As a child of the cold war, I kinda, sorta feel a little sorry for the young ‘uns today. You see, back then the color grey didn’t exist. Terms like ‘nuance’ and ‘root causes’ wouldn’t appear until the 2000s. It was all very simple because everything was black or white. Back then, when some country did something to you, you did something back. Did it solve anything? Probably not. Did it make things worse? Yeah, it probably did.
But everyone knew where you stood.
This was also a time when governments did rather bold things like spying, in the open, for all to see. And they usually got away with it. Well, until they didn’t. In the case of America, the first iterations of the U-2 spy plane come to mind. At one time it was bold to fly right over Soviet military installations and snap a few polaroids as souvenirs. It was also bold to keep doing it until a telephone pole-sized missile stopped all that bold cold.
These days, if such a thing happened, people would take their spy planes and go home. Oh, but not during the cold war. Ideas like “We really shouldn’t be flying over some other country without their permission” would never be considered. No, the response was probably more like: “The next time we fly over someone’s country without permission, we really should fly faster than a Cessna. Like a lot faster. Like you know the fastest plane we have right now? Yeah, WAY faster than that!”
That is the insane logic that led to the SR-71 Blackbird.
The insanity did not end there. You see, they wanted a plane that could fly higher than 80,000 feet and at more than three times the speed of sound… sustained. As well, the plane needed to be built out of a metal they had never worked with and that they did not possess. The engines needed to be designed from scratch and incorporate both conventional jet engines and ramjets. Oh! And the whole development had to be wrapped up with production airplanes in less than two years.
And do you know something? They pulled it off.
The first iteration of this spy plane was the single seater A-12 which flew for the CIA in the early 60s. Later that decade the SR-71A came online for the USAF.
Unsurprisingly, there is not a whole lot out there about the operations of these airplanes. I am not sure whether they flew these things directly over the Soviets, but I believe they flew over everyone else. There was nothing bigger, faster, or better than the SR-71, certainly nothing that could shoot it down. Which is impressive on its own. But there was something I like a little more about the Blackbird. You see, these really weren’t ‘stealth’ aircraft. Those countries that were on unfriendly terms with the US would have seen them coming and could do nothing about them. They didn’t see these planes as tools of ‘realpolitik’ or some other such academic nonsense. When a Blackbird flew over their super secret installations with impunity, those regimes saw that plane as America’s giant middle finger:
Come to think of it, incorporating that shape was probably another insane design goal for the SR-71. I mean just look at it. That silhouette is no accident. Man, ya gotta love the chutzpah!
The Revell 1/48 SR-71
In my 2019 wish list post, I asked for a new tool 1/48 Blackbird. Soon after, not one but two kits were announced! These were heady times indeed. Hypersonic Models released CAD images showing us a world-beating SR-71 while Revell hinted at something for the masses. Ultimately Revell delivered the kit in two versions (one with a stand and external engines, and one without those cool extras) while Hypersonic released detail parts for the Revell kit. Although there is still hope that the full model will come someday.
I chose the slightly more expensive version of the Revell kit with the stand because I felt the stand would require far less of a footprint in my display cabinet. I was also a sucker for the additional engines. I had the option to drop the gear while using the stand but I didn’t want to do that. Nope, this was going to be an in-flight model. I don’t do a lot of inflight models but there are some advantages to them. First, there is no fussing with the landing gear and less work is needed in a cockpit when the canopies have small windows. But there can be issues if gear doors don’t fit properly over gear bays or the canopies don’t fit properly when closed.
There is an additional and somewhat more controversial consideration. That is the use (some would say ‘requirement’) of pilot figures in in-flight models. I’m firmly a member of the ‘In-flight Models need Pilots’ school. Some others don’t think they are required. And some think all pilot figures are childish and silly and should be thrown in the bin. Then again, some people actually liked watching Full House. What can I say, the world is an imperfect place.
The Flight Deck
While the ejection seat is definitely on the simple end of the detail spectrum, the instrument panels and side panels are perfectly fine. The kit comes with instrument panel decals but as you can see, a black base with a medium grey drybrush will really make the detail pop. I then used reference pictures to pick out certain knobs and switches in white and red. The instrument panels are remarkably accurate. Not perfect replicas, mind you, but very close. Then again, the canopy windows are very small so this really doesn’t matter.
The figures are 3d files from Max Grueter and I had my buddy Paul Bornn print them up for me. We had to play with the size of the figure to make it look right in the bang seat but he tweaked them just right. The arms can be posed to rest naturally on the control stick and side panel. Since they used the same suit and helmet, I used a few photos of U-2 pilots as painting references.
Painting the Engines
Revell provided us builders with some very detailed engine exhaust parts on this kit. And kudos to them to make these exhausts in multiple parts to ease the painting process. I made a video detailing how I painted the exhausts and you can see it with this link
Rest of the Build
Despite the large size of the kit, there really isn’t much to it. Once the flight deck is done, the main fuselage is closed up rather quickly. I can’t tell you much about the landing gear because I didn’t use them but I can tell you the gear doors fit perfectly over the gear bays. That was a pleasant surprise.
The only issue I ran into was the construction of each nacelle/outer wing subassembly. For whatever reason, Revell decided to mold these into three parts with jagged join lines. No matter what I tried, I could not get all of the joins to line up perfectly. I was left with some annoying steps and gaps but I filled them with styrene and CA glue, sanded them down, re-scribed the panel lines, and polished everything. Unfortunately, this slowed down the build but I did get them to a place I was happy with.
Painting the Black Bird
Once the nacelles and outer wings are on, the build is practically done. The big Revell Blackbird is a beast. It is imposing. It’s going to get a lot of attention because it is a nicely detailed model. There are all sorts of recessed panel lines all over it. This is an excellent chance for model builders to really have some fun with the finish. The problem is that straight black paint will drown out all of the detail and absorb all of the light.
My goal was to finish the model in a way that showed the kit’s detail and recreate an operational Blackbird like what I saw in some reference pictures. I took a few risks with some new products and techniques and I think I largely succeeded. I made a video detailing how I painted the big beast and you can see it with this link.
The Stand and the Engines
The accessory engines are nicely molded, they look reasonably close to the real thing and have all sorts of detail on them. The J58 engines are a marvel of pipes, wires, doodads and colors. This can be replicated with these mini models but the seam lines connecting the 4 quarters of the jets were a bit hard to hide. I managed to get them fairly gap and step free and where I couldn’t hide them completely I glued down some lead wire. Painting was a rough masking of ‘bands’ around the engine. Several metallic shades, greys, blacks and some clear blue were used. The bits were hand brushed with titanium, the piping was drybrushed and everything was washed with Tamiya’s black panel liner.
I just love the names associated with these planes: Oxcart, Blackbird, Archangel, and Habu. They conjure up images of ‘black’ operations with pilots doing things they really should not have been doing. And doing those things armed only with altitude, speed and intelligent flight planning. Not to mention countless inflight re-fuelings.
And don’t forget boldness.
So? What do you think of the Blackbird? I believe that doing naughty things while flying on the edge of space has a certain coolness factor. Especially when these planes were completely unarmed. I am getting on a real spy plane kick. I just bought an Italeri U-2R and a Dyna-Soar earlier this year. There might be a lot of black painting in my future.