Personalize Your Pilot

Meet Wilhelm. He looks right at home in my Fokker, doesn’t he? He didn’t look like this at the hobby shop; he looked like a plastic dummy. He definitely needed some "fixing up" to be suitable for a WW I aircraft. An airplane making a low pass looks totally unrealistic if there isn’t a pilot figure in the cockpit; the whole illusion is spoiled. Sure, adding a pilot figure is one more thing to do, and because so many figures aren’t realistic, you may not think it’s worth the effort. But there is a way to fix that problem, and when it’s done well, it is both worthwhile and rewarding.

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This is a Williams Brothers pilot figure—they’ve been around for decades. They are inexpensive, lightweight and simple to finish: just glue the halves together and paint. They are much better looking than some of the things I’ve seen in airplanes. Some guys cut the heads off rubber bathtub toys or stuffed animals and stick them in the cockpit. Their creations are certainly unique, but there is another way.

For this application, I attached a block of foam to the bottom of the Williams figure because he wasn’t tall enough to see over the instrument panel. A block of balsa can be used for the same purpose. To prepare him for the next step in his transformation from William to Wilhelm, file or sand off the flashing around the plastic. Then shape the foam block and blend it with the plastic to form a “body.” Use some balsa filler and a couple of coats of epoxy or finishing resin to give the foam a smooth surface for sanding prior to painting.

The original pilot figure has a nose that would look cute on a teenage girl but is hardly suitable for a fighter pilot, so I built him a proboscis that a man could be proud of out of Epoxolite—a two-part epoxy putty made by Sig Mfg. Co. As it cures, it takes on the consistency of modeling clay and can be molded into just about any shape you can think of. He also had eyes that were shaped more like those in an Egyptian wall painting than any human’s I’ve ever seen. I added eyelids and some character lines at the outside corners. Epoxolite enables you to be as creative as you like. If you don’t get it quite right the first time, it can be carved, sanded, or filed into shape after it.

The transformation continues. The original figure has a smooth, heart-shaped face like you would expect to find on a nine-year-old—just not manly enough for a WW I pilot. Again I used Epoxolite to fill out the face and add a double chin (I figured that between missions these guys enjoyed a lot of schnitzel and beer!). Simply put an approximate amount of putty on the area that you want to change. After a few minutes of cure time, you can shape it with a wet finger or tool (any device you think is the right size and shape). I used toothpicks, Popsicle sticks, a small pocket-knife blade, a no. 11 hobby blade and a plastic coffee stirrer, but it is important to keep whichever tool you use wet as you shape the putty.

After I got his face and chin filled out, he just looked like a fat guy wearing a helmet with a tight chin strap—not macho enough to be a rugged fighter pilot. I decided an old-fashioned “soup-strainer” mustache would give the look I wanted. It was simple to make; I just rolled some Epoxolite on a piece of plastic sandwich wrap until I had something that looked like a long hot dog with pointed ends. I rolled it on plastic wrap because Epoxolite is very sticky stuff until it cures, but with the help of some water, you can get it off plastic. Then I just stuck it into place, positioned it with a wet toothpick and trimmed off the ends with a hobby knife. When the Epoxolite was nearly cured, I used a wet no. 11 knife blade to make “hair” lines.

The original figure was wearing a long collared shirt, like something you’d expect to see on Elvis in the 1960s. No pilot in his right mind would fly an open-cockpit airplane wearing an unbuttoned shirt with long collars—they would whip around in the wind and beat his face bloody. I built a nice, big, lamb’s wool collar that he could pull up around his face on those cold early-morning missions out of a few more globs of Epoxolite smoothed with a wet knife blade. Just before the putty became completely hard, I wrapped eight pins with tape and “prickled” the whole thing to simulate the texture of lamb’s wool. Compare this picture with step 1, and you can see how a little putty can add a lot of character to just another pretty face. William has now made the complete transformation to Wilhelm. A paint job is all that is needed to make him flight-ready.

PAINTING THE PILOT: A good paint job on a pilot figure can enhance the overall appearance of any airplane. On the other hand, it can also spoil an otherwise good-looking model. The first step is to get yourself the proper supplies; a few colors of paint and some brushes are all that you’ll need, and since hobby paints are available in very small containers, you don’t have to buy large quantities or spend big bucks. There are many brands to choose from in all sorts of pre-mixed colors. The largest selection can be found in hobby stores that sell plastic models. “Flat” paints (as opposed to “glossy” paints) are most useful for painting pilot figures because people and their clothes are not usually shiny, though you may want gloss paints for eyes or buttons. You’ll need a few small brushes as well; I used sizes 10/0, 5/0, 00 and some ordinary small brushes. Once you’ve stocked up, it’s time to start painting.

Apply the lightest colors first. Any overlap onto an unpainted area can later be covered with a darker color. To speed up the process, I apply two or three colors at a time. This works well as long as you have a dry spot to hold onto and the paints don’t touch each other when wet. I painted the eyes glossy white tinted slightly with black to achieve a very light gray. (Most people don’t have refrigerator-white eyeballs.) I painted the collar flat white tinted with a little flat yellow and flat brown to simulate the color of lamb’s wool.
More colors have been added to the figure. The face actually has four different shades of skin color. People’s faces are not all one color; cheeks and lips are redder, while the forehead and bridge of the nose appear lighter because of overhead light. First I applied the face color—a combination of flat white, flat red and flat yellow (the color in the center of the mixing dish). While the face was still wet, I added a small amount of white to get a lighter color for the bridge of the nose. Then, I mixed in a little extra red to get the cheek color (that color is in the upper right part of the mixing dish). Even more red was added to get the lip color at the bottom of the dish. The face paint doesn’t touch the scarf, so I was able to apply the orange color during this step also.

After the face paint dried, I added the mustache and eyebrows. Most pre-mixed brown colors are too dark or too reddish to make a realistic medium brown hair color. I lightened the flat brown with flat white for these features. Remember, facial hair is not usually glossy. If you want extra detail for hair, use two shades of color in separate applications; this will create a highlight effect. I also added irises for the eyes; this fellow has blue eyes. If you use light blue paint straight out of the bottle, your pilot will look like a Malamute, since most blue-eyed people really have gray-blue eyes. To get a realistic color, make a light gray by mixing gloss white and gloss black. Then mix the gloss blue until you have a subtle bluish-gray. The same technique can be used for toning down brown paint for brown eyes. When painting the iris of the eye, don’t make it a round ball. The eye’s iris is partially hidden by the eyelids. It appears almost flat on top and slightly flat on the bottom. Take a look in the mirror to see what I mean.

After the irises have dried, it’s time to add pupils using gloss black. The pupils are round and are positioned in the center of the iris. Wilhelm also needed eyelashes; he’d look strange without them. A thin brown line on the upper eyelid simulates eyelashes. I also added a small pink spot to the inside corner of each eye. The eyelashes, pupil and the corner spot really brighten up the eyes and make this plastic dummy look much more realistic. I also added the leather part of the helmet at this sitting. It is a mixture of flat black and flat brown to simulate old leather.

Here is Wilhelm, almost ready to go flying. I added the helmet and coat colors at different times because I needed a dry place to hold on to while I painted. While I was waiting for one color to dry, I painted the goggles. The coat is an olive color made by mixing flat brown and flat green. The helmet is glossy black because I wanted it to be shiny. If you look closely, you will notice that I added a small white dot to the upper corner of each iris. This simulates the light reflection that we usually see in people’s eyes.

One last note on paint: this type of hobby paint is not fuel-proof. If you intend to mount your pilot figure in an open cockpit, you should give the flat colors a coat of clear flat urethane and the glossy colors a coat of clear glossy urethane.

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