On Feb. 2, 2013, under the smiling gazes of then-Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, the Qaher 313 Conqueror — Iran’s newest, most advanced fighter plane — was revealed to members of the world media.

Parked in a hanger remarkably similar to the one seen in videos of the U.S. stealth drone Iran captured in 2011, the sleek, single-engine, single-seat aircraft, sporting rather non-stealthy front canards and anhedral wingtips and a conventionally ominous matte-grack paint job, seemed … well, not right.

Experts soon cast doubt on Iran’s supposed new warplane. Video footage of a “test flight” revealed an aircraft possessed of either appalling flightworthiness or diminutive size. While the Qaher 313 is clearly a small combat jet, the video appears to show a buzzard-sized vehicle.

More troublesome was an official photo, purportedly from a chase plane, of the Conqueror in flight over snowcapped Iranian mountains. Professional and armchair photo-interpreters immediately denounced the picture as a crude forgery.

Technical specifications provided at the roll-out claimed the Conqueror could carry two 2,000-pound bombs or at least six air-to-air missiles. Whether of American, Russian or Chinese derivation such weapons are not small, and the Conqueror is stature-challenged.

So if Iran’s stealth fighter has any substance at all, how would it all go together?

In quest of answers we turned to an old-school form of study: model-making. The acts of carefully prepping, assembling, painting and finishing a scale model activate different neural pathways and learning channels — visual, cognitive, manual, practical.

When you hold a piece of finely-molded resin as you carefully sand away the casting flash, your hands grasp the object’s shape in a far more comprehensive manner than when staring at a rotating cartoon on a glowing screen.

Fantastic Plastic recently released a limited-edition model kit of the Qaher 313. Enthusiast Allen Ury maintains the company Website full of historic and current scale model kits about unusual aerospace vehicles, many of them built by Ury himself.

Organized into historical galleries and searchable by subject, Fantastic Plastic’s “Virtual Museum” showcases a long daydream of World War II wonder weapons, X-planes, fictional and never-built spaceships and real spacecraft.

Fantastic Plastic also runs what used to be called a “garage-kit” store specializing in special-interest aerospace subjects; other vendors in this arena include Unicraft, Sharkit and Anigrand Craftswork.

Made of cast resin in small batches instead of injection-molded styrene plastic, and boxed with photo-etched brass parts, vacuformed clear canopies and custom decals, these kits well reward the experienced model builder.

The Conqueror is a perfect subject for a resin kit: interesting, exotic, a cute story, but not interesting enough to warrant making 100,000 or even 1,000 kits. A hundred kits, however, sold by a successful Website and now you’re making something, even from nothing.

Fantastic Plastic’s Conqueror kit. Steve Weintz photo

Dissecting the Conqueror

“Iran attempted to make a public splash with the unveiling of the ‘prototype,’” said Alfred Wong, the seasoned pattern-maker who made the master for the Qaher 313 kit. “Plenty of photos, and a blurry video of it supposedly flying.”

“These sources actually worked against their PR campaign since anyone who knows anything about aeronautics quickly identified the prototype as a simple mock-up; way too many things that are just implausible or plain silly. The video was clearly a radio-controlled model, as you can tell by its behavior.”

“When I was examining the photos of the prototype/mock-up I guessed that they actually cut up an old MiG-17’s wings for it—the wings have a very distinctive plan shape,” Wong added. “So for the pattern I bought a 1:72[-scale] MiG-17 and cut up the wings in the same manner—and it was indeed a perfect match! There would be no way that a clearly ‘50s-vintage wing shape would work on a modern design.”

For me, building the kit was straightforward but required focus. At 1:72 scale—one inch equals six feet—its parts and details are pretty small. The pleasant ease with which resin, putty, glue and paint can be used belies their unfortunate hazmat nature; modelers are advised to take appropriate precautions: gloves, mask, ventilation, proper disposal.

I soaked the parts overnight in a little water and dish soap to remove the mold-release agent and dipped the vacuformed canopy in a clear acrylic floor wax to clarify and protect it. Casting imperfections and parts misfits were addressed, sparingly, with modeler’s putty and sandpaper; once I had shaped and checked the parts for fit I assembled them using cyanoacrylate, or “super glue.”

After assembly I gave the model a last smoothing, freshening its engraved panel lines with a tool and spraying its surface with an ordinary gray primer. I painted the kit using liquid and aerosol modeling paints; I applied the many tiny, custom-printed decals by JBOT using Microscale’s decal products.

The practice of filing, filling and sanding then carefully aligning and assembling the parts intimately acquaints one’s mind with the object’s form and structure. The hands quickly confirmed what the eyes and mind objected to: this is a damned small airplane. Implausibly small.

Steve Weintz photo

Tiny fighter

For help I enlisted noted expert David Cenciotti of the distinguished blog The Aviationist. After examining our model and the specs of the Qaher 313, he practically snorted in derision.

“The general shape of the plane is interesting,” Cenciotti said, “probably the result of many inputs including the X-32, the X-36, the Boeing Bird of Prey. Still, wings with the outer section canted downward seem to be a bit too little to sustain the weight of the aircraft with or without bombs.”

“The aircraft sports fixed canards and air intakes a bit too small to feed a modern jet plane’s engine; air intakes resemble those used by modern [unmanned aircraft] designs,” Cenciotti added. “They are located above the wing meaning that at high AoA — angle of attack—the intakes would get turbulent or no air at all for the engine.”

“The size of the plane is weird,” he confirmed. “The cockpit seems to be too small, to such an extent a normal pilot doesn’t properly fit in the ejection seat. Have you ever seen a pilot with his knees above the side borders of the cockpit and his helmet well beyond the ejection seat’s head pad?”

Although the Spartan cockpit is just vaguely sketched in, the miniscule pilot figure is missing his lower legs. “The [cockpit’s] front panel lacks the typical wiring, while it features few instruments of a type you expect to find on small private planes,” Cenciotti said. “Some readers have noticed the airspeed indicator is limited to 300 miles per hour.”

The jet engine’s exhaust duct is so small I almost mistook it for a tire. “The engine exhaust is missing any kind of nozzle,” Cenciotti commented. “The use of afterburner—or, simply, the engine temperature—would possibly melt the entire structure of the jet.”

“Overall the plane seems to lack the characteristic rivets, bolts that all aircraft including stealthy ones feature. Images released so far show it as a plastic-made aircraft — that’s why the model is so realistic!”

Steve Weintz photo

Orphan bomb

Two Hasegawa kits provided the 1:72-scale missiles and bombs for properly arming the Fantastic Plastic Conquerer. Modern stealth fighters have internal weapons bays, but the diminutive Qaher 313 doesn’t seem to have a bay AT ALL. There’s very little room beneath those artfully cantilevered wings … where to mount the hardpoints?

I solved the problem by mounting one one-ton bomb on a ventral hardpoint between the landing gear, and the second one-ton bomb on a dorsal hardpoint between the intakes and tail empennage. That’s right: on top of the airplane.

I mean, where else could I put it?

Only truly special warriors could use such special weapons. Conqueror pilots would presumably be selected from among the elite of Iran’s air services. Months, perhaps years of practice, training for the moment when — with great Persian elán — the pilot executes a daring barrel roll over the target to release his ordnance …

A very small bird in the hand is hardly worth two fantasies in the bush. Iran’s fake plane makes a pretty good model kit, but not a credible military threat.

When Iran’s leaders engage in such farcical performances, it’s hard to know what to make of their more ominous threats to close the Strait of Hormuz or to wipe Israel off the map.

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