Reconnaissance Aircraft Model Display at Seattle’s Museum of Flight


Just South of Seattle is King County International Airport better known as historic Boeing Field. In addition to the Boeing company, Boeing Field is the home of many aviation-related companies including the Museum of Flight: Seattle’s internationally renowned aviation museum.

Based out of the Museum of Flight is the NorthWest Scale Modelers club (NWSM), an informal scale-modeling organization that maintains a themed display at the entrance to the “Wings Café”: the museums glass-walled restaurant affording diners a great view of the airports active runway.

The theme of the current display, Reconnaissance Aircraft, contains models of aircraft from WWI to the current day that have been used, in some way, to gain information on those we deem to be our foes.

It’s an eclectic collection of some very nice models all built by NWSM members. On their behalf, we hope you enjoy our work.

(Editors Note: I want to extend my appreciation to all the members of the NorthWest Scale Modelers club for their willingness to share their enthusiasm and work. Thanks!)

Aerial Reconnaissance: A Brief History

M. Girling

The Early Years:

Tethered observation balloons, introduced in the US Civil war raised an observer thousands of feet up where they would report on troop movements and provide artillery spotting by dropping reports tied to weights. This was later improved to telegraphing the information down the winch line.


Aircraft, being small, fast and mobile could range beyond the front. At first, they relied upon dropping hand-written observations like their forebears. Photography soon advanced to the point where photos could be taken from moving aircraft; first on glass plates, later on celluloid film. Observations no longer relied on a keen eye and the ability to write whilst flying. Instead, people trained in interpreting and analyzing photos did so in comparative leisure on the ground.

While photographic analysis greatly improved the intelligence game, it didn’t provide it in real time. To effectively direct artillery barrages, the wireless transmitter had to be miniaturized to fit in an aircraft to provide what we now call “real time command and control.”

Inter-War and WWII:

The years between WWI and WWII saw few new reconnaissance aircraft designs. Great strides in aircraft, optics, high-speed and fine-grained films, and stereo photography, however, paved the way for intensive photo-reconnaissance in WWII. While the Allies had an extensive and well-staffed photo-reconnaissance (PR) effort, the Axis seemed to pursue it only half-heartedly.

While the technology leapt ahead, the process itself was largely unchanged from the Great War: send a plane out to take photos, process and analyze the images upon return and plan the next battle. Photo “birds” were adapted from fast fighters or bombers, stripped of guns to save weight and allow for more fuel. Height and range were the sought-after parameters, and for the pilots, the ability to look like a normal armed aircraft helped ensure their mission ended at home and not in a POW camp.

Eyes of the Fleet:

Fleet reconnaissance started with the German navy using scouting Zeppelins. The British used a mixture of blimps and floatplanes. Until the Korean War, though, the role of fleet or maritime reconnaissance was simply to search for the other fleet and report its position and heading. Photography was usually hand-held, for the purpose of confirming the sighting, should the aircraft manage to return.

More recently, carrier-born reconnaissance has been used like land-based reconnaissance. Long-range maritime reconnaissance has concentrated on shadowing fleets and submarines, and monitoring smugglers and polluters.

The Cold War:

During this period recon aircraft shifted from minor adaptations to purpose-built variants or entire aircraft. The Cold War also introduced in-flight photo processing, electronic imagery, side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), and electronic/signals intelligence (ELINT/SIGINT. It also introduced the space race, creating the first spy satellites.

To improve operational flexibility in the face of the rising costs of new aircraft, the last days of the Cold war introduced reconnaissance ”pods” which replaced the centerline drop tank. Fighters could be switched to/from reconnaissance mission-by-mission.


As electronics and satellite communication advanced, progressively more reconnaissance is done remotely via satellites and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), colloquially called “drones”, some of which can stay aloft for days. It has also blurred the distinction between reconnaissance and real-time command-and control, coming full circle to the WWI days of artillery spotting from linen-winged biplanes.

Operational Use:

During WWII, the RAF changed the way aerial reconnaissance was done. For most countries, aerial reconnaissance still meant taking a picture, looking at the picture, and moving on. But the RAF developed a new way of utilizing the photographs which gave them better insight and more information than others would extract.

The photographs went through a three phase analytical process. Phase one, done immediately after the photos were taken, was tactical. The photos were analyzed for immediate threats; troop and materiel movement, new development, and the reports and prints were sent on to operational squadrons for mission planning.

Phase two involved an examination of the photos for significant changes since the last time the area was photographed. The RAF endeavored to re-photograph every square mile of Europe several times each year. Analysts familiar with specific regions would compare pictures over time and look for changes.

The third and phase involved having special teams of analysts look over the photos for “unusual” objects, landmarks or other attributes. It was this phase of analysis that gave the RAF advance warning that the Germans were working on new, advanced weapons such as the V-2, Me-163, and Me-262.

Models Built by the NorthWest Scale Modelers

All models are 1/72 scale except where indicated.


Caudron G.4       1915-1917:  Typical of the early multi-engined pusher aircraft, the gunner had an unobstructed view at the nose of the aircraft. This was also an unexcelled position for a camera, such as this 180 cm box camera. Modeler: M. Girling











Lloyd C.V    1917-1924:  The Austro-Hungarian C.V “Kikeriki” (Cock-a-doodle-do) is a typical two-seat reconnaissance aircraft of WWI. Modeler: S. Dickinson



Royal Aircraft Factory RE.8    1916-1918  Tricky to fly and regarded as unsafe by the Royal Flying Corps, the “Harry Tate” was nonetheless the backbone of the Royal Flying Corps’ reconnaissance in the latter half of the war. Modeler: J. Matthews








LFG Roland C.II Walfisch       1916-1918  The Whale’s lightweight formed plywood fuselage and advanced aerodynamics made for a high altitude, high-speed reconnaissance platform. It’s lack of downward visibility made it vulnerable to attack from below, so it usually flew with a fighter escort. Modeler: J. Matthews








Lockheed 12A Electra Junior 1936:  Sidney Cotton used this and one other L12A for covert reconnaissance of Germany between the wars. Sliding panels concealed the cameras when the plane was on the ground, and the cameras could be surreptitious triggered. Modeler: J. Newcome








Bloch MB.174      1939-1942:  The best French reconnaissance aircraft at the start of WWII had the speed and maneuverability to evade German fighters. Shown here is the one flown by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as described in “Flight to Arras”. Modeler: A. Bertschi








Supermarine Spitfire FR Mk.IX        1940-c.1955:  The RAF found that “Camotint Pink” blended in with the haze at low level and became the standard finish for low-altitude photo aircraft. This Spitfire was used for “Dicer” missions (armed treetop close-in oblique photography). Modeler: J. Bates








Petlyakov Pe-2R           1941-1952:  One of the best ground attack aircraft of WWII, the Pe-2 also proved to be a good reconnaissance platform, used by the Soviet Union, and Finland (flying captured Pe-2Rs). Modeler: B. Peterson








DeHavilland Mosquito PR Mk.IV      1942-c.1950:  Named the “Wooden Wonder” due to its plywood construction, the fast and versatile “Mossie” was uncatchable, making it a natural high altitude reconnaissance mount. (The USAAF operated the Mosquito as the F-8 for photo and weather reconnaissance.) Modeler: J. Bates.








North American F-6D    1942-1951:  The P-51 Mustang was adapted for photo-reconnaissance as the F-6, starting with the P-51B (F-6B) in early WWII. Shown here is a late-model F-6D, which served in the Korean War. Modeler: B. Hill








Arado Ar.234 B-1 Blitz  1944-1945:   The first operational jet reconnaissance/bomber aircraft, the Bltz was too fast to intercept. It was also flew the first Luftwaffe reconnaissance mission over England. Modeler: M. Girling








Supermarine Spitfire PR Mk.XIX      1944-1954:   This RR Griffon-powered “Spit” was the last and most successful Spitfire PR, with 3.5 times the range of the original Spitfire and the pressurized cockpit of the Mk.X. This model represents the high-altitude version in standard PRU blue. Modeler: J. Newcome








F7U-3P Cutlass   1950’s:   This photo-recon adaptation of the F7U Cutlass suffered from the same difficulties with their engines as their fighter progenitor. Only 12 were built. Never operational, these were used only for research and evaluation. Modeler: N. Makar








Republic RF-84F Thunderflash          1952-1972:   A purpose built variant of the F-84 Thunderstreak moved the intake to the wing root to allow for a photo-nose and a retractable downward-facing periscope for aiming. This French example is from St. Exupery’s squadron. Modeler: M. Girling








Tupolev Tu-142 “Bear” 1956-present:   The Tu-95 was the USSR’s primary long-range nuclear bomber. The Tu-142 variants serve the long-range maritime reconnaissance role but retain some air-to-surface offensive weaponry. The Indian Air Force acquired eight in 1986, as marked on this model. Modeler: S. Kruize        Scale: 1:100








North American RA-5C Vigilante     1958-1979:   Designed as the Navy’s supersonic nuclear bomber, the “Vigi” served primarily in the reconnaissance role. The under-belly “canoe” carries the cameras and in-flight film development gear, so photos are ready for interpretation upon landing. Modeler: B. Hill










Discoverer/Corona       1959-1972:   The Thor Agena B was the launch vehicle for America’s first generation of spy satellites. Exposed film was returned in re-entry “buckets” and recovered mid-air by USAF C-119s and C-130s off of Hawaii. Modeler: T. Nelson       Scale: 1:144






Grumman OV-1B Mohawk     1959-1996:   Deployed in the Vietnam War, the Mohawk introduced digital sensing and Side Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) to the battlefield in addition to conventional and infrared photography. Modeler: W. Perry



Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21RF  1965-present:  This MiG demonstrates a common late cold-war device: the reconnaissance pod. Replacing the centerline drop tank, it allows any fighter to be quickly converted to reconnaissance on a per-mission basis. Modeler: B. Peterson








Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird     1966-1998:   Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” iconic aircraft, the Mach 3.3+ Blackbird was faster and higher than any countermeasure, and was retired long after spy satellites had taken over US strategic reconnaissance. Modeler: J. Miller








Lockheed D-21    1969-1971:   This autonomous drone was carried on the back of the SR-71 (M-21) for deep penetration reconnaissance into enemy territory. Dangerous to launch but especially useful for surveilling politically sensitive areas. Modeler: C. McLaren








Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-25RBT           1970-present:   Designed to intercept the XB-70 Valkyrie, the MiG-25 saw extended service as a Mach 3.2 reconnaissance aircraft with Russia and several client states. Modeler: M. Girling








Myasishchev M-17 Stratosphera    1982-present:   Starting as a Skyhook balloon interceptor, the M-17 became an ultra high-altitude reconnaissance platform when Project Skyhook was succeeded by the SR-71 and the Keyhole spy satellites of the Corona program. Modeler: J. Miller








AAI RQ-7B Shadow      2002-present:   Typical of today’s tactical reconnaissance drones, the RQ-7 is catapulted off of a trailer and provides close-in surveillance via its camera turret on the underside. Used by the US, Australia, Italy, Romania and Sweden. Modeler: N. Makar









I hope you enjoyed that 🙂

Now go paint something!