In most modern jet models, the entire cockpit is very visible because of the large bubble canopies. When I started work on my first F-16 Thunderbird for Top Gun 2008, it was important to me to have outstanding cockpit detail. With the competition at such a high level of perfection, I decided to scratch-build everything I could as accurately as possible. My idea was to make everything as individual pieces. That meant every switch, knob, bezel and detailed part out of casting resin. By painting each part separately before assembly I could achieve the most realistic look possible. This required serious documentation, photographs and plans.
(Pictured above) The author Graeme Mears (right) and his pilot David Shulman show off Graeme’s award-winning Thunderbirds F-16 Falcon. Graeme earmed a perfect static score of 100 points at the 2009 Top Gun scale competition. A first!
I researched the Internet and found a German website (xflight.de), which had most of the information I needed. There were detailed general layout graphics, individual panels, as well as high-resolution pictures of all the instrument faces. I also required plans and pictures of the “Aces II” ejection seat. Again, surfing the net produced lots of information and the plans I needed I found in Verlinden Publications’ Locked On No. 2.
Molds and castings
To make molds, you first need an original part called the “plug.” Whenever I’m in department stores shopping for my grandchildren, I always look for any toys that have parts that can be used to make molds. You’d be surprised what you can find. Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of stuff like switches, map reading lights, joysticks, rudder pedals, knobs and a whole lot of other miscellaneous parts. For the F-16, however, there were still a lot more parts that I needed to make from scratch. I made them mostly from blocks or rods of Plexiglas using my milling machine and lathe. Some of the originals, like the parachute bags, I made using modeling clay.
Watertight boxes are required around the plug to retain the two-part silicone molding material. Once the material is mixed, it needs to be placed in a vacuum chamber, to eliminate any air bubbles before pouring it over the plug. I ended up with dozens of molds for the resin parts.
Casting all the required parts took a long time, as there were literally hundreds of them. I use a material called Por-A-Kast, which is a 50/50 mix. To produce a part free of bubbles and surface pin-holes, I used my vacuum/pressure pot to place the casting under pressure while it cured. The parts cure very quickly (in about five minutes), so you have to work fast. A well-thought-out procedure helps get a number of parts poured and into the pot before curing starts. The cured parts need to be left in the molds for about an hour to harden enough to be removed from the molds without breaking or distorting.
Control Panels & Nomenclature
To save weight and to provide a smooth surface for paint, the basic construction of the cockpit was constructed from a lamination of 0.010-inch G-10 fiberglass (franktiano. com) material applied to 1⁄8-inch balsa. All the control panels are layered like the full size and included all the mounting screws and correct nomenclature placards. The Xflite graphics were very valuable here. Using a combination of my CAD program, Design CAD3Dmax and Adobe Illustrator CS2, I reproduced graphics of all the information for every panel. This included all the knobs, switches, circuit breakers and nomenclature placement. I then printed the final graphic panels onto a white base water-slide decal material and applied them to 0.015-inch thick ABS plastic sheet material with the aid of a diluted solution of Formula 560 Pacer canopy glue to improve adhesion. Once the graphics were totally dry, I drilled the panels individually for switch and knob insertion.
After painting all the components, I glued them into their respective holes and then applied the finished panels to their trays with double-sided tape.
Now the laborious task of installing all the tiny screws that secured each panel could start. The screws I used (size 000-120) came from J.I. Morris Company and there was over 100 of them.
Aces II Ejection Seat
The centerpiece of the cockpit is the ejection seat and it required several vacuum-formed and cast resin parts. I sized my 3-views drawings to the correct scale with my CAD program and used them as a guide to make all the required molds. There are a lot of pressed-aluminum parts in the full-scale seat, so I used vacuum-formed ABS to simulate these. Raised rivet details were applied using Formula 560 applied with a syringe.
The ejection rails are made from 0.040-inch G-10 material and scale-sized bolts (J.I. Morris Co., morris01550.com/minsc.htm), were added for scale effect. All the placards on the ejection seat were created in Illustrator and printed on water-slide decal material and applied after the pilot’s seat was painted.
Reproducing scale cockpit details is a rewarding experience. I hope the techniques outlined here will inspire you to try it for yourself. Going the extra mile while detailing a model’s cockpit will set it apart from all the rest, even if you are building a sport-scale model. Have fun.Text & photos by Graeme Mears