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A while back, I wrote in this column about the problems of the traffic involved with going to the Mildenhall Air Display, and got a letter from an Antipodean reader – who missed my point by an Australian mile – saying that East Anglian congestion was of no consequence to him. I did say that if the opportunity came my way to comment equally on the ease of getting in and out of the Avalon Show in Oz, I’d take it to redress the balance. But why go to see real aeroplanes anyway, when the variety of possible subjects is much greater at your local model shop? This magazine has, throughout its 25 years been about real aeroplanes as modelling subjects, although those whose lips curl at the ‘What If school of modelling might want to debate the nature of reality.
One of those unanswerable questions that gets batted around the editorial table, in whichever questionable place of entertainment it happens to be at the time, is the proportions of the preferences of our readers and their primary interests. My feeling – and this does not necessarily reflect ‘Official Policy’, or indeed ‘Opinion’ – is that there is at each end of the spectrum about 20 to 25 percent whose chief enthusiasm is clearly either for the modelling or the aircraft, and in between them is a somewhat amorphous group of those with, shall we say, flexible allegiance!
Given that my interest in aeroplanes started, if family legend is to be believed, around the age of two and a half, it’s a reasonable supposition that the modelling followed a little later. I do recall that from seven or eight onwards, Christmas or birthday presents – apart from the current volume of ‘Aircraft of the Fighting Powers’, accounting no doubt for my library obsession, and perhaps for my devotion to the 1:72 scale of its drawings – were models, usually in wood but with the occasional black recognition model acquired through one or other of my family in the RAF at the time. And I also remember quite clearly that comments were made on my habit of modifying these, usually with plasticene, rather than leaving them as their designers intended.
Apart from watching that Spitfire IX chasing a Jabo Fw 190 over the Bournemouth rooftops one memorable Sunday morning, seeing real aircraft close-to was something of a problem until well after VE day, but it must have been in 1947 or ’48 that I was taken to an Open Day of sorts at Beaulieu where my principal memory is of my first flight, in the back seat of an Auster; this faced sideways, and I remember a degree at least of discomfort.
Beaulieu was at the time the seat of the Airborne Forces establishment, and an early helicopter base, so there must have been Hoverflys of both Marks there, but I don’t know (at this distance) whether my mental pictures of them are genuine or a form of ‘Recovered Memory Syndrome’.
But in the 1950s it was possible to see aircraft in their natural habitat, at least on their perches, and I recall clearly going to Hum – where I later spent some time with Sea Hornets – for the start of the ‘Daily Express’-sponsored South Coast air race in 1950.
What I don’t know is how much this contact with real aircraft spread over in to my modelling in the days of my youth; but nowadays there’s a positive, if not always direct, link for me between seeing metal and fettling plastic.
Between the late 1970s and early 1990s when there was a new Mark of aircraft or a new squadron marking to be seen at every other air display, there’s no doubt in my, admittedly selective, memory that when I got my photos developed a few days after a show one of their functions was to give me a reference for the inevitable – thank goodness – Model decal set that would surely follow, at least from the 1977 Air Tattoo onwards. (Those listening to the ground movement talking-brick frequency that year finally asked me by mid-Friday not to broadcast, “Wouldn’t that make a splendid decal sheet?”, whenever an attractive colour scheme turned off the runway on arrival).
In the years that followed the regular formation, or conversion, of Tornado squadrons in particular, either bomber or fighter, gave instant novelty to the benefit of Kodak and, I hope, Dick Ward -(although I believe that the rumour that Dick was involved in the design of some of these markings is not necessarily accurate). With the decline of fresh subjects to photograph, my attendance at displays gradually transferred from those featuring contemporary hardware to those reflecting the preservation scene, notably Warbirds. Duxford in particular became increasingly attractive, and I am lucky that both before and after my move of a few years back, I was within an hour and a half’s drive of the Imperial War Museum’s ‘country branch’. And in the year following my retirement from ‘the day job’, the fulfilment of my long-held ambition to go to Oshkosh also enabled me to visit several museums in the Northern United States and Southern California.
In spite of a familiarity with both Yeovilton and Hendon, I became seriously wide-eyed at Dayton and San Diego, and at Pensacola the following year.
The US Naval Aviation collection was an add-on to Sun’n’Fun, and on the same trip I found the Joy of Joy-Riding, notably in ancient aircraft. That particular trip included a twin Seabee and a Waco YMF, and I’ve been able to add a few since then in Australia and the US of A, where the wallet is somewhat less dented by all this fun; but the odd thing is, with the exception of the Mustang ‘Strawboss 2’, (thanks to an Eagle Strike decal sheet), I’ve not been really tempted to model something I’ve flown in.
Museums and static displays are of course very useful for photographing details, of cockpits if you’re lucky and persuasive, but otherwise of such important little places as undercarriage bays or aerial fits, although there is always the risk that a preserved aircraft, flying or static, may differ both in finish and equipment from the time when it was operational. I’m pleased to see this distinction carefully noted in Squadron/Signal’s ‘Walk Around’ series.
Writing this I have gradually come to a conclusion that while the aircraft I see and photograph in museums sometimes read across fairly directly to my modelling, those at displays can have a rather more tenuous link. The picture I originally chose to illustrate, or at least accompany, this Tailpiece is that of an RAAF F-111C doing its ‘dump and burn’ act at Avalon earlier this year, and while it was very impressive it’s not easy to reproduce that effect in a diorama, even though the sight and sound will stay in my memory for many years (and I did take care to get the appropriate decal sheet to go with the Hasegawa kit in my garage – just in case). But the other is of an aircraft I DO want to model; the No 76 Squadron Hawk 127 with the specially applied – and unfinished, there being no time to paint the striping under the wings – colour scheme for the display season.
I have the Italeri kit and the Mastercraft resin tail correction really close to the workbench, and all I need now is the decal sheet, which I was assured, by this amiable moustachioed English chap I met by chance at Avalon, is in the pipeline.
That nice Spencer Pollard of ‘Military in Scale’ wrote a piece a couple of years back on discovering the virtues of visiting air shows, not least to look at wear and tear on the subjects of your modelling. I think there’s more to it than that. One of the drawbacks of our branch of the hobby is that the fruits of our labours don’t actually do anything, and it’s good when possible – and I know that I’m lucky to be able to visit quite a selection of these events – to see some of the objects of our labours in full flight.
There’s no Mildenhall this year, so I’m spared the decision of whether the traffic queues are worth facing; and for the benefit of our Australian reader, getting in to Avalon was easy, but getting out following the Son et Lumiere reminded us forcibly of trying to leave the RIATs of my younger days. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. For me the metal and the plastic are two sides of the same coin, if perhaps of differing and variable value. If I had to choose to give up one or the other, I’d probably go in to my traditional ‘Management by procrastination’ mode, until the decision was made for me!
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