1:72 Grumman F8F-1B „Bearcat”; aircraft “(46-1)629” of the Khmer National Aviation (Aviation Nationale Khmère; AVNK) Intervention Group; Pochentong airbase, Phnom Penh/Cambodia, 1970 (What-if/Monogram kit)

+++ DISCLAIMER +++
Nothing you see here is real, even though the conversion or the presented background story might be based on historical facts. BEWARE!

Although an air wing for the fledgling Khmer Royal Army (ARK) was first planned in 1952, it wasn’t until April 22, 1954, however that the Royal Khmer Aviation (French: Aviation Royale Khmère; AVRK) was officially commissioned by Royal decree. Commanded by Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s personal physician, Colonel Dr. Ngo Hou and known sarcastically as the "Royal Flying Club", the AVRK initially operated a small fleet of four Morane-Saulnier MS 500 Criquet liaison aircraft, two Cessna 180 Skywagon light utility aircraft, one Cessna 170 light personal aircraft, and one Douglas DC-3 modified for VIP transport. At this stage, the AVRK was not yet an independent service; since its earlier personnel cadre was drawn from the Engineer Corps, the Ministry of Defense placed the AVRK under the administrative control of the Army Engineer’s Inspector-General Department.

During the first years of its existence, the AVRK received assistance from France – which under the terms of the November 1953 treaty of independence had the right to keep a military mission in Cambodia –, the United States, Japan, Israel, and West Germany, who provided training programs, technical aid, and additional aircraft. Japan delivered three Fletcher FD-25 Defender single-seater ground-attack aircraft and three Fletcher FD-25B two-seat trainers, whilst deliveries by the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (US MAAG) aid program – established since June 1955 at Phnom Penh – of fourteen North American T-6G Texan trainers, eight Cessna L-19A Bird Dog observation aircraft, three de Havilland Canada DHC L-20 Beaver liaison aircraft, seven Douglas C-47 Skytrain transports (soon joined by with two additional C-47 transports bought from Israel) and six Curtiss C-46F Commando transports. The French delivered in 1954-55 fifteen Morane-Saulnier MS 733 Alcyon three-seat basic trainers and twenty former Armée de l’Air F8F Bearcat that had been taking part in the French Indochina War.

The Grumman F8F (G-58, Grumman Aircraft’s design designation) Bearcat was a U.S. Navy/Marine Corps single-engine, fighter aircraft. It was introduced late in World War II as a carrier-based fighter. In replacing the obsolescent F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat, climb rate was an important design factor for the F8F, which was faster and lighter than the F6F carrier-based fighter. In late 1943, Grumman began development of the F8F Bearcat and deliveries from Grumman began on 21 May 1945.
In 1946, the F8F set a climb record of 6,383 fpm and held this record until it was broken by a jet fighter in 1956. Early F8Fs first flew in August 1944, followed by production aircraft starting in February 1945, the war ended before the F8F saw combat.
The F8F was Grumman’s last piston engine fighter Production ended in 1949, after Grumman had produced 1,265 F8F Bearcats in total. Directly after the war, the F8F was a key fighter for the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps. Since it was one of the best-handling piston fighters ever, its performance made it the top selection in 1946 for the U.S. Navy’s elite Blue Angels demonstration squadron. When the F8F became obsolete (The last ones in U.S. service were retired in 1952), it was replaced with jet fighter aircraft, the F9F Panther and the F2H Banshee.
From 1946 to 1954, the F8F saw it first combat during the French Indochina War, being used by French forces. Surviving Bearcats from that war were given to the Republic of Vietnam Air Force and to Cambodia. The Royal Thai Air Force also flew a number of Bearcats that were purchased from the U.S. Navy.

These deliveries allowed the AVRK to acquire a limited light strike capability, as well as improving its own reconnaissance and transportation capabilities. A small Helicopter force also began to take shape, with the delivery in 1958-59 of three Sikorsky H-34 Choctaws by the US MAAG, followed in 1960 of two Sud Aviation SA 313B Alouette II by the French and of two Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaws by the Americans in 1963.
Although Cambodia was theoretically forbidden of having fighter jets under the terms of the July 1955 Geneva Accords, the AVRK did receive its first jet trainers in September 1961 from France, in the form of four Potez CM.170R Fouga Magisters modified locally in 1962 to accept a pair of AN/M2 7,62mm aircraft guns and under-wing rocket rails. By the end of the year, the AVRK aligned 83 airframes of American, Canadian and French origin, though mostly were World War II-vintage obsolescent types well past their prime – US MAAG advisors often described the AVRK at the time as an "aerial museum" – and training accidents were far from uncommon.

The baptism of fire of the AVRK came the following year when its F8F Bearcats, FD-25 Defenders and T-6G Texan armed trainers supported Khmer Royal Army troops in Takéo Province fighting a cross-border incursion by Vietnamese militiamen from the Hòa Hảo militant sect fleeing persecution from the neighboring Republic of Vietnam. The obsolete Texans and Defenders were eventually replaced in August that year by sixteen North American T-28D Trojan trainers converted to the fighter-bomber role. Also under the US MAAG program, the AVRK received in March 1963 four Cessna T-37B Tweet jet trainers; however, unlike the Fougas provided earlier by the French, these airframes had no provision for weapon systems, since the Americans resisted Cambodian requests to arm them.

In response to the coup against President Ngô Đình Diệm in South Vietnam, Prince Sihanouk cancelled on November 20, 1963 all American aid, and on January 15, 1964 the US MAAG program was suspended when Cambodia adopted a neutrality policy, so the AVRK continued to rely on French military assistance but at the same time turned to Australia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and China for aircraft and training. In November 1963 the Soviets delivered an initial batch of three MiG-17F fighter jets, one MiG-15UTI jet trainer and one Yakovlev Yak-18 Max light trainer. France continued to deliver aircraft to Cambodia in 1964-65, supplying sixteen night-attack Douglas AD-4N Skyraiders and six Dassault MD 315R Flamant light transports, soon followed by more Alouette II and Sud Aviation SA-316B Alouette III light helicopters and ten Gardan GY-80 Horizon light trainers, which replaced the obsolete MS 733 Alcyons. The Yugoslavians provided at the time four UTVA-60AT1 utility transports, whilst the USSR delivered one Ilyushin Il-14 and eight Antonov An-2 Colt transports, and China sent one Chinese-built FT-5 jet trainer, ten Shenyang J-5 fighter jets, and three Nanchang BT-6/PT-6 light trainers. Not to be outdone, the Soviets delivered in April 1967 a second batch of five MiG-17F jets and two Mil Mi-4 Hound light helicopters.

Like the other branches of the then FARK, the Royal Cambodian Aviation’s own military capabilities by the late 1960s remained unimpressive, being barely able to accomplish its primary mission which was to defend the national airspace. Due to its low strength and limited flying assets, the AVRK was relegated to a combat support role by providing transportation services to ARK infantry units and occasional low-level close air support (CAS) to ground operations. Apart from two modern tarmacked airstrips located respectively at Pochentong and at a Chinese-built civilian airport in Siem Reap, the other available airfields in the country at the time consisted of rudimentary unpaved runways that lacked permanent rear-echelon support facilities, which were only used temporarily as emergency landing strips but never as secondary airbases.

Consequently, and in accordance with Cambodia’s neutralist foreign policy, few combat missions were flown. AVRK activities were restricted to air patrols in order to protect Cambodia’s airspace from the numerous incursions made by US Air Force (USAF), Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) and Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) aircraft.
It was not until the late 1960s however, that the AVRK received its first sustained combat experience. In early 1968, its T-28D Trojans, F8F Bearcats, AD-4N Skyraiders and some MiG-17F jets were again sent to Takéo Province, dropping bombs on pre-planned targets in support of Royal Army troops conducting a counter-insurgency sweep against armed elements of the Vietnamese Cao Đài militant sect that had entered the province from neighboring South Vietnam; AVRK combat elements were also deployed in the Samlot district of Battambang Province, where they bombed Khmer Rouge insurgent strongholds. In November 1969, the AVRK supported the Khmer Royal Army in a restrained sweeping operation targeting People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Vietcong (VC) sanctuaries at Labang Siek in Ratanakiri Province. Some T-28D and F8F fighter-bombers, L-19A reconnaissance aircraft and Alouette helicopters provided air cover to the ground operation, whilst a few combat sorties were staged by the MiG-17F jets and AD-4N Skyraiders from Pochentong.

In the wake of the March 1970 coup, the Royal Cambodian Aviation was re-designated Khmer National Aviation (French: Aviation Nationale Khmère; AVNK), though it remained under Army command. After securing material support from the United States, South Vietnam, and Thailand, the new Khmer National Aviation immediately commenced combat operations, and embarked on an ambitious re-organization and expansion program. Shortly after the coup, however, the French military mission suspended all the cooperation with the Cambodian armed forces, thus depriving the AVNK of vital training and technical assistance. China and the Soviet Union also severed their military assistance programs, which resulted in serious maintenance problems for its Shenyang and MiG fighter jets.

With the increase in activity at Pochentong airbase, the AVNK Air Academy (French: École de l’Air; formerly, the Royal Flying School) was moved in August 1970 to quieter and less congested facilities at Battambang airfield. The RVNAF flew numerous combat missions inside Cambodia since March in support of joint FANK/Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) ground operations, and to better coordinate its own missions they established at Pochentong a liaison office, the Direct Air Support Centre (DASC) Zulu. In addition, South Vietnamese O-1D Bird Dog Forward air controllers began regularly staging reconnaissance flights from Pochentong to guide RVNAF airstrikes and artillery fire.

An initial expansion of the AVNK inventory in September 1970 under American auspices was accomplished with the delivery of six UH-1 Iroquois helicopter gunships with temporary South Vietnamese crews. To ease maintenance, it was decided upon American suggestion to build the AVNK’s strike component around the T-28D Trojan, since both its pilots and ground technicians were already well-acquainted with this aircraft type, and the Americans had plenty of surplus airframes and spare parts available. As a result, the rate of T-28D sorties increased, with 2,016 sorties being recorded between March and October 1970, in contrast to the 360 sorties of the MiG-17F and Shenyang fighter jets, and the 108 strikes of the Fouga Magister jets registered during that same period.

On the night of 21–22 January 1971, a hundred or so-strong People’s Army of Vietnam "Sapper" Commando force (Vietnamese: Đặc Công, equivalent of "spec op" in English) managed to pass undetected through the defensive perimeter of the Special Military Region (Région Militaire Speciale – RMS) set by the Cambodian Army around Phnom Penh and carried out a spectacular raid on Pochentong airbase. Broken into six smaller detachments armed mostly with AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launchers, the PAVN raiders succeeded in scaling the barbed-wire fence and quickly overwhelmed the poorly armed airmen of the Security Battalion on duty that night. Once inside the facility, the raiders unleashed a furious barrage of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades against any aircraft they found on the parking area adjacent to the runway and nearby buildings; one of the commando teams even scaled the adjoining commercial terminal of the civilian airport and after taking position at the international restaurant located on the roof, they fired a rocket into the napalm supply depot near the RVNAF apron.

When the smoke cleared the next morning, the Khmer National Aviation had been virtually annihilated. A total of 69 aircraft stationed at Pochentong at the time were either completely destroyed or severely damaged on the ground, including many T-28D Trojans, virtually all remaining eight F8Fs, nearly all the Shenyang, MiG, T-37B and Fouga Magister jets, all the L-19A Bird Dogs and An-2 transports, the UH-1 helicopter gunships, three VNAF O-1 Bird Dogs and even a VIP transport recently presented to President Lon Nol by the South Vietnamese government. Apart from the aircraft losses, 39 AVNK officers and enlisted men had lost their lives and another 170 were injured. The only airframes that escaped destruction were six T-28D Trojans temporarily deployed to Battambang, ten GY-80 Horizon light trainers (also stationed at Battambang), eight Alouette II and Alouette III helicopters, two Sikorsky H-34 helicopters, one T-37B jet trainer, and a single Fouga Magister jet that had been grounded for repairs. Pochentong airbase was closed for almost a week while the damage was assessed, wreckage removed, the runway repaired, and the stocks of fuel and ammunitions replenished.

After this severe blow, The Cambodian Air Force was reborn on June 8, 1971, when it was made a separated command from the Army and thus became the third independent branch of the FANK. This new status was later confirmed on December 15, when the AVNK officially changed its name to Khmer Air Force (French: Armée de l’air Khmère; AAK), or KAF. New airbases were laid down near the provincial capitals of Battambang, Kampong Cham and Kampong Chhnang. However, in 1975, the Cambodian Army was defeated by advancing Khmer Rouge forces. On April 16 KAF T-28D Trojans flew their last combat sortie by bombing the Air Force Control Centre and hangars at Pochentong upon its capture by insurgent units. After virtually expending their entire ordnance reserves, 97 aircraft escaped from Pochentong, Battambang, Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang and Ream airbases and auxiliary airfields flown by their respective crews (with a small number of civilian dependents on board) to safe haven in neighboring Thailand, and the AVNK ceased to exist.

General characteristics:
Crew: 1
Length: 28 ft 3 in (8.61 m)
Wingspan: 35 ft 10 in (10.92 m)
Height: 13 ft 10 in (4.22 m)
Wing area: 244 sq ft (22.7 m²)
Aspect ratio: 5.02
Airfoil: root: NACA 23018; tip: NACA 23009
Empty weight: 7,650 lb (3,470 kg)
Max takeoff weight: 13,460 lb (6,105 kg)

Powerplant:
1× Pratt & Whitney Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34W Double Wasp 18-cylinder air-cooled radial piston
engine with 2,100 hp (1,600 kW), driving a 4-bladed constant-speed propeller

Performance:
Maximum speed: 455 mph (732 km/h, 395 kn)
Range: 1,105 mi (1,778 km, 960 nmi)
Service ceiling: 40,800 ft (12,400 m)
Rate of climb: 4,465 ft/min (22.68 m/s)
Wing loading: 42 lb/sq ft (210 kg/m²)
Power/mass: 0.22 hp/lb (0.36 kW/kg)

Armament:
4× 20 mm (.79 in) AN/M3 cannon in the outer wings
2,000 lb (907 kg) of ordnance on three hardpoints (incl. bombs, rocket pods, napalm tanks
or drop tanks), plus underwing hardpoints for up to four 5” (127 mm) HVAR unguided rockets

The kit and its assembly:
This was a submission for the “One Week” Group Build at whatifmodellers., and both kit and livery were chosen with a focus on quick/safe realization. The idea had been lingering for some time, though. I originally had the plan to build a real-world AVNK AD-4N some day, after I had found a profile and b/w pictures of these aircraft as well as a set of suitable roundels (see below). However, when I recently dug through The Stash™ I came across a Monogram F8F (in a more recent Revell re-boxing, though) and wondered about a different livery for this small fighter – and the AVNK idea popped up again, also because the outlines of Bearcat and Skyraider are quite similar.

The Monogram F8F was basically built OOB, just with some cosmetic changes. Inside, I added a dashboard – the kit comes with one, but it is molded into the fuselage halves with an ugly seam. For the beauty pics I also prepared a more modern pilot figure with a “bone dome” instead of the WWII USN pilot.
A styrene tube was added behind the engine block to take the propeller’s new metal axis. Some antennae were added to the rear fuselage, as an addition to the vintage wire antennae. A small pitot was added under the left wing, made from wire.
The underwing pylons received scratched shackles, because I replaced the OOB vintage 500 lb bombs with box fins with napalm canisters, simulating BLU-1 shapes with shortened/modified drop tanks. HVARs and the ventral drop tank come from the kit, I just added some struts to the tank.

The Monogram F8F in 1:72 holds only small surprises. It’s a typical vintage Monogram kit (IIRC, the molds are from 1976) with raised (yet fine) details and vague fit — even though nothing fatal. PSR was basically necessary at any seam, esp. the unique wing/fuselage solutions calls for some filling. The cockpit interior is bare, but, except for the (quite nice) seat and the dashboard, nothing can be seen later. The clear parts (two pieces) are very clear but came with lots of flash; the windscreen’s attachment point to the sprue (at the front’s base) created some wacky gaps on the kit – with more time and effort, this could certainly have become better. The landing gear is simple but O.K., very robust, but the wells are totally bare, and the oil cooler intakes are just holes — I filled them with bits of foamed styrene. There are certainly better F8F kits (e. g. the Art Model kit with resin parts, including a finely detailed landing gear wells interior), but for a "budget build" or a conversion this one is a good starting point.

Painting and markings:
I used the AVNK’s AD4Ns as benchmark, which carried a livery similar to the French Skyraiders: overall painted in silver with some colorful trim, just the roundels and tactical markings were different. Being former French aircraft, the AVNK F8Fs might have retained the original all-dark blue paint scheme, but I rather expected them to carry a uniform livery.

With this benchmark the scheme was quickly applied, using Humbrol 56 (aluminum dope) enamel paint as a rather greyish basis. As an extra I added a dark olive drab (Humbrol 108) anti-glare panel to the area in front of the windscreen, and I added black anti-soot and probably anti-glare fields for night operations to the fuselage flanks, inspired by the AVNK AD-4Ns. The only colorful markings are small red fin, tailplane and wing tips as well as a matching fuselage band (created with Humbrol 19). The red fuselage bands were created with 5 mm wide generic red decal stripes (TL-Modellbau) which match the enamel paint’s tone well.
As a weathering measure I painted the starboard aileron and elevator as well as a gun cover on the portside wing in Dark Sea Blue (FS 35042), representing replacement parts that were hastily cannibalized from another ex-French F8F that still carried its original livery. Some patches for small firearms bullet holes on the wings and fuselage were created with pieces of grey decal sheet. – all measures to break up the otherwise rather simple and dull livery.

The model received some good weathering through a black ink washing and generous post-panel shading with acrylic Revell 99 (a matt but bright aluminum tone) and later some graphite, which emphasizes the kit’s many raised surfaces details. In order to make the livery not look too much like an NMF finish the kit was later sealed with matt acrylic varnish.

The cockpit interior became chromate green with a light grey dashboard while the landing gear retained its colors from the former French all-blue livery, with chromate green wells and inner cover surfaces but dark sea blue struts and wheel hubs.

The Cambodian roundels came from a limited edition Cutting Edge 1:72 decal set for various MiG-15bis’, the tactical codes on cowling and fin belong to an USAF F-100 (PrintScale sheet).

Well, the result is not perfect, but for a project realized from box to beauty pics including an extensive background story in just a single week I am fine with it. I’ll admit that the livery is very simple, but there’s also some attractiveness to it. And in this rather unusual silver-grey scheme the F8F reminds a lot of the bigger Skyraider!

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