Kitty Hawk’s Su-34 is a decent kit that is let down by flaws that are all too typical. But if you have the right expectations it can be an enjoyable build and makes a stunning model.
Manufacturer: Kitty Hawk
Subject: Sukhoi Su-34
Extras: Eduard seat belts, Master pitot, Anyz dial decals
Fit: Decent. Every seam needed to be smoothed, and they were not always in helpful places, but there were no steps or gaps. The only area of difficult fit was closing the fuselage around the cockpit.
Engineering: Kitty Hawk. On a macro level this one is fine: everything works and you don’t get the feeling of building a house of cards, though the landing gear assemblies are incredibly fiddly (but they do work). On a micro level, there are a lot of silly mistakes, lacking QA, and carelessness. At one point I was happy to see that locating points existed, only to trim them off to get a better fit.
Detail: Rather nice. Extensive rivet and panel detail throughout, cockpit has plenty of little buttons etc that make it look busy.
Accuracy: Looks like an Su-34 from all angles. Good selection of ordnance, though few of each type. Some small details weirdly different to some close-up photos, but I don’t know what they used for reference: with such a long development there could be changes.
Sukhoi’s Su-34 is an aircraft that has interested me for years. I think I first saw it in the Jane’s USNF PC game back in the 90’s, where as I recall it was still known as the Su-32. The big blue plane with the canards and high performance captured my imagination. A few years later I found a Revell 1/72 kit of it (this time I think called Su-32FN) and that was one of the first times I really tried to make a model look like the real thing, or at least like the box art and paint guide. I even followed Revell’s paint mixing guide to get the colours right.
The various names this plane has gone through speak to its protracted development. Originally conceived in the 80’s as a ground attack variant of the Su-27, and seeming to parallel the F-15’s own development into the F-15E, it was stalled by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The airframe’s development continued very slowly through the 90’s and eventually made production in 2004. This makes perfect sense as by that time the Russian economy was doing well thanks to high oil prices and export demand, making a happy time for defence procurement. Economic troubles have since returned, again restricting Russian military funding: though the exact effects are not clear, we can safely assume that tight budgets do not mix well with a stated goal of military modernisation. Modern equipment not only costs more to buy, it also needs a lot of maintenance and upgrades to stay effective.
A lot has been made of the use of this aircraft over Syria, as this is deemed to show its capabilities and gain useful operational knowledge, but I am unconvinced. It might be enough to encourage foreign sales of the jet, but for what is designed as a high-tech bomber able to penetrate defended airspace and deliver precision munitions on high value targets with pinpoint accuracy… I don’t consider dropping unguided munitions on civilians who lack air defence to be a relevant demonstration of capability, even if that is the most likely use case for many of their prospective export customers. As sales demos go perhaps it is just a way of pushing an expensive product that can do more than the customer needs. Though these regimes probably see expensive high-tech jets as legitimising the regime in the same way they see hosting major international sporting events.
Back to the kits
For such an iconic aircraft, it took a long time to get a 1/48 kit, though sadly that is all too often the case with Russian aircraft. Attractive (or Soviet brutalist, which has its own attraction) designs, often with colourful schemes, interesting weathering possibilities running from factory fresh to “I guess they can fly covered in gunk then”, and yet all too often they are ignored by kit makers. Happily the last few years have started to change that, with Trumpeter / Hobby Boss, Great Wall, AMK, Kitty Hawk and others releasing a plethora of Russian-designed aircraft.
The Su-34 was typical in that we had waited so long for a 1/48 kit and then two came along at once. There was the Hobby Boss, which had a funny-shaped nose, was expensive, had a funny-shaped nose, lacks surface detail, and has a funny-shaped nose. Then a few months later there came the Kitty Hawk, which had a better-shaped nose, nicer surface detail, a better-shaped nose, was cheaper, has a better-shaped nose, exhibits a lot of “classic” Kitty Hawk terrible engineering and QA, and has a better-shaped nose.
Seriously, if you missed the Great Funny-Shaped-Nose Debacle of 2016-17, just reflect that sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss. Basically, Hobby Boss got the nose wrong: it’s a pretty straightforward fix (chop it off and stick a £5 replacement in) but of course the kit has been lambasted as “unbuildable” for it. I love the “this isn’t worth building” guys. They’re the reason I was able to pick up the Hobby Boss kit for about a quarter of the retail price…
Anyway, the point it, I got both kits, and this is the Kitty Hawk.
It’s fair to say that Kitty Hawk doesn’t have the best reputation in the modelling world. They are known for stupid mistakes in both the plastic and instructions, user-hostile engineering decisions, and an apparent lack of QA or professional pride. However… this is the second of their kits I’ve built and I actually enjoyed both. I think that I appreciate the honesty of a Kitty Hawk kit. I go in knowing it’s going to be dumb, that it will bite when I least expect it. Because of that I can laugh at the lunacy of parts that literally can’t be built the way the instructions tell you. I prefer that to some other kits that trick you into thinking it’s super-competent only to kick you in the shins when you believe it. I’m going to build the KH Kingfisher in the new year. It’s considered one of their “most typical” kits, but I’m actually looking forward to it. Just putting that out there now so we can all look back at this and laugh at my folly.
It comes down to expectations. Because I know it will be frustrating and full of silly mistakes, I can prepare accordingly. But it also helps to love the subject enough to put up with it.
The kit starts off in typical Kitty Hawk fashion with a stupid mistake. Literally the first instruction step is wrong. Not wrong as in “you need to fix this” but wrong as it “no it doesn’t actually go together like that”. The instructions show you putting the three engine parts together (oh yes that goes as well as you would expect) and then inserting E22, the nozzle. However, E22 is held front and rear between two ridges. The correct assembly is to attach E22 to any of the engine parts and build up from there.
I’m quite happy with the cockpit. At the time I wasn’t sure how much of this would be visible, as the windows are only on the top, but they are quite large. As it turns out you can see a fair bit, as though the angle isn’t great, the canopy lets in enough light that the cockpit isn’t as dark as you might expect.
I used Eduard seat belts because although the kit ones look like they have a more natural, flowing shape, I could not figure out how they are supposed to go together. The cockpit assembly process itself seemed to be a “your guess is as good as ours,” where the instructions didn’t help much and there wasn’t a lot of locating assistance.
I spent an evening closing the fuselage which is no small task. It’s not so much that the fit is bad, more that the two just don’t want to go together: closing it is like pushing same poles of magnets together. Of course, it featured the most Kittyhawk thing in the world: weirdly placed locating pins which were plausible candidates for being what was preventing it closing, only to find they were innocent after removing them. Requiesce in pacem. I’m still not sure exactly what was preventing it from closing. There was an impingement around the rear of the cockpit, front of the gear bay level, so I ended up taking sprue cutters and trimming down anything that seemed to stick up, and then it closed.
After closing the fuselage, I looked at what I had and spotted a few issues on the dorsal area that would have been easy fixes before it was closed… For one, Kitty Hawk has some vents that clearly insert from inside but tells you to add them from the outside. Careful cutting allowed me to drop them in place and smooth over the resulting gaps. There are also two holes which I believe are fuel filler ports. I’m not sure these should be holes: the instructions don’t show them and there are no parts to insert. Either they were a mistake that didn’t get taken out of the CAD, or they forgot to make the inserts. Had I realised this before closing the fuselage, they would have been easy to fix from the inside as you can make a solid patch. Instead I had to cut a couple of chunks of sprue, glue them into the holes, cut off and sand flush. Actually quite happy with how they came out.
One of the worst elements of this kit is the step behind the cockpit. The mould seems to have an insert that covers the area starting just behind the cockpit. The front sits noticeably high. This was quite easy to remove on the curved section but very annoying on the flat fillet sections. I can’t think why they would have an insert here (it’s not like there are multiple versions) so my prima facie guess is that they messed up the shape and didn’t want to re-cut the entire mould.
The vertical stabilisers attach solidly and align well. Unfortunately Kitty Hawk split the blended wing, and made the cut right at what looks like a stiffening plate, in other words the seam is right next to a raised detail area. Fortunately the wings actually fit very well and I was able to carefully sand to just clean up the small resulting seam.
I was concerned by the complexity of the landing gear. They are a tandem type which tend to be complicated, so there was a lot of potential to do something terrible. As it turns out all three landing gears are fragile and complex. They are fiddly and offer very little locating assistance, and the instructions aren’t especially clear either. However, once you figure out how they fit together, they actually to together well enough and stay there. Also a pleasant surprise was that the landing gear plug in neatly after painting (though I used epoxy as I was unconvinced that the attachment points were that solid), and that all five wheels sit on the floor simultaneously, and that despite having quite a lot of weight rearward, the kit is not a tail sitter. I had left the nose radome off until this point just in case ballast was needed.
At the end of the assembly phase, I didn’t hate the kit. It is very amateur hour, with stupid placement of ejector pins and sprue gates, unfathomable engineering decisions, complexity well in excess of their ability to make everything fit, and all tied together with absolutely no QA (as in if anyone had done a 3D print of the parts breakdown and tried to build the thing from draft instructions, they would have quickly found that it doesn’t go together the way they say it does). I don’t hate it because I expected the lunacy and incompetence, so it’s just a gentle eye-roll when I find some. But the occasional moments of really good fit or a bunch of things actually coming together well are pleasant surprises. Overall I would also say that the instructions are worse than the plastic.
Philosophy tangent, apparently
There’s a line in The Lord of the Rings that might explain why I enjoy Kitty Hawk kits. It comes when Aragorn is leading the army to the Black Gate (spoilers!) and some of the soldiers are overcome with horror. Aragorn tells them that if they can’t face the Gate, then they can still be useful, since there is another strongpoint that he needs captured and defended. Tolkien writes that some of them, seeing “a task within their measure” are encouraged and go to do this. I think that’s what Kitty Hawk is to me: the stupidity and lack of QA makes a challenging build, but one that is “within my measure”, and upon doing a good job I feel like a modelling god. Sad, but probably the case. Whereas modern Revell kits for example require a degree of filling and sanding that is just beyond what I can be bothered to deal with.
Back to painting
It took nine hours to lay down the camo pattern. It’s a big plane, and I have been trying to figure out how to get weathering started in the paint, before using oils and such. I chose to do the Atlantic three-tone scheme on this one, because it shows up the rivet detail more than the Aubergine. Since this kit has rivet detail, it got that scheme.
The panel line darkening I did came out a bit strong. It’s not a technique I’ve ever been comfortable with, and it showed why here. Then with oils I first used the dry scrubbing technique that I had managed to make work in the past, and then used wet oils which I think would be the way forward if I could get to grips with them. From what I saw on the Fw 190D-9 last time there is a lot of potential for this technique, if I can make it work. I’m starting to see a few things that do and don’t work, so it’s just a case of practicing and trying to figure it out.
I chose to arm my Su-34 for a precision strike into defended airspace, though from lack of operational or training references it had to be a bit of a guess, and the limited numbers of each type provided mean there is more variety than you probably see on the real thing. This uses an array of air-to-air missiles, two huge bunker busters under the inboard stations, and a pair of anti-radar missiles under the intake tunnels. I tried to vary the look a little with different colours on the radomes. Unfortunately most photos I could find of loadouts or ordnance were inert display models that don’t feel representative.
Overall, I think this build is another step in the right direction. I’ve been trying to take onboard the idea of allowing the paint job to look bad at each stage, instead of following my instinct to make each stage look as good as possible. The theory is that this should allow more variation and depth to the finish, as each layer contributes rather than having to do the whole job. One result of this that is immediately apparent on looking at the model is that the variation multiplies with each layer, so a technique that gives a nice look when you’ve done an overly flat base now makes a very prominent effect indeed. That means I need to work on getting more subtle with the technique I previously used to give effect: those final oil layers become more about getting everything to blend together nicely.
In other words, it came out a bit more “artistic” than the realistic look I would prefer. A bit overdone, and clearly a lot of work still needed to refine techniques and get more control. Still, it looks nice.