There are some airplanes that, despite everything, just don’t go down in history as being all that important. Sometimes, it’s a function of design; the plane is just fundamentally pedestrian and is easily either forgotten or overtaken by its rivals. Sometimes, though, the plane itself can be well-designed and built, but the times change, leaving the plane buried in history’s wake. Such is the fate of the Martin P6M Seamaster, the Navy’s answer to the “nuclear question” before there were SSBNs.
The P6M was a four-engined jet patrol bomber developed to supersede the then current crop of piston-powered anti-sub and anti-shipping aircraft. With all the excitement surrounding the capabilities of jet engines, it was only natural that Martin would want to adopt this “new and radical” method of propulsion to such a project. The end result was a large but very stylish jet-powered flying boat. The boat was designed to perform all kinds of typical naval missions. However, more importantly, the Navy wanted it so that it would have a nuclear delivery system.
Back when the Seamaster was being tested (first flight of the prototype was 1955), there was no way for the US Navy to deliver nukes. Only the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) was able to do this, and the Navy wanted to make sure they weren’t forgotten. The Seamaster’s high performance (0.9 Mach on the deck) was to be the key to the Navy keeping their fingers firmly in the nuclear pie. However, as technology swiftly advanced, the larger aircraft carriers, smaller nuclear weapons and, finally, the arrival of the ballistic missile submarine sealed the fate of the Seamaster. It was cancelled in 1959.
However, what if all of this HADN’T been the case? What if the Seamaster HAD gone into service and been produced in numbers greater than a handful of prototypes? It was basically designed to serve in many of the same roles as the A-3 Skywarrior, so it would make sense that its evolution would be similar to both the Whale and other heavy airframes of the era, right? To me, it seems to make sense that had the P6M been in service long enough, it would have eventually been refitted for Electronic Warfare (EW) or, even more likely, signals and electronic intelligence (SIGINT/ELINT).
Thus, when I was able to get my hands on a reissue of the old 1950’s Seamaster kit (re-released in 1996), I took it! I actually got it at the London Scale Model Show back in 2007, so it was “old” even then! The first thing I could think of was ‘updating’ the Seamaster to a much later standard of ELINT bird, replete with bulges, bumps and other cold-war spying goodness.
If you remember the 50’s and you built one of these things, then you have my sympathies. This thing is from well before my time, but I had some idea what to expect. In many ways, though, this kit was worse than I could have ever imagined.
It was cast in a very dark blue, very brittle plastic. I don’t know why they bothered to even reproduce the crappy old plastic of this kit, but they did. I would have thought they could have at least used modern grey plastic, but I guess that would have been asking too much. Just handling and test fitting the pieces made me worry that the whole thing was going to shatter. However, that was only the beginning! As was the custom in this era, the titles and national insignia were moulded ONTO THE KIT! What the… Given that this model is reportedly around 1/266 (go box scale!), that means that the 1mm tall NAVY writing and Bureau No. on the fuselage sides would have stood 266mm (10.47”) tall from the side of the plane! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
Now, that having been said, the panel lines (all hideously raised, of course) seemed to be good, and the general shape of the kit was good. There were no window frames on the cockpit glass, though. In addition to the obvious need for re-etching and sanding, the kit had another problem. Warpage. I’m assuming this is another one of those “retro touches” they included. One wing was particularly heinous, and separated like a peeled banana skin as the wing progressed from root to tip! Mercifully, the use of modern glue didn’t cause this kit to combust (I am still somewhat surprised by this) and this extreme warpage was easily cured.
The Seamaster is, in keeping with the times of its birth, a simple kit. There are halves for fuselage and wings, the T-tail is one piece, and there is a one piece windscreen. There is a stand which is pretty nice, and the engine nacelles are part of the upper wing. However, the exhaust nozzles for the engines are separate pieces, and they don’t fit worth a toot.
The EP-6D Concept:
My thinking is this: if the P6M had gone into service, then it would have likely received the designation P-6. As time went on, and the diminutive A-4 was able to deliver nukes, the Seamaster would have been retasked, and ELINT seems like a natural role. With its long range, high speed and large fuselage, the P-6 would be a natural for conversion for manned snooping missions, similar to the EC-135 family from the Air Force. Thus, I decided that the designation EP-6D was appropriate. Given the Seamaster’s in-service date as being the very late 1950’s, and the advent of nuclear-capable ‘tactical’ fighters in the 1960s, it makes sense to me that by the time the Vietnam war rolled around, the EP-6D would be in service.
Looking at any self-respecting ELINT bird will immediately reveal many excrescencies. I love the “warts” on ELINT planes, and wanted to make sure I had a good opportunity to add some of my own. I figured that the nose and tail are natural places for nice black radomes, as is the tail. However, I also wanted a couple on the aircraft’s back. I figured I’d use Milliput for this (I didn’t have Apoxie Sculp at the time…) and worked that into the build.
The goal was to create a large, powerful ELINT platform that had no secondary attack capability at all; that meant getting rid of any trace of the bomb bay in my re-etching, and making sure anything that looked self-defensive got either sanded off or left out. This was actually very easy, since the tail turret was a separate piece.
Building the EP-6D:
The Seamaster is easy to build, but difficult to build well. All panel lines were re-etched and the raised detail was then sanded off. This was a big job, because the brittle blue plastic was tough to sand, and there was a lot of re-etching that had to be done. As mentioned, the wings were a problem (what with their warpage) and the fit of the intake lip onto the top of the wing was, as you can likely guess, terrible. I had to mask and etch flight deck window frames (my favourite pastime… etching REALLY BRITTLE clear parts…) as well as making it so the high “T” tail would actually fit on.
Attaching the wings was traumatic as well, and a lot of putty was used to get the joint between them and the fuselage nice and smooth. This was the case for every joint seam, actually; the Seamaster is quite a “bondo buggy”, to steal a used car term. The engine exhausts were just as terrible, and after some monkeying around, I managed to get them to fit in place.
The big part (yikes!) of the build, though, was fashioning the ELINT bulges. I used Milliput to create a new tail for the Seamaster, fairing over the nub where the tail turret would have originally been found. I then added two bulges to the roof; one oblong the other semi-spherical. To create the nose radome, I first had to sand off the small strakes at the nose. I have always hated them, and think they ruin the lines of the plane completely. Thus, killing them was fun! I then etched in a new set of lines for the nose radome, and I was done!
This description does not adequately describe the number of iterations of sand/fill/etch that had to be done to create the final product. Milliput is very hard and difficult to sand. However, after much messing about, the ELINT bulges were finished, and the rest of the work was fairly straightforward.
Painting and Finishing:
I wanted to do the EP-6D in typical Navy ELINT paint, like one would find on a EP-3E ARIES aircraft; namely white on top and grey on the bottom. This is a little bit different from what one normally thinks of for Navy planes, which is grey top and white bottom, and I think it makes the plane stand out a bit more.
I did just the top half of the fuselage in Tamiya XF-2 Flat White, while the rest of the plane (sans radomes) was done in Tamiya XF-19 Sky Grey. The radomes were done in Testors Model Master Acrylic Aircraft Interior Black, and the jetpipes in Testors MMA Jet Exhaust, with a black wash for a bit of aging.
I outlined all the panels using a mechanical pencil, the lead of which I filed down to a chisel tip using an emery board. Once the plane was glossed with Future, I applied the decals. These came from my spares box, if I remember right. I don’t know exactly where I got the “Danger: Jet Intake” decals from, but they are obviously from some other plane, as the Seamaster didn’t come with them. I chose the “TA” tail code because of the Trans Am that I own (abbreviated as “T/A”), and I got the “Nemesis” aircraft name from some random sheet somewhere. The Soviet “Excellent Aircraft Award” decals on the nose come from a MiG kit, I think it was the Escii 1/48 MiG-23. I got the idea for those looking at a few examples of EC-135s that have them; they are a piece of dark humour that goes along with intruding on enemy airspace in the cat-and-mouse world of electronic and signals intelligence.
With the decals on, the kit was flat coated using Gunze acrylic Flat Clear. This was a good product that I can no longer find, but it did a nice job and gave a nice flat, but not parched, appearance to the final paint job. I painted the stand in flat black rattle can, and then gave it a very light dusting of 30%-strength Future to just give it a bit of a “satiny” edge.
The Seamaster is a beautiful plane that never got the chance to prove itself. However, this kit is NOT so beautiful. It is one of the cheapest ways to get a replica of this magnificent boat, but the builder will pay dearly in one way, if not the other. It is a difficult kit to build well, and requires a tonne of work, even if you’re NOT going to what-if it!
Ironically, this is one of those kits that’s really only good for the very inexperienced who won’t care what the end result looks like, or the very experienced who can apply their skills and save this otherwise highly outdated piece of sprue. Not for the faint of heart, but a nice one to have on display!
The Story of the EP-6D:
With the successful entry into service of Martin’s four-jet strategic seaplane in the early 1960s, the US Navy obtained a vehicle to ensure its place in the nuclear club. However, the Seamaster was soon found to be overkill for the delivery of atomic weapons. The newer generation of carrier-based aircraft were capable of doing the same job in a smaller package, and the arrival of the A-3 and A-5 closed the door on the short-lived nuclear role for the Seamaster. The arrival of ballistic missile attack subs locked the door and threw away the key…
By the mid 1960’s, the Seamaster had be completely withdrawn from the nuclear attack mission, and was left with ocean patrol and (perhaps) mining of enemy ports as its main missions. Plans to convert the aircraft for air-sea rescue were abandoned due to cost, and the concept for the KP-6 tankers came to nothing. Even with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, there was no real perceived need to locate Seamasters in the South China Sea area.
However, by 1967, this had changed, and as the war in Vietnam escalated, it became apparent to the Navy that ELINT and SIGINT platforms would be required to monitor not only North Vietnam’s air defence and Command and Control networks, but those of neighbouring countries whose intents were “potentially at odds with the United States South East Asia strategy” (i.e. China). While the EA-3 Skywarrior variants were useful at jamming and local electronic warfare (EW), a larger, longer-ranged platform was needed for these more strategic “snooping” missions.
The Navy was loathe to rely on USAF assets (or CIA assets, for that matter) for their intelligence, so they initiated the “Boxtop” project to convert six (eventually eight) P-6B Seamasters into EP-6D aircraft. Originally nicknamed “Inquisitor” (a name which never stuck), these aircraft were often referred to as “See-Masters” (given their spying mission), although no official name other than Seamaster was ever given to the aircraft.
For ELINT/SIGINT operations, the aircraft were fitted with numerous receivers and aerials. These were mounted in two large blisters on the aircraft’s back, as well as in a cone at the front of the T-Tail. Additional Navaids were housed in the top of the tail, and powerful radar was mounted in the nose. This replaced the surface search radar used by the P-6B, and necessitated the removal of the anti-spray strakes on the sides of the fuselage. While this cleaned up the look of the EP-6D, it actually meant taking off was a bit more of a production, since visibility was considerably reduced.
Arguably the biggest change to the airframe was in the tail. The twin-gun turret was removed and replaced with a sensitive set of radar and communications receivers. Some sources suggest that the EP-6D also had the ability to broadcast spurious radar, radio and perhaps TV signals on known enemy frequencies. However, this has never been officially acknowledged.
The aircraft’s extremely high speed at low level served it well in the ELINT/SIGINT role, since there were several instances of the aircraft having interceptors scrambled against it. In these cases, the Seamasters were able to simply dive for the deck and “punch it”. An unidentified US Navy ELINT Pilot describes it thusly:
“We were at Angels 30 near <classified> when the chatter broke out on the Air Defence freq. We’d been spotted, and they weren’t too pleased. A few minutes later, they launched a pair of bogeys at us. Unfazed, we simply gave the word to the “stowaways” (slang for the EW Operators in the plane’s cabin) to strap in and start praying. We banked hard seaward and put her in a dive. A couple of minutes later we were on the deck at less than 500 (feet) and haulin’ ass. Last we heard was some Ivan-chatter about ‘target lost’. Happened all the time…”
The EP-6D had a crew of 4 and an ELINT crew of between 5 and 8, depending on the mission. They were active in the “Pacific Rim” area all through the Vietnam War and into the 1980’s, when the aircraft was retired. A few were also used in the Middle East even, allegedly, near Soviet naval bases, where they monitored Russian Fleet signals. The few EP-6Ds that did get converted all served well and none were lost in action. They were retired in 1985, the Navy citing budgetary reasons.
Despite their small numbers, the EP-6D community gave yeoman service and provided the Navy with a flexibly-based, high performance aircraft which, according to some sources, has not since been equalled.