Tamiya 1/48 F-117A Nighthawk
|PRICE:||Around $45 SRP|
One of the most painful lessons learned by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War was that its aircraft were very vulnerable to Soviet-designed radar-guided guns and anti-aircraft missiles. During the 1970s Air Force planners began to analyze ways for its aircraft to survive in that environment, and the concept of making aircraft less visible to radar rose to the top of the list. In 1976 a top secret project, codenamed Have Blue, was begun to study different ways to do that.
The idea of reducing an aircraft’s radar signature had been around long before the 1970s, but aerospace technology was never advanced enough to allow truly stealthy designs to take shape. Advanced designs of the 1950s and 60s like the U-2 and the SR-71 did feature low radar cross sections, but they tended to rely heavily on their high speed and high altitude capabilities to escape detection and countermeasures. By the mid-1970s the analytical abilities of computers had grown to the point where engineers were able to contemplate the design of a truly low observable aircraft that would be very difficult to detect at normal combat altitudes. In 1975 Lockheed engineers used computer programs to design a “faceted” airframe, the surfaces of which would be set at various angles to direct radar energy away from the aircraft instead of back to the receiver. This technology seemed to hold the highest potential for the creation of a truly stealthy aircraft - if it could be made to fly.
In 1976 a contract was awarded to Lockheed to develop two such low observable prototypes. They were scaled down versions, just 60% of their full size, and they were constructed in Lockheed’s Burbank plant in just a few months using off-the-shelf components to save time and money. The engines were General Electric J85 engines without afterburners, the main landing gear were borrowed from the A-10, and other internal systems from other existing aircraft were also utilized. The prototypes flew late in 1977, and testing showed that the aircraft were highly difficult to detect by ground-based and air-based radar alike. During 1978 funding of a full-sized aircraft, now designated the F-117A, was authorized by Congress under the code name Senior Trend. The stated mission of the new aircraft was the precision attack of high value, highly defended targets in total secrecy – and almost always at night.
Testing of the secret aircraft was performed at the former Sandia Labs nuclear testing site in the northern part of Nellis AFB in Nevada. The Air Force rebuilt the site and renamed it the Tonopah Test Range just for the new F-117 program, and Lockheed proceeded with the construction of five full-scale aircraft. One of the prototypes first flew in June 1981, and soon Congress authorized the construction of fifty-nine aircraft, which began in October 1983. A secret unit, the 4450th Tactical Group, was formed in October 1979 just for the F-117A. Based at Tonopah the group eventually formed four squadrons and trained with their still secret aircraft throughout the 1980s until it was reformed as the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in October 1989, by which time the USAF lifted the veil of secrecy and admitted to the world that the fabled Stealth Fighter existed. Just two months later the F-117 would receive its baptism of fire when it was used to attack targets in Panama during Operation Just Cause. Undefended skies such as those over Panama would provide no comparison for what was to come however.
On August 2, 1990 Saddam Hussein ordered his armies to roll into the unsuspecting country of Kuwait. With worldwide condemnation as usual meaning nothing to a despot, US President George HW Bush ordered the Pentagon to begin planning a rapid but overpowering response aimed at destroying the Iraqi forces and hurling them back into Iraq, else they could march into Saudi Arabia and occupy that nation’s huge oil reserves. Soon US and Allied forces began moving to Saudi Arabia and on August 13, 1990 the 37th TFW was ordered to send the 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron, consisting of 22 jets, to the Middle East. Doing its part to support Operation Desert Shield (the operation covering the buildup of forces in the desert), the unit trained and gathered intelligence about its likely future Iraqi targets throughout the fall of 1990. And then finally, on the night of January 16, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began.
The opening strikes of the war were executed by the F-117A, flying directly into the teeth of perhaps the most heavily defended airspace the world had yet seen. Saddam Hussein had spent a fortune on a state of the art Soviet air defense system that consisted of some 16,000 radar-guided Soviet SAMs and even more anti-aircraft artillery. Coalition intelligence also estimated the Iraqi Air Force possessed roughly 750 combat aircraft dispersed around the country.
Despite this the allied air offensive was remarkably successful, in no small part due to the F-117. Though the F-117 force made up just 2.5% of the American aircraft in Iraq, it attacked more than 40% of the enemy’s strategic targets, all without losing a single aircraft. The achievements of the F-117 will go down as one of the greatest feats of military aviation of all time.
In April 2008 the Air Force retired the F-117 from service, ending it’s roughly twenty-five year long career. At the time the rationale for retirement was the pending introduction of the F-35 Lightning II.
The F-117 has been on my “to-build” list for a while now. About ten years ago I had the Monogram kit in my stash ready to go, but I opted for other kits and eventually sold it on eBay. Recently I picked up the Tamiya version, and once I read about the exploits of the real aircraft I became more interested in it than ever. The Tamiya kit provides markings for the “Toxic Avenger”, the aircraft assigned to Colonel Alton Whitley who was the CO of the 37th TFW while stationed in Saudi Arabia. Whitley flew the aircraft in the second wave of attackers on the first night of the war. The Toxic Avenger would be flown for 35 missions during the conflict. I decided to model that aircraft.
Building a Tamiya kit is akin to pure modeling pleasure for many of us, and it starts with opening the box. There actually aren’t an overwhelming number of sprues in this one, but each one is sealed in its own plastic bag, including the large lower and upper fuselage halves. In true Tamiya style the upper half is held against a protective sheet of cardboard in a plastic bag. Decals, instructions, clear parts, masking material for the clear parts, a nose weight, a pilot figure, parts for two GBU-27 Paveway III bombs, and the F-117’s unique boarding ladder round out the package. Spreading everything out and studying it, I began drooling. No one does it better than Tamiya, and this kit is 1998 vintage. My one complaint is the color of the plastic – everything is molded in black except for two sprues of landing gear and bomb bay parts, which are molded in white. I’d much rather have everything be molded in a neutral color, like light gray or beige. It doesn’t matter much because I’d be painting everything any way, but it’s harder to see small details in black plastic when you’re working with it.
Unable to build anything straight out of the box these days, I purchased a resin ejection seat from Quickboost. When it arrived, I started building my first model of the famed Stealth Fighter (shouldn’t that be “Stealth Attack aircraft”?) – very stealthily.
The instructions start off with the cockpit as usual, and that meant painting the Quickboost resin seat first. I picked out the colors by hand, using the Squadron/Signal Walk Around reference as a guide. The seat’s sides were painted Testors Acrylic Dark Gull Gray, while the seat cushion was painted Testors Acrylic Dark Green. Up next was the cockpit tub and instrument panel, which meant more brush painting. I painted the sidewalls and floor Testors Acrylic Dark Gull Gray, while the instrument panel and consoles were painted Flat Black. Details were picked out by hand, and Tamiya gives you three decals to apply to the instrument panel. The completed cockpit tub glues to the upper fuselage section, but before doing that I painted the cockpit sidewalls Dark Gull Gray and the sill white per the instructions.
With the cockpit complete the bomb bay was next. A large, detailed structure, Tamiya includes nicely detailed ordnance racks and bomb bay doors. With modern US jets generally having Gloss White bomb bays and wheel wells, I assembled the bomb bay parts and ordnance racks and then sprayed those parts and the landing gear bays Tamiya XF-2 Flat White. I gave each a subtle wash of MIG Productions Dark Brown wash, concentrating more on letting the raised details stand out than making the assemblies look dirty. Once the paint was dry I finished assembling the bomb bay and then glued it and the three wheel wells to the lower fuselage half, leaving off the various struts and doors lest they get demolished during the painting process.
The next step was to glue the upper and lower fuselage halves together. To preserve the very sharp leading edges of the airframe Tamiya designed the lower fuselage half to fit into a recessed pocket in the upper half with its edges shy of the leading edge by about ¼”. Checking with the line drawings in my references, there didn’t appear to be a seam there on the real aircraft, so I resolved to putty and sand it smooth – a process that took me a couple of nights. With that minor unpleasantness finished I moved onto the flaps and tail assembly, which went together without a fuss. I posed the flaps in the down position and the twin tails slightly rotated. To complete the major part of the assembly process I masked off the canopy using the Tamiya mask (it’s not precut but outlined, so you just have to cut it yourself using a sharp knife) and then temporarily glued the canopy to the fuselage in the closed position using a couple dabs of rubber cement.
Using Tamiya masking tape I masked off the wheel wells and bomb bay, and declared the model ready for paint.
|COLORS & MARKINGS|
Well, how do you paint a completely black jet? The real F-117A is covered in the rather nebulous “radar absorbent material”, which apparently is some sort of, well, non-metal stuff. As a result pictures of real Nighthawks always look to be a very uniform, very flat black, with very little weathering. I knew I had to apply some weathering techniques, but I wasn’t going to follow the usual template I follow when I build a WW2-era aircraft.
I started off by spraying the entire model with Tamiya XF-1 Flat Black, creating a very flat base coat. To add a little variation I added a few drops of Tamiya XF-2 Flat White into the mix and randomly sprayed the centers of the panels, keeping it very subtle. Up next was a coat of Future over the whole model, to create a nice glossy surface for the decals. The decals went on easily and behaved well with the Walthers Solvaset decal solution that I usually use. To seal the decals and create a matte finish I then airbrushed the whole model with Testors’ Lacquer-based Flat Finish. The slightly faded look I had hoped to achieve seemed to get lost under the layers of Future and Flat Finish, so I re-sprayed some random areas of very dark gray onto the centers of the various panels. Using Tamiya’s paints for this helped to achieve the very matte finish I was after, as Tamiya’s paints seem to dry dead flat.
Looking at photos of the real thing showed some exhaust staining on the rear surfaces behind the engines. I duplicated this by brush painting the tiny vanes with Testors Leather. I then airbrushed some subtle stains behind the vanes using the same paint, using Post-it Notes to mask the areas around them.
Up next was the painting of the bomb bay doors, wheel well doors, and landing gear, but first I added some tiny wire brake lines to the main landing gear legs. I then primed all of the parts and then sprayed them Tamiya XF-2 Flat White. Once that was dry I sprayed some Future onto them to achieve a gloss finish, and then sprayed the backs of the various doors Tamiya XF-1 Flat Black. I gave the doors a subtle wash of MIG Productions Dark Brown, and then applied the various decals to them. Attaching the landing gear and doors to the model was next; the landing gear have good, robust attachment points and easily support the model.
At this point I had two steps left before completion; mounting the canopy in its open position and then painting and attaching the bombs. Before painting the model I had temporarily fixed the canopy in its closed position, so I popped it off and glued it in place using the two struts provided by the kit. To paint the bombs I airbrushed them a custom shade of 50/50 Tamiya XF-62 Olive Drab and XF-58 Olive Green (for some reason my jar of Tamiya Olive Drab seems to have gone too “brown”.) I brush-painted some Testors Gloss Finish where the decals go, and once they were dry I sealed them with some Testors Flat Finish. I glued one onto the bomb rack on the model, and left the other separate for use in a diorama someday. And with that, the model was finished.
Tamiya’s 1/48 F-117 is everything we’ve come to expect and love about Tamiya. Thoughtful, solid kit engineering results in a kit that builds quickly and pleasurably. The level of detail is very high, and the end result is a great looking model of a very cool aircraft. I highly recommend this kit to anyone who’s interested in adding a stealth fighter to their collection – just beware, once it’s on your shelf, you might not see it again…
- Osprey Publications, Combat Aircraft #68, “F-117 Stealth Fighter Units of Operation Desert Storm”
- Squadron/Signal Publications, Aircraft in Action #115, “F-117 Stealth in Action”
- Squadron/Signal Publications, Aircraft Walk Around #26, “F-117A Nighthawk”
- Wikipedia, the Online Encyclopedia
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