Droning On – the Special Hobby 1/48 Fairey Firefly U.8
Drones are very much a constant in the news these days; whether it be the likes of the Global Hawk, Reaper and Predator drones lurking over the world's trouble spots or that pesky quad-copter thing hovering over the next door neighbour's back yard.
One of the important uses for military drones is as flying targets for missile testing or as gunnery targets – and this is where the Fairey Firefly comes in to the story. The requirement for a target drone for the British armed forces first arose in the early 1950s; the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) planned to use drones both in the UK and also at Woomera in Australia. At the time, the Firefly was being retired from the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm and a number of surplus Firefly T.7 aircraft had become available and seemed to fit the bill nicely for a high-performance type of aircraft suitable for conversion to an unmanned drone.
Modification of the Firefly T.7 trainer to Firefly U.8 (U= Unmanned) began in 1952. The work involved stripping out all unnecessary equipment and fitting the required radio-control gear. The initial fit-out was done by the RAE at Farnborough with Fairey Aviation doing the conversion of subsequent aircraft. Visually the main differences were the clipped wing tips, now fitted with camera pods and an A-frame arrestor hook fitted below the fuselage for emergency landings – more than a few U.8 drones were wrecked in bad landings. And of course that lurid high-visibility paint finish of Deep Cream (AKA “Drone Cream”) and Post Office Red.
The first Firefly U.8 drone WM810 made it's first flight from Ringway in December 1953. Initially six drones were ordered and Faireys subsequently received an order for another 34, with the last being delivered in April 1956.
With the steady loss of drones “expended” in missile trials, another 40 were required and these were converted from older Firefly FR.5 airframes and designated Firefly U.9 – the conversion work was essentially the same as that done to convert the Firefly T.7 to U.8 standard.
Firefly drones flew out of several locations, such as the RAE airfield at Llandebr, out over Cardigan Bay in Wales on the Aberporth range. The first Firefly U.8 to be shot down was the target of a Firestreak missile launched by a Venom on the 29th September 1955. Another operating location was out over the Mediterranean Sea from Hal Far on Malta, the first flight from there taking place in July 1958. The drone programme lasted three years and from 1959 onwards the Fireflies were supplemented by jet-powered drones; converted Meteors from July 1959 and Canberras in 1961. The last Firefly drone bit the dust in November 1961 with it's operating unit disbanding the following month.
images below to see larger images
Much to my delight, Special Hobby appear to have quite the love affair with the Fairey Firefly. Released in the middle of last year, the Firefly AS.7 (T.7) and Firefly U.8 represent the sixth and seventh releases respectively in their 1/48th scale family of this important Royal Navy type. The two kits are essentially similar, both are all-plastic affairs with a resin wheel well and exhaust stacks, plus a small number of resin intakes for the engine cowling. No photo-etch parts are provided and Special Hobby have included a pair of vac-form alternative rear canopies as well as the standard injection-moulded pilot's and observer's canopy. The pilot's canopy is moulded in one piece with the windscreen whereas the injection-moulded observer's canopy is a two-piece unit. The major difference apart from the markings and paint schemes is the provision in the Firefly U.8 kit of two extra sprues which carry the two halves for each wing tip camera pod. Interestingly, these sprues also carry parts for a target tug winch, so doubtless to say, a Firefly TT is on the cards at some point – excellent!
The thing to remember with Special Hobby kits is that they look great on the sprue, but virtually every part will need just that bit more cleaning up than one would expect from a mainstream kit, and Special Hobby don't seem to regard ease of construction as a major issue – the fit of parts is an issue from the get-go.
Having noted that, the actual construction of the two cockpits is relatively straightforward, provided that mould seams and ejector pins are dealt with as necessary. Both cockpits are overall black with red-brown seats – the real things were a Bakelite material. A decal is provided for the main instrument panel. I found it necessary to vigorously sand back the rear cockpit floor and bulkheads to get the two fuselage halves closed up, and the underside insert for the arrestor hook was a bad fit, requiring both gap-filling CA glue and conventional filler to get a good result. The engine intake front with it's radiator insert was an OK fit that didn't require much attention.
The wings are a three-piece setup which is standard for low-wing monoplane models and there is a large one piece resin casting for the wheel wells; this also helps set the dihedral and gives strength to the completed wing assembly. The round wing tips have to be removed to make way for the camera pods. The fit of these to the wing is not wonderful and again it was out with the CA glue and filler.
Having built the Special Hobby Firefly FR.4 a year or so back, I was expecting fun and games with mating the wing to the fuselage and this came to pass, with substantial gaps at each wing root and a step on the underside of the nose – CA glue and filler again....!
Both main undercarriage units build up into quite sturdy units and nothing untoward was encountered there; the tail wheel is a bit fragile and care needs to be taken with the model one it's in place – possibly a white metal replacement would be better?
One of the attractions of this kit is that lurid paint job – Deep Cream over Post Office Red with the colour demarcations roughly following the Fleet Air Arm's Pattern Two scheme that was introduced in 1946. The model was given three overall coats of Humbrol No.7 Light Buff enamel which when the last coat had hardened off, had the appropriate areas masked off and two coats of Humbrol No.19 Red enamel were sprayed on. This last colour also went into the wheel well and gear door interiors as well.
Once fully dried off, the decals were applied. The kit decals are very comprehensive and one has the choice of several aircraft options -all pretty much the same apart from the serial numbers. The only stand-out was the last option WM810 “A” with a yellow “A” on the vertical fin. As mentioned above, this also happened to have been the first drone conversion – it was”expended” in 1959.
The kit decals performed very well and I was very impressed with the covering power of the white in each roundel that went over the red fuselage sides and wing undersides. Special Hobby have very nicely provided the under wing serials already split up to apply over the undercarriage doors, this proved to be a bit of a Rubiks Cube moment, but by carefully checking and re-checking the placement guides, the deed was done!
I love building these types of models. They challenge my skills and you have to work to get a result. They can be as frustrating as anything and I'll happily admit to putting the plastic back in the box on occasion and walking away out of sheer annoyance, but I always come back to finish off the project. This Firefly wasn't one such kit, and despite the issues with rubbish fit, I'm well pleased with the finished result. The Firefly U.8 certainly makes for an eye-catching model and I look forward to getting stuck into another Firefly model in the not too distant future!