Biplanes

There is something rather special about a biplane.
The reason biplanes - and triplanes and other multiplanes - existed in the first place was, believe it or not, to save weight. Early aircraft had engines of very limited power and so needed a lot of wing area to get into the air. That in turn necessitated heavier and heavier supporting structures and wingspan for a monoplane, neatly circumvented by the simple and efficient box construction of a biplane and its struts. Even festooned with wire rigging, and extra struts, a wooden biplane could be remarkably light for its size, and yet have useful wing area.

There's true romance about the aircraft of that era. They could be remarkably graceful, too, like the little Dragon Rapide airliner of the 1930s. In the early days there was almost no metal involved, they were wood and fabric and usually had open cockpits, and were built by workers recruited from the furniture and upholstery industries. The commercial models I make are almost entirely aircraft of the biplane era. I love history and I usually build an appropriate setting with figures for them, and fix an acrylic case over the top. That's a practical thing, to protect the models in particular because with all that rigging, dusting isn't what you want to have to do.

1:72 scale - de Havilland Dragon Rapide in Finland


Like many of my generation *cough* born in the Fifties *cough* I made lots of plastic model aeroplanes, mainly Airfix but also Frog and Revell, it all faded later on, and I've returned to the hobby in recent years. However, things are so different now - perversely because the majority of people in the hobby these days are in fact the very same people, now grey haired, possessed of much greater patience, but poorer eyesight, especially when it comes to finding tiny pieces which have fallen and been swallowed up by the carpet. Actually, I don't have a carpet, but those tiny pieces are still a nightmare to find sometimes. The thing is, while kids no longer want to make model kits, some grown-ups do, and with their greater disposable income, they want more accurate and authentic products.

Along with that sea change, technology has come on in leaps and bounds. Computer aided design, new moulding techniques, and new materials like resin and photo-etched metal, have led to kits which are far higher quality then we ever saw in the old days, far more accurate and far easier to build. Kitmakers like Airfix are even using LIDAR ie. laser scanning on real life examples to produce perfect computer models. New advances in historical research have uncovered new images and information even after all this time. Rigging is still no walk in the park, but again thanks to new materials like monofilament borrowed from the world of fishing, what a modeller can achieve with a little practice is impressive.

1:48 scale - Cambridge University's Bristol Fighter Mk.IV


Model kits used to be cheap, and often came in plastic bags. Detail was limited, accuracy questionable, and the dominant scale was 1:72. Kits of biplanes were rare. One reason for that still applies today, which is that modelmakers zero in on Spitfires and Messerschmidt 109s. WWII attracts much more attention than WWI, in which the US was only briefly involved, and not with US-built hardware, which matters a lot when the US is far the biggest market.

And biplanes - brace yourselves, statement of the blindingly obvious coming up - have two wings. There's no getting away from it, they're harder to build. Then there's the rigging, which looks impossible to the uninitiated, sometimes you're confronted with a bewildering cat's cradle. And yet, if you don't make an effort to include the rigging, the result is distinctly unsatisfying. I only ever tried to rig one of the few biplanes I attempted as a boy, using stretched sprue - which means holding a length of the plastic you cut the parts off close to a naked flame and pulling it out until it is the required thinness. Slightly hazardous... It was a prodigious and nerve-jangling task. Great when it was finished, but inevitably some of the rigging detached before long, or sagged, and I never did it again.

Just by the way, another reason WWI aircraft modelling was limited was that, then as now, most people were drawn to the German types, a weird kind of fascination with perceived glamour which I don't share myself. The problem here is that in the last two years of the War, the Germans adopted a kind of printed fabric now known as 'lozenge', and trying to paint this in any scale is a non-starter. Why lozenge decals weren't provided I just don't know. These days what is available is high quality and the results can be spectacular. Yes, I'll post a picture here when I get round to some lozenge covered machines I have on my to-do list.

1:32 scale - Mick Mannock's S.E.5a

This is probably my most decent effort so far, a model of the aircraft flown by a hero of mine, the top English ace of the Great War, Mick Mannock. His personal story is remarkable but I won't go into it here, except to underline how much the history matters to me, when selecting aircraft subjects. This is one of a series of models I've been building, as a long term thing for my nephew, of aircraft of notable figures of WWI. There'll be 16 in all, and I've done a short bio for each one. 1:32 is a perfect scale for WWI types, because of their size and the detail you can incorporate and of course because of the figures. Sometimes a little remodelling is required - this figure was moulded with a moustache which Mannock never had, at least in any picture I've seen, so he had to be shaved. I'm particularly proud of the model because at last I managed to render the double rigging (click on the picture to see the pic at greater size) typical of a lot of British aircraft, and also the interior of the spaces covered by inspection windows... Well, anyway, I'll feature that kind of detail work on the blog in due course.

I'll just end by saying that we're probably in a Golden Era of WWI aircraft modelling at the moment. I suppose it's to do with the return of a generation of modellers, combined with current historical awareness derived from the Centenary of the War. It may never be repeated, but a handful of firms have produced an extraordinary range of kits of these beautiful and bizarre aircraft from 100 years ago and, trust me, there's some unbelievably skilled work being done with them, which I can only dream of achieving. It takes my breath away sometimes, to see it.


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