Airfix 1/24 Wallis WA-116 Agile Autogyro: “Little Nellie”

Airfix Little Nellie kitThis kit was first released fifty years ago. It’s a model of a real aircraft, the Wallis WA-116 Agile autogyro, designed by Ken Wallis and built in extremely limited numbers (five!) in 1962. It achieved fame because one aircraft, G-ARZB, was kitted out with some splendid yellow-and-silver livery and simulated weapons for the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice.

Wallis’s great innovation was to build an autogyro that was stable “hands off”—he used to make demonstration flights while waving his hands and feet around.

Ken Wallis hands off flypast

But I doubt if even Wallis could fly hands-off while simultaneously firing guns, rockets and flamethrowers, as Sean Connery is depicted doing in the risible box art.

The original 1967 kit had a rather more sedate illustration (“One weapon at a time, Bond!”):

1967 Box Art for Airfix Little Nellie

But when it was reissued in the 1990s (the version I have), the kit had lost a couple of springs (of which more later) and had acquired its mad artwork from one of the original movie posters.

Movie poster, You Only Live TwiceThe kit lets you build one of two versions of the WA-116—either a drab and basic Army Air Corps test version, or the brightly coloured and heavily armed movie version, code-named “Little Nellie”. Of all the kits sold, I wonder how many ended up in Army Air Corps livery. I’m guessing that figure is very close to zero. Little Nellie is pretty much the whole object of the exercise.

If you want a look at what I’m aiming to reproduce, you can have a walk-round of the aircraft with Major Boothroyd, followed by a brief test flight, in this clip from the film:

So. The first thing to say about this kit is that, by modern standards, it’s not a great tooling. A lot of flash to be trimmed, a lot of ejector-pin marks and sink holes in awkward places, and some parts that don’t really fit together very well. The second thing to say is that the order of assembly seems to have been designed to thwart anyone aiming to get a smooth paint finish. The fuel tank, in particular, clips on in two halves around a previously assembled central mast, which would make it hard to eliminate a visible seam between the two halves. So I free-styled the assembly order a little.

Dry assembled Little Nellie fuel tank
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Here’s what I did with the fuel tank. I dry-assembled the rotor mast, put a big wodge of epoxy inside one of the tank halves, then dry-assembled the tank on to the mast and taped it in place until the epoxy dried. Then I disassembled the mast again, leaving me with one section of the mast entirely embedded inside the fuel tank so that I could assemble, fill, sand and paint the tank before adding it to the mast assembly.

Little Nellie fuel tank after dry assembly
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I also needed to do something about the forward weapons pods. In the original kit, these were provided with little spring-loaded rockets that could be shot halfway across the room in a satisfying sort of way, although bearing no resemblance to the weapons depicted in the film. The re-issued kit omits the springs, producing a final effect that is both unrealistic and functionless. So I put together some replacement pods using quarter-inch styrene tube and sheet, married to the original supports from the kit parts.

1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" kit weapons pod
Original
Little Nellie kit custom pod
Replacement

And I lifted an image from a photograph of the original pods to make myself a pair of custom decals for the front of my replacement pods, depicting the weapons cluster in detail that was too fine for me to model convincingly.Little Nellie rockets decalNow, I’m used to having a few pre-painted bits and pieces of a kit sitting in a pot waiting to be added to the overall assembly. What’s striking about this kit, though, (especially in the order I built it) is that it consists almost entirely of pre-painted bits and pieces. I had to get some bigger pots.

1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" painted parts
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The basic skeleton of the aircraft is a horizontal strut with the tail at one end and the rudder pedals at the other.

1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" basic frame
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Once I got that painted up and decalled, I was able to close the front fairing around it. Once in place, this needed a lot of filling and sanding, and some work on the holes through which the guns protrude, to create the individual fairings visible in the film. But all this work was made a lot easier by not having the mast assembly and fuel tank in place, which is what the assembly instructions required.

Painting the front fairing is a challenge. The scheme is yellow above and silver below, separated by a tapered black and white stripe that also forms a ring around the nose. The stripes are supplied on the decal sheet, with the nose ring in two halves that need to be married together quite precisely. So the position of the decal is critical, and it in turn determines the extent of the areas to be painted, above and below the stripe. While it’s possible to simply make an approximate paint margin and obscure this by applying the decal on top of it, the yellow paint will shine through the semi-transparent white part of the decal—I’ve seen photographs of various builds of this kit in which the yellow paintwork shows through as an irregular discolouration of the white stripes.

After I bit of pondering, I scanned the decal sheet and printed it out on plain paper. Then I cut out the shape of the stripes, and glued them to some masking tape.

Creating paint masks for 1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie"
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Then I cut out the masking tape in the shape of the stripes, and applied it to model. The copy didn’t need to be precise (and you can see from my photo that it wasn’t!)—it just needed to be good enough to establish the position the decal was going to occupy eventually. The decal stripe has a one-millimetre black edge that obscures any minor deviations in the paint line.

1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" paint mask
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By wedging the rear of the front fairing slightly apart with a length of toothpick (visible in the photo), I was also able to drop in my assembled fuel tank to make sure its stripes and paintwork aligned properly with the fairing stripes and paintwork, and then lift it out again for ease of painting.

After painting, I peeled off the masking tape and simply slide the decals up to the edge of the yellow paint, getting a perfect position very quickly—which is always handy when you’re fiddling about with elderly decals. The nose rings needed some radial slits so that they settled smoothly on to the curve of the nose without wrinkling. And the central black disc within the nose rings needs to be painted. I couldn’t see a good way to mask that on a very curved surface, so I did it by hand, carefully following the edge of the inner white ring of the decals.

Then I opened the rear of the front fairing again and slipped the painted fuel tank into its final position, laying on its decals so that they aligned with the existing stripes. And I also added the painted and decalled front weapons pods. So at this stage I had an exotic-looking yellow-and-silver object, resembling some sort of strange wasp.

1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" basic paint job
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In the photo, you can see a couple of cables, made from stretched sprue, which I added before I closed the fairing. These are going to be the rudder cables on the final aircraft, but for the time being their aft ends are secured to the tail with a little masking tape.

Now I just had to add all the parts that the instructions had wanted me to add much earlier. The main mast assembly, complete with engine, slotted easily into the top of my pre-prepared fuel tank. The twin pitch/roll rotor control rods can be slipped into their locating holes next to the control column and then pivoted into position (That is, so long  as they’ve been test-fitted and the holes enlarged to provide a slightly loose fit before the fairing is closed in place!)

1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" basic assembly
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The kit comes with a pilot figure, but since I wanted to build the model with the rotor supports in place, the pilot just looked daft sitting in an aircraft that was obviously not ready to fly, so I omitted him. Without a pilot, the real aircraft sits on its small rear wheel, and only tips forward on to its tricycle undercarriage when the pilot climbs aboard (you can see this happening in the video clip I included above). However, as the kit assembly proceeded the model showed more and more of a tendency to sit on its front wheel, with or without pilot. There aren’t many places to include some extra weight around the tail, but I slipped some short sections of 2mm brass rod into the hollow tubes of the rear flamethrowers, and that was just enough to give the completed model a realistic tail-down posture.

1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" flamethrower tail weights
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Once all the kit parts were in place, I added rudder actuator levers and attached the rudder control wires, as well as putting in some of the more obvious other cable runs—to the brakes and to the rotor spin-up drive. Along the way, I’d also added some other small details—a seat cushion and lap belt, spark-plug leads, and a support arm for the rotor spin-up drive. The final detail was the pitot tube in the nose, made from 1mm brass rod, with a little vertical 0.5mm support for a low-tech “drift indicator”. In the real aircraft this was a tuft of wool—I added it using a tiny splotch of epoxy which I stretched into a delicate little thread and painted red after it had dried.

Here’s the final product, looking almost disturbingly bright and clean compared to the care-worn Second World War fighters I’ve been building recently:

1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" 1
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1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" 2
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1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" 3
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1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" 4
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1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" 5
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1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" 6
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1/24 Airfix "Little Nellie" 7
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