Whether you’re talking about getting the most out of a paycheque in a world with ever-escalating prices, or trying to find the best balance of expenditure and capability in a country’s armed forces, the mantra for the last little while (say, two-plus decades) has been: “Do more with less”. This is a wonderful idea, but, like all ideas, it is limited by the harsh realities of the physical world. I mean, we could all do more with less if things never broke or we didn’t have to eat, and it would be easy for air forces to do more with less if planes never aged and hostile neighbours would stop updating their equipment.
However, with some creativity, there are still some opportunties for “more with less” to succeed. A perfect example of this is the Mig-29 SMT. While the first generation of Fulcrum was an excellent plane in its day and it its own right, time has marched on. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t squeeze a little more out of it, and the folks at Mig were able to make the short-legged, fighter-optimized Fulcrum into a longer-ranging, truly multi-role fighter. This variant was the SMT, most clearly distinguished by its characteristic “hunched back” or “fat spine” carrying extra fuel and avionics. Even more importantly, this new version of Mig’s now-classic Fulcrum has the ability to tote the most modern air-to-ground weaponry in the Russian inventory.
This sounds good, right? Well, it is, and it certainly made the Mig-29 SMT a much more saleable commodity when it came to foreign market sales. Due to Sukhoi’s near-monopoly when it comes to providing fighters for the Soviet Air and Space Forces, Mig has had to look outside for customers and revenue. The hunchback Fulcrum seemed a good buy for a number of air forces looking to modernize, and Algeria signed up for some.
Unfortunately, the SMTs ordered by Algeria were at the centre of a somewhat messy dispute about the age and condition of the airframes. In a particularly embarrassing incident, the Algerians claimed that the Fulcrums they got were not new, nor were they in “as new” condition. After some wrangling they were returned to Russia and the contract cancelled. Left with these “new” Migs, the Russians simply decided to use them themselves, giving their Air and Space Forces a far more capably plane than they already had at a relatively minor cost. If that’s not “more with less”, I’m not sure what is!
The SMT variant of the Mig-29 is not considered by most to be the Fulcrum’s best-looking variant (I disagree!) and is not widely kitted. Thankfully, Russian kit-maker Zvezda came to the rescue of all of us who love sleek planes with somewhat grotesquely bulging spines! (C’mon… it can’t just be me. You can lie to me, but you can’t lie to yourself!) Their Mig-29 SMT kit is a wonderful addition to the large number of Fulcrum kits out there, and to me, is the best looking of them all; their shaping and profiling is better than almost any other kit that I’ve seen.
The Road to the Hunchback:
If you’re curious to see what’s in the box, you can check out the Mig-29 SMT out of box review. It’s a crammed box full of awesome spares!
However, it’s not, for me, an easy kit to build. I know I have had a lot of people tell me otherwise, but getting it to the point where it was nearly ready for paint was, for me, rather frustrating. You can check out what I mean here:
Finalizing the Build:
While the detail on the kit is excellent and the fit of the parts is quite good, I found this kit, quite honestly, frustrating to build. There used to be a TV show and movie series in which Peter Falk played Detective Columbo, an outwardly bumbling inspector who would often catch his suspects by annoying them into making mistakes. He’d finish questioning them, and then he’d turn around and say “Oh, just one more thing…”, then ask them a tell-tale question when they were flustered. I felt like one of those suspects, since every time I thought I was ready to put the Mig-29 into the primering stage, I found yet “one more thing” that I had to do to get it there.
The number of picky bits to be added to the plane is quite frustrating, and this culminated, for me, with the two small pieces behind the cockpit canopy. There are different ones for the open and closed cockpit, and you have to glue and sand them in before you can primer the plane. It’s an unusual arrangement, and I was not, I will admit, overly fond of it. Some will say that this shouldn’t present a problem. It doesn’t really, but I still get my back up about fiddly things that are picky for no apparent reason.
The weapons I chose to use were the KAB-500KR and B-13L rocket pods. These came in halves, with the pods needing front and back “faces” attached. Fit was again, passable, but a lot of sanding was required, as was rescribing of the panel lines, especially those that ring the weapons. The centerline tank went together very well, though I don’t know what the square hole in it is for. It seems odd, but the instructions don’t show it being filled in, so I left it. My only guess is that it is for a stand, which the SMT doesn’t come with. I likely should have filled it in, but you can’t see it when the Mig’s on display, so I didn’t want to bother. The nice thing is that the AA-11 missiles are one piece, which is a real treat. All I had to do on those was drill out the exhaust nozzles!
Painting and Detailing:
The paint scheme shown on the box art, as well as in the instructions, is the newer, more common one seen on these aircraft. It is a three tone splinter cammo, and in the modern Russian tradition, seems to focus on visual disruption rather than trying to make the aircraft blend in with any given environment. It’s similar to that on the Sukhoi Su-27/35 family, and Su-57 “Felon”. This cammo looks cool, but it requires a lot of masking, which is something I try to avoid as much as I can.
Looking around online quickly yielded some good photos of Mig-29 SMTs wearing a much different cammo; one made of medium grey with soft-edged grey-green blobs on the top of the plane, with just the grey underneath! Not only is this a lot easier to do, but it also looks a lot more “tactical”, and since I was building the SMT with an air-to-ground weapons load, I preferred this scheme.
After primering with Rustoleum Grey Primer, I painted the fin-top and Leading Edge Root Extension (LERX) dielectric panels with MMA Gunship Grey. The same was done to the nose. All these areas were sanded down and masked with Tamiya Tape. For the top engine shield plates and the gun blast plate, I first laid down a coat of Model Master oil “Chrome Silver Trim”. This isn’t very chromy, but it’s a good base for MMA Metallics. I did apply a coat of MMA Steel, but found that it pulled off completely after the masking was removed. I also hand-painted an area on the nose with MMA Aircraft Interior Black, and masked it to sharpen its edges and make the anti-glare patch the correct shape.
The entire plane was sprayed with the MMA Dark Ghost Grey. This colour worked extremely well, and I only needed to do three light coats to ensure total coverage. I used my usual mixture of 1/3 Future to 2/3 Isopropyl Alcohol (99%) as thinner, and this produced its usual excellent results with MMA paints. The Future in the mix makes the paint very tough, which is a far cry better than what I’ve seen with Tamiyas or other acrylics. I did not have a grey-green that looked right, so I scrounged in the paint drawers and came up with a previous mix that was close. I have no idea what it started as, but I think it was an RLM colour at one point. With some grey, light grey, gloss green and a touch of blue, I got it to where it was, to my eyes, a good match for the photos I had.
To paint the cammo, I first drew on the plane, with a mechanical pencil, the pattern I wanted. I drew it a bit smaller than desired, since I know that there will be overspray anyway. I’ve only recently started using this idea, but it works very well for any kind of freehand cammo work. I shot the green over my “pencilled in” areas, but as I feared, there was a LOT of overspray. The green pigment seemed to be very large, and prone to going everywhere. It could also be that I had the paint a bit too thick, which I know can lead to problems.
To touch up, I simply mixed up a very small amount of the Dark Ghost Grey and, shooting the thin paint at about 17psi, “overwrote” the boundaries of the grey and green. The thinner paint had a much smaller area of direct coverage and far less overspray, plus I had the airbrush right down near the surface. Moving in small circles, I pushed the green boundaries back until I had a good, balanced-looking cammo pattern on the plane. There was a tiny bit of green overspray on the intakes and one lower fin. I overpainted these by hand with the MMA Dark Ghost Grey. This is something you can get away with using Testors, but not necessarily other paints. There’s no colour difference between the hand and airbrushed greys.
I painted the AA-11s in Tamiya Flat White, and the bombs with MMA F-15 Dark Grey, which is quite purplish. I did the rocket pods in bare metal. I used a Krylon silver metalflake as primer, and three light (handbrushed) coats of MMA Aluminum on the pods. I then used another Citadel wash to stain them and add depth.
While the gear bays themselves, as well as the doors inside and out, are Dark Ghost, the gear legs are not. They appeared a bit more greenish, so I used MMA Sky, a grey green, and used the same Gunship-based wash to both highlight the detail on the landing gear and change the colour a bit. The wheels were done the same way. One thing I must say is that the landing gear, especially the front one, captures the complexity of the real thing very well. There are a lot of pieces just to make up the front gear leg, while the rears are single piece.
Other than all the MMA Steel peeling off, unmasking went well and revealed nothing that needed touching up. It was at this point that I decided how I wanted to detail the aircraft. Even though they are Russian, the photos I have showed the Mig-29 SMTs in this particular paint were usually quite clean. Thus, doing a wash to highlight the copious panel line detail seemed inappropriate, and risky, too. Instead, I decided to use an “old school” approach, and outline all the detail with a filed-down mechanical pencil.
This took a lot of work, and some of the lines had faded with all the paint put on the bird, but the result is worth it. By using the pencil, I get a nice sharp line without adding any “griminess” to the aircraft. I have noticed an increasing trend towards heavy weathering on aircraft, sometimes to what I feel is an inappropriate level. I didn’t want to build a dirt ball; I wanted to build a nice, clean example of the plane, and using the pencil is the best way to do this. Of course, it’s all up to the individual modeller but for me, I think I’m going to stick with this “clean” approach more often! Sure, it takes time and effort, but in the end, it gives the pane character without being overdone.
I reapplied the MMA Steel on the engine shields and gun area, as well as on the exhaust nozzles themselves, and the applied a hearty wash of the Nuln Oil again. With metal bits taken care of, and the panel lines in, it was safe to gloss the plane. I used Future, and put on three moderate coats, leaving each to dry for at least 6 hours. This gives a nice, if not smooth, shine, and at least gives a nice surface to apply decals to.
Decals and Finishing:
I haven’t had occasion to use Zvezda decals before, and I must say that I am largely impressed. They are very, very thin, and go on quite well. They are glossy, and that helps to prevent silvering. They are also quite tough, and will take a considerable amount of sliding around on the plane. However, once they’re down, they’re down, so make sure you’ve got them where you want them. Otherwise, you run a risk of destroying the decals when you try to “refloat” them.
Despite their thinness, the decals didn’t conform to the panel lines all that well. I’m not a fan of decal setting solutions, but I used a coat of Future, handbrushed over the decal, to soften them a bit. I then poked at them and pushed them into the panel lines. This is not a great approach if you’re using a lot of decals across a lot of lines, but I wasn’t. In fact, only the “25” on the intakes needed this treatment. Now, as a note of accuracy, it seems that the SMTs in this grey/green tactical scheme had blue numbers on the intakes, whereas the kit’s are red. If that’s going to bother you, I’m sure you can scout out some blue Russian numbers. I tried, but I am a bit deficient in Soviet decals, so I just went with the red ones.
One thing I did notice was that the Zvezda decals had a bad tendency to curl on themselves. It was almost impossible to get them apart again when that happened. I lost a couple of small stencils this way. The key is to let the decal float on the surface of the water being used, not to immerse it. If the decal comes off the backing, there’s a good chance it’s “game over”. If the decal is left floating, it won’t take long in warm water to be ready to move. I found that as little as 10 seconds was enough in several cases! If care is taken to slide the decal off the backing right onto the plane, there won’t be any issues. However, unlike some decals that can cantilever out from a piece of backing, these can’t.
Once the decals were on, each was overpainted using Future by hand. Then a light coat of Future was applied to everything, and when dry, was sanded smooth with 4000 grit sanding cloths to integrate the decals. I decided not to weather the plane at all, so a matte coat made from Delta Ceramcoat Indoor/Outdoor Matte Urethane Varnish was applied directly. Once dry (in about a day) the same material, fortified with Future, was oversprayed to give a “low satin” finish.
I applied Bare Metal Foil to the IRST ball in front of the windscreen, to give it that mirror-y look. It came cast in clear, but the fit was dodgy so I glued it on early and sanded and faired it in before painting. I think the result looks pretty good, and is nicely integrated. I used BMF on the seeker windows on the AA-11s and KAB-500KRs as well. Those, though, I gave a bit of Tamiya Smoke over the foil. This gives the foil a look of being reflective optical glass, as often seen on many different smart weapons and sighting systems.
When I was younger, putting on decals was the last step in a plane kit. Now, it’s really about the 70% mark. I’m still not used to having so much work to do after applying the decals and final finish. However, on this Mig, there is A LOT of final assembly work. It’s quite picky and time-consuming too, so don’t go into it thinking it’s going to be a few little things and “poof”: done! It’s almost like Detective Columbo came back for another visit! I do so wish Zvezda would stop watching reruns…
The landing gear go together amazingly well. Given the complexity of the doors, their small actuators and smaller hinges/attachment points, I expected a nightmare. I was wrong. The gear legs and doors went on without incident, even with all the coats of paint on them. I’ll admit that the gear doesn’t feel all that strong once it’s together; I expect to hear a crash one day as a rear landing gear leg gives out. However, for now, the gear is doing the job well. Oh, I had enough nose weight, too, it seems, since the jet doesn’t even want to rock backwards!
The weapons were irksome. The pylons fit to the wing very well, and I was impressed how pain-free attaching them was. I’m used to that being a real fight. The fight, rather, was in getting the weapons to mount to the pylons. The AA-11s were great. No hassle. The KAB-500KRs fit on their pylons was passable, but needed quite a lot more glue than I’d thought. The rocket pods, though were a nightmare. They had barely any surface to which to glue, so I got them “spot welded” on with Plast-i-Weld, and then used thinned White School Glue to flow an invisible, once dry, “web” between the pod and the pylon. This worked, but man, it was a pain.
The centreline tank and engine nozzles, which actually do look pretty good all finished up, fit without protest, exactly where they should go. The canopy glass, though, wanted to fit as much as a cat wants to lounge in a nice bubble bath! The windscreen and the canopy were both too wide; they were “flattened” and it was dangerous to flex them to bring them back to the proper shape. The windscreen wasn’t terrible, and it eventually fit on. The canopy hood, though, required a lot of gluing and regluing using Tacky Glue, which is just thick white glue. Eventually, I got it on as well as I think I could, but it’s nowhere near as good a fit as some of the other parts.
On one hand, I want to congratulate Zvezda on creating such a nice kit of such an interesting aircraft. There is no arguing that the detail level is excellent, and that the kit is largely accurate. (Interestingly enough, the real SMTs have reinforcement plates midway up the fins that aren’t present on the kit. Still, this is a rivet-counter’s point at best, and I don’t fancy myself one of those.) Fit is quite good, and there can be nothing but the highest praises heaped upon the kit makers for including so many extra weapons. Be sure your spares box has a good amount of room left in it; you’ll need it!
On the other, though, there were times I wanted to strangle someone building this thing. The odd engineering of the cockpit walls, wingtips and especially the intakes are all frustrating to a smaller, or in the case of the intakes, larger, degree. This results in the build being a much more arduous and protracted undertaking than should be the case for a kit of this size and scale. Also frustrating was the seemingly endless array of small things that had to be added to the fuselage, spread across numerous assembly steps, before any primering could even be considered. The overall impression I have of the actual building of this kit is one similar to routine dental work: it’s not painful, but it’s irksome, tiresome and seems to take entirely too much effort for the apparent result.
With this in mind, I would never consider giving this kit to a beginner, and even those with a few planes under their belts should be wary. This kit will not brook carelessness, and those whose skills are still evolving may find that their results are not as good as they expected given the outward quality of the unbuilt kit.
If you’ve got skill, patience and have done this before, though, the Zvezda Mig-29SMT is going to be right up your alley. If you’re a fan of fast jets, the Cold War or Russian hardware in general, then I cannot think of any Mig-29 kit that will build up and display any better than this one will!