1/72 Bleriot XI Penguin Trainer

KIT #:
REVIEWER: Stephen Foster
NOTES: Scratchbuilt from plastic card, strip, rod and copper wire


     Louis Bleriot was the French designer of a series of pioneering aeroplanes before the outbreak of World War One which bore his name: the most successful of these was the design no XI in which gained him immortal fame by being the first person to fly over the English Channel in a heavier than air machine in 1909. Bleriot was an engineer who was very interested in the new field of aviation and who developed a system of flying training and instruction that was so successful that it was widely adopted in a number of countries. It should be remembered that at this time aircraft were underpowered and could barely lift one person, let alone two. Dual controls were also a thing of the future in the first decade of the 20th century, and as early aircraft were not always stable or easy to fly accidents were common, especially in training. It was in order to try to reduce the number and cost of accidents that Bleriot devised his system whereby student pilots could get some idea of how to control a machine before they actually took off from the ground. As there were no flight simulators Bleriot used his type XI design as the basis for a non-flying training machine which students could practice in as they raced along the ground. Because each stage of the training was based upon the previous one the student could acquire the necessary skill and confidence with a minimum of risk to himself or his machine and without having to have an instructor sitting in the machine with him.

    The student started by sitting in a type XI monoplane which had clipped wings so that it could not leave the ground. The reduced span and inability of these machines to fly earned them the name Penguins. After some simple instruction the student would climb into the Penguin and the engine would be started. The student would then be able to let the machine roll along the ground and he would push the stick forward so that the tail came up and he could try to keep the machine on a straight line with the rudder. After the student had practised racing along the ground at up to 40 mph and had demonstrated that he could control it properly, he graduated to a type XI with a full wing span and a more powerful engine and full sized propellor. He would repeat the ground exercises at first, but when the instructor considered that the student had sufficient control a full take off and flight would be permitted with the student lifting the machine about 1 meter off the ground and then landing again. Further easy and limited stages allowed the student to eventually take off and complete a circuit of the airfield before landing. The pilot then went on longer and higher flights until he was ready to complete a circuit of over 100 km with two stops which tested his flying and navigation skills. An average pilot could learn to fly in about 4-5 months using this method. The system had the advantages that a few instructors could train a large number of students, and although accidents were frequent they were rarely fatal and the damage to the machines could be easily and quickly repaired. They were expensive however and contributed greatly to the financial costs of learning to fly.

     Bleriot Penguins were basically the type XI monoplane with clipped wings, a less powerful engine, smaller propellor and fitted with skids to stop the machine from nosing over. Some had a horizontal bar above the cockpit rather than a pylon structure. There were many variations on the basic design which were probably the product of the availability of suitable engines, local modifications and repairs. Some machines had a wider track to the undercarriage to make it more stable on the uneven surfaces of early airfields, and the elevators on the tail varied from the early type (as used on the machine that Bleriot used to cross the channel) to later more conventional types. In short, like most early aircraft there seems to have been a great deal of variation on the basic theme.

     The idea of building a Penguin came from a question from a modeller on a website who asked what was the relationship between the type XI machine and the Penguin. Being interested in lesser known early aircraft I decided to make one. It would be possible to use the Eastern Express kit which was originally issued by Frog in their Trailblazer series in the early 1960's, but I decided against this as it has so many inaccuracies that a scratch-build would be just as easy and a lot cheaper. I used the basic plans for the type XI of 1913 in the Datafile number 109 The Bleriot XI at War and such information that I could find on the internet. I used 10 and 20 thou card, Evergreen strip, plastic rod, 5 amp fuse wire, stretched sprue, clear acetate and other bits of scrap, with copper wire for the bracing and control wires, together with bit of imagination and modellers' licence where I was uncertain of specific detail.


    I started by constructing the fuselage sides from 10 x 20 thou Evergreen strip and then joining the sides with cross strips, also of 10 x 20 thou thickness. The frame which supported the undercarriage and engine was made with the same material, and a piece inserted at the rear of the cockpit between the fuselage frames adopted the correct curve very neatly. A piece of 10 thou card made the cockpit floor, and the control column and wheel and boss at the bottom were made stretched sprue and shaped card. A seat was also made from card. A fuel tank was made from scrap sprue filed to shape with Evergreen strip to make the supports. A throttle lever and a couple of dials completed the cockpit details.The whole of the fuselage sub-assembly then had to be painted and rigged with 40 swg copper wire.

   I decided to represent a 40 hp 6 cylinder radial Anzani engine on my model as this was probably the type of engine used on an Italian machine shown in the Datafile. The crankcase was cut and shaped from sprue and the cylinders came from a similar source. The exhaust pipes were from 15 thou rod bent to shape. After painting the engine was mounted in the front of the fuselage with three support rods to the frame - I do not really know how the engine was mounted so I used my common sense and imagination here. A piece of wire connects the throttle handle in the cockpit to the rear of the engine, and a thin piece of rod represents the fuel pipe. The fabric sides and bottom of the fuselage were cut from 10 thou card and glued to the fuselage frames. There is a step cut-out on the port (left) side just behind the cockpit. The fuselage top was moulded from 30 thou card and some very small gaps filled and rubbed down.

    The wings and tail surfaces were cut from 20 thou plastic card carefully bent and sanded to aerofoil shape. The ribs were made from 10 x 20 thou Evergreen strip glued with liquid cement and rubbed down until they only just stand out. The horizontal tail surface was glued to the fuselage rear after it had been painted and the bracing struts added from stretched sprue. The remainder of the front fuselage frame which supports the undercarriage was added next, and also painted. I also added the tail skid. (Note that on some machines an earlier variant of the tail skid was used which consisted of wooden pieces bent into a U shape). The wings were glued on next, ensuring that the correct dihedral was achieved and some tiny gaps filled with thick paint. I painted the fuselage and wings at this stage.

      The spoked wheels are very difficult to reproduce in 1/72 scale so I decided to make two discs from 20 thou clear acetate sheet. These were cut by setting a pair of dividers to the correct diameter and scoring the acetate until the disc fell out. The tyres were made by wrapping a piece of 10 thou Evergreen rod around the handle of a round file and plunging the rod into boiling water. The resultant spiral was too small but could be cut to a slightly longer length than that required, pushed over the acetate disc and cut to the exact length. A little careful bending of the rod with two pairs of tweezers causes it to align properly and the tyre can be held in place with superglue. Before fixing the tyre scribe on the spokes of the wheel on to the acetate disc with the point of the dividers. Drill out the centre of the disc to take the axle later.

    The undercarriage is the most difficult part of this model. I started by making two skids from 10 x 20 thou Evergreen strip and glueing these to the underside of the fuselage and to two short extensions from the front vertical engine supports. The side legs, curved forks and axle were made from 5 amp fuse wire. I rolled this between two small blocks of hardwood to get it straight and then curved the forks using a pair of tweezers, and the plan as a guide. The other parts are straight so can be cut to length. I glued the wheels on to the axle leaving about 1mm extension on the ends to take the legs later. I superglued the forks to the axle, making sure that they were in line. Then I superglued the forks to the bottom of the cross-bar below the engine, making sure that I achieved the correct angle. This was a real fiddle and I think that my model sits a little high, despite having carefully followed the plans. Finally I glued the straight side legs to the axle/fork joint and to small pieces of sprue glued to the uprights on the undercarriage frame. This was stronger than I had dared to hope but it will not survive a crash landing so care is needed with handling. I finally added the rudder and completed the rigging with rolled copper wire. The propeller was cut and shaped from a scrap of 60 thou card with a boss from 10 thou card. When painted it was glued to the front of the engine and the model was complete.


This model had to be painted in stages as it was constructed. The wooden frames of the fuselage were painted in Revell natural wood (SM382) and the insides of the fabric were a mix of Humbrol clear doped linen (H 103) and white - a ratio of approximately 3 white to one CDL, the exact amounts are not important as the shade of linen could vary as a result of a number of factors. The metal parts around the front were silver with some dark grey added - again the exact proportions are not important but about 5 silver to 1 grey would be about right. The engine was painted in black with a little silver added to just give a slight metallic sheen. The floor of the cockpit was also Revell natural wood, the instruments and cables black or silver-grey. I assembled the tail and wings to the fuselage before painting them and the exterior of the fuselage as this allowed me to fill some tiny gaps which inevitably result from joins such as these.. The frame at the front which supports both the engine and undercarriage was natural wood, the undercarriage upright arms were medium grey and the other legs black. the tyres were light grey - I used sea-grey medium from the Humbrol range but any light shade would probably do the trick. Once again I assembled the undercarriage before painting and I left the wheels off until the painting was complete so as not to get paint on the clear plastic of the wheels. The propellor was Humbrol Brown Bess from their now defunct camouflage colours series - I happen to have some in my paint store, but I suggest a shade closer to mahogany would probably be more appropriate. The boss was silver mixed with grey as for the fuselage metal areas.

    This was an interesting and unusual variant on an otherwise fairly well known machine, and certainly looks very different to the models of other aircraft. Several other aircraft types were converted to Penguins after that had been withdrawn from front line service - certainly early Nieuport biplanes were pressed into this role - and it would be easy to reduce the span of models of these to represent a flightless trainer.  This is a trainer with a difference.

Stephen Foster

June 2015

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