Silver Wings 1/32 He-51

KIT #: 32-001
PRICE: Around $150.00
DECALS: Two options
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: Full Resin kit


            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 primarily 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. Its lack of maneuverability can be laid completely at the feet of the designers, who gave it the longest wingspan of any biplane fighter of the 1930s.  Given that the biplane design hung on in fighters because it allowed a designer to minimize wingspan to increase roll rate while maintaining wing area, this design fault is the likely cause of the He-51's failure as an effective air superiority fighter.

            What was important about the He-51 from a design standpoint was its elegance of line, being the first design to come from the aesthetic 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 number of Jagdgeschwader mounted on the elegant-looking fighter, with their colorful unit markings.  The He-51 first saw “combat” during the re-occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, though the fighters orbiting over the German troops (who were under orders to turn and retreat if the French opposed them) were completely unarmed.

            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.  By this point, however, the He-51 was in full-scale production, and because of the publicity surrounding it as the Luftwaffe’s first fighter, it was deemed politically imprudent to stop production and let the world know of the airplane’s shortcomings.

            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. However, the units flying the He-51 in ground support did develop the tactics later used by the Schlachtflieger units in the Second World War.

            In retrospect, the failure of the He-51 was ultimately a good thing for the Luftwaffe, since it forced the service to bring the Messerschmitt Bf-109 into production and 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 outfly their enemies for at least the first two years of the Second World War, since their opponents still used the outmoded tactics.


            The He-51 first appeared as a kit in the early 1970s, when Hasegawa released their 1/72 model; this can still be found, and it makes up into a very nice model with a bit of work to create a cockpit interior.  In 1996, Classic Airframes released their first kit of the He-51, a limited-run kit to be followed in 2008 by a later release featuring better molding technology.  This He-51 from Silver Wings is the first kit of this airplane in 1/32 scale.

            The kit is all resin, and is of the highest quality.  Wojciech Kulakowski is the designer of the Montex Fury Mk.I, the Hs-123 and the Yak-1b, which are among the very best all-resin kits released and are the best kits of these aircraft available in any scale.  With the release of this He-51, he has outdone himself.  The fuselage halves are molded so thin, and the other parts are of such quality, that you could easily mistake the kit for an injection-molded kit from a mainstream company like Hasegawa or Tamiya. 

            The cockpit is fully detailed, and lacks only seat belts, a problem easily solved by the use of Eduard’s 1/32 photoetch Luftwaffe seatbelts. The surface detail is crisp and subtle.  All control surfaces are separate, so the model can be posed dynamically

            Fit of the parts is as good as I found in the Montex Yak-1b (surprise surprise) and there do not appear to be any nasty surprises awaiting the modeler when construction begins.  I particularly like that the cabane struts and interplane struts are cast with wire cores, which will give them strength while providing better parts than were available with the white metal struts in the Fury Mk.I kit.

            Decals are provided for a He-51B-1 operated by 3./JG 223 at Wien-Aspern in 1938, and an He-51B-2 operated by the Legion Condor in Spain in 1937.  These look to be excellent.  A modeler will want to rob a 1.32 Bf-109 decals sheet for the necessary stencils and other maintenance markings.


            Construction of this model was as straightforward as would be the case with anything from Tamiya or Hasegawa as regards fit.  I did need to use cyanoacrylate glue and Tamiya Surfacer on some of the joints and the centerline seam, but overall this resin kit went together better than any other I have done, including the Montex kits which are designed by the same individual.

            I began with the cockpit.  I first painted everything in RLM63 Light Grey-Green.  It is a little-known fact that between 1936-38, RLM02 was replaced by RLM63, which was in turn replaced in 1938 by RLM02 again.  As to why this was, your guess is as good as mine.  I used Xtracrylix RLM63 for this.  Once everything was painted, I used seatbelts from the Eduard Bf-0109E-1 that I hadn’t used with that kit, and then assembled the cockpit per the easy-to-follow instructions.

            When the cockpit was finished, it was nice to discover it fit inside the fuselage with no difficulty and no modifications.  I then glued the fuselage together and cleaned up the centerline seam.

            The horizontal stabilizers, rudder, elevators and landing gear all fit easily.  You can position the control surfaces dynamically, but be sure to carefully test fit the ailerons and flaps - you may Be very careful to get the dihedral of the wings right during assembly.  I found even with the positive fit provided by the pegs, that I needed to fill the upper surface joins with cyanoacrylate glue once they were in position.

            The cabane struts fit easily.  Once these have set up, I suggest you tape the upper wing in position and then attach the interplane struts to the lower wing so they are sure to fit in the locating holes in the upper wing.  You can then remove the upper wing and proceed with painting.

            I found I needed to use Evergreen rod for the steps on the landing gear legs.



             I first mixed a shade of “Bavarian blue” that matched the insignia for JG 223.  I then applied flat black over panel lines and ribs, then painted the nose with “Bavarian Blue.”  When that was dry, it was masked and the model was given an overall coat of Xtracrylix RLM63.  I then mixed in a bit of light grey and went over the model to post-shade it.  When this was dry, I gave the model an overall coat of Xtracrylix Gloss Varnish.


            The wing insignia provided in the kit decals is too large, or at least it is too large when compared with the few photos I could find of He-51s that showed the wings.  Interestingly, the cross provided for the lower wing is the right size for the upper wing according to these photos, so I used that, and then used a smaller narrow-chord cross from a Bf-109E sheet for the lower wing.  Other than this relatively minor glitch (which might not be a glitch if there are photos showing JG 223 using oversize insignia), the decals went on easily under a coat of Micro-Sol.  While the kit provides the swastikas in pieces, I used full swastika decals from a Bf-109 sheet.  I also used fuel markings and stencils from the Bf-109 sheet.


            I gave the model an overall coat of Xtracrylix Satin Varnish, then attached the cockpit access step, the access hatch in the open position, and the windshield.  I glued the “saxophone” exhausts in individually.  I then painted the wheels.  When this was done, I glued the upper wing in place which proved no problem, due to my having fit it previously.  I finished off by rigging the model with .010 wire, painted black for artistic effect. 


            Despite its lack of performance, the He-51 is definitely one of the best-looking biplane fighters ever made, and it epitomizes the early Luftwaffe.  The kit is a must-have for the serious modeler who is a fan of biplanes, fighters of the 1930s, or the Luftwaffe (or all three!).  The kit does not present any problems for an experienced modeler who has done both a few biplanes and a few all-resin kits; in fact, it is surprisingly easy.  With the kind of detail that is here, the kit is well worth its admittedly-expensive price, since “it’s all up there on the screen.”  Highly recommended.

Thanks to Wojciech Kulakowski at Silver Wings for the review kit.

Tom Cleaver

July 2009

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