RF-8A Crusader by Hasegawa/Ventura
Kit No. C9:900 (Hasegawa)
Cost: $15 for Hasegawa’s F-8E; $12 for Ventura conversion kit
Decals: Hasegawa kit — 3 versions: U.S. Navy VF-162 “Hunters”; U.S. Marine Corps VMF (AW) – 312 “Checkerboards”; and French Navy Flottille 12F (VF-12); Ventura kit — None
Comments: This conversion kit is for intermediate to advanced modelers only — it does not fall together; cannibalizing of several decal sets may be necessary to depict a photo Crusader
The F8U-1P Crusader (redesignated RF-8A in September 1962) was developed from the successful F-8 Crusader, the U.S. Navy’s premiere shipboard fighter in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The photo reconnaissance version took its maiden flight on December 17, 1956 — just 19 months after the first flight of the prototype of the fighter which spawned it. In most respects the RF-8A was similar to the F-8A, with the exception that the fuselage forward of the main wheel wells was redesigned to carry cameras instead of the Crusader’s main armament of four Colt 20mm cannon. This caused a distinctive hump behind the canopy, extending back to the center section of the wing, and a noticeable flattening of the sides and bottom of the fuselage. The hump was necessary to maintain the area ruled or “pinched” appearance of the mid-section of the Crusader’s fuselage that allowed it to achieve speeds in excess of Mach 1. Five or six KA-45 cameras could be carried. Photo-flash cartridges could be carried internally for night photography. The RF-8 also carried a variety of electronic equipment, including UHF and VHF navigation and communication devices and a radar altimeter. Finally, the refueling probe was carried completely inside the fuselage, rather than in a blister as on the fighter versions.
Cuban Missile Crisis
RF-8’s at a particular moment in history were capable of performing the finest, most precise low-level photography in the entire U.S. military. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the photo Crusaders of VFP-62 and VMCJ-1 performed intensive, daily high-speed, low-level reconnaissance of several Soviet intermediate range ballistic missile sites, and defensive anti-aircraft missile batteries, under construction in Cuba. The information their images yielded helped the U.S. government prove to the world what the Russians were doing in Cuba, and provided the U.S. with hard estimates of when the missiles would become operational. They were often fired upon, and in the latter stages of the crisis, attempts were made to intercept them with MiG’s. The real-time intelligence they provided, updated on a daily basis by pilots who put themselves at risk to bring it back, helped both diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis through negotiation, and gave military planners the data to develop priority targets in the event the U.S. had decided upon military action.
RF-8’s were soon deployed to Southeast Asia as the war in Vietnam heated up. As early as May 1964, photo Crusaders were flying low-level reconnaissance runs over both the Mekong River, and the Plaine des Jars region of Laos, to gather intelligence on communist activity there. Early on, these reconnaissance runs were fired upon, with Crusader pilots experiencing increasing amounts of flak. Three photographic squadrons performed the recon function in Vietnam; while VFP-62 and VMCJ-1, the photo reconnaissance squadrons that were veterans of the Cuban Missile Crisis, also flew missions over Southeast Asia, it was VFP-63 that became the Navy’s longest serving photo Crusader squadron in Vietnam, covering every major action over every country in the region for the duration of the war. VFP-62 was decommissioned in January 1968, and VMCJ-1 began to convert to RF-4B’s in October 1966. One year earlier, in October 1965, the RF-8G began to equip the reconnaissance squadrons, with improved KA-66 ad KA-68 panoramic cameras, better avionics and electronic countermeasures, and uprated Pratt & Whitney J-57-P-22 turbojet engines of 16,000 pounds thrust.
A total of 144 RF-8A’s were built, with 73 of them ultimately being remanufactured to be RF-8G ‘s. During its service over Southeast Asia, from October 1963 to January 1974, 20 RF-8’s were lost in action. The last photo Crusader was retired by the U.S. Navy in March 1987, giving it a service life of 30 years.
Converting Hasegawa’s F-8E Crusader into an RF-8A involves altering the fuselage, for the key changes made by Vought to create the reconnaissance version of “the last gunfighter” were to delete its four 20mm cannon and missile pylons, and lengthen and broaden the fuselage to accomodate the KA-45 reconnaissance cameras that made the RF-8 such a superb low-altitude, high-speed recon platform. This is done by sawing the forward fuselage of the Hasegawa kit off, immediately forward of the wheel wells for the main landing gear, and cementing the Ventura forward replacement fuselage to the Hasegawa rear fuselage. This is a simple operation in concept, but involves careful measurement, placement of the mini-saw, and a fair amount of sanding. A little caution is in order because the Ventura fuselage is resin and is slightly brittle — some alteration of it is needed for a good fit, and it’s best to saw it or sand it rather than trying to cut into it with nippers, as this may cause damaging cracks, or worse, shatter the fuselage. Also it is best not to saw the Hasegawa fuselage directly at the location of what will be the join line where the Ventura fuselage is cemented to it. I opted to saw it about 1/8 of an inch from where the join line would be, and sand the rest of the way to the join line, to avoid mistakes regarding the RF-8’s dimensions once the new Hasegawa-Ventura fuselage was cemented together and intact.
Since the Ventura conversion is something of a “garage kit,” the nose of the Ventura fuselage (the area from the instrument panel hood forward) was not well formed. In contrast, the same section of the Hasegawa nose was crisply done and its halves had a better fit, assisted by a locator pin. I measured carefully and sawed off the nose of both the Ventura and Hasegawa kits, replacing the Ventura nose with the Hasegawa nose, cementing the latter nose parts to the halves of the Ventura forward fuselage. Zap-a-Gap cement, Squadron putty, Mr. Surfacer 500, and a medium grit sandpaper all came in handy to complete the work of getting the new RF-8 fuselage halves into shape. I freshened up the engraved panel lines of the Ventura replacement fuselage with a scribing tool and an Xacto blade.
Once the work on the fuselage halves was complete, the very basic cockpit of the Hasegawa kit (seat, instrument panel, decals and control yoke) had to be painted and assembled, then cemented into the starboard fuselage half. A couple of notes on the Ventura fuselage: It has no locator pins whatsover, and my example was imprecise in that the starboard half is a bit thicker and larger than the port half. Great care must be taken in cementing the two kit-bashed fuselage halves together to get the best fit possible, and even then there is a visibly stepped appearance between the two halves for the length of the both the ventral and dorsal join seam — at least for the Ventura portion of the fuselage. Only patient sanding will cure this. Also, although the Ventura fuselage bears engraved panel lines, they do not include panel lines for the location of the cameras. The modeler will have to scribe these himself. Referring to color profile plates in the book, RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam (Osprey Combat Aircraft No. 12 by Peter Mersky) and actual RF-8 photos, I scribed the panel lines for the cameras using a ruler and an Xacto blade.
For the Accuracy Police
A couple of notes on the physical accuracy of the finished kit — it is not accurate on three points. First, the Ventura conversion kit includes a piece for a dorsal hump that involves cutting into the wing and replacing the missing material with the resin dorsal replacement (emphasizing the increased chord of the enlarged forward fuselage on the photo Crusaders). I opted not to add the dorsal hump on the mistaken belief that it was unique to the subject of the Ventura kit, the RF-8G, whereas I was building the earlier RF-8A. This was partly because another resin part from the Ventura kit, a tail-mounted ECM (electronic countermeasures) fairing, was one of the modifications that arose with the RF-8G version, which did not appear until 1965 (see Blue Moon Over Cuba, by Capt. William B. Ecker and Kenneth Jack, p. 175), whereas the RF-8A depicted by the kit was flying in 1962 — and ECM fairings were not part of the RF-8A airframe. Very late in the build, I came across a top view photo which revealed that all RF-8’s bore the dorsal hump, regardless of whether they were early or late versions.
Second, while later versions of the Crusader had two air scoops on the jet exhaust nozzle, at roughly the ten and two o’clock positions, this was certainly not the case with the RF-8A — its nozzle was cleanly configured. However, I overlooked this until the final stages of building the kit — since the Hasegawa kit of the F-8E was the baseline airframe I started with, and it had the air scoops, I incorrectly assumed that they should also appear on the RF-8A, going so far as to purchase aftermarket Quickboost replacement parts for a cleaner, crisper, more “accurate” look. I caught some other errors in time, initially cementing on and later ripping off the ventral fins located at the rear underside of the fuselage, which are included in the Hasegawa F-8E, but which were not part of the RF-8A airframe, although they did appear on the later RF-8G. Finally, the pitot tube on the nose should not be dead center at the apex of the nose cone, but rather a few inches above, as was the case on RF-8’s. Positioning the pitot tube properly would have been a small challenge, but I did not care to tackle the problem of creating a tiny, perfectly rounded and pointed cone tip to mask the hole that would have been just below it. Keeping on top of all these airframe details was challenging, and had mixed results!
Adding the Wing and Canopy
Once the fuselage is finished, it is time to cement on the Crusader’s shoulder-mounted wing. The wing requires a small amount of sanding for a good fit onto what is now a hybrid fuselage, Hasegawa in the rear and Ventura in the front (with a Hasegawa nose). The Hasegawa instructions call for the wing to be cemented in its raised position (a unique feature of all versions of the Crusader was its variable incidence wing). I cemented the wing on in the lowered position, flush with the fuselage, and discovered that with the conversion, there is a visible gap beneath the wing and the lower fuselage that must be filled with putty and sanded smooth.
Next the holes in the lower wing for the pylons for the F-8E’s underwing tanks must be filled — the photo Crusader did not carry ordnance of any kind, and had excellent range due to the RF-8 configuration’s large internal fuel tanks. In the course of my research, none of the many photos I saw of the RF-8 showed anything but cleanly configured airframes without drop tanks. The canopy required some sanding and mulitple dry fits before cementing, as it was not made to fit the Ventura conversion fuselage. The only aftermarket parts (other than the conversion fuselage) used were Quickboost air scoops (No. 72107) for the exhaust nozzle.
The RF-8 is airbrushed entirely in acrylics, Gunze Sangyo Aircraft Grey/U.S. Navy (H57), over Tamiya Gloss White (X-2). The exhaust nozzle/burner can is Alclad Dark Aluminum.
To re-create as closely as possible the RF-8’s VFP-62 markings as of October 1962, I cannibalized decals from several different sources. They were: the decals from Hasegawa’s F-8E kit that formed the basis for this model; bonus markings from an Esci/Gunze Sangyo F-8H Crusader kit (No. GE-210:1500) that included decals for VFP-63, VFP-62’s sister squadron in the Pacific, which later saw plenty of action over Vietnam; Xtradecal markings (X72160) for F-8E/H/J Crusaders; and for tail letters, individual symbols from Aeromaster’s Black U.S. 45 Degree ID Numbers and Letters (AN48802). An interesting note on the Esci/Gunze Sangyo F-8H kit — although it includes VFP-63 markings, there are no parts included in that kit to convert the F-8H to an RF-8, and the box art curiously (and inappropriately) displays the fighter version of the Crusader in VFP-63 markings. While armed Crusaders did accompany the photo birds as escorts, the photographic evidence is that they were always from their own distinct fighter squadrons.
A note on the red stripes and white stars on the tail: these are an approximation of VFP-62’s tail markings, but may or may not be authentic. The actual VFP-62 tail markings at the time of the Missile Crisis were similar but more elaborate, consisting of two red “stripes” on the vertical tail that were actually a red horizontal filmstrip design (denoting the photographic mission) bearing two rows of small white stars in the middle (see photo). Letter codes were positioned between the two filmstrips.
The markings actually used are supposedly for VFP-63 and are from the Esci/Gunze Sangyo kit. Given their age (early 1980’s would be my guess), the first of them shattered on contact with water. Airbrushing these 30-year-old decals with Future helped, but still did not prevent some chipping as they hit the water. After being positioned, sealed in with Future, allowed to dry, and masked, the stripes were touched up with Model Master Navy Red, an acrylic. As some of the key markings (the numbers on the nose as well as the tail stripes, and others) were from the Esci kit and were quite fragile, there were frequent interruptions in the decaling process as markings were applied, sealed with Future before they could be damaged, allowed to dry and in some cases touched up with paint before more markings could be applied. This combined with the need to cannibalize from multiple sources dragged the application of the decals out to a record 10 hours.
This conversion kit gives modelers an opportunity to build an example of then-cutting edge aerial reconnaissance technology that was at the disposal of the U.S. military at a critical moment during the Cold War. The kit has a high degree of historical importance because the RF-8 provided detailed photo intelligence when it was most desperately needed by leaders struggling to avoid a nuclear war. While it is too bad that the Ventura kit is out of production, it is a bit crude and requires at least intermediate modeling skills to tackle it with any degree of confidence, so despite its historic importance, it is not up to modern day production standards and has somewhat limited appeal. Hopefully, Hasegawa or one of the other major manufacturers will take it upon themselves to release a newly tooled version of the RF-8 that can be built right out of the box.
- Blue Moon Over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis
by Captain William B. Ecker USN (ret.) and Kenneth V. Jack
Copyright 2012 by Osprey Publishing; Oxford (United Kingdom)
- F-8 Crusader in Detail & Scale
by Bert Kinzey
Copyright 1988 by Squadron/Signal Publications; Carrollton, Texas
- RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam (Osprey Combat Aircraft No. 12)
by Peter Mersky
Copyright 1999 by Osprey Publishing; Oxford (United Kingdom)***Special thanks to George White, Volunteer Research Librarian at the Emil Buehler Library, and the National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola, Florida, for both images and research