The OKB-144 Tu-154B.
OKB-144 was a Russian cottage industry kit maker which produced a few kits in the early ‘noughties’ and then quietly disappeared. The first OKB kit I got hold of was their Tu-154B, shortly after it was released back in 2002. Looking over the box, my first thought was, “these guys have style!” The company name was a play on the monikers of Soviet-era design bureaux (Tupolevs were known as “Research and Design Bureau 156” or “OKB-156”). The box end carried what looked like an engineering drawing signature, with a stamp which read “USSR/Chief Designer.” I liked their elegant sense of humour! Of course, what counted was what was inside the box. My Tu-154 did not disappoint. Not unduly so, at any rate. Let me explain...
Low-pressure, limited-run injection moulding is a strange brand of alchemy. Mainstream kit makers use tools made of steel or, more likely, copper-beryllium. These alloys are very hard, which makes the tooling practically eternal. It also makes it entirely unaffordable for the cottage industry.
“Fuselage halves: these two parts are basically divergent and keeping them glued together will call for some ingenuity”
The cottage industry, instead, uses much softer materials for its tooling. Most often, plastic monomers (resins) are used. Nobody can predict how many “shots” a resin tool will withstand: it could be one or one thousand; it is rarely more than that. The injection presses used for such tools work at low pressure, but simple mathematics tells us that even a manual-lever machine can direct over a ton of pressure at the thinnest point of a tool!
“Fin and tailcone: mating this with the fuselage is an extra step probably required by limited tool size”
All of this means that low-pressure kits start off pretty sharp at the early end of the run, get grubby later on, and as the tool threatens to fragment at the end of the run, end up pretty hairy. This is why, in 2002, my Tu-154 had looked very spruce, while the one I got in 2007 looked pretty sad.
Sad or not, the kit’s essential virtues – shape fidelity and superb engraved surface detail – shine through the flash. The stylish box contains 49 plastic parts, 43 photoetched parts, a decal sheet, and clear instructions with a colour-printed decal map.
“Centre section, tail: superb engraved detail shows in every part”
There are three gripes I have with the parts breakdown. First, the fuselage tailcone is a separate part and has to be cemented to the fuselage. This may have been done because the tool was size-limited, or to facilitate a planned Tu-154M kit. Whatever the reason, it makes life a bit more difficult than it needs to be. Second, the tailplane (or horizontal stabilizer) is moulded together with the fin/tailplane “bullet and sting,“ and, possibly as a result, the prominent sting looks somewhat anaemic. Third, though we get two centre engine intake lips, there is no intake trunk.
“Wing top: no sink marks are evident at all”
There is plentiful flash throughout and one or two major but localised surface imperfections. There are no sink marks at all, not even on the outer wings. This is particularly surprising as the wings are moulded in a single piece, like those of the Revell 727, and everyone knows that the Revell’s wings have always had big sink marks!
“Wing bottom: the single-piece outer wings are reminiscent of the Revell 727”
Getting the two fuselage halves to mate properly was a chore five years ago, and threatens to be even more of a chore today. You see, the halves are basically divergent from each other. This calls for extra-strong glue, plenty of tight elastic bands – and crossed fingers.
“Small parts: a curate’s egg of good and bad points”
Most of the many photoetched parts are pretty useless if, like me, you prefer to make your aerials from plastic card. The main photoetched parts, however, are good. Sadly, the fan faces have no “discs” (or spinners). Worse, the engine halves have no locating ridges for the photoetched fans. Worse still, the fans are far too small. All this makes for much extra work. The photoetched thrust reverser grilles are my favourite part in the kit. They beat decal reversers into a cocked hat and lend the engines an entirely credible, businesslike appearance. Yet (you guessed!) they have no inner support of any kind, calling for much improvisation. The two sweet little grilles for the air conditioning spill valves on the inboard top wing are a pain to fit.
“Engines: very businesslike once fitted with their superb reverser grilles”
The decal would have been one of Russian Project’s better efforts, but for two things: the too-pale blue for the Aeroflot cheatline, and the too-small and too-upright Soviet flag. I am planning to use aftermarket decals, but it would have been nice to have a good long pro-and-anti think before opting for them.
“Decal: shapes and typefaces are mostly true, but colour is way off”
Putting the kit together will be a lengthy and occasionally frustrating chore, but the end result will be worth every moment! In many ways, the OKB kit of the immortal Tupe is like the aircraft itself. An engineer on Balkan’s Tu-154 fleet once told me, “she’s like a highly-strung beauty: when she’s all set up, nothing can touch her; getting her all set up and keeping her all set up is a bitch!”
“Instructions: the kit was clearly meant for export only, with English used thoughout”