When it comes to military matters, breaking new ground, and/or being what’s called an “early adopter” can be risky. Sometimes, it pays to get in on the ground floor of a technical or philosophical revolution, but in other times, it can lead to lots of wasted time, money or even lives. There are many examples of this in military history, but perhaps the airplane is the best example. In hindsight, airpower is clearly a major part of almost all major conflicts now, and it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when the airplane was considered a toy at best, and a dangerous fad at worst. This led to a very slow adoption by the worlds’ armed forces of aircraft, until, of course, the fires of World War I made clear the value of aircraft both on land and at sea.
After the war, though, which was (ironically) supposed to be the one that ended all war, military spending and development lagged. More conservative countries and services didn’t bother to push the state of the art too far too fast, and thus many of the planes entering service in the early 1930s were only really slightly advanced from the ones that had been serving at the end of the Great War.
This was particularly true of naval aircraft. While monoplanes had begun to be seen more and more as the way of the future for land-based aircraft, the new naval air powers of the world were slower to adopt this “radical” design concept. It was felt by the more conservative nations’ navies that the biplane’s high-lift and low landing speed were desirable for taking off and landing on the carriers of the day. Indeed, most ship-based, catapult launched observation planes remained biplanes for the same reason (at least the ‘high lift’ part).
Thus, even as experiments with monoplane naval fighters were undertaken, other naval planes stayed true to form as biplanes. Recce birds, torpedo bombers and divebombers were all still biplanes by the start of the ‘30s. The Royal Navy in particular seemed to be loathe to give up its biplanes (like the Seafox), and in 1935 the Fleet Air Arm put into service a new torpedo/recon aircraft, the Blackburn Shark. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s no surprise. Despite serving during the war in secondary roles and on secondary fronts, its name is not synonymous with the great battles of the Second World War. The reason for this is simple; despite being an all-around good airplane, it was replaced in 1937 with the world-famous “Stringbag”, the Fairey Swordfish.
The Shark served a longer time with Canada, which used them for coastal patrol off the coast of British Columbia until 1944. They were used in the Far East, as both target tugs and and active patrols by the Fleet Air Arm, even seeing combat in Malaya in 1942 when they bombed Japanese invaders! So, while it’s not famous, it isn’t just some transitional “missing link”, either.
The machine had only modest performance, as one would expect, reaching a maximum of 150mph and climbing at less than 1000 ft/min. It wasn’t a race plane, but it could fly 625 miles and it was armed with a single 0.303 gun in the nose plus a second flexibly-mounted one for rear defence, and could carry either a single 18” torpedo or 1,600 lbs of bombs. Only the Mk III had an enclosed/covered cockpit, something that the Canadians added. That seems to have been a Canadian thing – adding enclosed cockpits. If you’ve ever been in a Canadian winter, you’ll understand why!
Since the Shark is by no means a world-beater, and didn’t really distinguish itself in any theatre, it’s not a surprise we’re not being inundated with Shark replicas. There are no 1/24 multi-media Shark kits (yet), but there have been a number of 1/72 renditions. The first (and maybe the basis for all the rest, I’m not sure about the Chematic, Smer and others), though, was the ancient FROG Blackburn Shark, which was first set loose on the modelling world in 1968!
Given that the Shark is not very well known it’s always been of interest to me. I had a chance to grab one a few years ago, but sadly I passed it up. I think I was scared of it being a biplane. I still am, but now I think I can likely figure something out. I hope. Thanks to Alan, who sent me an awesome care package in the mail, I now finally have one of my very own! As for loving the Shark, I guess I’m not alone, since MMP just put out a new book about it! (It is February, 2020 as I write this…) Maybe this means a new-tool Shark is on the way? Well, just in case it isn’t let’s check out this first-edition classic! Crank up the Wayback Machine to the year Boeing’s 747 rolled out and Laugh-In debuted, and let’s get Old School!
If there’s one thing that old model boxes had, it was style. The great British marques of Airfix, FROG and Matchbox really had some killer art adorning their boxes. Even if the sprue inside is a far, far cry from the best you’ve ever see, you can’t deny that there is something engagingly visceral about the often action-packed scenes that awaited prospective kit buyers. Heck, there have been some kits that I’ve picked up just because the box was so cool!
As you might expect, the FROG Shark is a proud member of the “awesome box art mafia”. This is an old FROG box, and it’s of the type that, sadly, doesn’t have full-span artwork. There’s a red and white band on the left side, worth about a quarter of the box’s width, that tells you indeed that this is a FROG and a Blackburn Shark. As if paying it forward to Matchbox’s efforts a decade later, this modestly-sized kit is capable of being built in THREE different schemes (1/72 Purple Range Matchboxes only have 2 options), and in addition it can be made as either a floatplane or a landplane! Man, how cool is that?
It’s interesting to note that it also advertises that there are “Authentic MATT transfers”. I don’t know who MATT is, or where he’s transferring to. Are they transferring him to us? Maybe he was some kind of philanthropist, and every FROG Shark had transfers donated by him? Of course, they meant the word we normally see as “matte”, meaning non-shiny. It’s funny to see how the spelling changed over the decades. Either that, or the folks at FROG really suck at editing box copy! (Note: “matt” is German for matte. Now you know.)
The rest of the front, though, is a pure, dynamic, action-packed love letter to Blackburn’s oft-forgotten naval striker. The main focus of the illustration is a float-equipped shark just pulling off of its torpedo run. The fish has just hit the water, and the intrepid pilot has begun his (likely not-fast-enough-for-his-liking) exit of the battle area. The spray from the torpedo’s splashdown and the dark, wave-capped sea below add a real sense of excitement. This is capped off by literal speed lines! Behind and below the Shark are a series of features that seem to be the wrong orientation to be clouds – they’re not parallel to the ground, but they do match the Shark’s trajectory! The LAST thing that one would expect to be associated with the plodding Shark, being all floats and rigging as it is, is speed lines! However, they are subtle, and they work. You can excuse them as sky features, but your brain tells you that this bird is hummin’, and that this box art is high drama!
The sky is somewhat overcast, and there are some kind of coastal mountains or something in the background. This darkness adds to the tension of the scene. Amazing, and somewhat easy to overlook, is that a second Shark is shown in the background, still clutching its torpedo to its belly. What’s really neat is that it’s a landplane version! Subtle, FROG, subtle…
Both “long sides” of the box are the same: the white band with red “FROG” writing butts up against a pink panel with a side profile of a landplane Shark. You can see that the Shark is not as ungainly as it looks from the box top; indeed, it looks no less antiquated than the Swordfish that replaced it! Each “short end” has the box art repeated, albeit in a slightly truncated fashion. Unlike later FROGs, the “cross sell” illustrations are inside the main lid, which opens like a pizza box.
Like Matchbox kits, FROGs usually have a full-colour back panel, with the painting guide appearing there. The Shark is no exception, and you can see the three schemes for which decals (or MATT Transfers) are provided. There’s a lot of good variety here – the Portugese machine is shown on floats, while the British variant is a landplane. There’s a note about serials and paint for a British floatplane, though, so really, there are three variants of the “silver and grey” scheme alone! The last scheme is one that’s close to my heart, and that’s the trainer! This third variant is in Dark Earth and Dark Green, with Yellow undersides, just like my Ford Trimotor and Wellesley engine testbed! To me, this is a very sexy paint scheme, and I’m a sucker for anything in that scheme. It’s like an aerial mullet: “Wartime on the top, training on the bottom”!
There’s also a very detailed sidebar that gives a brief history of the Shark (although it doesn’t mention its use in Canada… grr…) and describes the kits features. This is where the complexity of this kit starts to make itself clear. Not only can you build it as a land or float plane, and as a combat aircraft or a trainer, but you can also build it with the wings extended or folded! Man, they really knew how to give you options back then! If this was a modern kit, you’d have to buy different versions of it to get the wing fold, or you’d need an expensive aftermarket adapter set or something. Not with the FROG. With a FROG, you get it ALL! Oh, it seems that Matthew is back, too; apparently the top of the fuselage was “matt black”. Sigh…
Now, as you know (if you followed the link above), this was part of a modelling care package sent to me by my friend Alan. Clearly a man of great taste who knows me well, the Shark was also a fan of the masses, since it won the vote for what I should review first. However, this kit wasn’t new when I got it, nor was it, I would imagine, when Alan got it!
Thus, when I opened the box I got a faceful of what most second-or-later FROG owner see – a number of grey sprues and a pile of random, loose parts. It was a literal tornado of Shark bits!! Many of my other FROGs have been this way, but neither my Uhu nor my Pfeil were anywhere as piece-y. Of course, this is because the Shark has so many different variants, and it’s all struts no matter which way you build it! With floats, float struts, and extra bits for the folded and unfolded wings, the Shark is really a very high-part count model for its age.
That’s why I didn’t separate out all the pieces for the “what’s in the box” shot below. There are too many small struts and other bits to risk losing them. So, suffice to say you get what you see with most of the kit being confined to the Ziploc bag I put them in.
The whole model is moulded in what I can accurately say is “model airplane grey”; that colour that so many kits of planes seem to be in. The plastic is by and large thick and shiny (Matt’s not in the picture yet) and it gives the impression of immense solidity. It’s not that brittle either, which is impressive! A great deal of kits from this era lack refinement and thick features like trailing edges and cockpit sides are de riguer. However, the Shark is not as badly afflicted with these symptoms as other kits even far newer. While you won’t draw blood on the trailing edges, they aren’t horrible. You actually COULD draw blood on the cockpit edges; they are very sharp and thin!
What amazed me was the level of detail on the kit. It reminds me most of a Heller. There are many raised details on the plane, and they’re all much finer than many of its contemporaries. The rivets are relatively restrained, and there are a few panels etched in for good measure. Sadly, when I re-etch all this stuff, I’ll lose the rivets, but I’m not going to lose sleep over that! The wings on the Shark are fabric, and the ribbing and “sag” on the wings and control surfaces looks great. They’ll look awesome with a bit of pastelling to add lowlights, or if you want to pre-post shade, they’ll really pop!
Sadly, like so many kits of this era, the Shark is not blessed with a hyper detailed cockpit or engine. There is a floor, so it’s better than a Farpro (Myrt or Norm – both were floorless), but that’s about it. There are monolithic gravestones that serve as seats, and nothing else. Remember, control sticks and instrument panels are for the weak! Given there’s no cockpit to cover this up, superdetailers might want to have a plan to add some stuff. As for me, I’ll likely build her as she comes. If the lack of interior freaks people out, then they need to learn about how it was done back in the day!
Just as visible, and just as sucky, is the engine. What passes for an engine actually looks more like an engine cover, or radiator. It’s a disk with numerous radial arms and equally-spaced circles scribed onto it. It’s like a record that a pair of mating spiders died on. Whatever it is, it does NOT look like a Tiger VI 14-cylinder, two-row radial engine. I know there are a lot of people who will find an engine replacement, and I will admit I’m tempted, but spare radials aren’t something I have much of, so I think this one might just have to go with what it’s got. My only hope is the ancient Revell Condor; maybe its engines will work? That assumes I can even find my copy of the kit, of course…
Adding to the part count is the fact that all the control surfaces are separate pieces! That includes the upper-wing leading edge slats! Heck, this kit has “poseability” out the yin-yang; it has as many points of articulation as an early Gundam kit, for goodness’ sake!
Close, But Not Quite…
Given the high part count of the Shark kit, and the fact that it was all loose when I got it, there was an inevitable question about completeness. Indeed, I didn’t know if the kit was even all there when Alan got it, but I painstakingly went through the instructions to find out.
Sadly, the kit is not quite complete. It’s missing the machine gun and arrestor hook, plus what I think are floatplane braces. Still, given its age and looseness in the box, that’s amazing! It has its two windscreens, rear defensive gun (such as it is) and all major components for the landplane version. The lack of gun and hook are of no concern to me, since I am of course going to build the trainer version! I can’t turn down a good cammo/yellow paint scheme; it just wouldn’t be proper!
The good thing is that if you do have one missing a part or two, many of the struts can be made by bashing a bit of styrene sheet, or some appropriately-sized rod. Heck, that’s likely what happened more often than not back in the day! There’s also a sheet where you can mail away to Rovex for spare parts, but I don’t know if the factory in Marwood, Kent is still able to help you out or not. I wouldn’t spend the Pence on postage hoping for an answer from them!
Instructions and Decals:
The instructions are typical FROG, meaning it’s a single piece of paper that unfolds like a roadmap or picnic blanket and has large clear illustrations on it. It’s not exactly “bench friendly” because it’s so huge, and due to age it’s also very fragile. The instructions were not intended for posterity; they’re on paper one step up from newsprint, but they do the job. Interestingly, there are many languages on the instructions, so it’s clear that export was a consideration!
With all the variations, you’d expect things to be pretty busy; think of Hasegawa instructions and how they can be. Well, not so here; what’s needed for each variant is clearly called out, and I thank FROG for helping to keep it manageable! Of course, the big issue is that with so many loose parts, the hand-drawn nature of the instructions means you have to be careful with what strut is what – TEST FIT!!! That is going to be the order of the day. I’d recommend it even if you do have everything on the sprues! Don’t forget, FROGs aren’t known for their precise fit.
And, just in case Hasegawa honks want a bit back for the dig at their overly busy instructions, remember this: the Shark was good enough to be sold under the FROG-Hasegawa partnership!
The decals are typical of kits of this era – they consist of national insignia and serial Numbers. They aren’t bad, for their age. They’re in register and while the clear film is a bit yellowed, the white bits are still white. And they are Matt… I mean matte. BOY, do I mean matte! They absorb light like a sheet full of black holes! Whether they’re functional or not I wouldn’t care to wager, but I’ll try one with Testors decal bonder just to be sure. I personally hate matte decals. Revell Germany has a real love of them, and they silver far worse than shiny ones, as well as being harder to handle. Add 50+ years of aging into the mix, and I can hardly wait for this party to get started!
Despite, or maybe because of, its age, the Shark was the winner in the poll about which of the five I got in the mail people wanted to see reviewed first. It’s a very interesting and charismatic plane, while also being nearly completely forgotten and obscure. That’s a great combo, I guess! I know I love it for those reasons!
This kit is every inch a classic FROG. It’s very detailed in spots and hellishly underdetailed in others. The lack of full cockpit and engine can be corrected with scratchbuilding or raiding the spares box; there’s an Eastern Express version that someone has built that is stunning. I don’t know if it’s the same base kit, but it proves you can do a lot with it. That said, even if built right from the box, this kit is likely going to be a lot of work. Sadly, I’ve never rigged a biplane, so I’m not sure if I’ll make this my first one or not. On one hand, I’d hate to wreck it. On the other, maybe beginner’s luck will be with me?
I can’t recommend this kit for a beginner with high standards. It won’t build up to be a great looking kit without a lot of experience backing the builder up. However, as an introduction to modelling fundamentals and dealing with things like option builds and moving parts, there’s a lot to recommend this kit. It’s still relatively common, since so many companies have pushed a version, and it’s not the end of the world if a beginner gluebombs it if they can learn about strut alignment and the like. This kit is really not suited to those raised on “shake and bake” wunderkits like those we’ve seen in the last decade or so. It’s no New Airfix or Tamigawa masterpiece.
It is, though, a solid, workman-like kit of a solid, workman-like airplane. It’s got some good detail, and the fact it has so many options should appeal to fans of naval aircraft, the Fleet Air Arm and biplanes in general. It’ll need some work, but hey, don’t we all? If you like the subject and can find one, I’d suggest picking it up. If for no other reason, it’s a great keepsake of a time long past, when it was just as important to make interesting kits as it was to make really good ones.
The Blackburn Shark never found glory, but it did its job and still got to throw a few punches. This FROG kit is no different. Grab it if you can and just enjoy it for what it is, a cool throwback and a neat-looking airplane that not many will recognize!