When you build a scale RC model airplane, everyone wants to take a look inside your model’s cockpit. Yet most casual modelers neglect this area, thinking it’s too much work or they don’t have the skills. This article will show how I go about building a scale cockpit in a way that makes all the scale bits accessible. Making a cockpit look more realistic elevates the scale model’s whole appearance, and if all the cockpit items are easily accessible that makes servicing your model more convenient. For this article, I will be adding cockpit details to my 1/5-scale P-51A Mustang that I built from Jerry Bates plans.
THE SCALE ILLUSION
Before digging into the building of cockpits, let me clarify a few things. The first and most important thing to remember is to have fun. This is a hobby, and everyone experiences it differently. If you want to go hog-wild and replicate your model’s full-scale cockpit, including every wire, hydraulic line, and former, then go for it. On the other hand, if you’d rather add only a few items, then by all means do that. The point here is that there is no law saying how much detail must be added to a cockpit. When it comes to scale competition, the interior cockpit details aren’t even scored. The details are in there because you want to include them. Anything from a complete museum-quality treatment to just the bare bones is up to you.
My friend and scale guru Dave Platt says, “Building a cockpit is more about creating the illusion of a cockpit than getting it 100 percent right.” What that means is that sometimes scale modelers have to take liberties because we might not have the necessary photos and documentation that show everything in the pilot’s main office. There is a lot going on inside the cockpit, so it is important to include enough detail so that it rewards the interested eye.
Detail does not have to be heavy. One thing I hear from other builders is that including all those scale details adds a lot of weight. This can be true, but with a little thought and effort, you can cut down on weight gain by being conscientious while selecting materials. Being thoughtful of the weight of every item you add to your model should become second nature if you wish to improve your skills as a scale modeler and will keep your model from turning into a heavy hangar queen.
REMOVABLE COCKPIT FLOOR
The first step is to make the cockpit floor removable. As it will be the foundation for the rest of the process, we want to get it right. The floor pictured here is made out of 1/8-inch light ply and medium balsa, with 1/4-inch-square balsa sticks to give it some rigidity. I added two small hardwood blocks in the rear corners for the attachment screws. To keep the weight down, I limited the length of the floor and chose the wood carefully.
Every model is different, so you need to figure out how you want to mount the floor. For this example, I measured the width and length of the area I wanted the floor to cover. I cut the floor to size so that it was as close as possible to the sides; that way, if people look inside, they won’t see the top of the wing. I used two 1/4-inch-square pieces of spruce up front to create a “notch” for the front edge of the floor to slide into. After leveling and measuring carefully, I glued the aft hardwood blocks in place so that the cockpit floor could be screwed into place. I drilled the holes in the floor slightly smaller than the screws so that the screws would fit and stay in place. I removed the floor and gave it a thin coat of Zap finishing resin. When dry, I sanded it smooth and primed it for a finish ready to paint.
BUILDING THE COCKPIT
It is important to have good reference material to use as a guide. I usually use a combination of books, scale plastic models, and photos to help make my models as accurate as possible.
Once I adjusted the floor, I tackled the instrument-panel hood. The issue here is that you have to go from a rounded fuselage shape to three flat panels that shield the pilot’s instrument panel. I used stiff paper stock (you could use cardboard) to mock up a dummy hood to get the shape close to what I needed. Using some 1/16-inch- (1.6mm-) thick plastic, I cut the plastic hood to shape and then used a heat gun (set on low temperature) to bend it to shape. Using a Moto-Tool and a fine grinding bit, I cut a ledge to accept the hood and give it a good gluing surface while blending the hood into the fuselage. If you do not have a Moto-Tool, you can form the ledge by gluing sandpaper to scrap wood shaped into an upside-down L and slowly sand the ledge along the edges to accept the hood.
I used some thick CA to attach the hood and clamp it in place. Once everything was where I wanted it, use some CA kicker to start the bonding process. For the final blending, I used some Bondo lacquer glazing putty to fill in the spaces and seams; it’s important to smooth everything out so that there’s a gradual transition between the fuselage and the hood. After the putty dried, I sanded it smooth, then primed and painted it.
Using 0.010 fiberglass sheet material (available from franktiano.com), I cut the sides to shape and used balsa (finished with epoxy resin) to form the top cockpit ledges. To make it all come together, I glued the sides into place and feathered them in along the ledges with lacquer putty. I masked off the fuselage around the cockpit, primed everything again, and painted the cockpit interior with Testors Model Master Interior Green Enamel.
THE LITTLE BITS
While the cockpit paint is drying is a good time to get all the cockpit bits and pieces in order. There are two basic areas in the P-51A to concern ourselves with: the cockpit interior itself and the radio compartment behind the cockpit.
For the cockpit interior, I used the P-51D cockpit kit and instrument panel from iflytailies.com. Although the majority of the components in the kits are intended for the D-model, I can also use them in my P-51A. As you can see, these parts are resin-cast and have to be assembled and painted. I used medium CA to assemble them and then painted them with Model Master flat enamels, applied using a fine brush. These kits allowed me to modify various parts as needed to get them closer to what was needed for a P-51A cockpit. One tip here: Glue a small piece of plastic tubing or an old piece of pushrod on the back of the items while assembling the components. This will give you an easy way to hold the parts while working on them and painting them. As you can see from the photos, I used a block of foam to support them while working.
I also assembled the instrument panel from an iflytailies.com kit. This work is fairly straightforward, and I would recommend the company’s cockpit component and instrument kits to anyone building scale models as they will save you a lot of time.
For the radio components, I built a master plug for each of the radio units. I then made two-part latex molds and cast the final parts using two-part resin; the latex molds are easy to make and will produce several castings before they wear out. After removing the cast radios from the molds and carefully cleaning them up, I ground out the bottoms with a Moto-Tool to remove some unwanted weight. I finished the radios with Testors Model Master Flat Black Enamel.
The radio support shelf was made simply out of balsa that I finished with a 0.5-oz. fiberglass cloth. The radio mounts are made out of sheets of styrene plastic and various Plastruct pieces from the hobby shop. The wire bundles were made out of 36-gauge wire, which I stretched between two nails, wrapped with tape, and cut to length. Once cut to length, they were also painted flat back and then attached to the radio units.
The weathering of the cockpit compartment and all its components is important and is a two-step process. First, I applied Rub ’n Buff (available from craft stores) using small brushes, bamboo skewers, and my fingers; this produces areas where it looks as if the paint has been worn off, exposing the silver metal below. Second, I applied a wash of dirty brown/red to everything. The wash is made out of thinned water-based acrylic paint. This gets into all the recesses and seams, and adds depth to the scale bits and pieces. Once everything is dry, I sprayed on some Testors Dead Flat clearcoat to give everything an even sheen; this also locks the weathering in. I then installed and glued the radio racks into place.
INSTRUMENT PANEL INSTALLATION
This is one of the examples where I took liberties but the illusion is still there. The instrument panel is carefully glued in place at the proper distance under the hood. The gunsight is from iflytailies.com and also gets glued in place after painting and weathering it. The hood padding along the edges can be formed from plastic tubing slip, which is then glued into place. (You might be able to find molded padding from Fourmost Products either online or from a well-stocked hobby shop.)
I then glued the pilot seat onto the floor and then added the pilot to the seat. My beautiful scale pilot figure, which has Maj. Robert Petit’s face, is from Lyle Vasser of Best Pilots. The pilot and seat are removable, so I can get up into the cockpit if I need to work on it. With everything now in place, we can turn our attention to installing the rear side windows as well as the canopy and canopy frame.
After cleaning up the dust in the radio compartment, I started gluing on the side rear-window panels. I use Zap Formula 560 Canopy Glue to glue the clear panels into place. I used tape to strap in the panels and hold them in place. As you may notice in the photos, the window edges had to be routed to allow the plastic to sit flush with the fuselage. After the windows were dry, I removed the protective covering from the plastic. I masked off the edges (as well as the entire window area) using vinyl tape and then feathered them in using lacquer putty. I carefully sanded the putty and primed it to give a smooth, even edge. I added the trim and the corners using some Aero Foil from Aero Accessories.
CANOPY AND FRAME
This is one area where you need to take your time and fit, cut, and repeat until the canopy fits perfectly and sits flush. I again used Zap Formula 560 Canopy Glue and ran beads around the edges. I taped the canopy into place using masking tape and allowed it to dry overnight. After the canopy glue had set, I glued the canopy frame in place over the clear canopy, taping it in place until the glue dried; with Formula 560, the adhesive turns clear when dry, and you can clean up any excess glue with a damp paper towel. Once the canopy and frame were in place on the fuselage, I feathered them in using more Bondo putty.
Once everything was dry, I sanded the putty smooth using 320-grit paper and primed the entire area with Dupli-Color Hi-Build Primer; normally, I would leave the masking tape on until after I had painted, but I wanted to remove it and show you the final result. After I paint a model, I like to use some plastic polish and do a final cleanup of the clear plastic. Spending a little extra time cleaning up the edges after painting your model will produce a scale model you’ll be proud of.
About the Author
Mike Chilson is the founder and owner of rcscalebuilder.com, an online community dedicated to all aspects of RC scale modeling. He is an avid modeler with more than 25 years of experience in building and flying RC airplanes, and he really enjoys his shop time in the winter. During the summer, you can usually find Mike hanging out with his flying buddies at the local club field in Birmingham, Alabama, or at fly-ins across the Southeast.
Scale Reference Books
Text & photos by Mike Chilson