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Painting RC Pilot Figures

Painting RC Pilot Figures

I put a huge amount of detail in the helmets of my Best Pilots pilot figures because its the topmost thing that’s viewed when your pilot is sitting in the cockpit. Most flight helmets are leather and that’s what’s shown here. The following technique works like magic in replicating leather of all kinds, but it works the best when your pilot figure has leather texture molded in the helmet. I’ve included information here for doing a bang up job on WW2 Navy cloth flight helmets as well.

Text & Photos by Lyle Vasser

First paint the helmet, earphones and goggle frames flat black. When painting areas like this, it is quicker to paint where the black meets another color with a fine brush and then fill in with a larger brush. Kind of like coloring within the lines in a coloring book. After all is painted flat black and dry we are going to learn a technique called dry brushing.

Dry Brushing is a fairly easy technique to highlight raised detail. A medium soft flat brush works perfectly. Mine is all curled out at the ends from use, which actually makes it work better. The trick is to not let a lot of paint come off the brush.  To help this, just barely dip the tip of your brush into the paint. You only want about a 1/16 of an inch of paint on brush.

In this instance, the color we are going to paint Sailor’s leather helmet is, uh, MMA Leather. After dipping your brush ever so slightly into the leather paint, brush it on an old clean T-shirt until there is almost no paint coming off the brush. (If you have visitors in your painting area, be sure to use an old T-shirt and not underwear… for obvious reasons.) Lightly whisk the brush across the area to be leather. Magic starts to happen and the black helmet starts to look just like leather. For a darker leather helmet, use less paint and for a more brown leather helmet use more. This technique takes the most time, but it is the most rewarding for the realistic effect achieved.

Navy Helmets

The Best Pilots Pappy Boyington figure uses an altogether different technique since WW2 Navy/Marine flying helmets were made of cloth not leather. But we do use the Dry Brush technique to get the earcups to look like leather that house the headphones.

To get Pappy’s helmet to look real, first paint the cloth area MMA Dark Tan. To bring out the detail, we apply a wash.

-Washes- A wash is simply thinned down paint that is very watery. This allows the pigment to run into lower areas like stitches, ridges and seams to make that detail “pop”. I discovered a very useful wash that works a bit better than plain water. We’ll call it Best Pilot’s Wash. To make, mix slowly- no bubbles – 5 parts water and 1 part Future floor polish in an empty medicine bottle or similar container. The Future is a well-used magical liquid used by fine scale modelers for years, and they are still discovering new uses for this liquid in modeling. Check it out online. The stuff is pure acrylic so it mixes great with MMA Acyrlic paint. When used in Best Pilot’s Wash, it tends to let the paint pigment settle into the crevices better and not creep back out like it would if using plain water. That’s my theory anyway. Only drawback, if there is one, is it leaves a shiny surface which will be corrected later with the flat clear coat.


Take a drop or two of Best Pilot’s Wash and add just a tiny drop of burnt umber so that you get a light brown transparent puddle. Take that and wash it over Pappy’s helmet, taking care to make sure it flows in all seams and NOT over the face or skin areas. You gotta be careful with that. I’ve noticed that the pilots in the South Pacific had prominent sweat stains around the goggles on their helmets. Something to do with flying and fighting in a tropical environment tends to make one sweat! To achieve this effect, simply wash a layer of burnt umber and Best Pilots Wash in those areas. Usually about three layers will get the effect.

MASTER TIP- Dry Brushing brings out raised areas of detail and mimics highlighting and fading. Washes brings out recessed areas of details and mimics shadows. Drybrush = light, Washes = Shadow

To finish the helmet, you can lightly dry brush a bit of light tan on the seams and straps that hold the goggles on. This makes those details stand out realistically and adds to a more complex color variation.


Straps – The goggle straps on Sailor were a bit more complex than his American ally’s. They were part cloth covered elastic and leather. For the cloth part I painted it with MMA Dark Tan and then applied a very thin Best Pilot’s wash with a bit of Burnt Umber.


The leather part of the strap is painted MMA Flat Black and then dry brushed with MMA Leather mixed with a bit of Burnt Sienna for an almost wine color. This gives a nice variation in leathers and is historically accurate.


Pappy’s goggle straps are a base of MMA Flat White with a very then Best Pilot’s wash with a bit of Dark Grey.


The goggle frames are painted with a base coat of Flat Black (don’t paint the lens area yet!) and dry brushed with the same wine-ish color brown.


Pappy’s goggle frames are MMA Neutral Grey dry brushed with MMA Flat Whit



The headphones are left black. For extra detail, dry brush them lightly with a touch of grey, just the upper area and seams. There are two screws on the headphones, to give them a bit of a metallic look, I touched them with a metallic silver colored pencil. Use metalic enamel paint for other metal parts for a “metalic” look.


Add the “Best Pilots” printed lenses and the job is complete!  Pretty good eh”?

(Above) Whether in a Corsair, or in a Wildcat like our lead photo, (both taken at Top Gun!), Pappy Boyington from Best Pilots looks like the real MacCoy! Lyle’s painting techniques and his sculpting talents are simply, well… the BEST.

Updated: December 30, 2019 — 4:04 PM


Add a Comment
  1. Hi Lyle, we could use some 1/4 Scale warbird pilots, especially a Zero pilot. Thanks, Lane C

  2. I have my grandfather’s WWII Navy flight “helmet” for reference and the detail on Pappy looks great. I don’t know if the colors were standard or unit specific but my grandfather’s is red (outside sections) and natural (2 middle sections) cloth, the ear cups are leather but very light tan suede leather. The goggles have orange (amber) lenses and the metal frame looks like flat black (mostly gone) over bare metal.

  3. The flight helmet(s) worn by Pappy Boyington and his Black Sheep pilots in the Pacific during World War II were tan cloth – not brown leather. Many period photos bear this out.

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