Aurora Sopwith Triplane ‘Black Maria’ Kit Review and History

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By Fred Boucher and with Kit History by Alan Bussie   Google+ profile

Kit History

Aurora’s Sopwith Triplane was the eighteenth model in Aurora’s twenty “Famous Fighters” of World War One aircraft series, with all kits in 1/48 scale.  It was released in 1963 with the Fokker E-III, which is kit #134.  Curiously, the Sopwith Triplane was released as kit number 100.  The first kit in the series was 101-69, the French Nieuport II.

 The first issue was numbered 100-79 and had brilliant box art by the great Joe Kotula.  The plastic is gloss black.


A factory sealed example of 100-79 


 The second release had a part number of 100-100 but the box art was identical.  By the mid 1960s,  pressure from retailers to remove the price suffix was peaking. Some dealers could or had to get higher prices for the kits, while large retailers often sold them for less.  But old habits die hard, and Aurora (and others) simply increased the suffix prices.  Since the box art was retained, the copyright date was still 1963.  The actual release date was probably closer to  ’65.

 For the third release, Aurora dropped the price extension all together, so this issue was simply part number 100.  Again, no changes were made to the box artwork.  The actual release date is probably the mid to late 1960s.  This was the last issue with the Jo Kotula box artwork.  Sometimes the plastic is gloss black like the first and second issues; sometimes you may find a more semi-gloss or matt black.

 In the late 1960s, Aurora realized that something had to be done to improve kit sales.  More and more model builders were demanding accuracy.  New kits, such as the Cheyenne helicopter and Boeing PGH-2 Tucumcari Hydrofoil, were greatly improved over older offerings.  Slower kit sales in the early 1970s made tooling investment even more critical, so Aurora chose to do upgrade existing tooling to some of the most popular kits – including the World War I fighters.   In general, the rework added fabric texture, removed some raised insignia and data markings and included better instructions with rigging diagrams.   Somehow, the Sopwith Triplane escaped this upgrade with the exception of the instructions – possibly because it was already a much better kit than the original WWI models from the 1950s.

 1972 saw this kit made by Aurora but marketed by subsidiary K&B as the “Collector’s Series.”  This model also included the vacuformed ‘Battle Terrain Base’ as well as the pilot and mechanic figures.  The injection molded ground based was dropped for this release.  Ironically, the price suffix returned to the part number with this release.  Plastic color is usually tan and black, with a dark brown terrain base.  Please aware that the terrain base has shown up in other colors as well.


1100-170 Aurora K&B issue from 1972 


The final issue was the same kit with the same box art but with the ‘new’ Aurora logo, new price suffix and other minor box changes


1100-200 Triplane 


A few years later, around 1975/76,  Aurora released many of the WWI kits one final time, and all of them with upgraded molds.  This time the terrain base was dropped and the box showed a color photo of completed model to emphasize accuracy.  These kits were the 700 series part numbers.  At this time I cannot find evidence that the Sopwith Triplane was ever released in this group.

Some Aurora collectors believe that when Aurora sold the molds to Monogram in 1977, the Tripe was one of the kits damaged beyond salvage in the infamous train wreck.  It must be noted, however, that truly reliable information about what molds were damaged has been hard to come by.


Opening the hanger

Today there are modern injection molded 1/48 Sopwith Triplanes available.  Regardless, a quick spin around the net shows that kit can be built into a good looking model, while others enjoy it in the ‘Classic Build‘ style.  The glossy black plastic of the first three issues is most desirable for that.  This review is of a 1972 K&B ‘square box’ issue.

Inside are instructions, decals and 28 parts injection molded in two colors, tan and maroon.  One piece is an identification button imprinted with “SOPWITH TRIPLANE GREAT BRITAIN.”  Molding is good with minimal flash, permissible mold seam lines and no sink holes.  Typical of the era, however, are several visible ejector marks on the top of the bottom wings and wing struts.

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Aircraft only parts overview (click any to enlarge) 


Strangely, Aurora tooled the fuselage with the cowling attached.  Struts and piping and trailing edges are too thick.  Figure detail is better than previous offerings, yet still soft.  The climbing pilot has a small sink hole in his belt while both have ejector circles.  Aurora originally included an injection molded base in the original kit to pose the model and figures upon.  This K&B box includes the much larger vacuform base.

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Crew members (click either to enlarge)


Test fitting reveals fair fit.  Filler will be necessary along the fuselage.  Where the cabanes and interstruts mate into the airframe will also require care.

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Fuselage Fit and Aurora engraving inside (click either to enlarge) 


As was the fashion of the era, sadly all insignia are molded onto the wings and rudder with raised lines.  Although the lines are finer than the 1950s Famous Fighters, removing it is a horrible exercise at best even on flat surfaces!

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Insignia Lines (click either to enlarge) 


Aurora was one of – if not the – first American manufacture to make plastic models to a standard size.  This 1/48 model scales closely to the real aircraft.

The 130 hp Clerget rotary engine detail is improved over previous Famous Fighters models.  The .303 Vickers machine gun is inaccurate yet has more detail than previous Aurora guns.

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Clerget and Machine Gun (click either to enlarge)


The cockpit is token: floor, seat with faux cushion texture, stick and instrument panel.  No seated pilot is included to block seeing into the maw of the fuselage. Surface detail includes fine raised lines representing access hatches, stitching, control horns, control wire ports and – Ugh! – aileron/elevator/rudder gaps!

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Cockpit seat, stick & instrument panel and wing detail (click to enlarge) 


Instructions, Decals and Painting Guide 

The instructions trumpet “K&8 MANUFACTURING Division of Aurora Products Corp. 12152 S. WOODRUFF AVE, DOWNEY, CALF, 90241.”  K&B did a great job with the instructions, which unfold into a long narrow paper with a detailed multi-step assembly sequence for the 28 parts.  Line art illustrates everything with all parts are identified.  Painting guidance for 10 colors is shown on a 4-view drawing.  Finally, Aurora included a basic diagram for rigging!

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Instructions (click any to enlarge)


Decals include four roundels with separate red dots, rudder stripes and serial number 5492 for Black Maria, Squadron Commander Collishaw’s mount.  I defer to the Great War pros as to whether the blue and white of the roundels are correct.


Kit decals (click to enlarge) 


Another great circuit around memory-pattern!  Even today this kit is sought for building and collecting.  Some collectors enjoy building the kit as they did in the 1960s – straight from the box.  Those who wish to build it to current standards will find it ripe for detailing.  No doubt you can make a respectable model with it, as evidenced by the many examples online.  However, I would only buy and build one for nostalgia.


“Facts About The Sopwith Triplane”

(with Aurora / K&B Spelling and punctuation)

Manufactured by the Sopwith Aviation Co., Ltd., King-ston-on-Thames, Surrey, the Sopwith Triplane was a single-seat scout with a novel layout and contrary to popular belief that the Germans first developed the triplane. Great Britain used it many months before the Fokker Triplane Dr. 1 appeared. Unique and peculiar to World War I, the Triplane type has not been revived on a production basis since. The Triplane was based on the theory that if a plane had an increased wing area and decreased span, perhaps manoeuvrability and climb would improve. Great Britain’s Sopwith Triplane performed so very successfully that Germany induced Anthony Fokker to build the type and with the Tripiane principle in mind, he built his famous Fokker Triplane.

Many experimental versions of the Sopwith Triplane were built, such as one with a 150 hp Hispano-Suiza eight-cylinder Vee engine and another known as the Sopwith Snark with radial motor, however, the production models were powered by one 130 hp Clerget rotary motor. Although Sopwith Tripiane was produced in 1916 for the R.F.C., this service preferred the new Spad S.7 used by the R.N.A.S. and strangely enough the R.N.A.S. offered to exchange their Spads for the R.F.C. Triplanes and the odd transaction took place. The Triplanes performed beautifully in the hands of the naval pilots during the Battle of Messines and all through the summer of 1917 in Squadrons No. 1 (Naval), 8 (Naval), 9 (Naval), and 10 (Naval)(Western Front) .1 Wing R.N.A.S. ‘Naval Ten’ contained the famous “B” (Black) Flight under Squadron Commander R. Collishaw which dispatched 87 enemy aircraft in a little over four months. The five Triplanes in the “B” Flight were painted completely black except for the rudder stripes and cockades. Inscribed on each was its name. Cmdr. Collishaw’s was the ‘-Black Maria”, the others “Black Sheep”, “Black Prince” and “Black Roger”, and “Black Death”.

The Sopwith Triplanes had replaced Pips, Strutters and Nieuports, in the R.N.A.S. and pilots liked them so well they were reluctant to replace them with the new Bentley Camels when the time came.

Wings, fuselage and tail unit were wooden construction, fabric covered and wire-braced. The undercarriage was of steel tubular ‘vees’ with rubber cord shock-absorbers. Dimensions were listed as span 26′ 7″, length 18′ 10″, height 9′ 9″, chord 3′ 3″, gap 3′ 0″, stagger 1′ 6″, dihedral 254<>f incidence 2°, and track 5’6″, wing area 257 sq. ft.

Empty weight 993 Ib. loaded 1,415 Ib., military load 238 Ib., fuel and oil 184 Ib. Armament consisted of a single, synchronised fixed Vickers machine-gun mounted on the cowling in front of the pilot. Maximum speed was 116 mph at 6,500 ft., 114 mph at 10,000 ft., and 106 mph at 15,000 ft. Time-to-climb was 6.3 minutes to 6,500 ft., 10.5 minutes to 10,000 ft., and 19 minutes to 15,000 ft. Endurance was 2 hours 15 minutes and the service ceiling was 20,500 ft.


Bill Shatzer. World War I Modeling Page. Aurora Kits Aurora kits (ETYWTKBWATA!). [Web.] n.d.

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