Italeri’s big F-104 does you no favours, yet manages to be an enjoyable build. I love this Canadian scheme and this might just be my favourite finished piece.
- Manufacturer: Italeri
- Scale: 1/32
- Subject: F-104
- Extras: Anyz cockpit decals, turned metal pitot.
- Paints: MRP, Alclad
- Fit: Meh. Small steps to smooth on most part joins, heavy parting line on parts, rear fuselage slightly wider than forward fuselage.
- Engineering: Not great. No clever details nor anything to help it go together easily. Especially a nuisance on the landing gear.
- Detail: Okay. Lots of detail, but a bit big and soft.
- Accuracy: No issues that I am aware of.
The F-104 Starfighter was an early supersonic interceptor, designed in the 1950s for maximum speed and altitude: essentially the smallest, pointiest fuselage with the most powerful engine attached, much like the MiG-3, Bf-109 and Spitfire before it. This choice was based on the assumption that the main air defence threat would be high altitude nuclear bombers, which advances in jet technology were making faster and higher, thus necessitating fighters that could reach their altitude in time to stop them. This assumption can be seen throughout the Century Series fighters, which turned out to be incorrect as surface to air missiles made high altitude bombing too expensive and ICBMs replaced manned aircraft in that role. Thus the aircraft were modified to other roles such as fighter-bombing and tactical reconnaissance.
At first glance the F-104 doesn’t appear suited to the role, with its tiny wings and small carrying capacity, and indeed these shortcomings reduced its USAF service career. Anecdotally however it was surprisingly effective with Canadian pilots considered very effective in NATO exercises as the aircraft’s high speed and acceleration made it very good at evading pursuit. In the hands of a skilled pilot who understood the airframe it was a dangerous opponent, being especially suited to high energy manoeuvring.
Sadly, the F-104 is today best known for its poor safety record, with a high number of accidents especially in Canadian and German service. This reputation may however be undeserved, or at least partly attributable to negative media coverage on the aircraft. It is worth noting that in German service many accidents were attributed to an inexperienced generation of pilots strapping on an airframe that could travel twice the speed of anything they had flown before, and then flying low level missions in mountainous terrain with poor visibility. Essentially this was a doctrine that simply did not suit the force available and invited incidents. Meanwhile many Canadian losses came early in the programme (again with pilots transitioning from aircraft that had far inferior speed) and despite especially unfavourable publicity in Canada the aircraft had a lower loss rate than its predecessor, the subsonic F-86. The rapid development of aviation technology had outpaced the pilot development programmes and while not inherently dangerous the F-104 had high stall and landing speeds and if anything went wrong, it went wrong very, very quickly.
This is the tactical reconnaissance boxing of Italeri’s 1/32 F-104. It’s a kit that has been around for a few years now and it is nice that Italeri has done a few different variants of it, covering the late-export-model G and S, the early USAF A and C, the two-seat TF-104 and this reconnaissance one. Worth noting that Italeri have made a few tweaks since the early releases, with new parts which are considered to be improvements on the early ones. The TF in particular is noted to have a much-improved fuselage.
I chose to do the Canadian recon aircraft, though it was a touch choice as the kit gives decals for German splinter scheme, some modern Italian aircraft, and a Belgian SEA one. However I don’t think I had ever done a Canadian scheme and I was quite taken with the bare metal fuselage, white wings and red tailplane.
It’s probably worth saying a few words about Italeri here: they are a manufacturer that I built a lot of 1/72 kits from as a child, and those were not the best even when the competition is 90s Airfix, Heller, and Revell. So spending £70 or so on a big kit of theirs was a nervous moment.
This kit looks fantastic on the sprues. There’s a lot of plastic, everything seems to be nicely detailed, and the sheer size of this model starts to become apparent. Unfortunately, that impression only lasts until you start building it.
Building this is an interesting experience because the problem isn’t that the parts don’t fit (they actually do fit quite well for the most part), but they have a very heavy parting line all around each piece. The parting line is where the mould halves join, and a heavy parting line like this means a lot of plastic to tediously scrape away, and that increases the danger of accidentally ruining the shape or fit yourself. Eduard has this problem as well, and it’s very annoying. Further adding to the trouble here is that the plastic is very soft, so again, very easy to damage the parts while cleaning them.
Italeri provide quite a nice instrument panel, along with a rather nice instrument panel decal with nifty dials. Do note however that the decal is a fair bit smaller than the panel, and not as in the dimensions are too small but that the scale is smaller. Everything, including the dials or more importantly the spacing between the dials, is too small.
I addressed this by cutting the individual dial decals out of the panel and attaching them separately. It’s a tedious headache, but they look really nice. Other bits of the cockpit and IP were further dressed up with some Anyz dial and stencil decals, which give it that realistic feel. One disappointment was the photoetch belts supplied with the kit, which look very flat and lifeless after using HGW ones for a while.
As I moved through the main fuselage it became clear that the engineering on this kit is not great, and the fit so-so. The engineering is a bigger nuisance, because by that I mean that there is nothing to support you and make getting these parts together any easier. In this kit, however, that is not too much of a problem because Italeri kept the parts breakdown very simple. Thus you never have to build a house of cards and while every seam needs attention, you’re generally working on one big seam rather than a bunch of overlapping problems. Basically, when you’ve got two sides of a tube, there’s a seam on the top, a seam on the bottom, and even the worst case scenario is just a lot of putty and a simple shape to sand and scribe. As opposed to having to address awful seams on inside corners etc where you can’t even get at it. Also here, the worst case was just one side being half a millimetre higher than the other, so it was not very hard to address.
One thing I was very impressed at was that even with the full engine (which you have to install because it’s the only way the tailpipe isn’t just an empty hole) this kit avoids being a tail-sitter with no extra weight added. It could be luck, but I want to give Italeri credit because this is rare in jets.
The tail section is a bit of a headache because it has no locating assistance whatsoever and turns out to be moulded about half a millimetre wider than the forward section. So if you fancy displaying it tail-off, you get an easier ride here. On the other hand, I was able to get rid of the worst of it by smoothing the tail down a little. Just enough that it’s less noticeable but not so much that it took the detail away.
By far the most annoying aspect was the landing gear doors, which lack solid attachments. There’s not really much for it apart from sticking them on very carefully right at the end.
Painting this scheme was an interesting experience. The process was first a coat of GX-2 black which is a very shiny black that does a lot of things a primer does even though it technically isn’t a primer. This gets all a bit complicated for me but there are a dozen of so functions that a primer has or might have. GX-2 does few of them, but is reasonably tough, goes down well over bare plastic and dries extremely tight with a lovely shiny finish that is just perfect for metallics.
The next step was to marble some dark colours over various panels to try to create extra tonal variation. This didn’t actually show up on the final piece so I will probably remove this step in the future, at least with regular metallics. By all accounts some finer metallics like the Alclad high-shine range respond well to this, but they are so fragile that I am reluctant to use them.
Finally, I applied the metallic finish by first marbling the metallic onto the model and then coming back to blend it. Metallics don’t really like the low pressure, tight spraying this needs but adding Mr Levelling Thinner (or probably any other retarding thinner) seems to help the flow while keeping them very shiny on the model. The main fuselage is comprised of varying panels of Alclad Aluminium, White Aluminium, and Duralumin based on photos, while further aft the darker panels around the tail are Alclad Magnesium and the bluish bit is Alclad Steel with MRP Burnt Metal Blue over the top.
This approach was actually more effective at creating some tonal variation than I wanted. At first I was alarmed at just how varied the finish looked: not at all like the real thing which was quite clean and smooth. But this was done deliberately because of the theory of “tonal crush” (thanks to Matt of Doogs’ Models again for that one) which is that the stronger your colour variance, the more your subtle differences with be squashed. In other words, you need starker variance within each colour on, say, a Canadian F-104 than on something very even like a low-vis Tomcat. I was still worried that I had gone too far at this point, but finally the markings brought it together.
These aircraft seem to have generally been kept clean in service, but I did find that photos showed some grime and seepage around the engines in particular, so I focused my weathering efforts there. The idea wasn’t to make it look filthy, but to give a bit of oiliness to make it look like the aircraft has been flown and the engine has done its thing.
I really love this one and the bright Canadian scheme. I think it might be my favourite finished jet so far, possibly even my favourite finished piece ever.
As for the kit, while building it I was constantly feeling a little disappointed in what you get for the money, but that’s because I was comparing it to 1/48 kits. This is a very large model which means an expensive tooling. However, I think it is actually worth the price having completed it because in the end it went together quite well and looks stunning, plus there is a huge range of F-104 colour schemes and operators to pick from. This scale opens up a lot of possibilities to explore interesting weathering patterns too.
The disappointment comes from the detail and engineering. The detail is there, but large and soft: it is more like a Trumpeter kit than a Tamiya, and while the box sems to promise a premium kit, they delivered one that is merely decent.
On the engineering side, while the kit doesn’t do anything to help you it is very straightforward so there isn’t that much to go wrong. The parts position a bit vaguely without much locating, but then while moving things around I would find a position where everything lined up almost perfectly and that was always a delight. It is let down by the butt join of the entire tail section and many other parts having little or no locating points.
Overall, however, once you recognise that the kit won’t help you and make the necessary mental adjustments, there are no nasty surprises here. The worst bits come early on in fitting the landing gear bays and engine, though there is that little extra nuisance of the landing gear doors. Of course, they were the worst part of the Kinetic 1/48 kit too so maybe it’s an F-104 thing.
I would rate this kit excellent by Italeri’s standards, reasonable as a modern kit, and worth the effort if you like the F-104.