RAF Museum, Hendon – Monday 15th April 2013

I have a week off on my own at the moment, and so I decided to indulge myself with a trip to the RAF Museum in Hendon, north London. I had been debating between there and the Shuttleworth collection, due to my currently increasing interest in WW1 aeroplanes, and the RAF Museum won on two counts: (a) it was free, compared to Shuttleworth’s £12 fee, and (b) it had an intact Sopwith Camel, while Shuttleworth had one under construction/restoration.

I had been most concerned about the journey, with my plan involving a significant amount of time spent on the M25 on a Monday morning just after rush hour. As it was, the journey went smoothly. It was after that things went gradually downhill.

While I don’t believe in omens, my first encounter with the museum set the tone. I pulled into the carpark, and splitting the entrance and exit lanes was a kiosk containing a security guard and bearing a sign saying “STOP HERE”. So I did. I wound down my window and said hello in a cheery voice. He looked a little blank. The conversation that followed involved him explaining the principles of Pay & Display parking. Clearly, I didn’t need to STOP HERE at all.

The next omen came in the form of the busload of talkative French teenagers who preceded me into the main entrance. I don’t have a problem with teenagers being a bit noisy, I just would rather not be in earshot whilst they are.

The first hall, the Milestones Of Flight exhibition, was fine. The room was well lit, and the teenagers had dispersed and so were pretty quiet. However, the next hall, the Bomber Hall was very dingy and I had been having a minor technical issue with my camera. I’d managed to turn the flash off somehow, and now turning it back on it seemed to be overexposing everything just to spite me. As a result, almost none of the photos I took came out nicely. The exhibits were quite interesting, though there seemed little logic to their placement. The Bomber Hall contained a range of bombers, but there were jet aircraft from the 1970s and 80s next to the video installation explaining Barnes-Wallis’ bouncing bomb, the middle of the room contained some WW2 bombers next to a display about the first Gulf war, and the third section of the room had a couple of German fighter aeroplanes (a Bf109G and a rare two-seat FW190).

The next room, Historic Hangars, was more brightly lit, but something about the lighting caused further problems with my camera (which had given me no concerns until now) with glare appearing as the lighting in the room was low enough to trigger my flash, but then high enough for lighting + flash = glare + overexposure. This was a pity, because this room contained many of the more interesting aircraft, a P-40 in British markings, a P-47 Thunderbolt in Far East campaign markings, and several WW1 planes, of which, the Bristol F2B had an exposed side and wing, which was very interesting (and clearly showed the strong links between the balsa models and real aircraft construction).

The Bristol F2B

After that came a trawl around the shop – even though this wasn’t the end of my visit – and the usual grumbles surfaced. Everything was damn expensive!

After the shop came one of the nicest bits of the day. Upstairs, above the exhibition hall and shop was a small gallery containing paintings by David Bent, an artist who specialises in aircraft paintings. Sadly, I was the only person in the gallery for the whole of the five or ten minutes I spent strolling around the dozen or so paintings on show.

I then crossed the car park to the Battle Of Britain Hall which managed to frustrate me further, as the section containing the more interesting planes was cordoned off. After three laps of the hall, and an underwhelming trip through a Short Sunderland flying boat, I gave up, and feeling like a bite to eat, headed over to the museum’s restaurant, where the shop’s prices suddenly seemed more reasonable (£6 for a sandwich and a small bottle of posh lemonade!).

After my meagre lunch I decided to round off my visit with the final hangar, the Grahame-White Hangar which contained the majority of the museum’s WW1 aircraft. A little separate from the rest of the buildings, I had to consult the map to find it (there being a distinct lack of obvious signage) only to round the corner to find that the whole hangar was closed.

On my way in, I had spotted that a couple of hundred yards up the road was a branch of Hannants model shop. I decided that the best hope of salvaging my day lay in a brief visit to them. However, disappointment followed me even there. The kits were arrayed in a loose order (roughly grouped by manufacturer and then by scale) in a room which needed a little TLC and everything managed to look a little tired. Even worse, Hannants are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination.

Disgruntled to say the least, I headed home.

The unavoidable conclusion here is that the museum has the exhibits and space to do better than it did today. It may well be that I was simply unlucky to chose the day when half the Battle Of Britain Hall, and the whole of the Grahame-White Hangar were closed off, but the whole visit gave me the impression of missed opportunities. I just want them to turn up the lights, reorganise the collection a bit, and make sure everything is open!

I will go again, but only because it’s free, and only to see the Grahame-White Hangar. If I had paid to get in, I would be much more annoyed.

Guillow’s Cessna 180 – part 4, sealing, sanding, covering and initial assembly

The sealing-and-sanding process can’t really be captured in photographs. All it involves is giving the frames a few coats of your chosen substance (a lot of modellers use cellulose dope, I use thinned PVA glue, as I’ve mentioned in previous builds), sanding between each coat, in an effort to seal the wood completely to stop it absorbing glue and water when covering takes place.

Once that’s complete, and dry, and sanded, it’s time to cover the whole damn thing. I often find the easiest place to start is the tail surfaces (they’re flat, so it’s a safe way to get back into the groove as it were).

However, this time things didn’t go entirely to plan, and I managed to warp the tail surfaces (a common problem in my models), so I had to take all the tissue off and start again. Luckily this isn’t a complicated, time-consuming process, so it was quickly done.

The wings were easier to cover and keep straight, though the shrinking of the tissue left a few wrinkles at the point where the ribs meet the leading edge (as you can see in the photo below).

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The fuselage was also pretty easy, though the covering did reveal a problem with the very rear. One of the stringers was too low, which made the attachment of the vertical tail a challenge as the taut tissue was sitting a millimetre or two above the stringer to which the tail should be glued.

At this, the next problem arose: it looked as though the fuselage was twisted somehow. It turned out that it wasn’t, and I’d actually managed to attach the wings with unequal dihedral, which was easily solved when the wing struts were installed.

I think I have made more mistakes with this build than the previous two put together, which is very frustrating and a little dispiriting as this is meant to be a simple build to get kids into the hobby. On the positive side, I think I have solved all of the major problems and I’m starting to understand which issues are important and which are merely cosmetic. My main aim with this model is to get it to fly. If I can do that, I don’t really care how it looks. I want to learn how to build a flying model first and then work on making them prettier each time.

Guillow’s Cessna 180 – part 3, the tail surfaces and wings

The next stage of the build is the tail surfaces. These are pretty simple (hence why I tackled them next) and yet they are also something I am keen to get right. With both the Hurricane and, to a lesser extent, the Mustang I managed to warp the tail surfaces, so I am determined to keep them flat this time around!

The tail wings are pretty basic and look quite sturdy:

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And when they’re finished and placed next to the equally strong-looking fin and rudder:

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The wings are always one of my favourite parts to build. I think they give an aeroplane its character, and stop it looking like a bizarre car. They’re often the easiest way to identify a plane too – a Spitfire’s elliptical wing is probably its most recognisable feature.

The wings on the Cessna 180 are fairly straightforward, though in the Group Build to which  I am constantly referring, it is suggested that there is a slightly complicated modification which significantly improves the strength of the wing. Essentially, it involves making a joint mid-way along the wing stronger by splicing the two pieces used together to provide a larger glueing area as well as other benefits which are beyond my novice’s comprehension.

That stage is pretty difficult to show properly, though it is shown very clearly in the Group Build thread (see part 1 for the link), so here is a picture of the nearly completed wings:

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At this point, I am further strengthening the leading and trailing edges by ‘laminating’ them with a strip of 1/16th” balsa along the entire length. This also helps rectify a small error in the plans which overestimates the width of the pieces used for the leading and trailing edges and so leaves the wing ribs with a slight overhang. Once the lamination is complete, the ribs and edges can be sanded flush for a neater finish.

After this, the whole of the model needs sanding and sealing in preparation for covering!

Guillow’s Cessna 180 – part 2, the fuselage

As I mentioned in part one, I am going to endeavour to make this build a little more stage-by-stage than the Mustang build was.

Nearly all model aeroplane builds begin with the fuselage to one extent or another. This isn’t the first stage on the plan, but it’s where the build starts in the Group Build (mentioned in part one) and I’m going to follow that as closely as possible.

To start with, I weighed the wood sheets which contain the parts. Mine came out at just over 24g.

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Then I started gluing the pieces for the fuselage together. This fuselage is built the same way as the Mustang (with the two sides built and structure going in between them) instead of the same as the Hurricane (keel and formers glued together and stringers attached to the outside).

Here are the fuselage sides as the glue dries.

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Here are the sides with the various braces added:

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As you may notice, the pins have changed position. This is because this is the moment I made my first minor mistake. I pinned and glued the major parts of the fuselage sides without thinking about the structural braces. This meant that in order to see the precise positions of several of the braces, I had to remove the sides from the plan. What I should have done was cut the braces to size and lay them out appropriately before I even thought about laying down the major parts.

The next step is to glue the tail end together and then attach some of the major fuselage formers. The key is to get the formers as square as possible to prevent the fuselage warping. I failed in this respect and had to break the tail end apart and reattach it.

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Even then, after adjusting the fit of the major parts several times, I am not convinced that I have got it perfectly square. A poor workman blames his tools, but I think the kit leaves a little to be desired in terms of fit and the quality of the wood used. One of my minor adjustments turned into an awkward and time-consuming repair as I ‘adjusted’ the piece into several smaller pieces. The joy of balsa modelling as opposed to plastic kits is that it is much, much easier to make a replacement or repair a broken piece.

I have also found the style of construction in the last two kits (the box fuselage instead of the former and stringer method of the Hurricane) less to my liking as I think the whole plane feels less sturdy this way. The next kit I build will definitely be a laser-cut kit which should make the engineering and fit of the parts much better and allow me to get on with getting the basics right in other areas, like the covering.

After a lot of fiddling, I eventually ended up with a fuselage with which I was grudgingly satisfied.

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Guillow’s Cessna 180 – part 1

My next balsa aeroplane is going to be a little different. So far I’ve built two World War 2 fighter planes with varying results. One looks quite nice but flies like a stone while the other looks terrible and is yet to be tested in the air.

A little reading about the models I’ve built and some basic aerodynamics has suggested that I’m going about this all wrong. Free flight planes fly slowly and need stability to avoid stalling/flipping/rolling and ultimately crashing. I’m trying to build flying models of planes which were designed to fly very fast and with an element of instability to make them manoeuvrable, when really I should start with something slow and stable like many of the private planes around today. Therefore, I am going to build the Guillow’s Cessna 180.

A real Cessna 180 in action

I have chosen this particular kit simply because, on the official Guillow’s forum, there has been a Cessna 180 ‘Group Build’ (where several people build their own version of the same kit simultaneously whilst discussing the problems they faced and their solutions) with the explicit intention to help newcomers such as myself to build a simple and straightforward kit which should fly reasonably well.

So here’s the kit:

Guillow's no. 601 Cessna 180

Guillow’s no. 601 Cessna 180

The contents of the box look like this:

All the pieces laid out on my building board

All the pieces laid out on my building board

There are several things here which impressed and pleased me more than in the other kits (though this could be because the other kits were more sophisticated and designed for people who could do a lot of this for themselves…). Firstly, the undercarriage wire is pre-bent into the correct shape, there is a lump of clay for weighting the nose, the instructions are much clearer regarding the order of construction and the rubber looks better quality than the previous rubber bands supplied.

So, in the next few days I hope to make a start on this (and build a model that actually flies!) and I will attempt to keep a more coherent build log than the last one. I have also invested in a new digital camera which should improve the quality of the photos too.

James May Steals My Thunder

I know the first rule of flight club is that you don’t talk about flight club, but I thought it was worth a quick mention despite that.

Not sure what I’m talking about? Well, that means you missed the 2012 Christmas edition of James May’s Toy Stories, entitled ‘Flight Club’. Following on from his 1:1 scale ‘Airfix’ Spitfire, he decided that he wanted to break an aviation record and aimed to break the longest flight of a toy aeroplane. (Here’s the episode on iPlayer.)

Brad Pitt dresses up as his idol

For those of you who have been following my balsa builds, this is an extreme example of exactly what I am trying to achieve. He has inspired me somewhat, and while I do my next couple of balsa builds, I am also going to start working my way through a very interesting-looking book, ‘Aircraft Workshop: Learn To Make Models That Fly’ by Kelvin Shacklock, which starts with a very simple balsa glider (much like those James May has at the beginning of ‘Flight Club’) and works its way up to a very large remote controlled Spitfire. Hopefully by working from the very simplest gliders up to the more complicated rubber-powered planes and beyond, I will understand better what I’m doing and why. And then I’ll be flinging gliders across the channel!

Balsa Wood Mustang, part 4

After some fairly ineffectual faffing about, I decided that the only sensible way to repair the minor damage to the tail would be to brace it with some scrap balsa on the outside of the fuselage, and take the undesirable weight gain on the chin. Below is a picture of my solution to the problem.

Obviously, this could incur some sort of weight penalty and negatively affect the flying performance of the model. However, recent browsing of the Guillow’s forum suggests that the 900 series models (of which which this is one) are designed very light anyway so adding a little extra weight isn’t a problem.

After that, all that remained was to ‘dope’ the wings, and put it all together!

Afterwards, it looked something like this:

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I’m rather pleased with the attachment of the canopy, even though it won’t be particularly clear from the photos. In the past, I have had problems with clear parts fogging up from glue fumes and was more than a little apprehensive this time. However, carefully tacking down the canopy in the corners with superglue and allowing it to dry before running a tiny amount down the edges seems to have worked a treat. Hopefully it’s all down to technique rather than good fortune!

Aside from that, it’s a pretty ugly model of a rather attractive aeroplane. As you can see, the covering on the wings isn’t as smooth as I was hoping and the glue has left dirty stains on the tissue covering. Hopefully, it will be a triumph of function over form.

At this point, it still needs a couple of fairings added to the wing roots, and I’m considering giving it a quick coat of silver acrylic paint. That may prove to be a disaster, but I won’t know until I try!