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KIT REVIEW


AvantGarde Model Kits (AMK)
F-14D Super Tomcat -- 1:48 Scale

 

The F-14 Tomcat was one of the most iconic military aircraft of the latter
20th and early 21st centuries.  It has been a favorite among scale modelers, aviation enthusiasts, and aviators.  And, by coincidence, I sat down to write this review a mere 20 minutes shy of the 49th anniversary of the Tomcat’s first flight.  There have been to date nearly 400 different issues of F-14 kits from 1:144 to 1:32 scales.  Quality and accuracy of the kits varied, from early Airfix and Matchbox products to the “classics” by Testors, Monogram, and Revell.  Until recently, the best overall F-14 in 1:48 scale was often thought to be the Hasegawa family of Tomcats that first came out in 1988, though they are infamous for construction glitches and ill-fitting parts.  Hobby Boss F-14s have been plagued by rather misshapen intakes and some grossly inaccurate surface details.  In 2016, Tamiya stepped into the ring with their outstanding F-14A and F-14D kits in 1:48 scale.  Now, in 2019, AMK (AvantGarde Model Kits) based in Macau has released their long-awaited 1:48 scale F-14D.  Here’s our assessment of this hotly anticipated kit.

The Grumman F-14 Tomcat hardly needs an introduction, achieving fame through its 32 years of active duty from the evacuation of Saigon to Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.  Grumman manufactured 712 Tomcats between 1970 and 1992 across three major variants.  The final version of the F-14 Tomcat was the D-model, and it was the most capable Tomcat ever developed.  The origin of the -D goes back to the early 1980s after a decade of significant troubles with the Pratt and Whitney TF-30 engine.  The TF-30 was originally intended to only power the 12 preproduction F-14s, but delays with the F401 engine, politics, and budgetary constraints led to all F-14As receiving the TF-30.  The TF-30 was infamous for being underpowered, prone to compressor stalls especially at high AoAs, and suffered multiple catastrophic failures involving thrown compressor blades that claimed far too many jets and aircrews.  Some F-14A pilots stated they flew the throttles instead of the airplane.

In 1981, the propulsion testbed airframe (the No. 7 preproduction F-14 that the Navy had bailed to Grumman) evaluated GE’s F101 DFE powerplant.  It was a successful program but the F101 engine was not adopted.  In 1984, the General Electric F110 GE-400 was tested in No. 7, and this led to contracts for the F-14A(Plus) and F-14D.  Beyond the fact that the F110 engine lacked virtually all of the TF-30’s weaknesses, an F110-powered F-14 could accelerate from Mach 0.9 to Mach 2.0 in 90 seconds.  The engine also conferred greater fuel efficiency, greater range, more loiter time, and ease of maintenance.

The F-14D represented in many ways a reinvention of the core architecture of the Tomcat, particularly from an avionics systems perspective.  It was called the Super Tomcat especially at Grumman, but at some point, the Navy dropped “Super” from the official designation. 
The “eyes” of the F-14D was the digital AN/APG-71, radar with a range of up to 400 nautical miles, that worked in concert with a chin pod combining a television camera and infrared search and track system (TCS/IRSTS) that independently allowed for identification of targets up to 100 miles away.  The “brains” of the F-14D were a pair of digital AYK-14 Standard Airborne Computers that processed all the radar data, prioritized targets, managed the stores, and selected the weapons firing sequence.  The Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) provided a passive, jam-proof datalink where one “user” could share everything it saw to another fighter.  The F-14D’s cockpit was updated with multifunction displays, a combined glass heads-up display, and Mk. 14 Naval Aircrew Common Ejection Seats (NACES).

Externally, the F-14D used NACA-style gun gas purge vents on the nose first introduced on the F-14A(Plus).  The extendible glove vanes were deleted, as they were rated as only marginally aerodynamically effective (though there is debate about that observation).  The empty space in the glove vane box was then fitted with the AN/ALR-45 and AN/ALR-67 radar warning receivers.

The first production F-14D was delivered to the Navy in March 1990, but by then, the future of the F-14 was doomed.  The Navy wanted at least 130 new build F-14Ds and around 400 F-14As and Bs remanufactured as Ds.  A long and complex political battle ended with then-SECDEF Dick Cheney outright terminating the F-14D in the FY 1992 budget.  He called it a “jobs program” and shifted the F-14D budget to the development of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.  As a result, only 37 new-build F-14Ds were produced along with 18 remanufactured A-models brought up to D-standards.  The closing of the F-14 production line marked the end of the Grumman Company as an airframe builder.

The F-14D entered service in 1992 and was upgraded incrementally over time, first with air-to-ground capability, then the LANTRIN targeting pod, digital TARPS, and then expanded air-to-ground capability with laser-guided munitions, and the large PTID display in the back seat.  In 2001, GPS-guided JDAM munitions started to be cleared on the jet.  The ROVER data downlink system was also deployed in 2005.  The last Tomcats were the F-14Ds of VF-31, and the Tomcatters retired their last F-14 on 22 Sept 2006 at NAS Oceana.  Arguably, the F-14 was at the pinnacle of its capability, but those new build airframes I saw rolling off the assembly line at Calverton, New York, had been flown long and hard given the exceptionally high demands placed on them during OEF and OIF (by some accounts those jets were up to 70:1 ratio of maintenance hours to flight hours by the end).  The F-14D will always be remembered for its vital 16 years of service to the United States.              

AMK’s 1:48 scale F-14D kit comes in a fairly large box, measuring in 16”x11”5 ¼ ” inches.  The box is packed to the brim.  The kit contains 411 gray injection molded parts on 52 sprues (a little less than half that number are single slide-molded bombs and missiles on their own individual sprues).  Nineteen clear parts come on one clear sprue and 19 photoetched metal parts are also included.  The 27-page instruction manual guides the build over 26 steps.  Markings are provided for five F-14Ds:

Strengths:  In a number of ways, F-14 subject matter has been a locus into which the industry has poured its best efforts.  I remember that when the Hasegawa kit first came out, it was heralded by many as a “super kit” of the late 1980s.  The Tamiya F-14s easily rate among the best injection-molded scale models of this decade.  Now, with AMK’s F-14D, scale modelers once again have a new F-14 to consider.  In the desire to be transparent, your reviewer shared with AMK in 2015 all of their F-14 references to assist in the development of their kit including detailed notes, drawings, and walk around photos shot just for them.  I’ve been long anticipating this kit, hoping that AMK would be able to translate the 1:1 scale F-14 into a real gem in their lineage of outstanding kits that include their awesome 1:48 scale MiG-31.    

The verdict?  AMK has produced something fairly breathtaking in my opinion.  At least in this reviewer’s opinion, it outdoes the excellent Tamiya family of Tomcats in various ways.  AMK’s F-14D lives up to the high expectations that many scale modelers had for this release, and I’d say it was certainly worth the long wait to finally have this out on the market.  AMK’s work on this kit garners many well-deserved accolades.  In various ways, we can make the argument that this is the best 1:48 scale F-14 produced to date.  What follows is my justification of this argument that is also just a description of the kit. 

The overall quality of the parts design and molding is exceptional.  Shapes, sizes, and other details appear spot-on.  The interior and exterior details (RIO’s PTID, reinforced RIO’s step LANTIRN sidestick controller, and GPS dome antenna, and other items) represent a later-life F-14D.

I test fit a few parts from the kit including the upper and lower fuselage halves.  The fit is perfect.  I’m talking airtight and seamless.  The plastic surfaces are as smooth as glass.  The majority of surface details (e.g., panel lines, fasteners) are delicately recessed and perfectly executed with a high degree of accuracy (but see below for a few observations).  They are not over-done or over-scaled.  In places where there are raised rivets on the aircraft, such as the inside of the speed brake wells, the kit has raised rivets.  There are also a lot of construction options here, but I would not characterize this as “over-engineered.”  It gets the job done.  Further and most importantly, there are also numerous features of the F-14, as described throughout the following, which no other kit manufacturer has ever correctly represented in Tomcat kits before, but it’s here in the AMK kit.

One hot item to address before going further: some readers may recall that there was a bit of a social media uproar during the development of the kit when pre-production photos were released on Facebook that showed what some thought was an egregious degree of curvature in the aft waist section of the fuselage.  I don’t know if those were wonky pictures or if prototype molds were subsequently retooled, but the back end of AMK’s F-14 looks really good.  The curvature compares very favorably to my original Grumman engineering drawings and to reference photos I shot while hanging over the F-14D at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center (see photo gallery below).  If anything, Hasegawa, Tamiya, and Hobby Boss’s F-14’s have back ends that seem in retrospect a little too planar.

Let’s start with the cockpit.  The kit comes with a basic cockpit tub (Part U1) upon which side consoles, auxiliary control panels, the RIO’s circuit breakers, cockpit sidewalls, and nose landing gear well all attach to.  There’s also a separate part for the throttle.  The in-flight refueling probe well also attaches to the forward right side of the cockpit tub assembly.  This a modular approach with the breakdown of the cockpit parts that surely allows cockpits for A- and -B kits to be produced by AMK with very little future effort.  You also have the option for an open or closed boarding ladder and cockpit steps.  The ladder is a single piece and is really well done down to the perforated side panels.

The cockpit details are all quite good for an injection molded-kit and they are accurate for the F-14D, though are perhaps a little simplified (but it’s injection-molded plastic, after all).  There’s plenty for detail painters to work with, but alternate instrument panel decals are also provided.  As noted above, the RIO’s screen in this kit is the big square PTID (Programmable Tactical Information Display).  Just note this detail if it is relevant to your build.  F-14Ds were delivered with and used the classic, fishbowl TID (Tactical Information Display) for the first several years of their service life.  The TID was the big radar screen display fitted to any F-14A or -B before LANTIRN came around in the late 1990s.

The ejection seats are really well-done replicas of the Martin Baker Mk. 14 NACES.  There’s a lot of detail in the plastic parts, from the differentially-sized canopy breakers for the pilot and RIO’s seats, ejection seat computer and associated wiring under the headrest, and separate parts for seat catapult, drogue gun, drogue chute and parachute housing lid, thermal batteries, and other features.  There are also photoetched parts for the seat parachute risers, shoulder harnesses, and lap belts (see below).              

Once complete, the cockpit and nose gear well assembly slides forward into a single-piece, slide-molded forward fuselage part.  This is one of the neat features here that are unique to the AMK Tomcat.  There’s also a mounting ring for the radome to insure a perfectly aligned fit.

Moving aft, this kit also features another unique engineering solution to Tomcat model construction.  Past kits, from Hasegawa to Tamiya, have a parts breakdown where the air intake trunk is a separate piece that mates onto the aft half of the engine nacelle which is an integral part of the lower fuselage half.  Here, each entire nacelle, from the tip of the air inlet to the afterburner nozzle fairing, is a single injection molded piece.  There’s even an integrally molded spacer between the leading forward edges of the intake to keep them immobile (how many times building a Hasegawa Tomcat have I had those move around during construction or break later on…).  Inside the inlet, there’s also the best representation I’ve seen of the F-14’s air inlet ramps and bleed air vents in 1:48 scale.  

The kit also contains two basic F110 engine shapes to fill in the back half of the engine nacelle parts.  They can be considered “basic” since they lack accurate surface detail, plumbing, wiring, and accessory gear.  Of course, the only engine detail you’re going to see are the first stage compressor blades and all other detail would be invisible in the completed model.  Therefore, AMK decided not to overdo it as some manufactures would.  At the same time, any engine geeks out there wanting to open up panels and scratchbuild any engine details have a great starting point to work with.  The kit also provides two engine nozzle options:  one in the full-open or full-closed positions.  The nozzles are very well done single-piece items, and four parts per open nozzle are provided for the inside petal surfaces.   

AMK’s F-14 has two sets of wings.  The first set represents a “clean” wing with the slats and flaps retracted.  The second set allows you to build a “dirty Turkey” with separate and positionable extended leading edge slats, flaps, and spoilers.  No other 1:48 scale kit has separate spoilers, and I really like them!  When the F-14’s spoilers are deployed, you can see a good deal of hydraulic hardware and wiring, and the kit represents those with satisfying and accurate detail.  The “dirty wing” option is one of the more complex construction process parts of the kit (and it’s not that tricky, overall), but pay good attention to the multi-step process and the placement of the five separate flap drive actuators – again, a really nice touch.   

Unlike most other models of the F-14, the wings don’t sweep via an internal mechanism or pivot point.  The builder can choose between three fixed-position wing box parts that extend outward and into the wing.  These also serve as the fitting for each wing (analogous to Tamiya’s approach).  You can choose between 28 degrees of sweep (full forward, and the only position for the deployed slats and flaps option), 68 degrees (fully swept), or 72 degrees (the overswept position, or that used for parking the jet on the carrier).  Also depending on your wing sweep position, there are alternate parts for the wing sweep airbags (inflated/deflated) and the aft overwing fairings.  The latter parts make sure that no matter what wing sweep position is selected, there will be no visible gaps at the aft fuselage-overwing covering.  This approach is similar to the Tamiya kit but one that Hasegawa failed to consider.  A small point of minutia: the wing sweep airbags have their securing grommets going all the way around the bag.  AMK got this detail.  That scores high-level Tomcat geek points.     

Likewise, there’s three sets of mounting tabs for three optional fixed pivot positions for the horizontal stabilizers (drooped [unpowered aircraft], neutral, or downward deflected as in an in-flight climb or nose-up attitude).  While these are three fixed positions, the way the mounting tabs insert into the aft fuselage promotes precise alignment and angle between each side.  Upper and lower speed brakes can be positioned open or closed.

The landing gear are single-piece, slide-molded items that are rich with detail to the point that these are the best 1:48 scale F-14 gear out there.  Two versions of the nose gear are included: extended and kneeling.  The latter features the externally mounted holdback bar which would detach as the catapult stroke initiated.  It’s a nice, thoughtful, and accurate touch for those interested in doing a cat shot diorama.  Some gear details such as fine hydraulic lines are molded integrally on the surface of the gear.  Most of the time, my default is to add these myself, but these work great.  Other details are of course added, including some small parts such as the tie-down rings, side brace links, and other items on the main mounts.  This might seem “fiddly” or “over-engineered” but it is the best way to represent these parts with the highest fidelity of detail.

The gear wells are also the best and most accurate for any F-14 in 1:48 scale.  The detail is very accurate, though perhaps simplified again a little bit in spots due to the limitations of injection molding.  Still, these great wells rival the quality of cast resin.  Gear well doors and door actuators are also very well represented.  One thing I especially like that again AMK gets right for the first time in any F-14 kit: the inboard aft main gear well walls (inboard of where the main landing gear attaches to the plane) curves quite noticeably inward following the contour of the roof of the intake trunk.  Hasegawa has a flat wall, and Tamiya’s part is dimpled. AMK, however, nailed it.     

The clear parts feature a few really unique features.  First, the optical quality of the clear parts is outstanding.  Second, while the windscreen is a very traditional single-piece part (no extended fairing), there are two canopies.  One is again of a traditional design, where the clear parts and the canopy frame are a single piece.  The other option is again unique and something never seen before in a Tomcat kit.  There are separate forward and rear halves of the canopy glass. These then fit into part L1 – the canopy frame itself.  It is fairly ingenious but I was a bit reticent of this approach (worried about how fragile the frame would be, but the online builds and demonstrations of this assembly step show the clear parts clicking into place.  Neat!  Third, this approach gets around the need for masking and worry about getting glue on the clear parts when adding features such as the rear-view mirrors and canopy latching hooks.  The canopy lightning strips are also present.  Fourth, the canopies are both molded so as to have the correct Ω-shaped cross section.  Again, AMK has this feature correct for the first time in an F-14 kit.  There’s also other items in the canopy assembly, such as the prominent pipework for the canopy defogging system accurately represented along the inside of the canopy frame.  AMK also got the rear-view mirror configuration correct for the F-14D which only has two (instead of three) mirrors for the pilot.       

AMK’s F-14 is brimming with external stores.  The kit provides very well-made pylons, adapters, and launchers.  The Phoenix missile pallets feature optional AIM-54 ejectors or BRU-32 bomb racks.  The glove pylons also look good.  The FPU-1A/A external fuel tanks built up out of upper and lower halves.  Beyond that, you can really go to war with this Tomcat.  The stores included here are:

AMK chose to slide mold most of their stores, so you get single-piece AIM-7s, -9s, -54s, and GBU-38s.  A single-piece tail kit is added to the single-piece bomb body of the GBU-31s (just like the real thing).  Overall detail is excellent and very accurate.  The LGBs also feature a single-piece forward assembly to which the tail fin kits are added. And there are two styles of optional tail fins: retracted (as when carried on the jet) and deployed (or “bomb-in-flight” mode).  The LANTIRN pod looks great and features optional parts for a subtle difference in panel line configuration between the early and late LANTIRNs carried by the F-14.  The TARPS pod is also quite well done.

Three decal sheets provide the markings for the five F-14Ds and all the airframe and stores stenciling.  It’s a great selection of schemes, from one of VF-31’s most colorful CAG jets to one of my favorite VF-101 low-viz schemes, an OIF VF-2 jet, and the last new build F-14D in its guise as the iconic VANDY ONE.  The decals were designed by Furball and printed in-house (I suspect) by AMK.  Colors are solid, everything looks mostly in perfect register, and carrier film is thin and very restrained.  Some of the decals look a little chalky in surface sheen, but that will disappear real fast the moment you hit it with a gloss coat in the standard process of sealing the decals.  

Weaknesses:  AMK has produced a really superlative kit, and there’s not a lot to critique here.  Some of what follows is Tomcat geek-level minutia, but I grew up around this jet so I can’t help it.  As has been pointed out by plenty of online comments, the box art’s representation of the F-14 is funky in terms of the proportions of the back end of the jet and its nose-up attitude, but please settle down, friends – it’s an artist’s impression, not a representation of the kit.

There’s an omission in the instructions involving no indications on where to place and how to arrange the photoetched parts for the parachute risers, shoulder harnesses, and lap belts.  More experienced builders and those familiar with the NACES seat should have no problem figuring it out, but those new to the F-14D might need to look up some references online or in print. 

Here’s a tiny detail that’s not quite right: ahead of the windscreen, the kit has three small raised circular “rivets.” These in fact were air vents that served as the F-14A/B’s rain removal system, blasting engine bleed air up onto the windscreen. In new-build -Ds, these were replaced by a single slit vent. This tiny feature is wrong for the F-14D unless you are building one of the F-14D(R)s that was a remanufactured -A where the original rain removal vents were left untouched.

I am also not a fan of the nose and waist formation light strip panels.  The slime light frames were neither raised nor the light panel sunken… as it is depicted in this kit.  It also seems that that light frames on the right side of the nose are raised higher than those on the left.  Purists will probably want to fill and sand these strip lights and just then lay down strip light decals.  That’s how I’ll handle it.

Regarding munitions – note that the GBU-38s were used only very late in the F-14D’s operational life (last few deployments only, if I recall).  For various reasons, the full load of four GBU-31s was also pretty rarely used operationally.  Some of the stencils for the munitions are thickly printed and the lettering on the finest stencils gets a little illegible and runs into each other.  It’s not terrible, but if it bugs you, just get a copy of Fightertown’s excellent F-14 stencils and data decal set (reviewed HERE).  I’d also want to do a little more research on the VF-31 CAG scheme (but I’ve got to get this review done to meet press time!) to make sure they had the PTID display in 1997 (I think they did and were among the first to get PTIDs).    

The single-piece canopy option is a clear part (N2) and has raised seams on the left and right sides of the canopy.  That’s an artifact of the molding process to get that Ω-shaped cross section.  You’ll want to sand those down and polish them.    

One final point: the instructions are well done, but a few steps could be better illustrated and easier to read if they were a printed a little bit larger.

AMK has produced a superlative 1:48 scale F-14D kit.  I personally would argue this is the best F-14 that’s out there.  I must state, however, this does not take away from the excellence of the 1:48 scale Tamiya kits or my nostalgia with the Hasegawa Tomcats.  But for me, the range of construction options, various construction and engineering features, and attention to details that no other kit possesses makes the AMK F-14 stand out in this crowd of excellent kits in ways that matter to me.  AMK really put a lot of effort, thought, and care into their Super Tomcat, and it shows.  Another factor is what I’d call the price:value ratio.  You get a lot for your money.  There’s a ton of amazing detail and construction options here that could have easily retailed for a lot more than the Tamiya F-14s.

As one of the last kits we’ll review this year, it is also a clear front-runner for the 2019 Detail & Scale Editor’s Choice and Reader’s Choice Kit of the Year awards.  We can all look forward to what I hope will be future F-14As and Bs from AMK.    

Sincere thanks to Sio SeiHoi, Martin Wilson, and Vicky in the front office at AMK (along with help from the great Scott Bricker) for the review sample.  You can follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/avantgardemodelkits  and at http://www.amkhobby.com.

Haagen Klaus
Scale Modeling News & Reviews Editor
Detail & Scale

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