The PZL-23 Karaś must be among the most famous Polish aircraft and the bravery of its crews in the face of overwhelming odds in September 1939 is legendary. The Karaś design dates back to 1932 and a requirement for a new armed reconnaissance aircraft. The Polish Air Force was almost unique in the importance it attached to what it called "liniowe" (front-line) aircraft which worked in close cooperation with ground forces. The tactical thinking behind these stemmed from the Russo-Polish War of 1919-20, when the aircraft of both sides were able to operate relatively unmolested, but it failed to take into account the changing nature of modern warfare in the 1920s and 30s.
Although the PZL-23 was obsolescent by the outbreak of WW2, it was structurally very advanced for its day and employed one of the earliest examples of a metal-sandwich construction in its wings, which were exceptionally strong for their weight. The Karaś A was powered by a Polish licence-built Bristol Pegasus II, which proved to be a continuing source of problems. The trouble largely stemmed from the fact that the Pegasus II wasn't produced in quantity in Britain, and the engineers at PZL Engine Plant No. 1 were unaware of significant modifications made by Bristol sub-contractors and the subsequent problems caused serious delays in the deployment of the PZL-23.
The initial production batch of Karaś As were finally ready for service in 1936, but early engines limited their ceiling to just 3,000m, making them totally unsuitable for operational service. Consequently, the Karaś A was soon relegated to training units and fitted with dual controls. In its place came the much improved Karaś B, powered by a Pegasus VIII which developed almost 100hp more and was much more reliable. With the new engine, service ceiling shot up to 7,300m and the Karaś B introduced a number of changes including fittings for two forward-firing guns (when available).
At the outbreak of war, PZL-23Bs equipped 5 squadrons attached to the Bomber Brigade, with 7 more squadrons attached one-each to the land armies. Contrary to German propaganda, the Karaś units weren't destroyed on the ground in the opening attacks; the squadrons had already dispersed to hidden landing-grounds in anticipation of the attack. Always too few in number, the Polish Karaś crews nevertheless flew constantly over the following days in the face of heavy German fighter and flak defences, plus the constant menace of "friendly fire" which claimed a tragic number of victims. Inevitably, the constant fighting saw serious losses and most Karaś units were reduced to a handful of airworthy aircraft by the end of the fighting, with the bulk of the survivors escaping the Romania, including over 30 Karaś As from the operational training schools. All the aircraft were impressed into the Romanian Air Force which, in act of bitter irony, came under the control of the Germans.
My first reaction upon opening the package which arrived from Mirage Hobby this week was simply "Wow!". There's little chance that the new Karaś will be missed on the shelves; it arrives in one of the largest and most eye-catching boxes I've ever seen for a single-engined aircraft kit in this scale. Topped with a beautiful painting of a pair of Karaś As of the Polish Air Force college, a quick check shows it's the same size box used for Mirage's earlier PZL 37 Loś. In terms of presentation, the box is a real stunner, but it really is rather too large for the sprues it contains, so I can't help but worry if there's a danger of the parts rattling around in transit.
The kit consists of:
133 parts on 3 sprues moulded in 2 shades of medium grey
15 clear parts
7 resin parts
80 etched brass parts on 2 frets
Decals for 4 aircraft
The parts are cleanly moulded in quite soft styrene with very little sign of flash. The exterior surface of most of the major parts is slightly textured. Strangely, the interior is perfectly smooth, so I'm not sure of the reason for the outer finish. Photos of the full-sized aircraft show it was mostly smooth-skinned, but the texture doesn't present any serious problem as it polishes away easily. The main parts show some very delicate detail, with nicely scribed panel lines, plus some raised panels and details. The scribing s a little more pronounced on the outer wing panels than elsewhere, but it should all look good under a coat of paint.
The two sprues containing the major airframe parts (A & B) showed no signs of sinkage, but sprue W, which has the bulk of the smaller parts showed some sinkage on a few of the thicker parts. The chief victims were the propeller and its spinner, but even there, it'll only take a minute or two's work to fix things. Otherwise, the detail is really crisp, with sharply defined parts, plus some really subtle touches like the flexible gaiters on the undercarriage spats and delicate Dunlop logos on the tyres.
The main parts don't have any locating pins, but don't worry - the fit is very precise. The fuselage halves are distortion free and the cockpit area is moulded very thin to allow for drop-in sidewalls. This has a two-fold advantage; the sidewalls are very well detailed and it avoids any possibility of sinkage caused by the extensive ribbing and console details.
The flying surfaces are equally good; dead straight and with thin trailing edges. The wings are built in six pieces. The centre section is built of three parts to allow for the extensive cut-out for the ventral gondola and the outer panels fit onto hefty plugs to ensure the correct dihedral. The centre section drops neatly into it's location - it may need a touch of filler, but remember this assessment is based on a test fit without the benefit of any of the interior parts in place, which may well spread the sides slightly. All in all, I'm very impressed - there should be no problems with the fit of the airframe.
All the control surfaces are separate and the wings and tail are cleverly hollowed out to accept them, while the instructions indicate that the rear of the fin needs thinning similarly for the rudder.
Details... and more details
The pride and joy of this kit is its cockpit, which is among the most detailed I've ever found in an injected kit. We've been slightly spoiled by the level of detail in Accurate Miniatures' models - so it's pretty stunning to see a similar (or even greater) level here. The cockpit is built up of an incredible 80+ parts - mostly styrene, but with a number of etched and resin details added. The parts build up into a solid unit which is trapped between the fuselage halves.
In their earlier PZL 11, Mirage supplied an etched panel which didn't fit very well. No such problems here - the panel is a very nicely detailed styrene part with well-defined bezels and decals for the instrument faces.
The kit includes a pair of Vickers F machine guns for the rear positions on detailed mountings. These are built-up of plastic bodies plus etched sights, but it's not clear from reference photos how often these were actually carried on training machines. (Equally well-detailed Wz. 37 machine guns, appropriate for the forthcoming Karaś B, are also included on the sprues.)
The engine consists of 8 parts and manages to replicate the Pegasus's exhaust system nicely. Unlike other radial engines, the exhausts of most British designs exited forwards into a collector ring which formed the front of the cowling. On the kit, the cowling ring features neat slots into which the exhaust stubs slot very neatly. The cooling fins on the cylinders are a little basic but, all in all, the engine should look very good when finished.
The undercarriage is designed to be built either with or without it's spats.The legs show some nice details and the unweighted wheels have nicely detailed hubs, plus the previously-mentioned logos.
The bomb-aimer's gondola is unusual in as much as it's moulded as a flat part which must be folded to shape. This unusual approach allows for some excellent corrugated detail on the interior and a quick test shows the folds work fine and the finished gondola will fit onto its base very well.
Perhaps the only disappointment is that Mirage Hobby haven't included any bombs with the kit, although the attachment points are nicely presented under the wing centre-section. I have read that there was a delay in the supply of bomb racks when the Karaś A was first introduced, but I imagine there were fitted later when the aircraft served with training squadrons - even if the usual load was dummy training bombs.
The clear parts are separately bagged and are very thin with precisely defined framework. The parts are nice and clear, but there are a couple of flow marks present, plus some lines which it might be possible to polish out. A dip in Klear / Future may also help. The pilot's entry hatch is moulded as 2 separate parts which can be positioned open. The observer's hatch is moulded closed, but the instructions show where to cut to open it. The canopy is thin enough to allow this, but it will be a delicate operation - so be careful.
7 pale grey resin parts are included. These feature some nice radios and camera, plus an un-shielded oil cooler which has some beautifully fine fins. (An alternative shielded version is included as a styrene part.)
2 etched frets contain some nicely presented seat harnesses and other internal details, plus some external parts. Mirage Hobby have designed the kit to allow both Karaś A and B versions to be released, so the fuselage includes gun troughs on both sides of the nose. The A only mounted the gun on the starboard side, so an etched panel is included to cover the superfluous trough.
Perhaps the most complex parts of the kit are the wings' forward slats. These are formed of 7 separate ribs and the slat itself on each side, which must be formed to match the contour of the wing. The instructions indicate how the ribs should be attached to the wing using their fret as a jig which is detached once they are firmly in place. This is undoubtedly a tricky assembly, but the finished slats should look great.
I've used Mushroom's excellent monograph as my primary reference and the kit matches up very well. Two small points need looking at; the Karaś A was only fitted with a single forward-firing gun, but the cowling ring and engine part 14W include openings for two guns as per the updated 'B. Similarly, the 'As were withdrawn from active service as soon as they were built and references say they were fitted with dual controls which aren't featured in the kit. So far, I've never found references for the layout of the second set of controls, so I'm happy to leave well alone and simply admire the detailed standard cockpit Mirage have supplied.
Instructions & Decals
Did I say the cockpit is the kit's pride and joy? That's overlooking the instructions. These are printed in colour as a 6-page A4 booklet. The assembly diagrams are presented as rendered 3-D computer images (à la Eduard's Fokker D.VII) in 33 stages, with detailed diagrams of the engine and cockpit areas. There are a number of scrap diagrams and bi-lingual Polish / English text. The instructions include a small errata sheet - but, to be honest, I can't see any differences between it and the same diagrams in the main booklet.
Colours are indicated throughout the assembly sequence and keyed to Vallejo paints which Mirage Hobby also market. The instructions include a detailed description of the external and cockpit colours, based on the latest research - these will hold a few surprises for anyone (like me) expecting to paint the interior in silver, as commonly supposed from previous references.
Lastly, the instructions include 4-view diagrams for the 4 decal options, two of them in full colour:
PZL-23A Karaś - No. 44.5 operated by the Training Flight of the 1st Air Regiment and, later, the Polish Air Force College, Dęblin.
PZL-23A Karaś - No. 44.30 - of the Polish Air Force College, Dęblin.
PZL-23A Karaś - No. 44.31 - of the Polish Air Force College, Dęblin.
PZL-23A Karaś - No. u/k - of the Training Flight of the 1st Air Regiment, 1938.
The decals are very thin and printed by Techmod in perfect register. The instructions recommend that they shouldn't be dipped in water - rather, the rear of the paper should merely be wetted with a brush. Previous experience with Techmod decals has shown a tendency for them to stick instantly where you first put them, and I've found it helpful to wet the surface first with setting solution or saliva and float them into position.
Make no mistake, this should be a real stunner when built, with possibly the most detailed cockpit yet in a plastic kit. As you can imagine, it's not really suitable for beginners - and the construction of the slats will probably provide a few testing moments even for experienced modellers. The amount of detail which Mirage Hobby have crammed into their Karaś A is exceptional and, while it's not a model which will "build itself" by any means, the result should be spectacular. It's easily the best aircraft kit yet from Mirage Hobby and fills a serious gap in the ranks of kits of the Polish aircraft which faced the German onslaught in 1939.
"PZL.23 Karaś" - by Tomasz J. Kopański, Mushroom Model Publications #8101, 2004
"The PZL P-23 Karaś" - by Jerzy B. Cynk, Profile Publications #104, 1966
Thank you to Mirage Hobby for kindly supplying review sample.