For the basic facts about the history of F/A-18 Hornet and general description of the aircraft characteristics I suggest reading the Wikipedia article, which contains quite good elementary information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F/A-18
The F/A-18D version of Hornet depicted in the new Academy kit is a two seat variety of the F/A-18C variant and the "Night Attack" added to the aircraft name suggests that the kit will build into replica of upgraded D variant with enhanced night fighting capabilities.
The two seat variant of 1/32 Hornet kit was expected from Academy from the very moment they released their excellent F/A-18C model. That kit was really ground breaking achievement - at that time acknowledged to be the best plastic kit of any subject and scale to date by almost everyone who had seen it. Since then it was slightly overshadowed by Tamiya F-16CJ kit (in aircraft models) and Dragon Tiger I Initial (in armor models), but still remains one of the very best plastic kits ever made. About a year after the initial release Academy re-released the F/A-18C Hornet kit with new decals printed by Cartograf as the "Operation Iraqi Freedom" version, but there were no changes made to plastic parts. The first Academy Hornet kit already included some parts for the two seat version, so it was only a matter of time before such kit hits the shelves. And it finally happened now - two years after the original kit release.
The kit comes in a large box - the same size as the F/A-18C kit - with very nice box art illustration of VMFA(AW)-225 Marines squadron bird. Inside the box, under the second inner cardboard lid we get plastic. A lot of it! The sprues of dark gray styrene are packed individually or in pairs in plastic bags and there is also a little (relatively!) box included with some of smaller and more delicate parts, like canopy, radome etc.. In one bag on the bottom of the box I found instruction booklet and two quite large decal sheets. Instruction booklet is quite thick at 40 pages with 52 assembly steps ad several pages of painting and decaling diagrams. Instructions are very clear and in addition to usual exploded diagrams include also some photos of assembled parts to better illustrate more complex steps. One included decal sheet is already known from F/A-18C kit and contains missile markings. This sheet is printed by Academy (this is important information, as some modelers reported serious problems with adhesion of Academy printed decals in original release of 1/32 Hornet kit). The other, larger sheet printed by Cartograf in Italy, contains markings for four US Marines Hornets - all from "All Weather" squadrons:
- F/A-18D Block 52, Bu.165532, VMFA(AW)-225 "Vikings", 2004
- F/A-18D Block 39, Bu.164717, VMFA(AW)-224 "Bengals", 2001
- F/A-18D Block 42, Bu.164884, VMFA(AW)-224 "Bengals", 2002 - the plane with gray tiger stripes painted on the fuselage and wing upper surfaces. Please note that the stripes for this aircraft are not provided as decals, but have to be painted on.
- F/A-18D Block 38, Bu.164705, VMFA(AW)-332 "Moonlighters", 1999.
In the kit we get a respectable number of 17 dark gray sprues (including the radome mini sprue) - most of them quite large, 3 light gray sprues (figures), one small clear parts sprue plus separate windshield and canopy, three metal landing gear struts, four vinyl tires, screwdriver and a few screws. At least this is what is listed in instructions - actually we get "only" 15 dark gray sprues as some smaller ones are molded together and de facto form larger sprues. Also in this number there are some duplicates as sprues containing mainly external stores parts are provided in two copies each. Also two small light gray sprues with seated figures of pilots are identical, although for some reason each of them has its own letter assigned (sprues U and V).
Majority of parts in the kit comes directly from the single seat version. Actually there are only twelve completely new parts in the kit and four of them are identical canopy locking hooks and other two of them are marked as "unused". These two parts are side and main panels for the rear cockpit for the F/A-18B version (a strong hint that release of another version of the Academy Hornet kit is likely). Some parts required for two-seater were already included in the original Hornet kit release: e.g. all components of second ejection seat. Other parts, like the cockpit tub, rear cockpit side panel and control sticks were present in older kit, but they lacked surface details and now have been retooled with all the proper knobs and switches added to the rear cockpit area.
The molding quality is very high with crisp details, finely engraved panel lines and recessed rivets, but also with lots of raised details in appropriate places. For example the wheels wells have all the cabling and plumbing detail molded on and look very good (although MLG wells seem to be a bit shallow). There are some areas on the fuselage sides where the engraved details are a bit soft because of limitations of injection molding, but it is nothing serious. There is no flash on parts and most ejector pin marks are hidden after assembly. Some of them require attention, like those inside the air intake trunks, but these are few. The only really significant molding problem are sink holes. Unfortunately there are some on sides of both front fuselage parts (below canopy sill) and also on the top of the fuselage spine. They are shallow, but still require filling with putty and sanding to shape to eliminate.
There is a mold line along the top of clear canopy and windshield parts, but this is standard feature of most modern jet kits - unavoidable to achieve proper bulbous shape of these parts.
The assembly of kit is described in instructions in "classic" way, as it starts with the cockpit. Two NACES seats are very well detailed: each is composed of 14 parts. The seatbelts are molded on seat cushions and are acceptable, although not the best I've seen. For both front and rear instrument panels we get clear MFD parts and decals in two versions of displayed information. Cockpit is generally very well detailed with many separate small parts and for all of them we get painting guidelines. The shroud for the rear instrument panel is provided in later "stepped" form, most likely correct for all four F/A-18D machines depicted in the kit, but considering that most other parts for B variant are included it could have been expected that also the older simpler sloped shroud would be included. All in all the cockpit should build into very convincing representation of the real thing and there is no obvious need for resin replacement here.
The layout of main airframe parts is quite typical for modern jet kit. The two main / rear fuselage parts are split horizontally to upper and lower halves and between them enclosed are full engines (but with only the most basic surface details molded on and compressor and afterburner faces parts) and full length intake trunks. To the main fuselage assembly attached are air intake components. The front fuselage section is split vertically and cockpit and NLG well subassemblies are glued inside. Both front and main (rear) fuselage parts are assembled with the help of screws, although no screws are used to join these subassemblies together. On the left side of front fuselage molded are searchlight details and while we get all the parts necessary to build searchlight equipped plane, it is clearly indicated in instructions that such device is not used on US planes. There are also two small rectangular panels on the surface of front fuselage parts, but as these were present only on early Hornets, the instructions show that they should be filled with putty and eliminated.
The wings are in usual upper and lower halves and all control surfaces (incl. leading edge flaps) are separate and positionable with appropriate detail parts (actuators etc.) provided for each position. For main flaps separate parts are provided to assemble them in one of four positions: 0°, 20°, 30° and 45°. Wings can be built in folded position and all details of wing folds are provided, although folding wings requires some surgery to wing parts. This is however rather easy as the process is clearly described in instructions and cutting lines are molded on the inner side of wing parts.
The horizontal stabilators are molded as single pieces, while vertical tails are built of two halves each with separate rudder plates.
Landing gear assemblies are small models by themselves - about 25 parts for NLG and ~27 for each of the MLG units plus well doors with separate actuator parts. Each gear strut has a metal core for strength and plastic parts around it with a lot of small details added. The tires are provided as both plastic and soft vinyl parts and both feature nice raised lettering, although a tread pattern is better depicted on vinyl tires. NLG has to be assembled and attached before its well is glued into the front fuselage, what may complicate the later assembly steps a bit.
The exhaust nozzles are provided in two versions - fully open and closed. Separate parts are included for inner and outer exhaust cones and while they don't look bad, some more details could have been included, particularly on inner cones. Also the walls of afterburner stage inside engine parts are devoid of any details and scarred by ejector pin marks.
The radome can be attached in either open or closed position and complete and very detailed radar assembly is included together with some associated black boxes visible when the radar assembly is slid forward.
The canopy can also be glued in open or closed position and separate parts for canopy actuator are provided for each position. Also included are additional detail parts for the bottom of canopy frame for open configuration. Clear parts are perfectly molded with no visible flaws, although the seam has to be eliminated from them. The profile of the new canopy part is quite accurate, although it should be just very slightly flatter on top in the middle above rear instrument panel shroud. The nicely detailed boarding ladder (folded into the LEX in the real plane) is included and can be assembled extended.
The speed brake is a separate part and it also can be attached open with the actuator part provided. The shallow bay under the brake has some raised wiring / plumbing details molded on.
While the kit is only meant to be built as F/A-18D variant from this boxing, it can quite easily be built as F/A-18B version. The only parts missing are early style tail fins, but these included can easily be modified to represent A / B version. All small details specific to D variant are provided as separate parts and can easily be omitted, particularly that the locating holes for them have to be open by modeler, so they don't spoil the fuselage surface if someone chooses to build earlier variant. Also all cockpit parts for B version, including different instrument panels for front and rear cockpit and flight controls for the rear position are included!
IFF blade antennas in front of windshield are separate parts and are correctly shown in instructions as appropriate only for two of four depicted aircraft.
The kit comes with the same impressive array of ordnance and other external stores as earlier single seat model. Each of the five provided pylons is composed of five parts with separate sway braces. To attach any pylons you must first open the half-molded holes in fuselage and wings, so if you want to display your model in completely clean configuration you don't need to fill any holes.
Included external stores are:
- 2 x AIM-9L/M Sidewinder (each composed of 5 parts) plus 2 x LAU-7/A-6 wingtip launchers,
- another 4 x AIM-9L/M Sidewinder (again 5 parts each) - for use with LAU-127 launchers,
- 4 x AIM-120 AMRAAM (7 parts each),
- 2 x LAU-115C/A launcher (3 parts),
- 4 x LAU-127 launcher (single part),
- 2 x AIM-7F/M Sparrow (7 parts),
- 2 x GBU-31 JDAM (4 parts),
- 2 x GBU-10 Paveway II (7 parts),
- 2 x GBU-24 Paveway III (10 parts including clear tip),
- 2 x AGM-84D Harpoon (8 parts) / AGM-84E SLAM (9 parts incl. clear tip - 6 of these parts common with Harpoon),
- 8 x Mk.82 500lb bombs (7 parts with optional long and short fuses) or 8 x Mk.82 Snakeye (8 parts - three of them common with regular Mk.82),
- 4 x BRU-33 VER (7 parts),
- 4 x AGM-88 HARM (6 parts),
- 4 x LAU-118 launcher (2 parts),
- 4 x AGM-65E Maverick (9 parts incl. clear tip),
- 4 x LAU-117 launcher (4 parts),
- AN/ASQ-173 LDT/SCAM pod (4 parts incl. clear tip),
- AN/AAR-50 TINS pod (6 parts),
- AN/AAS-38 FLIR pod (8 parts incl. a clear one),
- 3 x 330 gal external fuel tank (2 parts).
For each of the weapons and pods we get full set of stencils and markings decals. Weapons are crisply molded and well detailed. Fins of missiles and bombs are probably as thin as injection molded parts can be and look quite good.
Five figures are included in the kit - two seated pilots, one pilot climbing the ladder, one ground crew member and one Navy catapult officer. While both seated pilot figures are identical (despite different letters assigned to the sprues with parts for them), but we get a choice of two left and two right arms for each plus two heads (with and without NVG) for each figure, so they can be differentiated a bit. For the pilot on the ladder we get a choice of three heads (two without helmet). A choice of several markings are provided as decals for the helmets and vests of aircraft carrier deck crew figures.
The biggest problem reported by many modelers in kits of single seat Hornet from Academy were warped wing parts. Of course the Hornet wings should not be flat and their natural twisted shape is properly depicted in Academy model, but the problem manifested itself when upper and lower wing halves were joined. When wing parts were held together at their roots, their tips didn't meet, because the upper wing half was warped upwards and lower half was warped downwards. In my early F/A-18C kit this flaw created over 30 mm spread at wing tips!
In the new F/A-18D kit sample I have, the wing parts are not warped - I assembled them for test and had no problems to have both halves meet at the whole length. This does not necessarily mean that all copies of new kit are free of this old flaw, but it gives some hope that Academy solved the problem that manifested itself in original models.
One shape inaccuracy that I know of in F/A-18C kit is still present in two-seater kit - the fuselage spine is too oval in cross section, while it should be more flat on top. This luckily is not very noticeable error.
I must admit that I was a bit worried when I started reviewing this kit. After a couple of recent highly disappointing releases (at least in my opinion) I was afraid that this kit may also bring some unpleasant surprise. Luckily Academy was able to give us another excellent kit. Of course 99% of the new kit contents comes straight from previous two years old Hornet model and does not necessarily mean that this kit sets any new standard for Academy, but it still gives hopes for more good quality releases. New parts for two-seater version are as good as the rest of the model and with the addition of excellent Cartograf printed decals, we get a truly great package. Minor molding problems are easy to fix and model is free of any serious inaccuracies, so great replica can be built out of the box and any aftermarket additions are not really necessary. Many modelers consider two-seater Hornets as much more "sexy" looking planes than single-seaters and they were eagerly waiting for large scale model of their favourite "Bug"- everything seems to suggest that the new Academy F/A-18D kit will fully meet their expectations!
Many thanks to Raymond Chung of LUCKY MODEL for the review sample!