1:72 Tachikawa Ki-38-Ic (Allied code name “Brad”); aircraft “49” of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) 2nd Chutai, 17th Sentai (Fighter Group); Luzon/Philippines, early 1942 (What-if/modified Heller kit)
The Ki-38 fighter was designed by the Tachikawa Aircraft Company Limited (立川飛行機株式会社, Tachikawa Hikōki Kabushiki Kaisha) near Tokyo, an aircraft manufacturer in the Empire of Japan, specializing primarily in aircraft for the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force. The Ki-38 prototype was produced in response to a December 1937 specification for a successor to the popular fixed-gear Nakajima Ki-27 Nate. The specification called for a top speed of 500 km/h (310 mph), a climb rate of 5,000 m (16,000 ft) in five minutes and a range of 800 km (500 mi). Maneuverability was to be at least as good as that of Ki-27.
When first flown in early January 1939, the Ki-38 prototype was a disappointment. Japanese test pilots complained that it was less maneuverable than the Ki-27 Nate and not much faster. Even though the competition was eventually won by the Ki-43, service trials determined the aircraft to hold sufficient promise to warrant further work, leading to the adoption of an expanded and strengthened wing and a more refined Mitsubishi Ha-102 (Army Type 100 1,050hp Air Cooled Radial) 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine. During spring 1939, following the completion of further proving trials, an order for a pre-production batch of 25 aircraft was placed.
As a whole, the Ki-38 was an all-modern design consisting of all-metal skin and understructure construction with low-set monoplane wing appendages. The wings were straight in their general design with rounded tips and set well-forward of amidships. The engine was fitted to the extreme forward section of the fuselage in a traditional manner, powering a three-bladed propeller installation. Interestingly, the cockpit was also situated well-forward in the design, shortening the visual obstacle that was the engine compartment to some extent. However, views were still obstructed by the short engine housing to the front and the wings to the lower sides. The fuselage tapered at the rear to which a single vertical tail fin was affixed along with mid-mounted horizontal tailplanes. The undercarriage was retractable and of the "tail-dragger" arrangement consisting of two main single-wheeled landing gear legs and a fixed, diminutive tail wheel leg at the rear.
The series-production Ki-38-I was further modified to enhance its performance. These changes involved a major weight saving program, a slimmer and longer fuselage with bigger tail surfaces and a new, more streamlined bubble-style canopy that offered, even while bearing many struts, the pilot a very good all-round field of view.
In addition to good maneuverability, the Ki-38-I had a good top speed of more than 500 km/h (310 mph). The initial Ki-38 was armed with four 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Type 89 machine guns in the wings, but this soon turned out to be insufficient against armored Allied fighters and bombers. Quickly, the inner pair of weapons was, after just 50 aircraft, replaced with 12.7 mm (0.50 in) Ho-103 machine guns in the Ki-38-Ib (the initial version subsequently became the Ki-38-Ia), of which 75 were built. On board of the following Ki-38-Ic, the inner weapons were replaced with a pair of even heavier and more effective 20 mm (0.787 in) Ho-5 cannon, which required fairings for the ammunition under the wings and made this version easy to identify. The Ki-38-Ic became the most frequent variant, with 150 examples built. All types also featured external hardpoints for a drop tank under the fuselage or a pair of bombs of up to 250 kg (550 lb) caliber under the wings. Late production aircraft were designated Ki-38-II. The pilot enjoyed a slightly taller canopy and a reflector gunsight in place of the earlier telescopic gunsight. The revised machines were also fitted with a 13 mm (0.51 in) armor plate for the pilot's head and back, and the aircraft's fuel tanks were coated in rubber to form a crude self-sealing tank. This was later replaced by a 3-layer rubber bladder, 8mm core construction, with 2mm oil-proof lamination. Some earlier aircraft were retrofitted with these elements, when available to the field workshops, and they dramatically improved the aircraft’s resilience to enemy fire. However, the bladder proved to be highly resistant only against light 7.7 mm (0.303 in) bullets but was not as effective against larger calibers. The Ki-38-II’s armament was the same as the Ki-38-Ic’s and 120 aircraft were built.
Ki-38 production started in November 1939 at the Tachikawa Hikoki KK and at the 1st Army Air Arsenal (Tachikawa Dai-Ichi Rikugun Kokusho) plants, also at Tachikawa. Although Tachikawa Hikoki successfully managed to enter into large-scale production of the Ki-38, the 1st Army Air Arsenal was less successful – hampered by a shortage of skilled workers, it was ordered to stop production after 49 Ki-38 were built, and Tachikawa ceased production of the Ki-38 altogether in favor of the Ki-43 in mid-1944.
Once it was identified and successfully distinguished from the IJA’s new Ki-43 “Oscar” and the IJN’s A6M “Zero” (Oscar), which both had very similar outlines, the Ki-38 received the Allied code name “Brad”. Even though it was not produced in the numbers of the Ki-43 or the A6M, the Ki-38 fought in China, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, New Guinea, the Philippines, South Pacific islands and the Japanese home islands. Like the Oscar and the Zero, the Ki-38 initially enjoyed air superiority in the skies of Malaya, Netherlands East Indies, Burma and New Guinea. This was partly due to the better performance of the Brad and partly due to the relatively small numbers of combat-ready Allied fighters, mostly the Curtiss P-36 Hawk, Curtiss P-40, Brewster Buffalo, Hawker Hurricane and Curtiss-Wright CW-21 in Asia and the Pacific during the first months of the war.
As the war progressed, however, the fighter suffered from the same weaknesses as its slower, fixed-gear Ki-27 "Nate" predecessor and the more advanced naval A6M Zero: light armor and less-than-effective self-sealing fuel tanks, which caused high casualties in combat. Its armament of four light machine guns also proved inadequate against the more heavily armored Allied aircraft. Both issues were more or less mended with improved versions, but the Ki-38 could never keep up with the enemy fighters’ development and potential. And as newer Allied aircraft were introduced, the Japanese were forced into a defensive war and most aircraft were flown by inexperienced pilots.
Length: 8.96 m (29 ft 4 in)
Wingspan: 10.54 m (34 ft 7 in)
Height: 3.03 m (9 ft 11 in)
Wing area: 17.32 m² (186.4 sq ft)
Empty weight: 2,158 kg (4,758 lb)
Gross weight: 2,693 kg (5,937 lb)
Max takeoff weight: 2,800 kg (6,173 lb)
Powerplant: 1× Mitsubishi Ha-102 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine with 1,050hp (755 kW), driving a 3-bladed variable-pitch propeller
Maximum speed: 509 km/h (316 mph, 275 kn)
Cruise speed: 450 km/h (280 mph, 240 kn)
Range: 600 km (370 mi, 320 nmi)
Service ceiling: 10,000 m (33,000 ft)
Time to altitude: 2,000 m (6,600 ft) in 3 minutes 24 seconds
Wing loading: 155.4 kg/m2 (31.8 lb/sq ft)
Power/mass: 0.182 hp/lb (0.299 kW/kg)
2× 20 mm (0.787 in) Ho-5 cannon with 150 rpg
2× 20 mm (0.787 in) Ho-5 cannon with 150 rpg
2× 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Type 89 machine guns with 500 rpg
2× underwing hardpoints for single 30 kg (66 lb) or 2 × 250 kg (550 lb) bombs
2× underwing hardpoints for single 30 kg (66 lb) or 2 × 250 kg (550 lb) bombs
1× ventral hardpoint for a 200 l (53 US gal; 44 imp gal) drop tank
The kit and its assembly:
I always thought that the French Bloch MB 152 had some early WWII Japanese look to it, and with this idea I recently procured a relatively cheap Heller kit for this conversion project that would yield the purely fictional Tachikawa Ki-38 for the IJA – even though the "Ki-38" existed as a Kawasaki project and eventually became the Ki-45, so that the 38 kitai number was never actively used.
The Heller MB 152 is a vintage kit, and it is not a good one. You get raised panel lines, poor details (the engine is a joke) and mediocre fit. If you want a good MB 152 in 1:72, look IMHO elsewhere. For the Ki-38 I wanted to retain most of the hull, the first fundamental change was the integration of a cowling from a Japanese Mitsubishi Ha-102 two-row radial, left over from an Airfix Ki-46 “Dinah”. It received a new three-blade propeller with a different spinner on a metal axis inside, and the donor engine received some more interior details, even though the spinner blocks most sight upon them.
The next, more radical move was to replace the MB 152’s spinal cockpit fairing with a bubble canopy and a lowered back. I found a VERY old (maybe 40 years!?) and glue-tinted canopy from a Matchbox A6M in the spares box, and it turned out to be very suitable for the Ki-38 project. However, cleaning the clear piece was quite challenging, because all raised struts had to be sanded away to get rid of the old glue and paint residues, and re-polishing it back to a more or less translucent state took several turns with ever finer sandpaper, polishing paste and soft polishing mops on a mini drill. The spine was re-created with 2C-putty and the canopy was blended into it and into the fuselage with several PSR turns.
Inside, I used a different pilot figure (which would later be hard to see, though), added a fuel tank behind the seat with some supporting struts and inserted a piece of styrene sheet to separate the landing gear well from the cockpit – OOB it’s simply open. The landing gear was basically taken OOB, I just replaced the original tail skid with a wheel and modified the wheels with hub covers, because the old, toylike kit wants you to push them onto long axis’ with knobs at their tips so that they remain turnable. Meh! The fairings under the guns in the wings (barrels scratched from the MB 152’s OOB parts) are conformal underwing fuel tanks from a late Seafire (Special Hobby kit).
Painting and markings:
The initial plan was a simple green/grey IJA livery, but even without any paint the what-if model looked SO much like a classic A6M that I rather decided to give it a more elaborate paint scheme. I eventually found an interesting camouflage on a Mitsubishi Ki-51 “Sonia” attack plane, even though without indications concerning its unit, time frame or theater of operations. However, after some research I assume that it was used in the China-Burma-India theater. The aircraft received an overall light grey base, onto which opaque green contrast fields/stripes had been added, and the remaining light grey upper areas were overpainted with thin sinuous lines of the same green. This was adapted onto the Ki-38 with a basis in Humbrol 167 (RAF Barley Grey) and FS 34102 (Humbrol 117) for the green cammo. I also wanted to weather the model considerably, as a measure to hide some hardware flaws, so that a partial “primer coat” with Aluminum (Revell 99) was added to several areas, to shine through later. The yellow ID markings on the wings’ leading edges were painted with Humbrol 69. The propeller blades were painted with Humbrol 180, the spinner in a slightly lighter mix of 180 and 160.
Interior surfaces were painted with a dull yellowish green, a mix of Revell 16 and 42, just the inside of the landing gear covers became grey as the outside, in a fashion very similar to early Ki-43s.
The decals came form various sources, including a Hasegawa Ki-61 sheet for the unit markings and some stencils and hinomaru in suitable sizes from a generic roundel sheet.
Some dry-brushing with light grey was done to emphasize edges and details, and some soot stains were added with graphite to the exhausts and the guns. Finally, the kit was sealed with matt acrylic varnish, some more dry-brushing with aluminum was done, esp. around the cockpit, and position lights were added with translucent paint.
Some final words:
An unexpected result – I was not prepared that the modified MB 152 would look THAT much like a Mitsubishi A6M or the Ki-43! There’s even an Fw 190-ish feel to it, from certain angles. O.K., the canopy actually comes from a Zero and the cowling looks very similar, too. But the overall similarity is baffling, the tail is the most distinguishing feature! However, due to the poor basis and the almost blind canopy donor, the model is far from stellar or presentable – but some in-flight shots look pretty convincing, and even the camouflage appears to be quite effective over wooded terrain.