1:72 Supermarine Type 394 “Spitfire” FR. Mk. 18; aircraft “366” of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force (IEAF) 2nd Fighter Squadron; Bahira Dar air base (Amhara region, North-Western Ethiopia), mid 1950s (What-if/MPM kit)

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

Some background:
The origins of the Ethiopian Air Force have been traced to (then Ras) Haile Selassie witnessing a show of the British Royal Air Force in November 1922, in Aden. Having never seen an airplane before, he was captivated by this demonstration of their power and abilities, and spontaneously asked if he could go up in one of the biplanes, proclaiming that it was "very fitting that he, as regent of Abyssinia should be the first Abyssinian to take flight in an aeroplane." As a result of this experience, he afterwards advocated the development of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. This small air arm began with the delivery of a Potez 25-A2 to the capital Addis Ababa on 18 August 1929. The Ethiopian Air Force was organized by Mishka Babitchef, the first Ethiopian pilot, who was of Russian descent. A Junkers W 33c followed on 5 September.

On 31 March 1930, three of the biplanes from Ethiopia’s air arm played a dramatic role in a battle between Haile Selassie (not yet crowned Emperor) and conservative forces seeking to oust him. During the Battle of Anchem, biplanes were effectively used to give Haile Selassie’s forces the upper hand.

A few transport aircraft were also acquired during 1934–35 for ambulance work. The air force was commanded by Colonel John Robinson (African-American, took command May 1935), recruited by Haile Selassie, and who remained until the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, when the small air arm ceased to exist.

After the liberation of Ethiopia, the country started reorganizing the embryonic air force that had existed prior to the Italian invasion, commanded by Colonel John Robinson (African-American). In 1944, a group of World War II African-American veterans set up a flying school at Lideta airport in Addis Ababa. The nation acquired a few aircraft through military aid from the United States and United Kingdom and the school had some 75 students by 1946. As neither the United States nor the United Kingdom were initially interested in providing further military assistance, Ethiopia turned to Sweden to help create a modern air arm. Sweden agreed to support, and Carl Gustaf von Rosen was appointed as the chief instructor of the newly re-formed Imperial Ethiopian Air Force (IEAF).

The Swedish contingent played a critical role in setting up a solid foundation. It sent Safir trainers and B-17A light bombers from Sweden, and the Ethiopian government acquired C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft from the United States to equip the flight training, bomber, and transport squadrons, respectively. In 1951, the IEAF formed its first fighter/attack squadron by acquiring Fairey Firefly fighters from the United Kingdom, later augmented with more aircraft of this type procured from Canada. One year later a fighter/reconnaissance squadron was founded, equipped with former British Supermarine Spitfire Mk. 18s.

The Mk. 18 was a refinement of the Griffon-powered Mk XIV from WWII. It was identical in most respects including engine (the Griffon 65) and cockpit enhancements, but it had from the start a bubble canopy for a better field of view for the pilot. It carried an additional 31-gallon fuel tank in the rear fuselage which extended range to about 610 miles (980 km) on internal fuel and the type had a revised, stronger wing structure. Its handling was nearly identical to the Mk. XIV and so it was not put through any performance tests before production started. But despite this sped-up development phase, the Mk. 18 missed the war and it was only built for a short period.
The Spitfire Mk. 18 was, like the earlier Mk. XIV, produced in pure fighter (F. Mk. 18) and armed fighter reconnaissance variants (FR. Mk. 18) which only differed through ventral camera ports and/or lateral camera windows at port and starboard as well as the respective camera mounts behind the cockpit. The Mk. 18 was delivered with standard elliptical wings, but some aircraft, especially the reconnaissance machines, were outfitted with clipped wing tips for better handling at low altitude.
Some 300 F. Mk. 18s and FR. Mk. 18s were built until 1946, but it was not until January 1947 that an RAF unit, 60 Squadron operating from RAF Seletar, Singapore, was re-equipped with the new variant, and other squadrons in the Far East and Middle East would receive them, too. In RAF service the Mk. 18s saw little action apart from some involvement against guerrillas in the Malayan Emergency. Beyond Ethiopia, who bought twenty retired RAF machines with few flying hours from surplus stock based in Iraq (formerly operated by RAF No. 6, 8 and 73 Squadron), the Royal Indian Air Force purchased 20 ex-RAF Mk. 18s, too.

Beyond these initial procurements, Ethiopia’s quest for an up-to-date air arm continued. In 1953, a military agreement between the United States and Ethiopia was signed for a military assistance program. Its aim was to provide Ethiopia with a capable military force for defensive purposes. The IEAF benefited immensely from the program. The US Air Force sent a team of officers and NCOs to assess the force and provide recommendations as part of the Military Advisory and Assistance Group undertaking the comprehensive study of the Ethiopian military and possible threats that it had to counter. The IEAF was to be restructured organizationally and adopt US-style operating procedures, and emphasis was given to building up IEAF’s training institutions. Several Ethiopian personnel were sent to the US for training, including 25 Ethiopian pilots for jet training, and many more were trained locally by US Defense personnel. In 1957, the first three of several T-33A jet trainers were supplied, but the vintage piston engine combat aircraft still played a central role and became involved in the smoldering conflict with Somalia, which eventually escalated into the Ogaden War.

After its independence in 1960, Somalia started making claims to all of its precolonial territories that were occupied by France, Ethiopia and the British. However, majority of the land claimed was in Ethiopia which made it Somalia’s main target. After failing to get support within the Organization of African Unity, Somalia declared war on Ethiopia in 1964. The Somali forces launched their attack at Togochale, a border town east of Jijiga, but the Ethiopians were no match to the comparatively well-equipped air forces of Somalia and suffered heavy losses. The brief conflict provided the IEAF with valuable experience, though. Lessons learned included the need for heavy bombers, an air defense complex, a secure and reliable communication system, and better coordination with ground forces. As a result, Canberra bombers and air defense radars were acquired from Great Britain and the US, respectively. F-86F fighters from the USA followed in 1960 and during the next year T-28s were acquired for advanced training. This influx of equipment and training made the IEAF, in the opinion of historian Bahru Zewde, "the most prestigious show-piece of American aid in Ethiopia. It was also reputedly the most modern and efficient unit of the armed forces."

In 1964, the neighboring Somalis began receiving large quantities of weaponry, ground equipment, and MiG-17 fighters from the Soviet Union. In response, the US started delivering the supersonic F-5A jet fighters in 1965 to counter this new threat. Careful not to escalate the situation further, the USA delivered the F-5As without providing major weapon systems for the aircraft, the ability to use air-to-air missiles. This deal, however, marked the start of the eventual retirement of the IEAF’s remaining early first-line propeller aircraft, even though some Fireflies and Spitfire FR. Mk. 18s soldiered on into the Seventies and were among the last vintage WWII fighters that were still in operation worldwide.

General characteristics:
Crew: 1
Length: 32 ft 8 in (9,96 m)
Wingspan: 36 ft 10 in (11,23 m) with full span elliptical tips
Height: 10 ft (3,05 m)
Wing area: 242.1 sq ft (22,49 m²)
Airfoil: NACA 2213 (root), NACA 2209.4 (tip)
Empty weight: 6,578 lb (2.984 kg)
Gross weight: 7,923 lb (3.594 kg)
Max takeoff weight: 8,400 lb (3.810 kg)

Powerplant:
1× Rolls-Royce Griffon 65 supercharged V12 with 2,050 hp (1,530 kW) at 8,000 ft (2.438 m),
driving a 5-bladed Jablo-Rotol propeller

Performance:
Maximum speed: 441 mph (710 km/h, 383 kn) in FS supercharger gear at 29,500 ft.
391 mph in MS supercharger gear at 5,500 ft.
Combat range: 610 mi (960 km, 520 nmi)
Ferry range: 1,240 mi (2.000 km, 1,085 nmi)
Service ceiling: 43,500 ft (13.300 m)
Rate of climb: 5,040 ft/min (25,6 m/s) in MS supercharger gear at 2,100 ft.
3,550 ft/min in FS supercharger gear at 22,100 ft.
Time to altitude: 7 mins to 22,000 ft (at max weight)
Wing loading: 32.72 lb/sq ft (159,8 kg/m²)
Power/mass: 0.24

Armament:
2× 20 mm (0.787-in) Hispano Mk II cannon, 120 RPG
2× 0.50 in (12,7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns, 250 RPG
Ventral and underwing hardpoints for alternative loads of:
● 2× 250 lb G.P. Mk.IV bombs (500 lb total)
● 3× 250 lb G.P. Mk.IV bombs (750 lb total)
● 1× 500 lb G.P. Mk.IV bomb (500 lb total)
● 1× 500 lb G.P. Mk.IV bomb + 2 x 250 lb G.P. Mk.IV bombs (1,000 lb total)
● 8× RP-3 rockets
● 1x 90 gal. drop tank

The kit and its assembly:
This exotic what-if Spitfire was inspired by a F-5A decal sheet that I had recently bought, which featured – among many others – markings for an Ethiopian aircraft. That made me remember the odd Fairey Fireflies in desert camouflage and I wondered what other aircraft could have been operated by Ethiopia, too? One candidate was the Saab J29 Tunnan (because Sweden provided massive support to build and equip the Ethiopian Air Force), but then stumbled upon an MPM Spitfire Mk. 18 in the Stash™ that had been lingering there for years because I had bought it long ago as a part of a cheap lot, so that I had no concrete ideas for it so far. While I favored the J29 idea (esp. as a recce variant, possible with the Heller kit) I eventually used the opportunity to build the Spitfire, and it would, as an FR. Mk. 18, also become a late submission to the “Reconnaissance and Surveillance” group build at whatifmodellers. in Sep. 2021.

That said, the simple but nicely detailed MPM kit from 1993 with a vacu canopy (actually two, one as a generous spare part should something go wrong…) and PE parts for cockpit and landing gear was basically built OOB. However, it is a typical short-run kit, so it bears some traps and surprises. What’s positive: very fine (even though somewhat soft) engraved surface details all over hull and wings as well as molded structures on the cockpit walls.
But this is countered by a wide range of weak or at least challenging points. For instance, the kit lacks ANY locator pins, the sprues are very thick, there’s flash and some parts like the machine guns or the propeller (with all five blades molded onto the spinner) are very rough in shape. PE parts are used everywhere: inside of the cockpit (you can build either a simple IP version of an almost fully-photo-etched alternative – I did a mix of both), the landing gear wells or the radiators, which are otherwise massive IP parts with a blurry interior and poor fit under the wings. The PE parts, however, are crisp and rather thick, so that they can be easily cut off from their blank and handled, and they fit surprisingly well, too.
Wings and fin each consist of two complete halves, so that they are quite massive, especially their trailing edges. Confusingly, the stabilizers come with pins — but there are no openings for them in the fuselage to hold or align them. The wheels are similar: there are pins on the legs, but no holes in the wheels themselves… Once the stabilizers are mounted in place you realize that they do not align with the fuselage shape: the visual axis through the rudders is “swept backwards” and needs further adjustments. The carburetor intake is molded into the lower wing section and the fuselage halves, and since it pointlessly consists of three thick-walled sections that do not align well, this calls for some serious PSR or even a total replacement (which I unfortunately did not have at hand). The wing roots on the fuselage do not match the wings well, either: they are much too wide for the assembled wing section, so that they had to be cut down (almost 1mm per side!) and the resulting inconsistencies had to be PSRed, too.

You see, the kit itself bears already a lot of challenges and work, and beyond this basic stuff I made some other amendments. Most importantly, I replaced the original and rather crude single-piece propeller with a leftover alternative from a Special Hobby Griffon-powered Spitfire, which fits well and looks MUCH better. It was mounted with the help of my standard metal-axis-in-a-styrene-tube-adapter construction. This revealed, however, that the front wall behind the spinner is not perfectly aligned with the propeller axis: there’s a noticeable gap that had to be filled with putty during the final assembly stages.
The ventral camera ports as well as the round openings on both flanks were drilled open and later received windows created with Humbrol ClearFix.
Due to the makeshift cockpit opening and the only vaguely fitting vacu canopy I decided to leave the cockpit closed, but added a (Matchbox) pilot figure with chopped-off legs to fit into the seat and vivify the model. The canopy itself was attached with superglue and later PSRed into the spine.

Painting and markings:
The more entertaining part of the build. I wanted to give this Spitfire a mix of desert camouflage, as seen on the Fireflies or the Saab B17 bombers, and, as a recce aircraft of British origin, classic PRU Blue.
The two-tone camouflage on the upper surfaces consists of RAF Dark Earth (Humbrol 29) and Light Stone (Humbrol 121), inspired by color photographs from contemporary Ethiopian aircraft – there’s a very helpful Air Enthusiast magazine article about the IEAF Fireflies (that can be accessed online under issuu./mtaye/docs/the_long_life_of_ethiopian_fairey_fi…). The undersides were painted with ModelMaster 2061, and the aircraft received a high waterline just under the cockpit and an all-blue fin – an interesting contrast, esp. with the colorful IEAF roundels and similar to the Royal Navy post-war scheme, just with different colors.
Even though the IEAF apparently added red spinners to the Fireflies, I kept it camouflaged on the model. No distractions.

The cockpit interior was painted with RAF Cockpit Green (Humbrol 78, according to pictures of real Mk. 18 cockpits – the typical RAF post-WWII black interior must have been introduced later?), as well as the landing gear wells. The inside of the main gear covers was painted in Medium Sea Grey (Humbrol 165), as if this ex-RAF aircraft from Iraq had only been re-painted externally. The pilot received – using references from the aforementioned IEAF Firefly article – a pale greyish-beige jumpsuit, a dark skin, and I even tried to add a black beard for more authenticity.

As usual, the model received an overall washing with black ink and some post-panel shading. Some light weathering was done with dry-brushed light grey on the wings’ leading edges – IEAF aircraft seem to have been kept in very good shape during the Fifties. Therefore, only minimal exhaust stains were added to the flanks and no gun soot to the wings.

Decals were kept simple, just the IEAF roundels and three-digit tactical codes on the fin and under the exhaust stubs, all coming from the inspiring F-5 sheet.

The finished IEAF Spitfire FR. Mk. 18 does not look spectacular – but I like the mix of a contrast desert camouflage with the deep PRU Blue and the high waterline, which IMHO also underlines the Spitfire’s elegant lines. The colorful Ethiopian roundels are an interesting contrast, too. Somehow this model almost looks like a creation for/from a Tintin comic, even though unintentionally?
The MPM kit, however, turned out to be a so-so affair. It would be unfair to call it bad, because it is a very good representation of the aircraft it depicts, and it comes with ample detail. It is a typical short-run kit, though, and therefore nothing for beginners or people who are faint at heart. There are certainly better Griffon-Spitfire kits around, but I am quite happy that I eventually found a good use for this rather comatose case from The Stash™. And I like the outcome, despite its flaws and weaknesses.

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