AgustaWestland Merlin HC.3
Starting life in the late seventies the EH101 (it became AW101 later) as it was known at outset was a collaboration between Westland of the UK, and Augusta of Italy to produce a medium sized helicopter to replace the ageing fleets of Sea Kings that are common in Europe and Canada. During its long gestation Westland and Agusta merged to become AgustaWestland, with more than a little political upset at the time. The official name of Merlin was coined and has stuck for most European operators, although the Mark numbers are used to identify them in-house.
Flight testing took a 6 month delay after the crash of one of the test machines, and in 1995 the HC.3 variant was ordered by the RAF consisting of 22 airframes, despite the political wrangling over an alternative all Chinook fleet that they were supposed to prefer. The RAF machines in early 2001, and following the acquisition of seven more Danish airframes, two squadrons were formed, seeing service in the Balkans, Iraq and latterly in Afghanistan.
The airframe is designed to be modular in nature, and uses a lot of advanced composites to strike an effective balance between weight, load carrying capability, and for the HC.3 and other in-theatre airframes, ballistic protection. Powered by three Rolls-Royce RTM322 turboshafts, and utilising a further development of the BERP rotor blades found on the Lynx, the avionics have been developed to reduce the workload on the pilot and increase safety, with automatic stability and vibration reduction systems reducing crew and airframe fatigue. Each engine is fed by its own fuel tank, and up to five additional tanks can be installed to further enhance range, topping up the main tanks as they are drained. Capable of carrying Land Rover vehicles internally or on the load hook on the belly, or 24 seated soldiers (45 standing), or alternatively 16 stretchers and med-evac crew, the Merlin is a useful machine to have in-theatre. It can also sport up to five machine-gun stations on doors, windows and on the load-ramp at the rear, augmenting in the standard three-man crew with additional gunners.
Following announcement of the kit there were some long delays to release, resulting in a probable in-shops date of February, which looks to have been correct. The kit arrives in a large red box, and on lifting the lid, we are treated to a big bag containing four sprues of light grey styrene (of varying sizes), plus a separately bagged clear sprue. A huge decal sheet sits in the middle of the large instruction booklet, but both these are dwarfed by the newspaper sized painting and decaling diagram.
The main sprues are large, but the parts are far from featureless. On the contrary, there is plenty of detail moulded into almost every part, and the panel line obsessed will find little to gripe about over the engraved lines, as they are pleasingly fine. A cockpit and full interior are included with the parts, which will please most modellers, and detail in there seems to be pretty impressive too. Sprue gates are wide but slim, so careful cutting should result in minimal clean-up, and flash is almost non-existent. It is clear from initial inspection that a lot of time has been lavished on the details, and this should result in a good looking model with some careful painting and construction.
The build is spread over 138 stages, but don't freak out just yet. There are 335 parts in the box, so there's plenty to do, which is to be expected at this level of kit and price-tag. Work begins on the interior, sensibly enough, creating the nose-gear bay under the cockpit. Because it is made up of individual sides, there is plenty of detail, although it is quite fine, so might not be that obvious on the finished model. Flipping the deck over, the raised cockpit areais built up, with the large central console, twin collective and cyclic sticks added for each pilot before their armoured seats are built up from a main armoured chassis to which the seat pad is added, then the retaining frame and bracing struts are added to maintain the correct angle. The main instrument panel is then added to the underside of the coaming, which is then dropped on top of the central console. The detail on all the instrument panels is very well done, showing up the many Multi-Function Display (MFD) screens that are prevalent in modern aircraft, which is probably why no decals are supplied for them. I would have liked to have seen at least some individual MFD decals, but it's not a major problem as they're quite bland when switched off anyway. The cockpit is separated from the main cabin by a bulkhead that hides some of the workings of the Merlin, so two faces are added together to form a doorway tunnel linking the two areas. Detail painting is called out in Humbrol colours throughout all of this, which reminds me - Humbrol have released a useful colour chart that you're likely to be able to find at your local model shop soon, which includes some handy conversions from other brands of paint, which would be useful if you can't find Humbrol in your territory. Its code is AZ2155 if your LMS staff look at you blankly.
The next job is to create the "spar" that links the two main wheels together within the fuselage, and this is made up of two parts that trap the main landing gear legs in place. There's no chance you can leave these off until later without serious surgery to the parts, so remember to paint them first and then mask them off. The spar box fixes to the rear of the outer floor, and is joined by the load carrying hook which is surrounded by bay walls once in place, to be later covered by the underside of the internal floor. The nose gear is quite short and must also be added to the gear bay before installation in the fuselage along with the retraction strut that folds it forward for stowage. The inner floor is added to the outer, being supported by the rear spar, the hook box and the nose-gear bay, leaving a gap of a few millimetres between the two parts. An optional panel in the inner floor gives access to the load hook bay, and then the inner wall parts can be added. The two sides are moulded with some nice detail, including sound insulation which has some bulges and wrinkles in it just like the real thing. They attach to the floor with a trio of tabs, and are each lined by twelve seats that can be built up in either stowed or deployed state. The detail on the seats is rather nice, with the undersides of the stowed parts having tensioning cord moulded in, while the deployed seat backs are realistically curved as they would hang in the real world. The frames on which the seats hang are nicely done too, and have a number of lightening holes going through the lower area. There are a few ejector pin marks on the faces of them, but from looking at the parts, they shouldn't be seen when built up, but check before committing to glue if they will offend your eyes by being visible later. On the starboard side you have an optional GPMG "Gimpy" mount to station the forward side window. This is made up from a two part mount and ammo box, with an inverted V-frame onto which the Gimpy is installed.
During installation of the sidewalls the following words are written next to the diagrams. "Apply decal here. See interior decal placement sheet." Is an intriguing statement, so after referring to the back page of the painting and decaling "newspaper", I was surprised and pleased to see that there are 77 (give or take) stencil decals to apply to the interior of this model. That's quite a few, but it's the small details that make a model look more realistic, so this is to be applauded - well done Airfix, for paying attention to the details.
The four piece load ramp is built up from four parts and retained in place by trapping it between the two sidewalls on a pair of substantial pegs. The roof part is then installed after painting and decaling, with an optional panel added to the rear depending on which decal option you choose. The front bulkhead behind the radome is the last part of the interior skin that is added, which must be correctly perpendicular to the floor, as detailed in a scrap diagram showing a side view.
The outer fuselage halves accept the side windows, with some optional blanking panels depending on which decal option you are planning on modelling. Evidently there have been some differences in the cockpit windows fit between airframes, and if you are installing the starboard Gimpy mount, you'll need to leave the window out. After glazing, the fuselage sides are closed up around the interior, the fuselage top is added, and the nose cone put in place. Plenty of dry-fitting would be wise to check alignment and fit before you apply glue. The fuselage top is only partially detailed, as the transmission and engine "lump" are added later around a set of guiding raised lines. The cockpit is penned in by an overhead console that is supplied with interior canopy framing, which should also strengthen the sides of the cockpit before the canopy is added later.
The Merlin has three engines, although only two intakes are visible on the outer side of the upper fuselage walls, the other being placed closer to the rotor. The sides are attached to the raised guidelines and joined by a Y-shaped roof that sets them in place, and completes the tapering raised section that terminates just behind the canopy. A pair of exhaust tubes are built up from separate halves, and attached to a nicely moulded fan-face, with an ancillary exhaust joining from the side. These sit at the rear of the lower fuselage hump, with the rotor base and additional engine sitting in another assembly that drops into the crook of the Y-shaped section, completing the upper fuselage. Chaffe and flare dispensers are situated on a small platform set into the rear of the engine hump, with one pair on both side, pointing forward and sideways to avoid clashing with the rotor.
The main gear sponsons are then completed by adding individual walls to the gear bays, extra detail in the shape of pressurised bottles in two of the decal options, and the curving sponson top, which also acts as the bay roof. Two options of sponson end-caps are provided, again dependent on which decal options you are choosing. A pair of strakes run down the port side of the tail, which are supplied as separate triangular parts, and the tail boom is completed by a rear part and top cover to the tail rotor head. Its low-slung fin is made up from two separate halves, and attached on the underside of the tail in a small recess.
Because the Merlin is a modern aircraft on a modern battlefield, it is fairly bristling with sensors and defensive countermeasures including laser-designator jammers, ECM countermeasures as well as laser detectors etc. This leads to a rather large number of lumps and bumps, as well as a chin-mounted FLIR turret for night operations, in poor visibility and SAR. These parts are added around the fuselage, and account for a fair few of the construction steps, although some are better off left until after main painting is complete, as they are quite delicate. Most significant of these is the antenna forest on the underside of the aircraft and on the topside aft of the cockpit, which will also make it tricky to hold during painting.
The Merlin sits on twin wheels for each of its landing gear legs, with smaller wheels on the nose gear, and larger at the rear. Each tyre is moulded with its hub, and have a nicely done sag to the bottom of the tyre, commensurate with the aircraft's weight, without looking like it needs re-inflating. Ensure that you apply the wheels to the aircraft on the level, aligning the flats on the tyres with the surface before gluing. Also make sure you have added the separate oleo scissors to each gear leg before putting the tyres on, as it'll be a bit fiddly afterward.
A pair of applique armoured panels are installed on the lower cockpit sides to help deflect small bullet strikes after unarmoured Merlins were sent into "hot" landing zones, receiving incoming fire. These differ between decal options, so ensure that you install the correct ones. Glazing of the cockpit starts with the separate side panels, after which the main canopy is added over the framework that was installed earlier. A pair of large windscreen wipers install over the glazing, which will probably be easier to install later in the build. The windscreen and indeed all of the glazing on my review sample all had tiny little lines trapped within them, which I think were caused by the wave-fronts of the liquid clear styrene cooling as they met, leaving a tiny imperfection caused by partially cooled wave-fronts meeting within the part. Perhaps the mould wasn't warmed sufficiently, or the styrene was a little cool, who knows? I'm no styrene moulding expert. These lines are very fine, and if present on the main batch, they shouldn't be noticeable under normal inspection.
A kinked towel-rail antenna fixes to the aft port fuselage, and the convex observation domes at the rear near the load-ramp are installed from the outside, allowing installation after painting, which will ease masking a little.
The next choice is weapons fit, and for two of the decal options this entails a port-side door-mounted Gimpy, and a sliding mount on the load-ramp, with a flat armoured panel protecting the gunner. The other three decal options have a door mounted on the sliding rail, which can be glazed and posed open or closed. The larger starboard access door can also be posed open or closed, and because the door pushes out before sliding, it has different slider parts for each instance. The forward mounting points are larger than the aft, and all have protective bell-housings that are made up from separate parts. The open option will be rather delicate, as the door is hanging on the four small runners, so could be crushed against the fuselage with careless handling, leading it to come loose.
The rotors are common to all decal options, and because these are RAF birds, there are no hinge-points for stowing of rotors. The tail rotor is made up from two sets of two blades at 90o to eachother, with four detail parts representing the control mechanism. The large BERP style blades are moulded as a single part, while the attachment to the rotor-head is accomplished by a double-pinned lower part that links to the bottom of the main rotor-head after the complex control arms and shock absorbing dampers are installed. The top of the blade attachment has a large cover, and in the centre of the five covers goes the rotor cap assembly, while underneath a five-pointed boss holds the whole rotor assembly and acts as the connection point to the shaft on the top of the fuselage. The tail rotor is similarly glued to a peg on the tail boom.
Five options are included on the decal sheet, but it's any colour as long as it's olive drab, with the only differences being fittings like door guns etc. before applying the main markings however, there are a substantial number of stencils, the details of which are given on the stencil page of the painting & decaling booklet. From the box you can build one of the following airframes:
- ZJ138/X No.28 (AC) Sq. 1419 Flight, Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan), Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan 2010
- ZJ124/H Flown by Flt Lt Kevin Harris DFC, Incident Response Team (IRT), Joint Helicopter Force (Iraq), Operation TELIC, Basrah, Iraq, March 26th 2008
- ZJ118/B NBo.28 (AC)/78 Sq. Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA), UK, April 2012
- ZJ133/R "Splat!" No.28 (AC) Sq.
- ZJ126/K No.28/78 SQ. RAF Benson, UK November 2011*
* Carries the serial codes of Halifax Mk.III LV905/EY-W "Willie", No.78 Sq. that crashed at Hank, Holland, 25th May 1944.
Decals are well printed, with good register, colour density and sharpness. Spot gold is used for squadron crests, and the current RAF "branding" is present, replete with that awful font with the awkward diagonals on the A and Y. The large black areas on the upper fuselage around the engines is supplied as decals, but if you prefer to paint these areas, the decals can be used as templates for masks.
A great looking kit, and of a similar quality to the Airfix Lynx, which has been praised highly by most. Detail is excellent, and construction has been cleverly engineered, especially around the fuselage, with extra details always popping out, such as the boxes on the fuselage sides that eventually form part of the landing gear bay, and the well appointed interior. Finesse of the detail and panel lines is improved too, and should silence the critics who harp on about the "over-large" panel lines of early releases under Hornby's management.