Academy Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk in 1/72
             Start: January / 2014
Current state: Priming


Last year (2013) should have been my 'jet year', but I ended finishing only one - the Su-15 Flagon. I decided to keep my promise and finish off some more jets in 2014, and the Academy Nighhawk seemed simple enough to takle in a not too long project. It is an old kit, with a few errors and oversimplified in many areas. I think, however, that it still is a decent replica of this enigmatic bomber (I'm lying, it was the only one I had in the stash)..

The model comes with two fuselage halves (upper and lower), so the parts count is very low. It has separated flaps/ailerons, which is great, but the details in the bomb bay, landing gear and cockpit is deceptive. To speed up things, I got the Aires cockpit set and the Quickboost stabilizers for this kit. Unfortunately, none of them are drop-fit (more on that later), but still a huge improvement over the kit parts. That would leave me the job of detailing the landing gear weels, only, because after looking photos of the open bomb bay on real F-117s I immediately give up the idea of detailing it - I'm no John Vojtech!

My first step was to add basic structural details to the landing gear wells. Starting with the nose landing gear well, I used photos from the Squadron's Walk Around book and internet resouces, but didn't go mad on this, because these areas are really crowded with details... Wherever I didn't have a good photo, some gizmology was put into action. The cables, wires and hoses would be added later on:

As for the main landing gear weels, they are not enclosed in the kit, so I boxed them with pieces of plastic card. I noted that many parked Nighhawks have the front landing gear door closed when on the ground, so I opted to close them to save me some work. Plastic tabs were used to accept the front doors later. As a norm for me
, some holes were drilled at this stage to make the installation of hoses/wires later easier. Ah, don't forget the weight to avoid tail sitting. The instructions recommend 20g, I just fixed a piece of white metal with adhesive putty:

A poor area of the model is the platypus exhaust openings. While the slots are ok, since they are enclosed between the fuselage halves, the lower lip is flat and devoid of any detail. I added a piece of plastic card where I scribed visible details that I found in drawings. They were glued to the lower fuselage half and look muck better:

On the real bird, the exhaust vents were made of Magnesium but the lower lips were protected with an ablative material (similar to the one used on the X-15 and the Space Shuttle). Color photos show a distinctive Salmon color, which obviously becomes faded with heat. I tried to simulate this by airbrushing a gradient from almost pure brown (Gunze H-7) to a much lighter, almost pure white (Gunze H-11) color in the direction of the flow. I haven't prepared any fancy recipe, just added white to the airbrush cup as I went, limiting the lighter passes to the trailing edge of the lips. The area was then washed, flat coated, and masked to protect it for the remaining of the assembly:

Before tackling the Aires cockpit, I noted that the FLIR was seriously bad, with the lenses globe underscaled. I removed the molded on details from the kit's bed (part A24) and added a larger globe in the retracted position, a natural metal lip and another visible detail (sorry, can't tell what is that) whick looks red/brown in the photos. This would be my representation of the FLIR:

The Aires cockpit is a gem, packed with tiny details, switches and all, but a real core to paint. I tried a different method to paint the black side console plates, which contrast visibly from the gray cockpit color: after painting the side consoles black, I roughly masked the plates with rectangular pieces of tape and shot the gray over the whole cockpit. Once dry, I make a wash of the same gray to flow along the divisions of each plate. The method worked like a charm, as you can clearly see the separation between each console, something that would be impossible to brushpaint or mask. Then I proceeded with washes, drybrushing, and detail painting following photos of real cockpits. I almost went blind bringing all those buttons and switches to life, but it was worth the effort:

The control panel is made of a mix of resin and PE parts. I painted the back of the instrument films with white, red and yellow, but the difference is barely visible. The central LCD, the CMDI and HSI screens were painted with different gray tones and coated with Tamiya clear blue, smoke and orange. I painted as many white buttons as I could before cock-eyeing...

The pilots' seat, control column, HUD and the control panel would be installed much later, after painting the camouflage. While the cockpit parts were drying, I started working on the landing gear details. The nose landing gear received a few improvements in preparation for the details to be installed later. The most radical change was to cut the leg just above the pivoting arms, as per real thing. Afraid that it would result a weak assembly, I added two small plastic disks to the pivoting arms to make them wider. This simple action provided a tight fit to the well walls:

Meanwhile, I worked on several small details to enhance the landing gear. I turned both, leg and door retraction arms, and scratchbuilt circuid boxes, braided cables, and several other details that I found on the photos. I will not try to explain where each one goes... you will see when they are painted and installed:

After painting the details of the landing gear, I set them aside and glued the FLIR in place. Academy provided a yellow tinted clear part for the FLIR cover (part C2). As you know, the real F-117 had no glass cover there. Instead, there was a metal screen. I tryied as many options as I could find in my detail box, but even the most delicate screen would not look translucent as the real thing. It is simply something that doesn't seem possible to replicate in 1/72 scale and still looks correct. A bit frustrated, I ended using the kit's part.

The Aires cockpit simply refused to fit well to the cockpit opening. I suspect there is a serious deformation in the mold, as it fitted ok on some spots and the fuselage sides showed no signs of warping. I also drilled the canopy locking holes along the edge of the cockpit sidewall. These will be further detailed later.

The cockpit opening was sealed with adhesive tape and the top and bottom fuselage halves were glued together. They don't align perfectly, and there is no locating pins to help you out. I made use of a progressive gluing, starting with the nose, letting the glue dry, and proceeding along the wings leading edges. This allowed me to finish the job with an almost perfect match of the wingtips.

Once the fuselage was solid, I started the initial detail job on the wheel wells. After painting them in gloss white, I tried to follow the few photos of the area that I had in hand, but I confess that a bit of gizmology was used again. The prominent details are there, though. I used 0.2 and 0.3 mm solder wire, colored wire, stretched sprue and many plastic bits. Some details were left out, as they could be installed only after fixing the landing gear leg in place. The same treatment was used to the main wheel wells, except that much fewer details were added.

The Quickboost stabilizers were a core to install. Although I used metal pins to help, the fit was bad, and I had to spend a lot of time puttying and sanding them. As you can see, even after three filling/sanding sections, I was still working on it:

Wow, two years have passed and the Nighthawk was dusting on my 'shelf of doom'. Then a friend of mine gave me the book 'Skunk Works', about the famous Lockheed division written by the successor of Kelly Johnson, Ben Rich. If you are interested, it is a wonderful book, stuffed with interesting accounts spanning from the U-2, to the Blackbird and the Nighthawk. As an engineer, I couldn't help myself but enjoy each chapter. More than that, my interest in my Nighthawk was sparked again (thanks Nei !)...

Back to the model, I remembered that I have set it aside for a number of technical difficulties (modeling-wise), and one of them was the zig-zag shape of edge of the FLIR screen (provided in the kit as a clear part) ahead of the cockpit. I tried a number of times to cut a mask following the edge with no success...

I primed the model anyway, but left the FLIR area unpainted. Once dry, I sanded everything with a 1200 grade sandpaper:

I couldn't move forward before figuring out a way to mask the FLIR screen... Perhaps I could use a straight mask and forget the problem, but the zig-zag pattern of the edges are important features in the stealthiness of the Nighthawk, and I didn't want the radar signature of my model looking like the one of a F-111.

It was then that an idea occured to me. When we cut a piece of adhesive tape from a dispenser, the cutter leaves a zig-zag pattern along the tape edge, right? That's what I needed. Why not to use the same principle to cut the saw-shaped mask that I failed to cut by hand?  It happened that I had a few of these cutters around (I used to use them to emboss rivet lines).

The first problem was to find a cutter with the tooth step matching the one along the FLIR window. Unfortunately, none of my cutters did. I then switched to modeling cutting saws as cutters and guess what? One of the Revell saw blades matched it almost perfectly:

Then came the second problem. Kabuki-type tapes (like Tamiya) didn't produce a clean cut following the saw tooth. Neither the other tapes that I tested did... They stretched during the pull and teared very irregularly, even in my best try-outs. I needed another type of adhesive tape:

Surveying my tapes drawer, I found a roll of my long forgotten Scotch Magic Tape, the frosty type (for the records, product #811). This tape stretches minimally, and the idea finally worked:

Well, it is a most unusual technique, and you may well think that it is a tad too much. But who knows where else this can be useful? The thing is, one by one, I was gradually solving the challenges of my Nighthawk, and the painting could start, at last:

More to come... 

Technical file
- Academy #2107 / FA076
- Aires #7229 Cockpit set for F-117A in 1/72
- Quickboost #72275 V-tail for the F-117A in 1/72
Basic colors: 
- Primer: Mr.Surfacer 1200 decanted from spray can.
- Several scratchbuilt details - see text.

Rato Marczak 2017