Northrop P-61A Black Widow
Unmistakable in appearance and unequalled in firepower among American fighters in World War II, the Northrop P-61 Black Widow was America’s first purpose-designed night fighter. First contracted in January 1941 at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, delivery of production aircraft took place in the summer of 1943 to stateside training units, followed by initial deployment to the European Theater of Operations that December, with the Pacific Theater units equipped the following spring. By war’s end, the P-61 would amass 136 confirmed kills, including 9 V-1 “buzz bombs,” in European, Mediterranean, Pacific, and China-Burma-India theaters of operation.
Since the early 1970s, the classic Monogram P-61 has been the modeler’s only choice in 1/48th scale…until now. Nearly 40 years later, Great Wall Hobby has delivered a state-of-the-art rendition of this nocturnal predator. First out is the P-61A, representing early production examples without a top turret.
Upon opening the box, the modeler’s anticipation is rewarded with 173 crisply molded styrene parts (161 gray, 12 clear) with a combination of fine recessed and raised detail, a fret of nicely-executed photoetch, and 2 decal sheets supporting 2 markings options. Some of the early shipments of the kit errantly contained the longer B- and C-model radome (part #K1), but Dragon USA has made provisions to order the proper A-model radome through their customer service portal at www.dragoncare.com.
Notable features of the kit include weighted tires; finely detailed cockpit, engines, and wheel wells; poseable crew entry doors; open and closed cowl flap options; and positionable control surfaces. Conspicuously absent, however, are canopy masks – a feature which would be most welcome for a subject with such expansive bird- cage canopy surfaces.
Bearing in mind this is only GWH’s second aircraft kit, it is this reviewer’s opinion that the manufacturer shows incredible potential to deliver world-class aircraft kits to rival those of Tamiya, Eduard, Hasegawa, Academy, Hobby Boss, Trumpeter, Dragon, Revell (newer releases), and others. This offering, however nice it looks in the box, does exhibit some growing pains in the areas of tool design, fit, media fit, instruction accuracy, fidelity of shape and proportion, pack-out quality control, and buildability. Although not a bad kit, more is expected at its price point in the market. That said, the detailed review follows.
The prescribed build sequence starts with cockpit and radar operator stations, which are real jewels and a highlight of the kit. GWH pushes molding technology limits with its ultra-thin seat arm parts and supports. Great care must be taken to avoid breaking them when removing from the sprue tree. Beautifully rendered unpainted PE makes for nice lap belts and harnesses. The instrument panel is a bit of an odyssey, with 26 individual instrument face decals to be placed in the injection-molded panel’s bezels. An approach similar to Tamiya’s or Eduard’s sandwiching of decals or pre-painted PE would have been expected here. Even raised detail dials for drybrushing would’ve been preferable and far less time-consuming. Sidewalls and consoles are nicely done, but lacking throttle quadrant detail. A few decal data placards are included, as well.
Upon completion of the crew stations, assembly of the 20mm cannon bay follows. Although nicely detailed, the fit of the cannon into the bay is, at best, difficult. The trusty pin-vice drill was called in to enlarge holes in the barrel supports (part #s I16 and F50), and the breech supports (part #I10) broke or buckled during removal from the parts tree, with one later failing and escaping into the pile of the carpet under my workbench. For future releases, I10 would be better presented as PE.
While the flight deck/gun bay assembly set, the instructions called for insertion of the nose wheel well (F34). In my case, this was not a good thing. Although great care was taken to align the bay between both fuselage halves (cementing to the right side only, initially), when it came time to insert the flight deck above, there were show-stopping interferences with the side wall ribbing detail. After a bit of tinkering, fussing, and fuming, the nose gear well was carefully removed, then combined with the flight deck and gun bay, and re-installed as a single assembly.
Early versions of the instructions omit the callout for addition of weight above the gun muzzles to prevent tail-sitting, but are addressed in a correction sheet provided by Dragon USA with the replacement A-model radome. Needless to say, I needed to stuff over 40 grams of weight forward of the main gear to get the review sample to stay on its nose gear – including 21 grams in the radome itself.
Getting the interior into the right side of the fuselage took a bit of jockeying to ensure all of the crew station, gun bay, and nose well parts interfaced properly. Getting the left side in was an even greater challenge, taking the better part of an hour, given the added maneuvering constraint of the right fuselage half. Guiding the 20mm muzzles through their fuselage fairings undamaged was the highest hurdle. It would have been preferable to have wider fuselage openings with separate fairing panels to slide over each muzzle. The top fuselage seam required a fair amount of putty, and the turret plug fit poorly and was eventually filled, sanded flush, and simulated with pencil and a circle template once the model was painted and dullcoated.
For both the fuselage and the booms, I chose to follow the prescribed assembly sequence and sandwiched in the tricycle landing gear struts, masking them prior to application of paint to the airframe. Given the small load bearing cross-section of the strut pinions, I am concerned about their durability during contest transport and handling.
The radar is completely injection-molded and seems to be quite a good representation of the prototype. Again, the only drawback here is the choice of using ultra-thin injection-molded support braces for the radar dish. Two of the four arms broke on the sample during assembly. These would have been better rendered if included on the PE fret.
Probably the biggest disappointment in the whole build was the canopies. Although beautifully molded and crystal clear, they just fit poorly, and there’s little for the modeler to do to correct them short of major rework of the canopy parts (always a risky proposition with clear parts) and the mating areas on the fuselage. I sanded, scraped and shimmed as much as I dared, but still missed the mark. Hopefully GWH will retool their canopy parts for future releases to improve this big dissatisfier.
Wing assembly is straightforward, with styrene radiator grille inserts for the leading edges and optional-position PE speed brakes. Inclusion of the optional position of the PE speed brakes is somewhat mystifying, as I could not find a single instance in my references of the speed brakes being deployed on the ground. Allocation of that PE cost would have been better used as mentioned above. Positionable flaps are included, but the inboard flaps are a bear to fit and align, making them unpositionable in practice, and the main flaps have an almost toy-like fit with some downward deflection at the outboard ends.
Boom assembly follows, again with errors in early-release instructions, but corrected in the later one, as with the radome replacement package. Main gear wheel well detail is nice, but the injector pin marks on the sidewalls are unwelcome, although somewhat difficult to notice on the finished product. Rudders are positionable, but also a bit toy-like.
The engines are nicely done, including PE plug wires, but do lack magnetos – which is pretty much a moot point given the too-narrow opening of the cowling. Caution must be taken when assembling the piston banks to ensure proper orientation, as the keying of the parts does not preclude inadvertent reversal of one bank or the other. The modeler may choose to use either open- or closed-position cowling flaps. Props are single-piece. Care must also be taken when affixing the engine assemblies to the booms, as the boom holes are a bit shy in diameter, and the engine assembly is fragile and may incur damage if pressed too hard into the boom.
With fuselage, wings, and booms complete, everything then goes together – including the horizontal stabilizer, with positionable elevator. The wings and booms require a bit of sanding, scraping and filling to fit properly, then get glued to the fuselage sides. There is no wing spar section in the kit, so hopefully the glue joints are robust enough to support handling of the model by its wings with its 40+ grams of weight.
Fiddly bits go on once all is painted. Gear door hinges required some extra trimming and sanding to fit properly. Two external fuel tanks are included, but may not be accurate for the A-models, as some research indicates they may not have been plumbed for wing tanks. I chose to use mine to fill 2 of the 4 open underwing slots – leaving 2 slots open on the finished and painted model – ouch!! Again, hopefully in later releases, provisions will be made to fill these slots and clearly call it out in the directions.
Painting and Finishing
I chose the decal option for “Lady Gen” of the 422nd Squadron, operating in the European Theater c. 1944. Tamiya’s white primer was applied as a base, followed by preshading of PollyScale Engine Black. For the belly Neutral Gray (FS 36270), I tried the new Italeri Acrylics. After thinning 2:1 with distilled water, they airbrushed on perfectly. Topside OD (FS 34087) came in the form of Model Master Acryl. Wheels were painted with PollyScale Grimy Black, and the props were painted with PollyScale Engine Black. Minwax Acrylic Gloss was applied as the decal base.
Decal quality is good, although the “stars and bars” need to have slightly larger stars to fill up the blue field a bit more. All of the markings responded well to the MicroScale system, and were sealed with another coat of Minwax Acrylic.
After applying a sludge wash of artist pastel chalk dust, distilled water, and dish soap, the Widow was dulled with a 50/50 mix of Future and Model Master Acryl Flat. Dry artist pastels were then used to simulate engine exhaust, gun muzzle residue, foot traffic on the upper surfaces, and general wear on the airframe. Another coat of the 50/50 Future/Acryl Flat sealed the dry pastels.
GWH’s rendition of the P-61 is a welcome addition to the marketplace for aircraft modelers, and is the best example of this legendary fighter to date in 1/48th scale. The kit clearly has its strengths and its opportunities for improvement. It requires much attention to detail, some finesse, experience, and patience to complete. If a modeler is willing to put in the effort, the reward will be a sharp-looking P-61.
All said, I do recommend this kit to experienced modelers wanting to add this legend to their collection with a state-of-the-art kit. GWH shows great potential to produce some truly-stunning kits in the future, and hopefully they will continue to replace many of the long-loved classics of the 70s with 21st Century cutting-edge kits. Can’t wait to see their recently-announced TBD Devastator!
Many thanks to Dragon USA and IPMS/USA for the sample kit.