Trainers are an important part of any country’s air force. They are there to train pilots in everything from basic flight manoeuvres to advanced fighting tactics and weapons delivery. To satisfy these wide-ranging demands, it is quite often the case that there are many different types and levels of complexity of training aircraft found in most major air forces. Because training is a fundamental task, there are many, many options for any air force to choose from when looking to equip itself with either basic or advanced trainers. If this is the case, then, why would any country bother to develop its own trainer?
The reason is deceptively simple. Trainers train not only the pilots of a country’s air force; they also train the country’s aerospace industry. Many smaller countries that are not world competitors in the aircraft markets make their own trainers in order to develop and maintain the infrastructure needed to support at least a small aerospace industry. This results in increased self-reliance, as well as allowing that country to gain vital experience in making aircraft. This is important when buying more advanced foreign combat aircraft; a country with aerospace experience can negotiate technology transfer or licenced production much more easily. Add to this the national pride in knowing your pilots learn to fly and defend their homeland in a homegrown aircraft, and the case for indigenous trainer development is solid indeed.
These reasons were solid enough for the Taiwanese in the late 1970s. At this time, the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) decided to undertake the design of an advanced twin-jet trainer with the capability of also performing light attack and weapons training duty. The result was the AIDC Tsu Chang. Interestingly and tellingly enough, this translates to “self-reliance”, and highlights the mindset behind the development of the AT-3. Clearly this worked, since AIDC was able to come up with their own fighter, the Ching Kuo, which entered service in small amounts later in the 1980s.
Despite the importance of the AT-3 to Taiwan, it really isn’t an aircraft many people outside of the island nation really know about. It was not exported, and despite its abilities, it (thankfully) hasn’t had to use its combat abilities in anger against its communist neighbours to the north. Given that there’s nothing aerodynamically or technologically earth-shattering about the design, it is one of those planes that is most likely to fall through the cracks of the world of injection moulded kits. There’s really no reason for anyone to kit the cute little AT-3. However, the folks at Taiwan’s LO Models disagreed, and went ahead and kitted the little home-grown trainer in 1/72.
The box on the AT-3 is really nothing special. It’s quite small, about the same size as a new Airfix WWII fighter, and as a result doesn’t have a lot of room on the sides. The cover is a fairly pedestrian view of a typical trainer in the silver/orange paint in which the planes are normally encountered. The picture is not overly exciting, and doesn’t really entice a modeller to pick up the kit. This is a shame, because it means a lot of people might pass over the chance to own a model of this interesting little plane.
The other problem with the box is that there isn’t a lot about the kit actually on it. There’s not a single picture of the built-up kit, so we don’t know if the kit looks good, bad or indifferent when built, or what it has for stores, etc. There is some English on the box, although it is not of the best quality. It is quite entertaining for those of us who are native English speakers, though, so there’s a bit of an amusement component to the box copy.
The box is a typical top-loading (thank goodness!) affair. It is not overly solid, but it’s better than the pressed newsprint of some eastern European boxes I’ve encountered. It is strong enough to prevent the kit from getting totally destroyed, even if it doesn’t do it stylishly, and it holds together fine once opened. Overall, the kit doesn’t jump off the shelf with size or impressive box art, but neither does it invite immediate ridicule due to savage simplicity or excessive cheapness.
Inside the box, one finds 4 grey sprues for the plane and one clear one for the cockpit canopy. The parts are all in one bag and the canopy is in there with them. Thankfully, it is “curvy side up”, so it hasn’t suffered any major effects from its cavorting with the rest of the sprues. The part count is not excessively high, but since the AT-3 is a small plane, this makes sense. There are ejection seats and control sticks for the cockpit, but it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of instrumentation on either the consoles or the “instrument panels” (such as they are), so the cockpit might end up needing some work.
The grey plastic feels nice enough; it is neither too brittle nor too soft, and should glue and cut well. There are engraved panel lines on all the surfaces with nothing raised. The lines aren’t as fine as on a Revell Germany kit, or a Tamigawa, but they aren’t as deep and cavernous as Matchbox’s engraved lines. Overall, the detail looks acceptable and there might need to be some re-etching in places, because some lines are a bit soft, but overall things look good.
There are control sticks and the ejection seats have a basic “bang seat” shape. The wings are in one piece, and so are the tail planes. As expected, there are separate pieces for the intake end exhaust ‘collars’; these rarely fit on anything but the best kits, so I expect some sanding is going to be due here. The same likely goes for the wingtips, which are separate pieces.
That’s one thing that’s great about this kit; the AT-3 has he provision to mount pylons for weapons as well as wingtip missile rails. They are rarely seen fitted, but the internet shows a couple of examples with them on. The kit includes 4 wing pylons, two drop tanks, two Mk. 84 bombs and two missile rails with separate Sidewinders. None of the weapons look very good, but my Hasegawa weapons sets have plenty of spares from which to choose!
Instructions and Decals:
The instructions are simple, as is the plane itself. There aren’t a lot of steps, and the options for the wing-mounted weapons are pretty clearly called out. There’s nothing surprising about the build order, either; it’s all straightforward. There’s only one colour scheme called out, although the internet shows at least four different schemes. There’s no provision in the kit to rebuild it as the single-seat attack demonstrator, but with some skill, a kitbasher could do this just fine, I’m sure.
The decals are simple, with ROCAF roundels, stripes for the rudder and call numbers. The decal sheet isn’t of the highest-looking quality, but it looks better than, say, a HobbyCraft sheet. The decals appear to be in register, but how they’ll handle use or how they’ll conform to a surface is anyone’s guess. If you can, I’d have spare markings on hand, just in case!
Oddball models from oddball manufacturers are one thing I love about being a modeller. However, with any such kit comes a real “roll of the dice”; the kit could be great or terrible. Sometimes, like with Eastern Express or A-Model, you can tell if a kit is okay or a POS right away. However, with other makers, you never know until you start, if you’ve got a winner or a dog.
This little kit from LO Model in Taiwan has travelled a long way to be in my stash, and I will admit that’s part of its allure. However, I am cautiously optimistic that this little guy will build up at least without a tonne of work being needed. The level of surface detail is good, and the wheel bays are well-detailed too, and that often bodes well.
Since this is a now-out-of-production kit of a pretty specialized subject, it’s a great addition to the shelf of anyone interested in Chinese aircraft or trainers in general. It’s likely suitable for a younger modeller, since it doesn’t look too fiddly, but it might not be the best for those who are “middle of the road” modellers, or who don’t want to have to work too hard. Kits like this can often present hidden challenges, so if you’re short on patience and long on expectations, I’d avoid this.
Otherwise, the AT-3 kit looks like fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it builds up!