Hobbycraft 1/32 A-36A "Invader"

KIT #: 1710
PRICE: $54.00 MSRP
DECALS: Five options
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: Zotz 32-024 “North American A-36A Apaches in the MTO” used.


            During the production run of Mustang I airplanes, North American delivered two to the USAAF for test and evaluation.  Since the Air Force hadn’t asked for them, and they were viewed as “foreign,” the two airplanes sat at Wright Field, unwanted and neglected for several months.  Once flown, however, they received glowing reports from the test pilots, with a recommendation that the airplane be placed into production for US service.

            The lack of imagination continued.  Since the RAF was using their Mustangs for tactical reconnaissance, the US air authorities considered it for the same duties and concluded they didn’t need very many of them.  Had North American not been eager to sell Mustangs and thus willing to be creative in convincing the new customer that they needed the airplane for other roles, the Mustang in American service might have been still-born. 

            The RAF had decided to develop a Mustang with ground-attack capability, which resulted in the cannon-armed Mustang IA.  These were to be paid for under Lend-Lease.  However, the funds ran out for purchase of the last 47 of these aircraft, which then passed on to the USAAF, where they were designated the P-51 and adapted for low-level tactical reconnaissance.

            With no funds available for new fighter contracts in fiscal year 1942, General Oliver P. Echols and Fighter Project Officer Major Benjamin S. Kelsey  wanted to ensure the P‑51 remained in production.  Appropriations were available for the development and acquisition of an attack aircraft, since the Army had been impressed by the German Stukas.  General Echols specified modifications to the P‑51 to turn it into a dive bomber, and a contract for 500 A‑36A aircraft fitted with bomb racks and dive brakes was signed on April 16, 1942.

            North American modified the P‑51 to use bomb shackles that had already been tested in a "long‑range ferry" program for the RAF.  The design was completed in June 1942.  It utilized the basic P‑51 airframe and Allison engine, and "beefed up" several high stress areas.  A set of hydraulically operated dive brakes were installed in each main wing. Due to the slightly inboard placement of the bomb racks and the unique installation of the four dive brakes, a complete redesign of the P‑51 wing was necessary.

            The first A‑36A, 42‑83663, was rolled out in September 1942, with first flight that October, and deliveries starting late that month. The A‑36A used the nose‑mounted .50 caliber  machine guns of the Mustang I, with a wing armament of four .50 calibers.  The A-36A was powered by the sea level‑rated Allison V‑1710‑87, delivering 1,325 hp at 3,000 ft, using  a 10 ft. 9 in. diameter three-bladed Curtiss‑Electric propeller. This engine had greatly reduced output above 12,000 ft. The main air scoop inlet was redesigned to become a fixed unit with a larger opening, which replaced the earlier scoop which could be lowered into the airstream.  The A‑36 carburetor air intake was also later fitted with a tropical air filter.

            The official name "Apache" was assigned, though it was rarely used.  Many merely called it “Mustang”, and it received the unofficial name “Invader” when a pilot of the 27th Fighter-Bomber Group told a reporter that it was so called “because we keep invading places.”   

The 27th Fighter-Bomber Group:

            While the 86th Fighter Bomber Group(Dive) was the first unit to be completely equipped and trained with the A-36A as initial equipment, the airplane first saw operational service with the 27th Fighter Bomber Group, a unit composed of four squadrons equipped with A-20 Havocs and P-39s, based at Rasel Ma in French Morocco.  The P-39s were replaced by A-36As in April 1943 during the campaign in North Africa.  The 86th Fighter Bomber Group (Dive) arrived soon thereafter with the first pilots trained and qualified on the A‑36A.  With 300 A-36As delivered to the Mediterranean by May 1943, the 27th FBG was completely re-quipped when both units began flying missions against the island of Pantelleria on June 6, 1943.  The Italians surrendered within weeks - the only Axis base to surrender solely as the result of aerial bombardment. 

            The two A-36A units moved onto Pantelleria in time for the invasion of Sicily, where the aircraft proved to be a potent weapon.  Utilizing the dive brakes, which allowed a 90-degree vertical dive on the target from 12,000 feet, with speed limited to 390 mph, the A-36A had terrific accuracy.  Pilots soon discovered that extending the dive brakes after "peel‑off" led to unequal extension of the brakes due to varying hydraulic pressure, thus inducing a slight roll that impeded aim.  The proper technique was to deploy the brakes before entering the dive, and when this procedure was used, pilots achieved extremely consistent results.

            A myth has arisen that the dive brakes were useless due to malfunctions and that they were soon wired closed.  My friend Capt. Charles E. Dills - who flew with the 522nd Fighter-Bomber Squadron of the 27th Fighter‑Bomber Group - is adamant this is not true. “I flew the A‑36A for 39 of my 94 missions, from November 1943 to March 1944. The dive brakes were never wired shut in Italy in combat. This 'wired shut' story apparently came from the training group at Harding Field, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana."

            Stateside training resulted in some alarming accident rates, with the A‑36A at one point having the highest accident rate per hour's flying time of any USAAF aircraft. The most serious incident involved an A‑36A shedding both wings when its pilot tried to pull out from a 450 mph dive.  Combat units were ordered to restrict the approach to a 70-degree "glide" attack and to stop using the dive brakes, but the order was generally ignored by experienced pilots.  Regardless of the myths, the truth is that the A‑36A was very successful as a dive‑ bomber, with a reputation for precision attacks right on the front lines.

            Both the 27th and 86th Groups were involved in air support during the Sicilian campaign, during which they became especially adept at taking out enemy gun positions and other strong points as the Allies armies advanced. It was during this campaign that the 27th Group circulated a petition to adopt the name "Invader," receiving unofficial recognition of the more fitting name from 12th Air Force HQ. To the German troops on the receiving end of A-36A attacks, the airplanes were known as "screaming helldivers."

            While it was a dive bomber, the A‑36A was credited with 84 enemy aircraft shot down and being the mount of the only Allison-Mustang "ace", Lieutenant Michael T. Russo from the 27th Fighter Bomber Group, who was also the first “Mustang ace” in any kind of Mustang.  However, according to Charles Dills, Russo was not particularly well-respected in the unit because   “... he was seen as being mostly out for himself; for us, dropping your bombs before an attack meant the enemy won.”

            As operations moved to the Italian mainland and fighting intensified, the A‑36A suffered an alarming loss rate, with 177 falling to enemy action by the end of February, 1944.  The main reason was that the A‑36A operated "on the deck" against murderous ground fire.  German defenses included placing cables across hill tops to snare the attacking A‑36As.  The Achilles' heel of the A‑36A  - and all Mustangs - was its vulnerable cooling system, with even the slightest damage there leading to many of the losses. 

            According to Charles Dills, by late February 1944, following the high loss rate incurred over the Anzio beachhead, there were 120 A-36As left in the theater, which was only enough to equip one group.  It was decided that the two group commanders would flip a coin to see who got to keep all the A-36As.  “We lost.”   

            Beginning in March, 1943, war-weary P-40F and P-40L aircraft were collected from around Italy to re-equip the 27th FBG,, which became simply the 27th Fighter Group.  As Dills remembers it, the P-40s were equipped with Merlin engines, which were metric, while the previous Allison engines were in US units.  None of the maintenance tools fit the new engines, so the ground crews maintained them using crescent wrenches. 

            In June, 1944, the P-40s were replaced by P-47 Thunderbolts, which the 27th Fighter Group used for the invasion of Southern France and the campaign through northwestern Europe.  For the pilots who had flown the A-36A, though, the P-47 was not seen as an improvement on their “great little dive bomber.” 

            Of the 500 A-36As produced, four remain.  A‑36A 42‑83665  is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.  Donated by Charles P. Doyle of Rosemount, Minnesota in 1971, the airplane was restored by the 148th Fighter Interceptor Group of the Minnesota Air National Guard and is displayed as "Margie H", the A‑36A flown by Captain Lawrence Dye of the 27th Fighter-Bomber Group.  The Warhawk Air Museum in Caldwell, Idaho, has A‑36A 42‑83738  under restoration for future display.  A‑36A 42‑83731, owned by Tom Friedkin, has recently been restored to flight status by Fighter Rebuilders in Chino, California (which I photographed the day of its first public flight - some of the photos are included here).  The Collings Foundation owns an A‑36A that is being restored for flight by American Aero Services.


            Hobbycraft of Canada licensed the Accurate Miniatures 1/48 Allison Mustangs, for reproduction in 1/32 scale.  This has not actually resulted in a “bigger” Accurate Miniatures Mustang, but has resulted in what is right now the most accurate series of Mustangs in 1/32 scale produced in injection-molded plastic.  Overall, the parts are somewhat “clunky” and heavy, and lack the sharp trailing edges on wings and tails of the smaller kits.  There is also more flash than one might expect from a mainstream kit.  Essentially, if you think of these kits as being somewhere between a mainstream injection molded kit and a limited-run kit, you’ll have it about right.  Sadly, as was the case with the P-51A reviewed here by Bill Koppos earlier this year, the windscreen does not fit, being slightly undersized.  I was able to fix this using an extra vacuformed canopy from Jerry Rutman’s resin P-51B kit, but the only other way I can think of to fix this problem would be to vacuform a replacement from the kit windscreen, which would then be the right size to fit.

            The plastic has that “pebbly” surface that has been noted with other inexpensively-produced kits.  This will disappear under the proverbial “coat of paint.”  The fabric detail on the rudder and elevators is a bit heavy, but also looks all right once painted.  The rest of the kit uses petite engraved panel lines that look right.

            Very good decals are provided to do five different airplanes.  However, a better and more interesting choice is to use the new Zotz Decals “North American A-36A Apaches in the MTO”, which provides markings for two A-36As of the 27th FBG, including “Margie H”, the airplane memorialized in the Air Force Museum, and “Dorthy Helen” of the 522nd FBS. 27th FBG, and “Piggy III” of the 527th FBS, 86th FBG.  All of these use field-applied red-surround insignia on all six positions, which makes for a very colorful model.

            At first, I thought the spinner was too long and “pointy,” but comparing it with the photos I took of the A-36A out at Chino, I can say “that looks about right” to me.


            Construction is straightforward, with fit being mostly “good enough” overall, but needing test-fitting before committing to glue.

            The cockpit is good and assembles without difficulty.  I made it better with a set of Eduard photo-etch seatbelts and some photoetch panels over the “black boxes” on the right side of the cockpit, for added detail. 

            I glued the forward fuselage pieces to their respective rear section before further assembly, so I could get the joint nice and tight by working on it from both sides.

            The nose part is mis-cast, with a concave section throughout, rather than only on the lower third as it should be.  I corrected this with putty and a sanding stick.  I found I needed cyanoacrylate glue on the fuselage centerline seam to finally make it disappear.  

            Since every picture Charles Dills has shown me of A-36As of the 27th FBG have the inner wheel doors fully closed and the flaps up, I did not attempt to replace the flaps, and glued the gear doors in the up position when I did the wing sub-assembly.  I also glued Evergreen sheet inside the dive brakes, which are otherwise, “see through,” and constructed a landing light box in the left wing to avoid the “open hole” look there.  You also must attach the tail wheel before gluing the fuselage halves together.  

            Working from a photograph of the real “Dorthy Helen,” I did not attach the radio antenna mast, which had been removed on this airplane. (The photo is provided here under “fair use” for your education)

            The bombs in the kit are acceptable, but I used a set left over from a Trumpeter model, since they included sway braces, which this kit did not have.



            With a nice color photo of the original subject at hand, I used Gunze-Sangyo “Olive Drab” mixed with Tamiya “”Desert Yellow” to get the faded look to the upper colors shown in the photo.  The lower surfaces were painted with Tamiya “Neutral Grey.”  I went out of my way to “fade” the upper surfaces, since Charles Dills had told me the airplanes were badly faded under that hot Mediterranean sun.


            The Zotz decals went on without a problem.  I used the kit decals for the yellow wing I.D. stripes, and used stencil decals from a SuperScale sheet.


            This is a model of “Dorthy Helen” as she appeared at the outset of the Sicilian campaign.  At that point, the airplanes had been in service a little more than two months, and were not as badly faded and worn as they were later during the Italian campaign.  From the color photo, it is apparent there are only a few dings and some exhaust staining, which is how I did the model.  After being washed, it was given two coats of Xtracrylix “Flat” Varnish.


            For some reason, these Allison Mustang kits have gotten a “knock” from modelers when they were first released.  In fact, they make up into a nice model and are far more accurate than any other 1/32 P-51s available, other than Jerry Rutman’s all-resin 1/32 P-51B.  A nice model can be created right out of the box, though the Zotz decals provide markings that have not been generally available for the A-36A before and result in a more colorful model. 

Review Kit courtesy of my wallet.

Zotz decals courtesy of Zotz: get yours at www.zotzdecals.com

Tom Cleaver

June 2010

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