Phantom over Vietnam: John Trotti’s F-4 in 1/48th scale
We were two-thirds of the way down the runway – abeam our squadron area – when the airspeed needle passed 310 knots, and I pulled into a 2.5-g right climbing arc, looking to lay the airplane on its back in a 45 degree climb…
— John Trotti, Phantom Over Vietnam, 1984
Academy 1/48th scale McDonnell F-4B Phantom 2 built and painted by Everard Cunion in February 2018 to March 2020
Inspired by John Trotti’s 1984 book Phantom Over Vietnam, I built mine as the aircraft that features most prominently in that book. Because the aircraft in his squadron all had the letters VW on their fins and Trotti’s aircraft had the number 8 on its sides near the nose, it is referred to as VW8, Victor Whiskey Eight, or Volkswagen 8 for short. Trotti describes the dents and a missing panel of this aircraft in some detail.
While the kit does not include decals for VW8, it does include decals for two other aircraft in the same squadron: VW 5, contemporary with VW 8, and VW 3 in a later year. As a result, I needed to do only a small amount of additional detailed painting (to change some numbers) to create Volkswagen 8.
According to an online F-4 ‘bureau numbers’ page (no longer there) before that aircraft went to Vietnam in 1966, in January that year it collided in the air over Nevada with another F-4, which crashed. Trotti flew the repaired 151419 based at Da Nang in 1966. It was then transferred to VF-142 (why?) during or before May 1967, when it ditched into the South China Sea off the Philippines.
First thing I did is wash the parts in detergent (washing up water) to help water-based acrylic paint to stick. I also coated the clear parts in a wash of ‘Pledge’ liquid polish, said to be sold as ‘Klear’ in some parts of the world. The Pledge protects the transparent plastic from glue fumes and other fogging agents. I use transparency glue for those parts, which also helps prevent fogging.
Fortunately, not all the parts supplied in the kit are used, especially if you build it in flight mode, as opposed to sitting on the ground, and with no ordnance or external fuel tanks, as I did.
Cockpit and crew
Equally fortunately for builders of the model in flight mode, the kit comes with both seated crewmen. They have the F-4’s characteristic forward leaning position, which, according to Trotti, prevents them from falling asleep at the wheel. You can have either of the seated crewmen with visor down and hands on the controls or with visor up and, optionally, giving a thumbs-up to a third crewman standing on the ground, helmet crooked under one arm, which is also supplied.
Maybe I am missing some essential modelling trick, but I encountered difficulty getting the cockpit tub to fit into the fuselage. It sits on a box that, in the real thing, houses the retracted nose gear. I had to file down the box. The front ejector seat was too wide, so I had to file its lower sides – originally well detailed – so it could rest on the cockpit floor. That detail is pointless anyway because you cannot see it even if you do not put crew in the cockpit. As always with this kind of kit, I cut the crews’ legs off at the knees, so they fit. I even removed the pilot’s seat base and shortened the seat sides, so the top was at the right height when I test-fitted the applicable canopy segment. The pilot then effectively sits, not on the floor, but on nothing: His arms are wedged into the cockpit sides. I defy anyone to notice. I should have removed the rear seat base too, but instead I filed the back-seat crewman down, or rather up, so nothing was left of him below the tops of his thighs.
I also omitted the bulkhead that divides the two cockpits because, for whatever reason, it prevented the cockpit tub fitting into the upper fuselage. You cannot see the difference in the completed model.
I suspect that all this is caused by kit manufacturers scaling down precisely the measurements of the real thing, which itself only just fits together. The problem with that is, the slightest error resulting in over-size, is a show stopper. If the kit manufacturer does not allow room for necessary easement, the modeller must do it.
Paint and decals
I used acrylic paints because of their many advantages over enamels.
A note on psychology: I found that the amount of effort and complexity in front of me was overwhelming at times and I was unable to decide what to do next. To avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’, I got on with whatever appealed to me as obtaining the most visible progress, even if doing so was not the most efficient way.
To change Volkswagen 5, as supplied with the kit decals, to John Trotti’s Volkswagen 8, I converted the kit’s 3 nose numbers to 8s with paint. (The 3s are from Volkswagen 3 based at Chu Lai, also supplied with the kit.) And the same with the smaller 3s on the nose gear door and fin sides at top. I assembled the ‘1419’ numerals on the fuselage rear with the 4s from the supplied decals, the 9s are upside-down supplied 6s, and two of the four 1s are made from the long part of the supplied 7s, the other two from the cross-part of those 7s (extended by hand painting). I left the smaller equivalent bureau numbers forward of the tail-planes as they are. They are too small to mess with, so I put up with that discrepancy.
Watch out for the slightly different anti-dazzle panel demarcations of the 1966 and 1968 aircraft. A black anti-dazzle decal correctly shaped for the earlier scheme (black nose) is supplied with the kit.
I used the Furball paint mask set. I had difficulty distinguishing the main canopy masks from the waste material until I saw a photo online. Here is my photo:
The Furball masks include those for the fuselage and wing root walkways, but I found that job too tricky, so I used the kit decals instead. The fuselage walkway decals, being long and thin, are tricky enough.
To prevent the closed wheel doors falling in to the wells, I filled the wheel wells with balsa wood. My attempt to do the same with the doors under the engine (whatever they are for) failed. Fortunately, by gluing the doors in place with the model held upright, they were no problem.
I found the light (a tiny transparent part) set into the leading edge of the fin too fiddly so I filled the gap and painted it instead.
This kit represents a slice of a world of 1960s technology and folk lore in miniature. Uncommonly, not only is a cockpit crew provided, both pilot and radar operator have alternative parts (heads and arms) for in-flight or sitting in the cockpit on the ground, and you even get a standing crewman too.
The difficulty fitting the cockpit details and, particularly, the crew, is common in this scale and type of aircraft, I find.
You can find much more carefully painted examples of this kit on plastic model forums, including the Britmodeller forum (where I am known as Lootenant Aloominum).
Early Corsair, my Tamiya 1/48th scale Chance Vought F4U Corsair, also in Marine Corps service
Phantom of the operator, my review of Phantom Over Vietnam by John Trotti, 1984