curtiss-condor_h47-3

Curtiss Condor by Glencoe

1/87 scale
Kit No. 06101
Cost: $12.00
Decals: Three versions – NR12384, the aircraft accompanying Admiral Richard Byrd’s 1933 Antarctic Expedition; NC12354, an airliner in American Airways livery, circa 1933;  and an aircraft of the Argentine Navy, circa 1938.
Comments:  Old mold; 1989 re-issue of the ITC kit under the Glencoe Models label, first released by ITC in 1954

History

When the Curtiss Condor appeared in 1933, it was the ultimate development of the passenger carrying bi-plane, incorporating features never before seen in such aircraft: electrically operated retractable landing gear, a cabin specifically designed for passenger comfort, and aerodynamic nacelles to house the wing-mounted engines.  Just as the Hawker Hurricane would within a few years represent a blending of old and new fighter design, the Condor signaled the end of one design era in transport aircraft, and the beginning of another.

curtiss-condor_banner-plainThe Curtiss-Wright Company was well aware of the trend toward monoplane design as the Condor was being developed; but the company was at a crossroads financially and had an urgent problem — the need to get its St. Louis, Missouri plant, which had been shut down for almost two years because of the Depression, back up and running.  Curtiss-Wright could not spare the time needed to develop an all-metal monoplane transport.  But they reasoned that they could quickly and cheaply build a new bi-plane and make it pencil out, provided it had a few modern innovations that would narrow the competitive edge soon to be established by the Boeing 247, the monoplane transport under development at the same time that would become known as the first modern airliner.  Curtiss-Wright were confident that a bi-plane such as they contemplated would still be superior to the Ford and Fokker Tri-motors prevalent in commercial air travel early 1930’s.

curtiss-condor_h47-1In the Spring of1932, company president Ralph Damon directed George A. Page, Jr., Curtiss-Wright’s chief designer, to build such a transport plane as quickly and cheaply as possible.  The result, with the company designation T-32, flew for the first time on January 30, 1933.  It was the first multi-engine airliner with electrically operated retractable landing gear, and the first to have its engines mounted on rubber bushes to absorb vibration.  The passenger cabin was appointed in fabric and leather, and there were individual hot and cold air vents for each seat.  The lavatory featured a basin with hot and cold running water, a mirror and a vanity case.

Here is where the Condor mold betrayed its 1950's origins: the kit's undersized windows led to the addition of clear plastic backing, cut from a lettuce container and cemented to the cabin interior as reinforcement.

Here is where the Condor mold betrayed its 1950’s origins: the kit’s undersized windows led to the addition of clear plastic backing, cut from a lettuce container and cemented to the cabin interior as reinforcement.

The Condor was the first passenger carrying aircraft capable of flying fully loaded on just one engine.  In flight, it was light on the controls and highly maneuverable.  In late March 1933, Eastern Air Lines took delivery of five aircraft, and within weeks, American Airlines followed suit.  Additional orders from both airlines followed, and production continued briskly throughout the year, aided in part by the competitive price of $60,000 per aircraft — a fee considered quite affordable at the time, and one that still allowed Curtiss-Wright, owing to efficient management, to turn a satisfactory profit.

curtiss-condor_h47-6Aircraft design developed rapidly during this time; in 1934, Curtiss-Wright outfitted the Condors with  the newly developed Hamilton variable pitch propeller, which considerably improved the performance of the Condors in the Eastern and American Airlines fleets.  Condors were marked by American Airways as being the “World’s First Complete Sleeper Planes” featuring sleeping berths for all 12 passengers while traveling at up to 190 miles and hour — a level of comfort previously available only to passengers who traveled by train, with the bonus of arriving at your destination hours earlier.  By mid-1934, however, the writing was on the wall — the Condor could not long remain in competition with the Boeing 247, or with a new aircraft that ultimately spelled even the 247’s demise, the Douglas DC-2.

curtiss-condor_c2The most famous Condor was C/N 41, supplied to Admiral Richard Byrd for his second Antarctic expedition in 1933, and specially outfitted with custom-built instruments, radio equipment, additional fuel tanks in the fuselage, and alternately equipped with floats or skis as needed in place of the landing gear.  It was of great value as a reconnaissance aircraft during the early phase of the two-year expedition, mapping out the best approaches to the continent.  On arrival it was fitted with skis and flown from pack ice near the ship to Little America adjacent the Ross Ice Barrier.   There the Condor had to be protected before the Antarctic winter set in, an event which stopped all flying.  This was done by digging away the snow beneath the skis so that the plane sunk into the resulting pit, then covering the Condor with heavy tarpaulins stretched over timbers — a colossal job.

curtiss-condor_h47-7Maintaining the aircraft in the extreme cold proved challenging, and required patching the fabric, overhauling the engines, checking cables, etc.  Patching fabric may have been the most difficult, since dope would not dry, owing to the cold.  To apply a patch to the under surface of a wing, a man turned himself into a sort of inverted tent by holding the upper edge of a large piece of cloth against the wing, with the cloth’s lower edge tied around his waist, while warmth was provided by a 500 watt electric light bulb held inside this “tent.”  The fumes from the dope were nauseating in the confined space, but many patches were applied by these means.  The following Spring, the Condor was again flying and was a key part of the success of Byrd’s second expedition, helping to map vast tracts of Antarctica.

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The Condor’s profile hints at the more famous Curtiss aircraft that would follow, the monoplane C-46 Commando. Within a decade of the Condor’s debut, the C-46 would come off Curtiss’ assembly lines, destined for a key role in the Far East airlift of supplies over the Himalayas (“The Hump”) to Chiang Kai Shek’s forces in China fighting the Japanese.

In all, 54 Condors were built, one of which served as a personal transport for China’s GeneraIissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and two others serving as patrol aircraft for the Argentine Navy for 14 years.  Two were purchased by  the U.S. Army Air Corps for use as executive transports, and four were purchased by Great Britain and pressed into service with the Royal Air Force in the early stages of World War II.  Eight more were built as bombers and fitted with manually operated machine gun turrets, but all were exported, so none saw service with the U.S. military.   In addition to those in the U.S., Condors served the airlines of several nations, including Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, Chile, Columbia, Peru, Argentina and China.

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The Kit

The Glencoe kit is a re-issue of ITC’s mold of the Curtiss Condor, first released in the mid-1950’s.  Other than the Scalemaster decals, there is no evidence that this kit has been upgraded in any way.  The one exception is that upon its 1989 re-issue by Glencoe, the kit contained conventional landing gear (wheels) as molds for these were discovered when the decision was made to revive the kit — whereas the original 1954 kit featured floats only.  A key set of options is the ability to build the kit with the landing gear up or down, or with the floats fitted.  No skis are provided, although they were used on Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expedition.  The kit is injection molded in light gray and due to the various options of different landing gear and engine configurations, features a total of 57 parts, only 45 of which I used in  building the American Airways version with the gear up.

Construction

As this kit has comparatively few parts, the initial steps of construction are quite easy.  There is no cabin or cockpit interior to speak of, but there are pilot and co-pilot figures, molded into their seats, that are to be cemented against the cockpit sidewalls.  There is a single passenger figure that is to be cemented to the interior fuselage sidewall a little over halfway back in the cabin.  Assembly begins with these steps, but also by cementing in the 13 cabin windows plus the one-piece windshield.

curtiss-condor_h47-4The windshield fits into either fuselage half easily.  But the cabin windows are where the kit betrays its age — they are all slightly undersized, so much so that it was clear in dry-fitting them that something would be needed to brace them so that they did not fall back into the cabin interior if the glue failed, which was a real possibility since the contact points were insufficient at best.  I recovered from my kitchen a thin, clear plastic bin that had first entered the house containing pre-washed lettuce.  From the sides of the bin I cut two strips of plastic, each about 4 1/2 inches (almost 11.5 cm) long, and 3/4 in. or 2.5 cm wide.  Using cyanoacyrlate, I cemented the strips to the cabin interior as a backing for the poorly secured windows, using clamps to ensure no gaps between the clear plastic backing and the windows themselves.  When it came time to mask the windows for painting, I was glad I had taken this precaution!

curtiss-condor_h47-2While made of rugged plastic, the fuselage halves were not quite symmetrical.  They required a fair amount of sanding once cemented together, and even then in a head-on view, the two halves were not quite a mirror image of one another, with the left half being slightly more bulbous along its dorsal surface, especially up near the cockpit.  The kit seems to come with a multitude of wings, for there are two options for a land-based aircraft, providing a choice of lower wings depicting the main gear up or down, and a third option for floats in place of the main gear for the Admiral Byrd/Antarctic version.  There is a choice of cowlings as well, with both American versions featuring engine faces and using cowl rings common to the period which made for greater exposure of the engines to the elements, and the Argentine version, featuring larger, deeper cowlings which completely covered the engines.

The engines for the American Airways version required significant sanding to the cylinder heads before they would fit comfortably within the cowl rings without warping them.  As with all biplanes, the main challenge is getting the top wing on, and getting it properly aligned in the process, and the Condor was no exception.  A cursory examination of the underside of the upper wing showed that the few holes that had been machined into its surface were improperly positioned.  Also the outer interplane struts were not made of the same high-grade, rigid plastic as the fuselage and wings, so some care would be required.

curtiss-condor_c4There were two issues here:  the upper wing, consisting of a top and bottom half, was pretty rigid and had a slightly convex curvature, leading the center of the wing to naturally sit a bit higher than its outer edges.  To  ensure good contact and adhesion with all interplane struts, it needed the opposite, a concave curvature, so that it would sit a bit lower in the center.  Also the outer interplane struts seems a bit longer than were needed, compounding the situation.

I realized this after I had painted the upper wing, Futured it, decalled it, and Futured it again, so subjecting the wing to warm water to warp it to the desired shape was not a realistic option.  I used another heat source, a small fan which I keep at the airbrush station for just such a situation.   Resting the upper wing between two paint bottles, I placed enough weight in its center to make it sag slightly and set the fan in front of it on its highest heat setting at a distance of about six inches for 45 minutes.  The weight, heat, and the passage of time combined to bend the wing in the center just enough that I could cement it in place — without damaging the finish or the decals.

curtiss_condor_h47-8With the wing reshaped, it was time to cement it in place.  This involved a great deal of trial and error since the outer interplane struts were too long, and had to be cut to the appropriate length, a millimeter at a time.  While the struts look too flimsy to be effective, there are eight different contact points for the glue to connect the upper and lower wings via the struts, including the cabane or “N” struts over the engine nacelles, and the end result was a surprisingly sturdy airframe.

Painting

The Condor is airbrushed in a Polly Scale railroad acrylic, Enchantment Blue, which appeared to match the one color image  — an artist’s drawing, really — that I was able to track down of the Condor in the American Airlines livery.  Unlike the kit’s box art and instructions, in the image I saw the plane was entirely in blue, without the orange wings, and looked attractive, so I followed that paint scheme.  The engines and propellers are airbrushed in  Model Master Aluminum Non-Buffing Metallizer, with the engine faces given a light brushing of Tamiya Gunmetal, an enamel.  The propeller tips are painted in gloss enamels, Insignia Yellow and Insignia White, both by Model Master, with Humbrol Midnight Blue.

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Markings

The Scalemaster markings provided in the kit are fully in register and of above average quality with a nice, glossy sheen.  However, they have one critical flaw.   They are backed with a milky, paste-like substance that hold them to the decal paper, and the paste is not easily removed without at least light scrubbing — it certainly does not come off readily with exposure to water.  Also, the longitudinal markings have trouble adhering to the fuselage due to the raised lines running the length of the fuselage exterior which are meant to guide decal placement for the American Airways livery, but actually make it harder to the markings to lie down, even with repeated applications of decal solvent.  It is best to sand these lines down flush with the fuselage.   These raised lines for decal placement were sometimes seen on other kits of 1950’s vintage (Aurora for one) and is another area where the age of the mold betrays itself.

Since I deviated from the recommended paint scheme and did not paint the wings International Orange, it was necessary to obtain different colored markings, since the kit’s dark blue markings would not show up well against the Condor’s Enchantment Blue paint scheme.  I used 45-degree white letters made by Colorado Decals, set No. DCA 7264A.  Colorado Decals are excellent: thin, strong, eager to adhere to a properly prepared surface, with a flat sheen that responds well to both decal solvent and gloss lacquer.

Conclusion

While attaching the upper wing provided a few moments of frustration, and the undersized windows made for a potential pitfall that a little foresight was able to cure, overall this was a relatively smooth build.  It is crude compared to today’s computer-generated molds, but the Glencoe kit is also the only offering of the Curtiss Condor available, unless you are game for tackling a vacuform kit that has the added challenge of being a bi-plane.  Highly recommended for anyone interested in commercial aircraft that flew between the World Wars.

An American Airlines postcard from 1933, emphasizing the Condor's spacious seating and comfy sleeping berths. At that time, the latter had never before been seen in an airliner: "World's First Convertible Sleeper Plane..."

An American Airlines postcard from 1933, emphasizing the Condor’s spacious seating and comfy sleeping berths. At that time, the latter had never before been seen in an airliner: “World’s First Convertible Sleeper Plane…”

Reference

  • “Curtiss Condor II” by William R. Matthews; American Aviation Historical Society Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1967
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