Heller 1/72 P-39Q Airacobra

KIT #: ?
PRICE: $3.00 at a show
DECALS: Two options
NOTES: Nothing really notable


            Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and the eye of this beholder sees the Bell P-39 Airacobra  as one of  the most  beautiful airplanes ever to be pulled, pushed, or prodded by a prop. More beautiful than the Mustang. More beautiful than - can I be Superglued  and feathered for saying this? – yes, more beautiful than even  the Spitfire. That opinion makes  this model is one of the few exceptions to the foolish consistency of my small mind which allows but one kit build of any particular plane. It is an opinion not only my own, judging from the kitting by every manufacturer major or minor (excepting perhaps Matchbox) of some version in some scale of the P-39,  or its similarly shaped P-63 successor; and judging from the plethora of previews and reviews on modeling web sites (this one makes 6 for MM). 

            Everybody already knows how the P-39 was the first tricycle-geared fighter; how it was the first airframe designed around a weapon system; how it’s centrally mounted Allison V-12  supposedly gave the plane superior maneuverability, but  also  gave its pilot a case of  the willies with a  3000RPM drive shaft churning  just below his gonads. Everybody already knows how  the Army’s decision to remove that engine’s turbo-supercharger severely limited the Airacobra’s performance above 10K and therefore its utility as a fighter.  Everybody already knows how it nevertheless soldiered bravely in every theater and became a favorite tank-buster for the Russians. If everybody didn’t already know that nutshell history, they do now. If anybody would like more details, several of the other 5 reviews and previews on Modeling Madness go into greater depth.

            By my reconing  and  research,  neither of which is touted as  accurate to JMN standards; but which nevertheless  herein are offered in fulfillment of the duties and responsibilities  of a duly-appointed model-kit reviewer,  the first operational Airacobra was the C model, progressing down to the Q/N.  Differences consisted mainly of changes to engine and armament. Several external characteristics, however,  present but small challenge to modelers wishing to update, backdate, accurize, or anally-retentivate any particular boxing. Props could be 3 or 4-bladed, with  spinners sporting  either a short-fat or  long-thin barrel, depending on the caliber of cannon. Some nose-wheels had flat hubs, others spoked, or rather vaned centers. Some references show early Airacobras  sans outer main gear doors. These may have been removed in the field, and at least with this Heller kit, most modelers should  refrain from doing likewise, unless they can find in their spare  parts department a pair of wheels more convincing than the shirt-collar  buttons provided on the sprues.  Wing armament on pre-Q’s was internal, poking through a pair of vertically staggered holes approximately mid-span. The last variants carried a set of 50-cals slung in fairings. Heller provides these as separate parts; but their deletion requires a slight sanding of the “etched” locator engravings on the wing underside. 

            The only difficult modification centers on the exhaust stack banks. Most planes had a six-pack of stubs on either flank, but some had an even dozen. How or why 12 cylinders exhaled through 24 stacks is unclear; but this variation is visually prominent; and displaying, either electronically or in person, a model will erroneous exhausts could result in psychological, if not physical, harm to the builder, should said subject be espied  by representatives of the Rivet Counters, a species known to habitate, habituate, congregate, pontificate, and bloviate   at modeling shows and web sites.


            Speaking strictly of 1:72 renditions, and lumping together the Airacobra and Kingcobra,  the first issuance came  from Revell, and  typified its 50’s-60’s era. So-so accuracy. Flash. Sink holes. A removable panel to display an engine (really only the half engine that you could see.  Rotating wheels and prop. Gawdawful decals. Oh yes – and rivets. Lots and lots of big fat 1:72 scale basketball-sized rivets. More rivets than you could shake a sheet of 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper at. Bits and pieces of that kit inhabit my spares bins. Revell, or Revel of Germany, supposedly re-released  either a new or tweaked-tool version.  Airfix featured an Airacobra in its original batch of moldings, about the same time as the first Revell, and bested its American competitor only in having more and bigger rivets. That kit still sits on my  shelf.

             There were toy-like versions from Arii, or Otaki, or both, or maybe they’re the same company.  MPM or one of its Czech mates put out a passable P-63 that  benefited from a few dives into the alternate parts department.  A-Model, or someone like that, issued another short runner of the “Pinball” Kingcobra, the heavily-armored, manned gunnery target with the apocryphal Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer spinner that according to popular legend lit up and blinked in time to hits by special practice bullets. Most references insist that such an indicator  light was actually located on the fuselage flanks.

            Academy eventually issued what is generally hailed as the definitive Bell. I haven’t seen that kit in person, but MM’s  review of it hints that, with the exception of recessed panel lines and pose-able doors, it offers no advantage over this one  by Heller. Let me amend that statement: recessed panel lines, pose-able doors, and a useable decal sheet.  Heller’s transfers are thick, un-stick-able, off-color, and as resilient against Solvaset as was the Pinball-Cobra’s armor against practice machine-gunnery.

            Other than that failing, the Heller P-39 is, in general quality, on par with the median state of the art. Flash and sink-hole free. No ejector pin parks anywhere that a forgetful or lazy builder would later regret. Acceptable interior. Optically superior transparency. Alternate parts for a choice of variants; though the instructions fail to clearly show which part for which variant; even for someone who does speak French.


            This kit was dredged out of the stash to fulfill a need for a quick’n’easy one-afternooner OOB (Out Of the Box). It occupied over two weeks. Not because of  build difficulty, but on account of the implacable urge to enhance and embellish. Since the decals were obviously unusable, the first requirement was finding a version that could be built with whatever transfers  could be scrounged. GOOGLE  Image Search yielded up several  photos of non-descript  early production  machines that were dressed only in pre-war insignia (dot-in-star-in-circle) without additional identifying numbers, letters,  or nose art.  Backdating the kit would involve minimal surgical changes.

            The fuselage has molded in the nose section 4 rear-facing scoops, exhaust ports for the cannon mechanism, or something like that.  I didn’t notice until the final construction phases that most photos (and other models) posed these in the closed position. Sanding them off would have been a minor change with a major improvement  in the plane’s aesthetics. Construction, as usual, starts with the cockpit, consisting of a floor, aft bulkhead, and rear deck. The instrument panel is realistic, with raised detail, but takes a swipe or two of a file to get the correct inverted T shape. It properly sits aft of the windshield with no glare-shield,  allowing close inspection to reveal the emptiness behind.  I filled this with bits and pieces to represent the clutter that makes  miserable the lives of radio and instrument technicians. I also busied up the  cockpit sides with pieces hinting at the control lever quadrants and map cases suggested by photos of the interior. The seat is simplistic, but sufficient. It, and the accurately molded control stick, were deferred to facilitate masking and painting.  The interior was shpritzed with flat interior green; close enough to Bell’s proprietary shade.

            After the nose was stuffed with all the lead that could fit, the fuselage halves went together without any seam or misalignment difficulties. The wings similarly fit together well, with a sharp trailing edge, despite the molding in split halves of flaps and ailerons.  The wing underside has a molded bulge to carry the belly tank.  Since the subject plane lacked external stores, this had to be severed, and the opening filled and smoothed over.

            Joining the wings to the fuselage revealed a narrow gap at the wing roots, but filler was avoided by flowing liquid cement into the space, eventually welding it shut.  The only other  place filler was required was to correct a small step and gaps where the “beavertail” of the wing assembly mates with the  belly.  Tail-planes have good, old fashioned tabs and slots to keep them at right angles to the fin. Nose gear doors and inner main gear doors were attached pre-painting, though masking would have been easier had they been deferred.


            Simplicity, as I said, was the main consideration; so topside was doused in a mix of Testors generic  green and orange, though perhaps a bit too much green. Underside was straight from the little square bottle gray. The pre-war cocardes I had  dredged from the spares box turned out to be as unusable as the kit transfers. I decided to re-stock the spares box with sheets of various US insignia; and a tip-toe through the World Wide Web turned up the requisite sheets on the Bare Metal Foil site. They are sold under the brand name “Experts Choice”; and while their quality is indeed  excellent, a more fitting brand name might be “Skin-Flint’s Choice”. At $6.50 a sheet they are half the price of other brands.

            They are considerably thicker than transfers from Propagteam or Superescale; but that makes them more easily handled. Printing is precise and carrier surround is just about non-existent. The package instructions claim  they will conform to a painted-on appearance. They will, but not of their own volition. Flooding with Micro-Sol will snug them into the tightest crevasses; but they then dry with a slight graininess. Experimentation revealed that the best finish results from a double dousing. First with acetic based solution (I used Polly-Scale); followed by Micro-Sol. I couldn’t summon the courage to try Solvaset, generally regarded as the aqua-regia of setting solutions.   The wing underside sports a “U.S.ARMY” logo. Lacking the correct size, I assembled one from individual letters cut from an ancient Microscale sheet.

            Multiple coats of Future sealed everything against the elements.  I am cognizant that in reality  these aircraft were painted matte, and usually looked beat-up before leaving the factory hangar.  I like my models shiny and new.  Anyone in whom that insistence arouses angst is invited to  pretend that this is a model of a warbird reconstruction all done-up purdy  in Imron Poly-U. If that relieves insufficient  inner tension, pop a Paxil and segue over to a modeling site which brooks no divigation from absolute accuracy.


            The instrument panel was dolled-up with a True-Details decal; and the seat was embellished with belts water-slid from the same sheet. These details hardly look true. Even in 1:72 scale, decals don’t work for these parts. A simple dry brushing of the panel and a set of spare photo-etched seat belts, or even straps made of tape strips, would have given a better appearance. A featureless cube is provided for the radio box that sits on the rear deck. I added PEB radio faces, painted black, then “dry brushed” with a finger tip to reveal the dials and switches.

            Heller’s canopy may be the best of any kit. In addition to clarity, and no-fidget fit, it has sharply molded framing that facilitates hand painting – about the only way those complex curves  can be done. I penciled the lines  with a 10-ought brush, scraped away any boogers with a sharpened toothpick, sealed with Future, and performed a final touch-up in Paint Shop.

            The nose gear has an oddly shaped torque link, which was replaced with a brass etching. Small improvements like that result in a big improvement. Landing gear color is a matter of conjecture. Most photos of early variants show them painted interior green. Some have them matching the underside.  The instruction sheet calls for aluminum, but it also calls for black on the rear deck, which in all photos is shown in green. So what do they know?  Most available pictures are B&W, which makes indistinguishable gray from silver. I went with green, simply because metallic landing gear struts on al my models gets boring. It wasn’t until touching up the photos for this review that I noticed the slightly oversize diameter of the main wheels, and that the plane sits nose-down; as opposed to its properly jaunty snoot-skyward pose.  Since it sits on a lower shelf, the poor posture doesn’t bother me.  To be truthful, it wouldn’t bother me even  if the plane perched on the end of my schnoz; but other builders might check the length of the struts and adjust accordingly.

            The props (plural because you get a choice of 3 or 4-bladed) are designed to get sandwiched between the halves of a laterally sliced spinner; an arrangement that leaves a difficult to smooth seam in an easy to see location. I rummaged through the spare props box and resurfaced with the part from the wrecked Revell. Those blades looked shriveled by time or malnutrition. Other spinner-blade combos didn’t look right either. In the end I filled the crack with CA gel, unsheathed  my riffler files and finished with my electric-toothbrush-detai- sander. A heavy brush coat of OD paint disguised the last suggestion of poor engineering.

            I drilled the prop-hub and wings to accept gun barrels made from hypodermic needles. No, I’m not a junkie. I mentioned on several occasions that I have a brother in the surgical  business. (If anyone in the vicinity of Yuma needs any organs removed or rearranged, I can get it for you wholesale.) The tubes were heated in a lighter flame to simulate burnt metal. Simulate – hell. They are burnt metal.  HINT:  Heat tubing before insertion into model! A pitot mast was made from a pin,  with a snippet of brass fret superglued on for the pitot vane.

            I omitted any radio masts or antenna wire, because the reference photo showed that  this plane was not so equipped; likely because, as it  also showed, the plane was not fitted with the prominent radio box on the rear shelf. The absolute last step before getting this millstone off my bench was a drop of quick-set clear epoxy to simulate the landing light on the wing underside.


             Certainly not the envisioned single-afternoon build; but a perfectly adequate Airacobra. It makes no monetary sense if you must buy aftermarket decals; but if alternate markings can be found in the spares bin, Heller’s P-39 is a $3 - $5 bargain that can easily be found at swaps, show vendors, and even LHS’s.

Joel Hamm

February 2009

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