Carving a Pilot Figure from Pink Foam

By David Engleson of the Minnesota Radio Control Soaring Society

I carved a pilot figure for my 60” Leading Edge Gliders Spitfire and thought some of you might be interested in the process I followed. If you haven’t tried carving a pilot figure before, you will be surprised at how quickly they take shape. With a little practice you can crank one out. There are many different ways to carve pilot figures and there are many different materials you can use as well. I use this method with pink foam because I have lots of foam sitting around and it is easy to do. Here we go.

First I looked through a few of my books on the Battle of Britain and another on the RAF of World War II. Also looked through a number of images on-line including many flying helmets and goggles for sale on different web pages. I also found some good information from my The Battle of Britain DVD. Look around and see what you can find for your particular subject.

Next I made a few sketches of the figure to better define its shape and proportion and understand some of the finer details that were found in various pictures. I have found that the more you know about the subject the easier it is to draw and carve.

I then scanned the sketches into a graphic program and fussed around to get scale to fit the LEG Spitfire. A copier works just fine too. I found that the fuse of the Spitfire is roughly 1/9 scale. I then printed out the sketches at what appeared to be the correct scale. Make an extra copy if you can.

Next I affixed the sketches onto a block of pink foam using 3M-77 being careful to align them with each other.

I then used my band saw to cut out the rough figure. First cutting the front view, taping it back in place, and then carefully cutting the side profile. You will end up with a crude foam block figure and you are ready to start carving. BTW - Don’t let this step intimidate you. It’s only foam and if you mess up, just mount another set of images on another block of foam and get after it again. Foam is cheap and you haven’t invested any time yet. Watch your fingers.

The next step is to trial fit the figure in the model. It took a little trimming to fit him in and look good.

Next I used a felt tip pen to mark out a few of the more prominent features of the pilot on the foam including the ear bulges on the leather helmet, the goggles and the mask, the tie and scarf, and shirt collars.

After marking the features up I began carving with a #11 X-acto. First rounding off the poor blokes head and his ear bulges. Then moving to the face area, start to rough in the mask and goggles. For the most part, WW-II pilot figures are relatively easy to carve because their eyes, ears, hair, and mouth are typically covered up with goggles and helmet. You can do this.

Continue to refine each of the individual features adding more detail each time you make a pass. Some of the refinements might include making the necktie and collar, adding the belts for the parachute, and the straps for the mask. I continually look back at some of the better reference images and my sketches to help me along.

Then I looked around my junk drawer for small pieces and parts to help with the finer detailing. I sized and cut large zip ties to mimic the parachute straps on his shoulders and back. Finally get to use this junk I’ve been hording for 10 years…extra credit. During the trial fit I realized that the tie had made a nice impression in the soft foam and the ridges of the zip tie were in the foam. Done! No need to glue on the ties after all. Found a small disc like piece of plastic for the mask, and then took two pieces of wire to model the air and radio tube coming out to the front of the mask. This type of detailing really helps sell it and takes your pilot figure to the next level. Fun stuff.

Next I decided I wanted the pilot to be looking up and to one side so that when in a fly by on the slope, he can look at the guys on the hill. This is easier than it sounds. I grabbed a blade and cut off his head. The horror. I then put his torso in the cockpit for a trial fit and added his head, rotating it a little at a time until I found the angle I liked. Next I grabbed some five-minute epoxy and glued it in place. After a little trimming it was over.

At some point you will have “enough” detail in your pilot figure and it will be time to move on to the clean up and final sanding. For a small model, you may desire a simple pilot figure. If you have a large-scale ship with lots of detail, you might wish to take more time and have more detail in your pilot figure to match.

Next I started cleaning up the figure with the knife, small files, and sand paper. I didn’t get too picky with my pilot because it is so small.

At this point I started to look through my reference material for RAF uniform and equipment colors. There is a surprising amount of reference material out there.

I painted the entire figure with a latex paint that was somewhat close to the color of the R.A.F. uniform. For this step, the color is not all that important so any color will due. This first light coat of paint tends to show off all the blemishes and faults in your figure so don’t be worried. This is a good thing. Take the time to cut off stray bits and fill in unwanted divots with light weight spackle. If you find big problems with your pilot, this is the time to cut them off, glue on fresh chunks of foam and carve it up again. This is the beauty of working with foam.

Next I painted the uniform sleeves and collar with a grey blue acrylic paint, the Mae West with an orange-yellow acrylic, the helmet is a dark brown to simulate the leather, and on and on. The only special item was the goggles. I wanted them to be shiny and reflective like the real ones. After the initial light blue paint I followed up with a few shiny clear coats. It has the effect I was after.

Next, I added the very fine painting of buttons, and insignia, etc. You will be surprised at how little it will take to make it sing.

At this point I had had enough and the figure looked pretty good. I called it.

A few quick tips to help you along…

  1. Work quickly and don’t concentrate too long on one area or element because it seems to work best to bring along the detail level evenly on the entire figure rather than finishing individual pieces before moving onto the next.
  2. Work on one feature for a short time and then do the same feature on the other side of the figure while it is fresh in your mind.
  3. Always use a sharp X-acto and don’t be afraid to use small files and other tools. There really are no rules to what you can use.
  4. It also helps to add a little detail to the cockpit area such as a seat back, an armor plate, or whatever to help with the allusion. Maybe add a rear view mirror on the top of the canopy for the Spitfire. It all helps and is easy to do. I need to do that as well.

I hope this was helpful and you give it a try the next time you are working on a model with a clear canopy.

Good Luck