Hasegawa 1/32 Ki-44-IIb 'Shoki'

KIT #: ST 30
PRICE: 4,400 Yen at HobbyLink Japan(approx US$46.00)
DECALS: Three options
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: New molding

HISTORY

             The Nakajima Ki.44 Shoki” (“Demon-killer”), known to the Allies as “Tojo,” represented a major change in design and operational philosophy by the Japanese Army Air Force.  Previously, all fighter designs had emphasized maneuverability on the horizontal plane, even at the cost of speed and heavier armament.  The Ki.44 was the first “western” aircraft designed in Japan, i.e., a fighter that emphasized speed and performance in the vertical plane and can be considered something of a “halfway house” between the Ki.43 Hayabusa and the Ki.84 Hayate, which was the full realization of this change in philosophy.

             First flown in August 1940, the prototypes went through several detail design changes to maximize speed.  Once these seven prototypes were brought up to “pre-production” standard, they were issued to the 47th Dokoritsu Hiko Chutai on September 15, 1941.  Two more hand-built prototypes had reached the “Kingfisher” Chutai by the end of the month, and the Chutai moved to Canton, China at the end of November.  When the Pacific War broke out a week later, the unit was assigned to the 12th Sentai, which was equipped with Ki.27s. And committed to the invasion of Malaya.  At first, the aircraft presented numerous mechanical problems.

             The Ki.44 entered combat for the first time on January 1, 1942, when a flight of three Ki.44s led by Captain Yasuhiko Kuroe attacked three Buffalos of 21 and 453 Squadrons in the vicinity of Johore Baru, just north of Singapore, with Captain Kuroe scoring that first kill.

             The Ki.44 was not really designed for fighter-versus-fighter combat, being intended as a fast-climbing high altitude interceptor.  The design requirements were the crystallization of experience gained in the Khalkin Gol incident in September 1939, when the Ki.27s had been incapable of intercepting the fast Soviet SB-2 bombers.  By coincidence, Nakajima had tried to interest the Koku Hombu in just such a fighter back in 1935, but it had been deemed too experimental, not to mention it violated everything the conservative Japanese Army fighter pilots looked for in a fighter.   The specification that emerged in late 1939 called for a fighter with a top speed of 373 m.p.h., the ability to attain 5,000 meters’ altitude at normal operating weights in less than five minutes, and an armament of two 7.7mm and two 12.7 mm machine guns.  At the time, this was the most advanced requirement ever issued by the Koku Hombu. 

             Nakajima elected to use the Ha-42 14-cylinder radial, providing 1,185 h.p., and designed the smallest possible airframe that could carry this engine.  With a wing loading of 30 pounds per square foot, the airplane performed like nothing else seen by Japanese Army pilots, even with the addition of the “butterfly” area-increasing flap system.

             Pilots initially thought that the Ki.44 was a “demon-killer,” but one that was out to kill its pilots.  Since the pilots were unused to its unforgiving performance, the JAAF decided that only highly-experienced pilots with more than 1,000 hours’ flight time would be assigned to a unit operating the Shoki.  Interestingly, as pilot standards decreased through the war, it was discovered that new, low-time pilots who did not have the experience of the earlier, lighter fighters, and the flying habits born from that experience, had no problem adjusting to the Ki.44 or to its follow-on, the even-heavier Ki.84.

             Following the Doolittle Raid in April 1942, where the B-25s outran the Ki.27s they encountered, the 47th Chutai was brought back to Japan and turned into a Sentai with three Chutais, all equipped with the Ki.44, based at Narimasu Airfield for the defense of Tokyo.

             In late 1942, the design was upgraded by changing engines to the Ha-109, which had a two-stage supercharger and produced 1,520 h.p.  This was necessary since the 7.7mm fuselage weapons had been replaced at an early stage of production by the 12.7mm Ho-3 weapon originally carried in the wings, while the fuel tanks were given a rudimentary form of self-sealing and the pilot was provided back and head armor.  The aircraft was designated Ki.44-II, with the primary production version being the Ki.44-II Otsu, (or Ki.44-IIb), with the four Ho-3 weapons.  A limited number of Ki.44-II-Hei aircraft, equipped with 20mm Ho-5 cannons in the wings, were produced alongside the more numerous Otsu, and these aircraft began to appear operationally during 1943.

             The 85th and 87th Sentais re-equipped with the Ki.44 in 1943 for the defense of the oil fields at Palembang in Borneo, and proved themselves quite capable interceptors when launched against B-24s of the Fifth Air Force that were flying unescorted missions.  Even when the American bombers were escorted, the Ki.44s had the climb and dive performance to make one attack on the bombers, then out-diving the escorts - the way they had seen the AVG do it over Rangoon in early 1942.  Ki.44s were also sent to Manchuria and Korea in 1944 to intercept B-29 raids coming from China.  When the B-29s began raiding Japan from the Marianas in November 1944, the Shokis of the 47th Sentai, along with the Ki.61s of the 244th Sentai, proved themselves the most effective B-29 interceptors.  Following two successful ramming attacks by 47th Sentai pilots in December 1944, the unit operated an independent Chutai with the specific mission of ramming Superfortresses. A total of twelve Sentais of the Japanese Army Air Force - the 9th, 22nd, 23rd, 29th, 47th, 59th, 64th, 70th, 85th, 87th, 104th and 246th - were equipped with the Ki.44 during the war.  Additionally, the Manchoukouan Air force also received some Ki.44s, though they never saw combat.

             Production of the Ki.44 ended in November 1944, with 1,224 aircraft delivered.  Most unite re-equipped with the Ki.84, though the Ki.44 could still be seen in the skies over Japan to the end of the war.

             The end of the war did not see the end of service for the Ki.44.  The Nationalist Chinese 18th Squadron of the 12th Fighter Group equipped with Ki-44s formerly of the 9th Sentai, which had disbanded in Nanking, and of the 29th Sentai, which had surrendered on Formosa, and these Shokis were used during the Chinese Civil War.  Additionally, The People's Liberation Army Air Force was given aircraft from the 22nd and 85th Sentais, who had surrendered to the Russians in Korea.  The Ki.44s were flown by the Nationalist Air Force until the last two were finally retired in the early 1950s.

             As if that wasn’t enough post-war service, the Indonesian People's Security Force captured a small number of the aircraft at numerous Japanese air bases throughout Indonesia, and used these in the during the Indonesian National Revolution of 1945––1949.

THE KIT

            Hasegawa created the definitive Ki.44 in 1/48 scale about 15 years ago, and this new 1/32 kit is essentially that kit scaled up.  The kit includes a really excellent pilot figure with choice of heads - wearing or not wearing an oxygen mask.

             The cockpit is detailed enough that most modelers will not be looking for a resin replacement.  Other options include positionable flaps, optional open or closed cowl flaps, and drop tanks.

             Markings are included for Ogawa Makoto's "2" of the 70th Sentai who was credited with shooting down seven B-29s, Capt. Yoshio Yoshida's "11" of the 70th Sentai with 6 victories, and Capt. Teiichi Hatano's "60" of the 47th Sentai. In fact, decals are provided for everything, including the anti-glare panel and the home defense “bandages.”

CONSTRUCTION

            Construction is easy and presented no difficulties any modeler who has done a couple of models could not deal with.  I found that fit was so good that I only used a very little bit of cyanoacrylate on the forward fuselage ahead of the cockpit, and the fault there may have been mine in not checking the fit as I glued the seam.

            Construction started with the cockpit, which means starting with painting the cockpit.  Hasegawa calls out either a color mix that is a sort of Khaki-Green, or silver.  Checking in at j-aircraft.com, I found that there is no known  color for the cockpit. It could have been any of several shades of green, it could have been in blue-green “Aotake,” or it could have been unpainted metal - or a combination of all of these.  I decided to mix a little Tamiya “Japanese Cockpit Green” (which is basically “Mitsubishi cockpit green”) with some Tamiya “Park Green” to get a color that could meet Ed Maloney’s description to me many years ago of the colors found in the Ki.84 that Planes of Fame restored and flew in the late 1960s - “apple green.”  As one commenter said at j-aircraft, “Paint it any green you want and dare any detractor to prove you wrong.”

            I did take the time to drill out the holes in the seat, which I painted aluminum. I also added the Eduard 1/32 JAAF seatbelts, which were the only aftermarket item the model needed.

            I then painted and assembled the engine.  The rest of the model came together without problems, given the excellent overall fit of the parts.

COLORS & MARKINGS

 Painting:

            I decided I would use the decals, so I painted the fabric control surfaces with Tamiya “JAAF Grey” and the rest of the model was painted with Alclad “Aluminum.”  I then hand-painted the wheel wells and interior of the gear doors with Tamiya “Clear Green,” which looks like weathered “Aotake” when finished.

Decals:

            I discovered right off the bat that the decals are a two-edged sword.  Yes, you get to not have to paint and mask and then paint and mask and then paint and mask some more, but you are at the mercy then of the decal designers.  Unfortunately, these decals do not fit exactly where the drawings say they should.  I discovered this the hard way with the decals for the yellow ID stripes, screwing them up so severely that I decided to go mask off them model and paint those stripes.  I was reminded again at this point why doing things like this first, then masking them off and painting larger areas (like the rest of the airplane) is a good idea when I managed to get a little yellow overspray on the wings.  Usually, when this happens, that can easily be removed with alcohol, which theoretically would have no thinning effect on Alclad.  Wrong!  There were holes worn in the Alclad, which meant I then had to mask off the yellow stripes and then repaint the Alclad.

            The rest of the decals went on without problems, though the fuselage strips wouldn’t come together on the centerline until they were moved back about 1/4 inch from where the decal marking instructions say they should be.  The anti-glare panel was also a bit messy, though it finally fit.

            From this experience, I would say that there’s a reason why modelers have learned to paint and mask and then paint and mask and then paint and mask again - it’s because this way you can get it right with a lot less hassle and no dark purple clouds over the workbench; as with many so-called  “shortcuts,” this one has you going the long way around to get to the finish line. 

            The rest of the decals - the individual aircraft markings - went on without any problem at all.

FINAL CONSTRUCTION

            Since all the photos I could find of Ki.44s assigned to the 47th Sentai show them equipped with telescopic sights rather than the reflector sights (both types were used depending on availability during the time of production, I learned), I used the telescopic sight that’s on one sprue, that the instructions tell you to ignore.  Since the kit comes with both windscreens, this is not a problem.  I attached the prop and the landing gear, and gave the model some “exhaust stains” with Tamiya “Smoke” and all was complete.

CONCLUSIONS

            Very definitely not a hard kit to build.  It’s not a “slammer” but out of the box you can get a darn nice model without much more than perhaps a month’s worth of weekends (with much of that spent doing the spray and mask and spray and mask and spray and mask again that will get it looking right) spent on the project.  In fact, painting the model right will likely be the longest single part of the project.  Hasegawa now provides nice 1/32 kits for all four of the Nakajima “big three” of the war - the Ki.43, the Ki.44 and the Ki.84.  If you don’t use the pilot figure for this model, save him and put him in the Ki.43, which will go a long way towards hiding the lack of detail in that cockpit.  A very nice model for those who like Japanese subjects.

Kit courtesy of HobbyLink Japan.  Get yours at www.hlj.com

Tom Cleaver

August 2009

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