The adage of “Fight like you train, train like you fight” is applicable the world over, and in all manner of different disciplines. The idea is simple; if you train like it’s the real thing, then when it comes time to do the “real thing” (whatever it is) then everything will be second nature, and you won’t have to worry about thinking what to do, you’ll just do it instinctively. One way of accomplishing this is to fight and train in the same aircraft. For the truly world-class air arms, this can be accomplished by performing regular exercises in their frontline aircraft, and getting used to things in controlled scenarios. However, not everyone has the money for this.
However, there’s a different way to approach the problem; that’s to train and fight (as opposed to fight an train) using same plane! The boom in light attack/training aircraft is partially due to the soundness of the above doctrine coming into conflict with the expenses of training using full-on frontline types. Unlike expensive fighters, trainer/attack aircraft are relatively cheap and simple, easier to maintain and use less fuel. This makes them very attractive in both roles, and their numbers have been increasing as a result.
The government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) is no stranger to the realities of needing to both train and fight as economically and as self-sufficiently as possible. To this end, the Taiwanese government approved the AT-3 program in the late 1970s. The result was a fairly traditional two-seat, low-winged, twin-engined jet trainer with a powerful built-in attack capability. What was untraditional, though, was that the plane was designed and manufactured in Taiwan. Interestingly enough, the name of the plane translates as “Self-Reliance”.
Given the small market for the plane, it’s no surprise that it isn’t more widely known. Because of this, there’s only ever been one kit of the Tsu Chang in 1/72, and that was produced by LO Model. I have heard of a 1/48 by Zhdengfu, but never seen one. Today, let’s see how the smaller of the two kits builds up.
LO Model offers an attractive kit of the AT-3 in 1/72, and from the looks of things, it didn’t seem like it would be too horrible to work with. This is not as backhanded a compliment as it sounds; in many ways the kit looks better than many other short-run kits from obscure manufacturers. For a full rundown of the unbuilt kit, check out the review on the Out of Box page!
Assembly – The Enemy Within:
Well, looking at the kit, the AT3 didn’t really seem like it would be much of a challenge. “Sure, there might be a few bad seams, but that’s it.”, I thought as I cut the major assemblies off the rack. However, I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong. The problems started early on this one. I fitted the cockpit tub into the front fuselage, only to find there was no real positive location for it anywhere. To correct this, I glued the bucket to one side of the cockpit wall. However, when I mated the fuselage back up, the tub was far off-centre! To correct this, I ripped the tub out, and shimmed it out from the wall with some sheet styrene.
The nose was filled with lead shot, since there’s a lot of rear overhang on this plane, and I didn’t want a tail-sitter when I’m done. Gluing the body together looked easy; everything was in halves, with the wings bringing an underside pan with them. Again, WRONG! It wasn’t easy! The body was slightly bowed, I think, and as a result, not much joined up properly! There were sizeable gaps in the spine of the model. To seal these up, and provede both some structure and a “load floor” for future filling, I glued on some thin bands of sheet styrene, which I then doused in glue so that they would “melt” into place. This procedure was more akin to welding than normal modelling, but it did the trick. I then sanded the seams and excess styrene down, and refilled them first with melted styrene/glue mixture and then after that with both rubberized and normal CA. Finally, I got a gap-free fuselage! I also glued some sheet styrene along the inside of the upper fuselage, just to help hold it all together.
The rest of the plane didn’t fit together badly, but the wing/body seams on the underside took a bit of work. Because of all the sanding I had to do on the body, it was necessary to re-etch much of the fuselage and wing/body junctions. The intakes, as I feared, didn’t fit on worth a toot. There was a significant step between the intake trunk and the added piece, and this took a lot of sanding and filling to get level. The story repeated itself, oh-so-Groundhog Day-like on the exhausts. One thing that is quite unfortunate is that there is no panel line engraved for the intake leading edge. On the cammoed AT-3s, these intake edges are black. To get these right requires either that the correct line be masked or a new panel line cut in. I chose the latter because it makes the intake lip look more like it’s supposed to be a separate piece, not just a painted part.
Another problem concerned the airbrakes; these are not moulded terribly precisely, and when I cut one off the rack, I noticed that what I thought was an injector stub was actually part of the airbrake! The two were not sufficiently defined. So, I had to build up a new airbrake leading edge with melted sprue, and once it had hardened I shaped it accordingly. This worked very well, and it’s safe to say that the newly added part is unlikely to break off, since it’s literally melted to the original part!
I decided not to bother with the four pylons under the wings; two seemed enough. Why, you ask? Well, for one thing, drop tanks are not my preferred choice of weapon to carry, and for another, they are terrible. So, rather than fight with them, I decided to cut them out of the picture entirely. The two outer pylons are often used for bombs or rocket pods, and they fit onto the plane quite well. The wingtip Sidewinder rails come moulded onto replacement wingtips, so gluing them on is also pretty easy. Despite the fact that they’re thin, they’re amazingly tough, and I never broke either of them during the rest of the build!
The weapons themselves, though, that come with the kit aren’t great. I decided to go to my Hasegawa weapons sets for both Sidewinders and bombs. Unfortunately, there is no Hasegawa cure for the complete lack of instrument panel detail. I was going to fab up a replacement instrument panel, but since it’s so hard to see in there anyway, I decided just to freehand something on the plastic I was given. I put some silver dots and squares on the “face” of the instrument panel, and then used a black calligraphy pen to “colour in” gauge and screen faces. Is it perfect. No. Does it work, sure! As my father would say: “A blind man would be glad to see it!”
The Canopy: Taking the Short (Shot) View
One thing that I don’t look forward to on most kits is the canopy transparency. Usually, on the kits I build, they are thick and distorted, and the frames are poorly defined. Well, at first look, I thought I might be on a winner with the LO Model kit. However, closer inspection totally deflated my earlier ebullience. The front and rear windscreens were both clear, but their frames were very undefined around the non-vertical bar. That meant I had to re-etch the glass, a bad job at the best of times. I sanded the glass down to 12,000 grit with my polishing cloths, and then used NOVUS 2 and 1 on it to finish the job. The end result was good, on both pieces requiring this treatment.
Sadly, the prognosis for the main canopy transparency was worse. It looked fine, at first. The bars were all well-defined and I figured a dip in Future would make things nice and clear and shiny. However, as I looked on one side, I noticed something I have never actually seen before: The canopy was short-shot. There was a void in the canopy! Thankfully, it wasn’t quite a full short-shot; the material was just “pushed in” towards the inside of the canopy, but it was blobby, and there was a need for more material to make the rail look right.
I filled the gap with some Aves Apoxie Sculp, and found that the repair was small enough that it wouldn’t stick well. I let it dry, and upon sanding, found that my whole ‘blob’ of Apoxie Sculp fell right off! So, I CA’ed it back in place, and watched in expected horror as the CA outgassed and fogged the glass nearby. Once all was dry, I sanded both the frame and the glass down to get rid of the fogging and then used the same polising regimen as I used on the endcap transparencies. The result wasn’t bad, but I used some Future to help make things gleam!
Most AT-3s are done in a silver and high-viz orange scheme. However, there are a couple that are in far more warlike schemes; one is a two-tone green, the other a USAF-style Vietnam-era green-green-tan cammo. I personally like this; I think the ‘Nam cammo is awesome looking, and it’s refreshing to see it a.) on a foreign aircraft and b.) on a modern aircraft! The undersides are almost white, but not quite.
For the undersides, I used Model Master Acrylic Light Grey. This is about right, and gives contrast with the landing gear bays. The gear, gear bays, all doors and airbrakes were all painted Tamiya Flat White and then washed with a thinned down MMA Light Ghost Grey, to make the detail stand out. While this looked a bit stark when it was glossed, the effect was more muted when the final flat coat was put on the kit.
To ensure the pylons, both under the wing and on the wingtips, stayed on, they were actually glued on BEFORE I even primed the plane. This isn’t something I normaly do, but it did turn out to work well in this case. Masking the pylons took a bit of work, but it didn’t slow things down much. The underside was masked and the topside was given a coat of Model Master Acrylic (MMA) Dark Green. I then airbrushed some MMA Medium Green and MMA Dark Tan. Even if these colours aren’t exactly right for the SEA cammo, they look good when applied, and the final result looked a lot like the few pictures I’ve seen of cammoed AT-3s.
Since I hate masking, and I wanted to have a slightly fuzzier edge to my cammo, I decided to freehand airbrush the colours. Sadly, this is not something that I could get right the first time. To touch up the overspray, I turned the airbrush down to about 14 psi and “tuned up” the edges of my cammo. This worked well, and I learned that the Dark Tan has the coarsest pigment of the three colorurs. This means it’s most prone to overspray, although the Dark Green was close behind. After a few iterations of smoothing, though, the edges of the cammo were exactly the way I wanted them.
Decals and Panel Lines:
Once the paint was on and touched up properly, I unmasked the whole airplane so I could gloss it with Future for decaling. There were a few touch ups to do, but not a lot considering the masking I did. Thanks to the fact that MMAs don’t change colour when touching them up by hand (unlike Tamiya paints) touching up the few masking runs was easy, and in no time the plane was glossed. I was a bit apprehensive of the decals; so much on this kit has already proven to be a bit of a disappointment, and it seemed that this model was designed to give a false sense of security.
Alas, I was not to be disappointed. The decals themselves aren’t bad. They’re in register, and correct for a silver/orange machine. However, they aren’t correct for a cammo one. On a cammoed plane, the insignia are smaller, and the numbers are white and smaller than what the kit comes with. I don’t have an ALPS printer, nor did I have appropriate codes in white. So, I just went with what I had. My major problem with the decals wasn’t accuracy anyway; it was the fact that they appeard to be Futurephobic!
For whatever reason (maybe decal adhesive is different in Taiwan?), these decals largely REFUSED to stick to the Futured kit. I got them in place, damped down and ready for decal setting, and I’d look over only to find the decal had fallen off or begun lifting. Eventually, I went with the old standby of gluing the decals down with Future. This worked, but there were a couple of small bubbles that did end up silvering. To make matters worse, the decals are not very good at conforming. I’ve had bad luck combining decal setting solution with Future, so I hoped that, like most decals, the Future would soften the decals and suck them into the panel lines and around the few contours on the plane.
No dice. I did end up getting the decals to go into the panel lines by re-applying Future just before they were dry and then using a pick to force the less-hard-than-before decals into the panel lines. What makes this sad is that the engraved panel lines on the AT-3 aren’t that deep, but they still were too much of a contour for the decals to go around! Let that be a lesson; LO Models makes barely serviceable decals. Of course, I also don’t know what other kits they make/made, so it might not be so important to know that after all!
To highlight the control surfaces, I outlined them with a mechanical pencil. I then used Extra Small Tamiya Craft Swabs to apply finely ground chalk pastels to the panel lines. To reduce the contrast and make a more subtle effect, I didn’t pencil in the non-articulating panel lines; I just let the pastels do it. I also made pastels that were much closer in colour to the paints over which they were being applied. I did one application of pastels over the Futured body, re-Futured to nail them down, and noted that the effect was a bit TOO subtle. A second application of pastels, however, gave the result I was looking for. I normally do only a single application of higher-contrast pastels, but I think my new approach was far better and more controllable.
Once the landing gear, gear doors and weapons were all securely fastened to the plane, I flat coated it using a mix of Delta Ceramcoat Matte Urethane varnish and Future. This gave a slightly satiny finish, while still being appropriately non-glossy. This is the best surface finishing method I’ve yet discovered, and because it is so tough, the varnish can easily withstand handling once the model is dry. With the model all but done, the seats and control columns were installed and the front and rear windscreens attached with standard white glue. To add character to the seats, I used masking tape to simulate seat belts.
Something’s a Little “Off”…
Well, it turns out that the short-shottedness of the cockpit rail wasn’t the only issue with the canopy on this model. The truth is that not only is it not made right, it also doesn’t fit worth beans! Gluing the canopy on made me think that I’d missed something; the edges of the main canopy and the front and rear windscreens don’t match at all! The canopy is wider than the windscreens! There’s precious little you can do about something like that though, so it was another case of “grin and bear it”. Sure, it doesn’t look quite right, but hey, what are you going to do, right? Since I have neither the tools nor desire to create my own new canopy, I am forced to live with what they give you.
If a modeller does, however, have the ability to form new canopies using whatever form of moulding technology they may prefer, I would suggest doing it. A good canopy is something quite important for this model as there’s a lot of glass; I’d say just under half the planes length is glass, actually!
The AT-3 is a neat little plane with some amazing capabilities. It is cleanly designed and can carry a surprising amount. It is typical of the late‘70s to late ‘80s light attack/training aircraft that many nations produced. It is important to its homeland of Taiwan moreso than to anyone else, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve to be both known and built outside of that nation’s borders!
Sadly, the LO Model offering of the AT-3 is not what it could have been, nor even what it looked like it might be! It was like a pothole full of water; it seems like a shallow puddle until your poodle falls in and disappears from sight! Similarly, it is easy to be lulled into a sense of relative security by this kit, only to be bludgeoned by, and drowned in, a deep pit of “almosts” and “so closes”.
Despite its outward simplicity, I wouldn’t recommend the AT-3 to beginners or even those who have built a number of kits and are getting confident. I don’t think it’s a good kit for someone without the experience to handle setbacks, annoyances and considerable moulding and fit issues. There’s a real danger that this kit could cause a relatively green modeller to lose faith in their abilities, and that’s not something I ever like to see, having experienced it myself!
If, however, you have the patience to work through bugs, issues and don’t mind throwing a tonne of putty around, then this kit won’t bug you. It’s not unnecessarily complicated, and it offers a unique subject when finished.
If you’re a fan of trainers, light attackers or indigenous Asian aircraft, then see if you can find one of these little kits. It won’t be a smooth flight, but then again, training sorties are often fraught with potential hiccups, aren’t they?