metal work to come.
The primer coat allows us to really see for the first time any blemishes or errors present on the surface of the model. Now is the time to correct mistakes or re-work problems before you start applying any top coats. I carefully go over every inch of the model seeking out glitches and correcting as needed. As it turned out for this model I must have been on the ball as everything seemed in order (that happens very rarely let me assure you)
In anticipation of this build I had acquired several bottles in the AK Xtreme Metal range but as it turned out I was not happy with any of them as a match for the painted finish found on the wings of Mustangs. Whilst the fuselage and tail on the P-51 was left as natural metal, the laminar flow wings were puttied, primed and painted silver at the factory by North American. I needed a model paint that looked silver but not too metallic. From past experience I knew that the Alclad range of paints had just the ticket called RAF High Speed Silver. This was applied to the wings over top of a second primer coat, this time black. Note that I intentionally did not use gloss black because I was not after a super shiny metal effect on the wings or indeed the fuselage.
One of the benefits of the lacquer based Alclads is that they dry very fast. I was able to commence masking within less than an hour of spraying. As I mentioned it's only the wing surfaces (and fabric rudder) that are painted on Mustangs, all the rest is natural metal. Applying Tamiya tape over top of Alclad metalisers has never been a problem for any of my builds.
Based on some earlier testing I settled on AK479 Aluminium for the base coat of natural metal. The Xtreme Metal range is pre-thinned and designed to be sprayed direct from the bottle. I found the paint flowed very well through my Iwata Revolution and it only took a couple of light coats to get a good solid coverage. Being unsure about the curing time for these enamel based Xtreme paints I opted for the cautious path and left them overnight to dry fully.
Like most models I like to create some visual variation on the surface finish. You can't really fade or preshade metaliser paint but you can apply subtle effects to the surface by applying different shades of metaliser to selected panels. I masked off a few panels and applied a selection of the other colors in the AK Xtreme range. I was happy to note that the base coat of AK Xtreme Aluminium was not at all affected by all this masking activity. This was encouraging as I had by now decided to forgo the kit decals and instead make my own masks and paint the national insignia onto the model.
As I seem to be a glutton for punishment I decided that this model would be a good choice to stretch myself a bit and learn more about making paint masks instead of using decals. The first step in making your own masks is to create the design in the computer. I scan the kit decal sheet and then use a vector graphic program called Inkscape (which is free) to trace the outline of the decals I want to mask. There is a bit of a learning curve involved in coming up-to speed with Inkscape but nothing too complicated as most of the designs we encounter on aircraft models are straight lines, simple curves or text/numbers.
Once complete the mask design can be sent to a cutting machine, which is just like a printer but instead of having an ink cartridge has a blade. The blade cuts the design out of a sheet of self adhesive masking material made from vinyl or tape. Several brands of hobby cutting machines are available on the market, I personally use a cutter from Silhouette which simply plugs into my computer via a USB port.
The masks are now transferred to the model surface and burnished down to make a paint safe edge. The vinyl masking material I have used for this project is called Oramask 810 and is semi transparent as you can see here.
The first color is now applied, which in my case was Tamiya XF-3 Yellow acrylic. I thin the acrylics with Tamiya Lacquer thinners so they dry extra fast and cover with just a few coats. You do not want to apply too much paint or you risk building up the thickness which results in a visible edge to the marking.
Let the Yellow dry and the second part of the mask can be applied. This covers the area that needs to remain yellow, which is mostly the outline around the star and bars.
To eliminate the chance of any of the next color bleeding through the small gap between the first and second mask I like to overlap the edges with thin strips of tape. It's time consuming but worth the effort to avoid annoying thin lines on your finishing marking.
XF-7 Red is now applied and built up to cover properly the yellow below. As you can see it is wise to outline the vinyl mask with tape to avoid overspray.
All the masking can now be removed and once the paint is fully cured a light buff with a soft cloth will deal with any raised edges or ridges left by the paint. I feel the end result of painted markings is superior to any decal and once you have mastered this technique opens up a world of custom markings for your modeling projects.
Of course not all masking designs have to be complex. For the rudder I needed simple parallel lines for the stripes and upon measuring worked out these needed to be 4.5mm each. I could have cut strips of Tamiya tape to the right size and marked out the spacing etc but it took me less than 2 minutes to draw this in the computer and cut it out. The masks are all guaranteed to be the same size and I did not have to worry about getting the spacing perfect as the mask took care of that for me.
Once you are happy with the mask you can cut out many copies and apply them to the model all at once. This way you can spray each color on all markings at the same time. It helped with this project that the same national insignia was used on the upper and lower wings and the fuselage sides.
The simple tail-code was also cut and masked. Note that I had previously used the Bronco decal for the tail code (yes I got lazy) but the clear carrier film was a flat finish and very visible when applied over the natural metal. I scratched the dry decal off with my finger nail, touched up the underlying aluminium paint and made the mask as seen here. Another example of where being able to make your own masks provides more options should things not go according to plan.
Once the painted markings were complete I applied a handful of small stencil decals. Normally I would apply a clear coat over the paint and decals at this point but I wanted to really put the AK Xtreme Metals to the test. Were they durable enough to handle a layer of enamel based washes, say from MiG Ammo or Tamiya Panel Liner? I generously applied the Ammo Panel wash and left it for an hour to dry. The excess was next removed with a soft cloth and white spirits. I'm happy to report that most of the AK Xtreme Metals withstood this treatment without any problems. Only the Stainless Steel and Polished Aluminium colors were affected by the solvent and these came off (cleanly). A lesson for next time.
Even with the panel wash applied the natural metal paint was still too bright (clean) for my purpose. I wanted a tired, oxidized look to the weary Mustang as seen in photos. I could have toned it down with a light flat coat but was curious to test an alternative method. I covered sections of the model with a light coat of clean white spirits, then loaded up a small brush with a heavily thinned oil paint glaze. This was dabbed onto the surface and the layer of white spirit diluted and helped flow the oil paint evenly over the surface. This resulted in a thin filter of dirty colored oil paint over most of the model surface and when it dried was ever so slightly dull. So in one step I had both deadened the finish of the natural metal and given it a grimy finish full of natural variation.
For the remaining weathering effects I loaded the airbrush with super thinned Tamiya Earth and Black. This was so thin that it took between 5-10 passes to get the transparent effect you see here. The trick with this technique is to use pure alcohol (IPA) as the thinner rather than Tamiya's own thinner. The Olive Drab anti-glare panel on the engine cowling was chipped using the hairspray method with a darker wash applied to make it look more grotty than elsewhere.
The Bronco kit includes both the cuffed and un-cuffed Hamilton Standard propellers. I prefer the look of the un-cuffed prop (less commonly seen on WW2 era Mustangs) so selected this option for my build. The kit decals were used for the logo's and stencils, these being applied without a gloss coat to see how they performed.
The final touch was to add some weathering to the True Details resin wheels in the form of MiG pigments. These were simply brushed into the cracks on the tires and using a wet cotton bud the excess was removed..
All the small details were now attached and the model prepared for final photos on a suitable base. All up the elapsed time for this build from opening the box to taking these pictures was 2 weeks and 2 days. Even though I used glue and pretty much bypassed all the Bronco "quick build" features I guess I did still crank this one out fast.
So as expected this kit is a real mixed bag. As you've seen from my build it has some nice points, some not-so-nice points and some downright nasty points.
Bronco have clearly aimed this kit at the Chinese domestic market, the choice of markings alone kinda prove that more than anything else. It's a little surprising however that they have not taken more care in the research, especially when they had to know they were entering a market jam packed full of brand new tooled kits of the same aircraft. And this is not just any aircraft, it's the most beloved of all allied fighters, it's the Cadillac of the Skies and you really can't get away with releasing a sub-par kit of the P-51, not now, not ever.
I thought a summary might be helpful to see how it all stacks up: