Skybirds – Introduction

Woodworking Made Simple?

Skybirds

With Skybirds, we jump back to the 1930s, and what many consider to be the birth of aircraft kits. Yes, we are going vintage!

‘Skybirds’ was the name given to a range of aircraft kits produced by A.J.Holladay during 1932-46, with a hiatus from 1942-45 as materials were reserved for the war effort. The range was the brainchild of J.H.Stevens, a young designer and artist who designed them, drew the plans and illustrations, and wrote extensively on the subject of flight and aircraft. He has been credited with inventing, or at least establishing, the 1:72 scale which has been the mainstay of aircraft kits ever since (there will be more on this subject in a later story).

The Skybirds trade mark. Such a delightful 1930s font!

About 80 kits were produced, covering warplanes and civil aircraft from the Great War to the 1940s, with a preponderance of British subjects. The kits were composed of unpainted wooden parts, with metal details. The range was extended by a selection of matching airfield buildings, plus airfield and military vehicles and personnel.

A notable feature of the Skybirds range was the supporters association called the Skybird League, founded in 1933. A quarterly illustrated magazine mostly written by Stevens encouraged the growth of a loyal customer community: by 1945 there were 18,000 enrolled members!

Hamleys in London sported an imaginative window display of Skybirds products in 1935.

Let’s have a look at the range, by taking as an example a little-known aircraft that was a stable-mate of the famous Hawker Hurricane, the Hawker Henley.

Hawker Henley

To understand the Henley, we need some background. In the run-up to the Second World War, the German Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force held completely different views of what bombing was all about. For the Luftwaffe, the goal was to provide support to the ground forces while they conducted lightning offensives intended to achieve swift victories. For the RAF, who were expecting a more static and drawn-out war, the objective was to bomb the enemy means of production and supply.

The Hawker Henley in flight. Note the deep fuselage accommodating the bomb.

As a part of the RAF vision of bombing, light bombers would be used to attack targets like warehouses, railways and bridges short distances behind the front lines. This was the role intended for the Hawker Henley, which first flew in 1937. The aircraft has a vague resemblance to the Hurricane which was developed by Hawker at the same time (sharing the outer wing and tail components), and was also powered by a Merlin engine. It was quite fast, with a maximum speed of about 300mph, and carried a 500lb bomb in an internal bomb bay. A 2-man crew included a rear gunner for defence.

However, by the time it was ready for service, the light bomber role had been secured by the Fairey Battle, which was larger and slower but could carry double the bomb-load. The 200 aircraft that had been ordered were therefore used during the war as unglamorous target tows, pulling wind socks or other targets for anti-aircraft guns to practice shooting at. The good turn of speed of the Henley made it a useful test of the gunners’ skill.

A Henley passes an anti-aircraft gun. NB: This is a posed photograph, which explains why the aircraft is flying so low and the tow is dangerously close to it.

Skybirds 2C Hawker Henley

Skybirds 2C Hawker Henley

Year first produced:1940

L285 x W184 x H22 (box), Metal & wood 205g, Scale 1:72, Features: 2

The Henley kit was produced in 1940, towards the end of Skybird production. Skybirds replaced kits with new, more contemporary subjects from time to time, and reused their numbers: hence the Henley was numbered 2C because it was the third kit with that number, replacing 2B Heston Phoenix which itself replaced 2A DH Leopard Moth.

The kit was supplied in a lidded cardboard box. My example has decayed, but thankfully the top has survived intact together with the illustration that adorned it. In the centre, is a drawing of the Henley (probably by Stevens).

The illustration on the box lid.

On the left, we learn that the model is to 1:72 scale, and on the right, there is a list of contents:

  • Fuselage
  • Main Plane
  • Rudder
  • Tail Plane
  • Cockpit Cover
  • 2 Wheels
  • 2 U/C Fairings
  • Airscrew
  • Envelope of Accessories

This is not, in fact, a comprehensive statement of what is in the box, but does describe the model components that we find attached to a card backing.

The major parts on their card backing.

Now, the key thing about Skybirds models is that they are composed of wooden parts, finished with metal and plastic details. That ‘W’ word fills me with terror! Woodworking is a skill I don’t have, so assembling one of these kits immediately seems likely to be beyond me; and of course, it just seems terribly old-fashioned. But let’s take a look.

The first thing to note is that there are very few wooden parts – just the fuselage and the wings. They are made from a close-grained, smooth wood (reputedly mahogany, but I’m no expert) that has been shaped to the outline of the required pieces. The rudder and tailplane are made of a composite resin fibre material (an early plastic) in a fetching red colour. These four parts together constitute the main structure of the model.

Turing to the smaller parts, the cockpit cover is missing from my example, but would have been made from an early clear plastic like celastoid. The wheels and airscrew are cast metal, while the undercarriage fairings are stamped from aluminium. Two sets of waterslide decals for the RAF roundels are included (initially these would have been stickers, but decals were introduced in 1935).

The contents of the accessories envelope.

The envelope of accessories has a contents list on the front, but as with the box front, the list is slightly misleading. It actually contains

  • Brass wire to be bent into the undercarriage ‘vees’
  • 2 long steel pins for the undercarriage legs
  • 1 short steel pin and a short length of wire for the rear wheel leg and radio antenna
  • 2 composite fibre engine exhausts
  • A cast metal tailwheel
  • Thin transparent celluloid film for covering the openings in the wing where the landing lights would be sited
  • A further set of decals (possibly a duplicate)

Included in the box were also an instruction leaflet and a plan of the aircraft, known in Skybirds parlance as a General Arrangement Diagram or GAD, to 1:144 scale (half-size when compared to the kit). After 1933, neither paints nor glue were included, but these were available separately from Skybirds. Rather charmingly, the kits did find space for a small piece of glasspaper.

The General Arrangement Diagram.

Assembly

How easy would it be to put one of these kits together? We have the GAD as a guide, and textual instructions in the instruction leaflet. The first page of the leaflet contains a potted history of the Henley and a list of its technical specifications. The reverse side contains the assembly and painting instructions. Remember, this is a scary wooden kit, so you’ll need arcane stuff – right?

The front page of the instruction leaflet.

Although all of the components are provided in the kit, some work is required beyond simple assembly to create the model. The wooden parts need some attention: the wings need to be separated; glasspaper is used to smooth the surfaces and shape the wing edges; the cockpit opening needs to be extended beyond the ready-drilled holes, and a ledge created to glue the cockpit canopy to; and the square lugs on the wing roots have to be shaped to fit the round holes drilled in the side of the fuselage. The composite parts fit into a slot in the rear of the fuselage and also need sanding to taper their edges. Hmm, aside from ensuring a snug fit for the canopy, this doesn’t seem too scary.

The wooden parts – note the drilled holes into the cockpit area, which have to be opened up, and the occasional rough surface in need of smoothing.

The undercarriage can be assembled in the retracted position, in which case the only action to be taken is to glue the wheels into circular holes pre-drilled into the underside of the wing. However, note that no stand is provided with the kit.

On the other hand, if the undercarriage is to be modelled deployed, then we turn to the accessories envelope. The pins must be passed through the wheels (leaving them free to rotate), then bent at 90 degrees to form the legs, and glued with the undercarriage fairings into the lower surface of the wings. The brass wire has to be cut in two, bent into vees round the legs, and also glued. Now, I’m sure that I could bend brass wire, and I’ve bent steel pins at right-angles using a pair of pliers before. The challenge, I think, would be to get the separate parts to take up their required angles and to look like they are attached to each other, when fixed into the fuselage!

The landing light covers have to be cut from the celluloid film and glued over the openings provided in the leading edges in the wings. I’m guessing the trick is to cut the film larger than the openings, and rely on its thinness to ensure that the overlap is not obvious once painted.

If desired, crew members could be added to the cockpit (they aren’t included, but Skybirds sold suitable figures separately) and lastly the aerials and propeller would be attached. Note that the propeller and spinner are a single piece and won’t move once fixed.

So, having looked more closely, I doubt that the assembly skills required are beyond most people (or even me). The undercarriage might be a challenge, and the celluloid is extremely flimsy, but with a little care and some minor cursing, I reckon there would be a fair chance of achieving a satisfactory result. In fact, it strikes me that it might not be more of a challenge than the less-than-perfect Airfix plastic kits that I used to struggle with back in the 1970s. Like them, some simple tools would be required (e.g. glue, a knife or chisel, pliers), and joins would need to be filled; and like them, the odd part might not fit exactly and end up a bit skew-whiff.

The assembly and painting guide – all text, no diagram.

Where I do have some concerns though, is with the painting guide. It’s worth mentioning up front that although decals for the roundels are provided, tail flashes (and any other markings) are not, so the instructions expect you to paint these freehand! Tricky.

A more general consideration, is that the GAD plan does not indicate the colours or markings that should be used. As a result, things like the nature of the camouflage pattern, where the different colours transition, and exactly where the decals should be placed, are guesswork. Of course, in the case of our Henley in 1940, such detailed information about a current warplane is likely to have been classified and thus unavailable – but the general point still stands, and it is, I think, a weakness with Skybirds kits.

In conclusion, when I first thought about putting together a vintage mainly wooden, multimedia kit, it seemed a little daunting. However, Skybirds went a long way to making the task as simple as possible, e.g. by pre-shaping the wooden and composite components and providing metal details. Diagrammatic instructions, and a painting plan really would have been useful, but then the kit is not hyper-detailed. The parts are reasonable representations, and certainly appear likely to capture the shape and look of the Henley.

Overall, I’m quite impressed by it. In fact, if they weren’t so rare and expensive these days, I’d be tempted to have a go. After all, as we shall see in later stories, many people were able to make a decent model from a Skybirds kit.


SEE ALSO…

RAF aircraft were, naturally, a popular topic for Skybirds. Other 1930s RAF bombers in the range include:

  • 1B Fairey Battle
  • 11A Fairey Hendon
  • 20 Handley Page Heyford (an aircraft seen before on this website)

Author: hexeres

Amateur photographer, military toy enthusiast, footslogger, dog lover, history buff and ebay trader to mention just a few...

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