Fliegerhorst 1/72 Comet I

KIT #:
PRICE: $135.00 SRP
DECALS: Two options, BOAC and South African Airways
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: Resin


            Looking back, I realize just how fortunate I was to be an air-minded son of an air-minded father, growing up in Denver, Colorado, in the 1950s. Denver is known as “The Mile High City” because it is at an altitude of 5,280 feet above sea level.  In the summers, temperatures rise to the mid 90s, though with low humidity (generally less than 20 percent and usually around 5 percent) it’s called a “dry heat.”  On a warm day, the density altitude can reach 7-8,000 feet. All that is important, because Stapleton Field outside Denver was the highest-elevation major commercial airfield in North America back then.  As such, nearly every important airplane designed and built in the 1940s and 1950s eventually came there for their “hot and high” tests.  These visits made it into the newspaper, and my father always made a point of taking me out to the field to see such things as the Convair B-36 (which couldn’t take off for a week, not having jet engines, because the density altitude was too high - much to the public relations discomfort of the Air Force), the Lockheed Constitution with its “bug eye” pilots’ canopies, the Super Constellation, and many others.

             Most particularly including - in 1950 or ‘51, I don’t remember exactly - the arrival of the DeHavilland Comet I, the world’s first jet airliner.

             When I look back on those innocent days from the perspective of today, where one must arrive at the airport an hour early to doff shoes and be skin-searched and X-rayed to get anywhere near an airplane, it is hard to believe that Stapleton Field was really the way it was back then.  It wasn’t the big monster airport you may remember from the 1970s and 1980s.  The airport terminal then was about half the size of the elementary school I went to.  There weren’t any locks on the gates, and if you wanted to do more than stand on the patio outside the terminal and look at the airplanes, you just went through the gates and walked up to them!

             I well remember the Comet, because it was so much bigger than the DC-3s, DC-4s and DC-6s that populated the field (Stapleton was the headquarters for United Air Lines).  It was very sleek and shiny, and the pilots talked a strange language I had never heard before, which I now know as “the Queen’s English.”  I do remember that the pilot was quite friendly and when he realized from my father’s questions that we weren’t just gawkers, we got to walk around the airplane and even go up the stairs and stand inside (life was very cool for airplane folks back then, when everyone involved actually loved airplanes and loved sharing them).  I think the airplane could best be described as a 1950's Concorde.  It was set up for what I now know was about 36 passengers in all-First-Class 4-abreast seating.

             To this day, I think the de Havilland Comet 1 is one of the classic airliners, with its sleek fuselage, and four jet engines inside its swept wings.  The airplane was very futuristic at the time to 6 or 7-year old me, and is still one of the most beautiful airliners to my mind, right up there with the triple-tail Connies.

             Design for what would eventually become the Comet began in 1940, when de Havilland considered using the Whittle jet engines (since they owned them) to power what later became known as the Flamingo.  By the end of the war, when access was gained to German aeronautical research, thought was given to a tailless design for 20+ passengers.  The D.H. 108 Swallow, in which Geoffrey de Havilland was killed, was a one-third scale airframe test of the possible design.  Eventually, a more mainstream design was settled on.  Weight soared during construction, and when the Comet I first flew in 1949, powered by four Ghost 103 engines, its cruising speed was nearly 100 mph less than originally estimated, only 450 m.p.h.  This was still a good 200 m.p.h. faster than the piston-powered competition, and design progressed on the Comet 3, which would be longer and powered with the Avon, an engine with a lot of growth potential. 

            As the world's first jet airliner, the Comet heralded an opportunity for British commercial aviation to regain the ground lost during the Second World War and perhaps get a jump on the competition.  All the major American airlines were definitely interested in buying Comets. DeHavilland had the jump on Boeing and Douglas, who were both several years from flying the first prototypes of their jet airliners.  The company expected to “make hay while the sun shines.”

             What no one knew at the time was that the Comet carried the seeds of its own destruction. It was technologically a great leap forward in terms of speed, passenger capacity and altitude. No airliner had ever before regularly carried passengers at such a sufficiently high altitude to bypass weather, while being fast enough to finally make long-distance air travel practical. 

            Unfortunately, the Comet’s potentially-bright future abruptly ended after a series of fatal accidents. In the first two years of operations, six Comets crashed.  The first two were the result of poor design of the wing leading edge, which was quickly changed. However, in 1954 two aircraft were destroyed at cruising altitude by explosive decompression resulting from what was later determined was accelerated metal fatigue of the airframe due to the frequent pressurization and de-pressurization, leading to cracks in the corners of the large square passenger windows.  After the second crash, the Comet was grounded. Unfortunately, the loss of confidence in the type meant that the Comet never regained its place as the premiere jet airliner, with the fully-redesigned Comet 4 only making the first successful full-passenger load non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in the fall of 1958, a matter of weeks before Pan American started regularly doing the same thing with the much more advanced Boeing 707 which had been developed and flown during the intervening years since the grounding of the Comet I. Britain’s chance to dominate international air travel became a dream that never came to pass.


            Fliegerhorst of Germany released this 1/72 scale resin kit of the D.H. 106 in 2006.  It comprises 41 parts in cream-colored resin, with two clear vacuform parts and ALPS decals that include  markings for two BOAC aircraft plus individual code letters.

             When I first received this kit for review, I said “This quite-large kit has very nice surface detail done with  finely engraved panel lines. The resin is well cast, with a few pinholes visible under the surface of one of the fuselage halves. This will be hidden under primer and paint. Otherwise, the surface is flawless. The fuselage and wing parts are quite large, but will be ready to assemble after only a few minutes’ work with a sanding stick and sharp X-acto. Some smaller parts have thin flash, but this will be easy to clean up.”  Boy, was that overly-optimistic!

             The decals provide markings for two specific aircraft, including G-ALYP, the worlds first commercial jet airliner and the fifth Comet to crash - the first whose cause was laid to metal fatigue. The sheet also includes eight additional individual code letters, so that, with some careful mixing and matching, a modeler should be able to create almost any BOAC, or South African Airlines, Comet 1. The decals are ALPS.


            As I first thought, the kit went together fairly quickly, though closer association with the parts led me to see how really primitive the castings were, and how ill-fitting the parts were.  It was clear at the outset that only a fool would try to build it with the vacuformed cockpit windshield and open windows, so the solid nose was used at the outset and the cabin windows filled in. Once assembled, the model obviously needed putty.  Everywhere.  I puttied and sanded and puttied and sanded and puttied and sanded and puttied and sanded.  Much of the surface detail was gone and it was still not a model with smooth surfaces like an airplane. 

            At that point I put the model on the shelf of doom.  Six months later it went to the real shelf of doom at the back of the garage.  And sat there for six years.  Out of sight, out of mind.

             A couple months ago I was going through things out in the garage and took another look at the kit.  Six years of garage dirt was all over it, and one resin wing had drooped in our Southern California heat waves.  I decided to pull it out and look it over.  There was a small chance of saving it.

             First things first: the wing.  Several sessions with a big pot of just-to-the-boiling-point hot water were needed to get the wing to unwarp (mostly) and stay unwarped.  If you look at the left wing head on, there is still evidence of the warp, but you have to look for it.

            By now I had started using Tamiya on some projects, so I slathered that on over the engine nacelles and the wing-fuselage joint.  Letting it set up thoroughly over a week, I managed to go through several sanding sticks and finally get the fuselage smooth.  Then I dropped it and the tail came off.  There was a week while the model’s life hung in the balance as I considered finally chucking it.  Then in a burst of I-don’t-know-what, I glued the tail back on, puttied it again and sanded it smooth.  This time I also had to repair the dorsal fin to the vertical stabilizer.  I also repaired the wing fences since those had broken long ago.

             At that point, watching a re-run of James May’s “Toy Stories” episode about the 1:1 Airfix Spitfire, I spotted a Comet I in the back of the hangar at the Cosford Museum.  A few minutes with Google and I learned of G-APAS, the last complete Comet I still in existence, and found a bunch of photographs.  I checked the decal sheet and realized I could do those markings, and that the model would be a nice two-footer when completed that way.  With this for inspiration, I proceeded.


            The model was given several coats of Tamiya grey primer from the rattle can, sanding after each to correct all the things that still needed correcting.  The primer is thick enough that after about the sixth coat I realized I had a pretty nice smooth finish, and left it at that.  I then mixed up some Tamiya Light Grey and Flat White to get the “dove grey” color of G-APAS and painted that overall.  I gave that a coat of Future, and then painted the upper fuselage with Tamiya Gloss White.

            I gqave the decals a coat of Future before cutting and applying them. The decals were dodgy, but with care they went on and I was able to come up with the G-APAS registration.  I decided not to worry about the fact the cabin windows were now white, since the original has white windows now, with a dark smoky-grey cockpit windscreen like the decals provided.  Once everything was settled, I gave the model another coat of Future.


             Fortunately, the resin landing gear is strong with wire cast inside.  I sanded the parts to fit inside the wheel wells, painted them aluminum, painted the resin wheels and attached them, and glued the gear in position.  Surprise surprise!  It sat on all 10 wheels and the gear didn’t break!  I then attached the gear doors and put it aside.    


             This is definitely one of the dodgier resin kits I have ever run across, to put it as politely as possible.  Building it made my ten-rounds-no-holds-barred battle royale with the Collect-Aire P-59A seem like a romp in the park in comparison.  For poor fit and dodgy molding, it’s right up there with that kit, the Aviation USK 1/48 PBM Mariner, and the Alpha Flight Sunderland (both of which I gave up on).  The kit has a nice design, marred by resin part production that put the state of the art back 20 years.  All that said, it’s the only kit of a Comet I that I know of in any scale.  If you were to find one of these kits at a dealer’s table at a show, and really, really, really, want a model of the world’s first jetliner, and you have the skills and the perseverance (and perhaps plain blockheaded stubbornness) to keep at it, you can create a nice model, and if you were crazy enough to put considerably more effort into things than I did, you could come up with something of which people would take notice. Of the three people I know received review kits six years ago, this is the only one I have seen completed. 

Since the publication of this review, Jessica Cooper contacted me and told me there is a 1/72 vacuform-resin kit of the Comet I by Welsh Models. She referred me to her article on building it at Kitmaker.com's Aeroscale site, and it really does look like a good kit that will produce a worthwhile result. If you really want a Comet I in 1/72 scale, I suggest you go that route. See it here:
http://aeroscale.kitmaker.net/modules.php?op=modload&name=Sections&file=index&req=viewarticle&artid=4286. Be advised that the page is heavy with adverts and watermarks.

Tom Cleaver

August 2012

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