Classic Airframes 1/48 He-51B-1






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Tom Cleaver


Aeromaster decals 48-456 and 458 used


 There is a saying in aviation design that, "if it looks right, it is right." While this is generally true, it was unfortunately not the case as regards the Heinkel He-51, which was a completely orthodox biplane of undistinguished performance, though this was due to the failure of the German aircraft industry of the period to develop suitable high-performance engines as was happening in Great Britain at Rolls-Royce. Had the He-51 been powered by a Kestrel, like its contemporary the Hawker Fury, things might have been different, even if it was nowhere near as maneuverable as that famous classic.

What was important about the He-51 from a design standpoint was its elegance of line, being the first design to come from the aestheic of designer Walter Gunter; complemented by the mathematic genius of his twin brother Siegfried, these two would provide the indelible hallmark "look" of Heinkel aircraft of the Thirties.

The airplane first appeared as the He-51a. The Technischen Amt of the Luftfahrtkommisariat became interested when it was revealed it had a higher performance than the Arado Ar-65E which was planned as the first fighter equipment of the still-secret Luftwaffe, with the same BMW 6.0 ZU engine; this fighter promised performance that would equal the international standard.

Introduced into service as the He-51A-0, the fighter equipped the DVL Reklame-Staffel Mitteldeutschland, the "Central Germany Publicity Squadron," which would later become known as II/JG.132 "Richtofen" when the Luftwaffe was revealed to the rest of Europe in 1935. Early accidents were laid to deficiencies in training rather than anything intrinsic to the design.

The He-51B differed from its predecessor in having twin-wire bracing of the landing gear, and the ability to carry a 50-liter drop tank beneath the fuselage. As production proliferated in 1936-37, so did the Jagdgeschwader mounted on the elegant-looking fighter, with their colorful unit markings.

The beginning of the end for the He-51 came in January 1936. The Luftwaffefuhrungsstab considered that the Arado Ar-68 offered little over the Heinkel in terms of performance and questioned putting it into production. Ernst Udet, Inspector of Fighter and Dive Bomber Pilots, decided to resolve the question. Mounted in the Ar-68E, with a very experienced pilot in an He-51, Udet out-climbed, out-dove and out-maneuvered the Heinkel fighter with ease.

Later that year, in response to requests from General Francisco Franco, Hitler decided to provide support to the Nationalists in what was developing into the Spanish Civil War. Six He-51s were sent to Spain with six German pilots to instruct Spanish pilots. Unfortunately, the airplane was a "handful" for the Spanish, who immediately wrote off two of them. The Germans entered combat unofficially and met with such success that it was decided a "volunteer" fighter squadron would be seconded to the Spanish, to allow Luftwaffe pilots to gain invaluable combat experience. At about the same time, Polikarpov I-15s flown by Soviet "volunteers" appeared on the side of the Republicans. When the two fighters met, it was no contest as to which was the better: the "Chato" could fly rings around the Heinkel, as well as outgun it, and the He-51s were reduced to targets, unfit to take part in aerial combat. The He-51 became a ground attack fighter for the remainder of its service in Spain, and was replaced in Luftwaffe service as rapidly as possible.

In retrospect, the failure of the He-51 when it entered combat was ultimately a good thing for the Luftwaffe, since it forced the service to bring the Messerschmitt Bf-109 into operational use far earlier than would otherwise have been the case, subjecting that great design to the pressure of wartime development from the beginning of its career, and assuring it of the ascendancy it would hold when war finally broke out in Europe three years later. As well, the early introduction of the Bf-109 into combat forced the pilots of the Luftwaffe to abandon the useless formations and tactics of the biplane era, and create tactics and formations appropriate to a high-speed fighter; this would mean they could out fly their enemies for at least the first two years of the Second World War, since their opponents still used the outmoded tactics.


The Classic Airframes He-51 appeared in 1996, and was the first 1/48 rendering of this airplane other than a Wings vacuform of the early 1980s. The Wings kit had excellent surface detail and made up into an accurate model, but the fact it was a vacuform consigned it to be built only by connoisseurs.

The kit comes from that period in Classic Airframes that saw each release vary wildly in terms of production quality from that before or after. The I-153 that immediately preceded this model was excellent. The He-51 has a heaviness in its molding that requires a bit of effort by a modeler with some fine sandpaper and polish to obtain a nice finish. Decals were by Propagteam, and provided markings for an early He-51 in Luftwaffe service, and the He-51 flown by Ltn. Hajo Harrer of the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War.

Fortunately, by the time I built these models, far better decals for the He-51 were available on two sheets, 48-456 and 48-458, from Aeromaster, released along with the first volume of Eric Mombeek's new series on Luftwaffe colors. I opted for an He-51B-2 of JG135 from 48-456; for the combat airplane, I used 48-458 to create Hajo Harrer's He-51 of J/88, the fighter unit of the Condor Legion.


The model is as straightforward in construction as any limited-run kit. The modeler needs to cut the parts from the thick sprues with a razor saw and clean them up, then test fit parts before gluing them for final assembly.

The cockpit is multi-media, with resin floor and sidewall, injection-molded seat, and photoetch brass for the instrument panel and details like seat belts, etc. All of this was painted with Tamiya RLM Gray, and assembled per the kit instructions.

With the fuselage assembled, I attached the lower wings after I had drilled out locating holes and inserted some Evergreen rod to strengthen the joint. I did the same with the horizontal stabilizers, which also have only a butt-joint. I trimmed and fit the landing gear legs and then attached them.

There was a lot of cutting and fitting to get the interplane and cabane struts to fit properly (this is a continuing problem with Classic Airframes kits, but soon the model was ready for painting. With the Luftwaffe version, I made the mistake of believing that the molded position indicators for the struts were correct; this is not the case, since the positions shown on the lower surface of the upper wing are too far outboard all the way around. This resulted in struts that are splayed-out too far, with a wing that is too low. When I did the Spanish Civil War airplane, I looked at the three-view drawing in "Warplanes of the Third Reich," and used the head-on profile to get the struts at the correct angle. The difference between the two isn't that much, but it is significant. Had I not already completed and rigged the first model, I would have re-done it. If you do this model, be sure to have three-view drawings and follow them.


According to the Tom Tullis profiles in "Birth of the Luftwaffe," Volume 1 of the series, the He-51 was painted overall RLM63 Grau. This is a greenish-grey, lighter in hue than RLM02 Grau. As I studied the profile, I realized that Gunze-Sanyo "RLM Gray" - which is much lighter than its Tamiya equivalent or anyone else's RLM02 - is very close to RLM63 Grau, and in fact could have been produced from a mistaken analysis of RLM63, inasmuch as RLM02 was always considered the "proper" exterior color in the early Luftwaffe - it turns out RLM02 was not the first color used. I first painted the geschwader color - in this case blue - over the upper fuselage, then masked it off and painted the rest of the model overall with the Gunze-Sanyo color. When that was dry, I shot the model with Future and was ready for decals.

For the Spanish Civil War airplane, I first painted the white rudder and wingtips, then masked them off and painted the model with Gunze-Sanyo RLM02, following that with Gunze Sanyo Medium Green for the field-applied camouflage, which was applied according to the painting guide that came with the decal sheet.

I did my He-51 as an He-51B-1 of JG135, the former fighter squadron of the Austrian Air Force prior to the Anschluss. The Aeromaster decals went down easily under a light coat of MicroSol. When they had fully set, I washed the model to get rid of solvent residue, then gave it another coat of Future. Since this was a period when the staffels prided themselves on maintaining a pristine appearance to their aircraft, I did not weather the model.

The decals for the Spanish Civil War version went on equally well.

Final Assembly and Detailing:

Before assembling the upper wing on the Spanish Civil War version, I weathered this model with mud on the wheels and spats, a spray of mud on the tail from the tail skid, with blast residue and exhaust staining.

I glued the upper wing back on and set the windscreen in position. As an experiment, I rigged the Luftwaffe model using Evergreen .010" x .020" strip, which results in a good approximation of the "raf wires". I did the other model with my high-E guitar wire, which is a circular-section wire. Looking at the two, I think the guitar wire still looks better because it is thin, and I will likely re-rig the first model (I might even then decide to get radical and fix the strut problem).


The Heinkel He-51 may not have been a world-beater in terms of performance, but in an era of good looking biplane fighters, it stood out for its elegance of design. As the first fighter of the restored Luftwaffe to see widespread service, and the first German fighter to see combat since the First World War, it is an important airplane and worthy of inclusion in any Luftwaffe collection that aims to be representative of the major types used by the service.

Tom Cleaver

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