As you might expect, Skybirds tend to be rare nowadays, especially if you want one in good condition. Moreover, most Skybirds kits were assembled by relatively unskilled hands (sometimes by children) to varying qualities. And if the constructed models are hard to find, unmade kits are as rare as hens teeth! Most of the time, therefore, the collector has to be content with constructed models of indifferent quality.
This, in turn, prompts a question: how do you know if the models you possess are by Skybirds, and not another make? The name is often applied to wooden models of that era as a sort of catch-all description, but without cast-iron provenance or the original packaging, how can you be sure? To illustrate the problem, let’s take a look at a famous warplane of the Great War, the S.E.5.
The R.A.F. S.E.5
We should begin with an explanation of what is meant by the ‘R.A.F. S.E.5’. In this instance, ‘R.A.F.’ refers not to service in the Royal Air Force (which in any case didn’t exist until April 1918, being called the Royal Flying Corps or R.F.C. prior to that time), but to production by the Royal Aircraft Factory. ‘S.E.5’ in an acronym for ‘Scout Experimental 5’, in other words the fifth fighter design produced by the RAF. So, the aircraft we are examining was a fighter designed by the Royal Aircraft Factory.
The S.E.5 was a single-seater biplane fighter, designed for aerial combat. It first became operational on the Western Front in April 1917, and in concert with its more famous contemporary, the Sopwith Camel, it enabled the Allies to achieve and retain air superiority during the final stages of the war. By the end of the war, 23 squadrons were equipped with the aircraft, and more than 5,000 were built overall.
While the Camel was supremely manoeuvrable, it was an extremely difficult aircraft to fly and required skilled pilots. The S.E.5, on the other hand, although manoeuvrable enough, was more stable, which made it easier to fly and a better gun platform. It was also faster, with a top speed nearing 140mph, and so, overall, was a more effective machine for practical use.
Armament was fairly standard for the era: two machine guns, one fixed on the front fuselage and one on the upper wing, which could be pulled down to fire upwards (though doing this, or changing ammunition drums, was no mean feat for the pilot who also, of course, had to fly the aircraft!).
A final note on the aircraft name: when the initial engine intended for the S.E.5 was found to be underpowered, a more powerful version was adopted. The great majority of aircraft were equipped with this, and although unchanged in other respects, counted as a new version of the aircraft, the S.E.5a.
So, let’s take a look at some candidate models of the S.E.5. I have three examples, all wooden and to a scale of 1:72. I have no provenance for any of them, so the question is, which, if any, were made from Skybirds kits?
The model nearest the picture, painted silver, is a sturdy, well-made and by comparison with the others, slightly chunky model. It has no markings, but plenty of good detailing, some of which we will examine later in the story. I’ll name this model from here on as Silver.
The aircraft behind Silver and to the left, is a more delicate model, not so well-made and with a slightly squashed undercarriage. There is little detailing, and the finish is poor. It sports a standard WW1 colour scheme (green/brown on the upper surfaces, beige underneath), with a number 6 clumsily marked on the upper wing: therefore, I’ll identify this model as no.6.
The final model, at the rear right, looks at first glance to have a similar stature to no.6, and is also finished in a standard WW1 scheme. However, it is better constructed and more carefully finished, and has some good detailing that no.6 lacks. On the upper wing there is a 7, so I’ll call it no.7.
Before taking a closer look at the models, let’s consider for a moment how the models may have been made. They may have been constructed from Skybirds kits, but they could also have been made from a kit by another manufacturer. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about these to say for sure whether there were any other kits available in the same scale, but there were many makers at this time and the S.E.5 was a well-known warplane, so it is entirely possible.
Another way that a wooden model might have been created is by a scratch-builder. In fact, James Hay Stevens (JHS), the designer of Skybirds, himself began life as a model builder. In 1933, he published ‘Scale Model Aircraft’, a guide to building model aircraft which included a technical drawing of the S.E.5 amongst many others. The August 1937 edition of Air Stories magazine also hosted an article by JHS describing the aircraft, and providing another drawing and instructions on how to build a model. Thus, there was no shortage of advice available to hobby model makers.
Now, I do not have an unmade kit of the S.E.5, or the instructions, nor have I been able to find an image of them. As a result, I don’t know what the kit inventory of parts was, nor do I have access to the unmade parts for comparison purposes. As a result, I can only make some observations based on what I assume was Skybirds practice as described by others, and evidenced in other similar kits (see the Hawker Henley for an example) for which I do have evidence.
I’m going to split my investigation into four parts.
1. Overall size and shape
All three of the models are clearly representations of the S.E.5, and their dimensions are broadly compatible with a scale of 1:72. The wings on no.7 are slightly too long, and on both no.6 and no.7 the ends of the wings flare strongly towards the rear, unlike those on the real-life S.E.5. As already mentioned, Silver is sturdier than the other two. This is particularly noticeable at the nose, which is too broad. The fin of Silver is a tad stunted, while the tailplane (the rear wings) of no.6 is too small and that of no.7 is perhaps slightly big.
Overall, without resorting to complex measurements, but having looked long and hard at various plans and photographs, my totally subjective initial impression is that Silver is just a bit too ‘chunky’ for a Skybirds kit, while no.6 and no.7 have a slightly more refined feel.
With models assembled from kits, it is useful to examine the way in which the parts are joined. This may reveal tell-tale differences or signature methods.
For example, how is the lower wing attached to the fuselage? On both Silver and no.6, the lower wings appear to be a single piece, with the wings joined by a connecting length of wood, which has been fitted into a slot cut into the underside of the fuselage. The join has been carefully filled on Silver, but remains obvious on no.6.
The join on no.6 has been left unfilled, so we can clearly see that the connecting piece is quite narrow. On Silver, the join has been filled and sanded, but the connector is obviously wider. This suggests that the two models have different origins.
No.7, on the other hand, appears at first sight to be different. The fuselage bulges slightly below the wing, giving the impression that there may have been two separate wing parts, that were fitted into slots on the fuselage side. On closer examination, however, I can see a tell-tale bump under the fuselage which suggests to me that filler has been added where the wings join. Whether the hidden join resembles that on no.6 or not, it is impossible to say.
A particularly diagnostic area of Skybirds kits is the tail. As we have seen with the Hawker Henley, the fin and tailplane were usually made not from wood, but from a composite material that was fairly thin. It’s difficult to be sure, but the tail on Silver looks like wood to me. As already noted, the fin is too rounded and small. As with the rest of the model, the joins have been well-filled and smoothed so it is difficult to work out how it has been constructed.
On the other hand, on both no.6 and no.7 there are small gaps revealing horizontal and vertical slots in the rear of the fuselage into which the tailplane and fin have been fitted, and in both cases the fin and tailplane are thin and flat. The fin has an identical size and shape on no.6 and no.7, but the tailplanes are different. That on no.6 is smooth and undersized, while the larger tailplane on no.7 shows a woodgrain texture. A little paint loss on no.6 reveals a cream-coloured, shiny surface. It’s definitely not wood, and it isn’t the matt red colour of the composite material used on the Hawker Henley, but perhaps it could be the white celluloid material mentioned by Sinclair in his book on Skybirds (see the Sources page on this website for details)?
It’s all a bit mysterious, but once again there are similarities between no.6 and no.7. Fitting the tailplanes into a slot in the rear of the fuselage is a method used by Skybirds, but why do they differ in size? Here’s one bit of speculation: the tailplane on no.6 could be an original Skybird part, which the constructor of no.7 decided was too small, and chose to replace with a hand-made wooden version…
A final area worth checking is the cockpit. As we have seen with the Hawker Henley, a round hole was drilled in to the fuselage which the builder could open out to make a better representation of the cockpit. A round hole of this type is obvious on no.6. The opening in no.7 has been carefully shaped. It might have started life as a drilled hole, but the sides have been lowered and a flatter front created, and a headrest added behind. The cockpit area on Silver is very different, because it has been shaped and extensively opened out towards the front where the pilot’s feet would go. This has been quite skillfully done.
Skybirds kits usually came with a packet of small parts, such as the propeller and undercarriage. A caution is in order: many of these parts were also available separately, as spares or for scratch-builders, so their presence does not necessarily identify a Skybirds kit. What do we find on our examples?
It’s quite unlikely that Skybirds made a part for the engine of the S.E.5 as it fitted flush with the fuselage, and none of our models has one. Nevertheless, they show widely differing approaches to the subject. On no.6, the front of the fuselage is simply flat bare wood – you can see the grain quite clearly. On no.7, the enterprising modeller has fitted what looks like silver foil over the end, and lightly scored it to suggest the frontal slats. Silver is quite sophisticated: a line has been scored around the front of the fuselage to give the impression the radiator is a separate part; the wood has been recessed and scored to detail the radiator; and to, er, cap it all there is even a filler cap!
Skybirds almost certainly did supply as spare parts the propeller and the exhausts. The former would have been cast metal, but Silver has a very nicely made wooden example. No.7 and no.6 both have metal propellers, but while that on no.7 is quite a nice casting, no.6 has what looks like a flat, stamped example, topped by a curious (and inaccurate) pointed spinner.
There is a similar variety of approaches to the exhausts. Both Silver and no.7 have long exhausts, stretching back to the cockpit. However, those on Silver are shaped lengths of wood that have been stuck along the fuselage, while no.7 sports metal rods with some added detail in the form of thin wire wound around the rear part alongside the cockpit. I’m not sure what this represents, but it looks good! No.6 has simple, short exhausts that have been fashioned from wire, which is, in my experience, most likely to represent the Skybirds solution.
Turning to the undercarriage, the typical Skybirds approach was to provide wire for the ‘V’ struts and a pin for the axle, and a pair of cast metal wheels. This is what we see on both no.6 and no.7 – in fact, the wheels on both look identical – and it represents the simple S.E.5 undercarriage reasonably well. Silver, on the other hand, has a rather clunky arrangement of pressed metal legs and chunky wheels, which is strong but less elegant (and less accurate).
Although Skybirds did make shaped interplane struts (those that go between the upper and lower wings) for some aircraft, for smaller airplanes they usually made do with simple wire. This is what we see on no.6. No.7 and Silver, however, both have flattened struts that better represent the look of the S.E.5. In fact, no.7 goes one better and the enterprising modeller has added rigging. This is something that James Hay Stephens was sure would look ‘clumsy’ on a 1:72 model, but even though it is undoubtedly out of scale I’m always impressed when I see it!
The final area of investigation is the finish that has been given to the models. Despite not having the instructions from the kit, I’m pretty sure that Skybirds would have advised the modeller to paint the aircraft in the standard Western Front scheme of brown/green overall with beige undersides, as is seen on no.6 and no.7. The kit would also probably have included paper or decal cockades (roundels) for the wings, but not the tail flash or other markings which the poor modeller would have to paint on with a steady hand.
The only marking on Silver is the tricolour on the fin. Interestingly, this is blue-white-red from the rear, which is the reverse sequence compared to British and French markings, but was used by American aircraft. S.E.5s were used by the United States prior to the armistice, so perhaps the modeller intended this aircraft to represent one. If so, they never got round to adding the other markings (for which, since US decals would have been difficult to find, they would have needed a steady hand).
No.6 has (roughly cut and applied) paper roundels. Other painted marks are rather messy: chevrons on the fuselage, the 6 on the upper wing, and the red stripe of the fin (but not the white or blue, which they may have baulked at). I’m not whether the roundels on no.7 are decals or paper, but it has been much more carefully finished, with a neatly painted rudder tricolour, fuselage and upper wing markings.
Phew! So, where does this leave us?
For starters, I’m fairly sure that Silver is not a Skybirds kit. It’s too chunky for a Skybirds model, and doesn’t use any of the small parts that I would expect Skybirds to have supplied. This is true even where they might have improved the look of the finished model. Nonetheless, it’s a well-made and nicely detailed model, that smacks to me of a scratch-build.
No.6 on the other hand, is quite likely a straight-from-the-kit Skybird. The components and the way they have been joined look right to me. Sadly, it’s a poorly built and finished model, which is probably typical of most Skybirds, but as a result it doesn’t really show off the potential of the kit.
I think No.7 is probably an ‘improved’ Skybird kit. It is so similar in shape, size and construction to No.6, that it must surely have derived from the same source. The maker has, however, enhanced the kit in small ways, and taken great care over the construction and finishing, which results in a far better model.
Now, I can’t guarantee that my conclusions are correct, and I’m happy to be proven wrong. After all, I’m blissfully unaware of whatever other kits of the S.E.5 may have existed at the time, and one thing that shouldn’t be underestimated is the inventiveness of modellers when making their models – who knows where the parts of a given model came from? But, for now, sticking with my conclusions above, I’m going to choose no.7 as a good example of what can be achieved from a Skybirds kit. So, in conclusion, here is the item description for the Skybirds 21 S.E.5.
Skybirds 21 S.E.5
Skybirds 21 S.E.5
Year first produced:1934
L90 x W119 x H39, Wood & Metal 15g, Scale 1:72, Features: 2
Skybirds made a number of fighters of the Great War, including:
- 5 Sopwith Camel
- 9 Nieuport Scout
- 25 Albatros D.III
2 thoughts on “Skybirds – Identification”
Very interesting! thanks for the post.
You are welcome!
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