Come fly with me: real-world aircraft in the brick [Feature]

A couple of weeks ago, LEGO unveiled 10318 Concorde as the next Icons set. I’ve always admired Concorde, so I’m really excited about this one. In part because it looks gorgeous, but also because it falls into a nice small category of LEGO sets: those based on real planes! Aircraft have of course featured hundreds of times in LEGO sets of varying sizes. But the number based on actual, real-world aircraft is much smaller, which makes it more manageable for things like feature articles on LEGO fan blogs. So, with the help of TBB’s resident expert plane modeller Ralph Savelsberg, let’s take a look at LEGO’s affiliation with planes!

Now before we start, let’s establish some (completely arbitrary) rules. I’m going to use terms like aircraft and planes fairly loosely here, but to be clear, we’re talking about aeroplanes! So two wings, designed for atmospheric flight, and either propellor or jet-driven. This is partly to avoid talking about the many space shuttles. You could classify these as space-planes, but I’m a pedant, so I won’t! They’re just rockets with wings, anyway…

The space shuttle is also relevant for the next ‘rule’. For inclusion in this list, a given set must be explicitly based on a plane in the real world. So either the plane is referred to in the set name, or it’s clear from other source material what it’s meant to be. For example, loads of LEGO themes have their own craft which are clearly based on the space shuttle, but they’re not proper scale models of the space shuttle(s), so they don’t count. Essentially, it means we don’t have to spend time guessing what sets like 611 Air Canada Jet Plane are. (My money’s on a Boeing 737-200, if you were wondering.)

Image courtesy of Bricklink user Jan_K

Capiche? Good! Then let’s begin…

1970s: beginnings and early jet travel

The first aircraft that LEGO produced with plastic bricks was 311 Airplanes, way back in 1961. But it took until 1972 for LEGO to produce their first ‘real’ plane: 1550 Sterling Super Caravelle. It’s also the first instance of a long history of ties to airline carriers themselves, as opposed to aircraft manufacturers. (We’ll get to that in a bit.) As you might expect, the first carrier was a Danish one, Sterling Airways. They operated a fleet of Sud Aviation Caravelles from the mid-1960s. For aerophiles it’s not clear exactly which variant this is, since the design is aptly described by Ralph as “primitive”. Having said that, the Caravelle III was the best-selling model, so it’s probably safe to assume it’s this one.

Image courtesy of Bricklink user Jan_K

We can make the same assumption for 687 Caravelle Aeroplane released a year later – same set, different livery. Both use printed parts for the windows, just like the new Concorde set. The wing element was new for 1972, and it does make the planes juuuust about recognisable. This same element saw use in LEGO Town sets further down the line. So, basic they may be – but these sets laid some important foundations!

This template saw an update in 1974 with 1552 Sterling Boeing 727. The 727 was a very popular and very successful airliner, with the last ones only withdrawn from fare-paying service a few years ago. Two more of the models in this period are 727s: 1560 Lufthansa Boeing 727 in 1976, followed a year later by 698 Boeing 727. All three sets are identical in construction, if not in liveries.

The Boeings are a noticeable improvement on the earlier Caravelles. The models have round engines as opposed to the printed 1×4 block seen earlier; this part made its debut in 1974, and is still part of LEGO’s catalogue today. The wedge plate on the tail , but like the wing element, did see a revival in LEGO Town aircraft in the 1980s. The tail element is also unique to these three sets. Some people think LEGO make too many specialised pieces nowadays, but they were at it in the 70s too!

The other two sets from this period are slightly more unusual. In 1976, 455 Learjet hit the shelves. This is another basic model of – we think – a Learjet 35/36. It’s a private jet, done in a similar style and scale to its predecessors. 456 (0r 661 for our European readers) Spirit of St Louis is a big change of scale though. It depicts the craft which Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic ocean in 1927. It’s a decent (if blocky) interpretation of the pioneering aircraft, and really pops in its black and yellow colour scheme…

… But both Ralph and I have seen the original Spirit of St Louis in a museum in Washington DC, and it’s very much grey and not yellow! It’s a bit odd, as grey was already a well-established part of LEGO’s colour palette by this point. It also has a four-bladed propellor, instead of the more accurate two – a suitable part for which already existed! A correctly-coloured Spirit did get handed out at a LEGO brand store opening in New York in 2010, but that too had the wrong propellor on it. Obviously the old two-blade prop was no longer in production by this point, but darn you LEGO, it should have two!

1980s – 2000s: promotional tie-ins

After the Spirit of St Louis, real-life planes went a bit thin on the ground. In the air, though, you could still get your fix of real-world-airline-branded LEGO sets. The first of these was the aforementioned 1560 Lufthansa Boeing 727, which was only available for purchase on Lufthansa flights. But it’s after the invention of the minifigure that this type of set really took off. Airlines ranging from Emirates and Qantas to Air Canada and British Airways all had LEGO sets for sale mid-air at one point or another. I remember frequently trying to convince my parents to buy me a SWISS-branded version of 4032 Holiday Jet, for instance – to no avail, unfortunately…

4032 was a versatile set, with no fewer than 12 different carriers all getting their own set, plus a ‘LEGO Air’ version. You’ll notice that it bears the slogan “Specially made for Airline Companies” in the bottom right corner of the box. Most of the time, these sets did indeed feature their own designs with the relevant branding, but some mainline sets also got some alternative sticker sheets. City sets 7893 and 7894 both had versions made for Japanese airline All Nippon Airways (ANA). Still, only 1,000 units of each were made.

But if we’re being pedantic (and I certainly am), these sets are largely irrelevant in our quest to find models of real planes. The carriers that they represent are definitely real. But the planes themselves are just generic LEGO planes. Fine in and of themselves, but no good as scale models. Although they were subtly different to the more widely-released sets, some, especially the early System sets, are virtually identical. Here’s a selection of what you could buy, from a variety of short- and long-haul flights:

As a result, if you were a plane geek that wanted a LEGO model of one, you were stuck trying to find a handful of small and not very detailed sets released in the 1970s. Thankfully, though, LEGO did address this at the turn of the century. And in a big way!

2001 – present: bigger models and licensed themes

In 2001, we got the first scale model of a plane from LEGO in over three decades: 3451 Sopwith Camel. The Camel is unusual in a few respects, even within the context of this list. This was the first military plane to be depicted in an official LEGO set. In fact, as far as I can work out, it’s the first real military anything that LEGO made. While the LEGO Group wasn’t afraid of the concept of conflict in its sets, it had still shied away from producing actual military subjects. So in that respect, 3451 is something of a trailblazer. But perhaps most importantly, this is the set that brought our Ralph out of LEGO retirement. In his own words, “it’s the set that got me back into buying LEGO after a roughly 10-year hiatus”!

Ralph is very complimentary about 3451, with good reason. But it’s nothing compared to how much he enjoyed its re-release as 10226 Sopwith Camel, 11 years later! The colour scheme is nicer, the stickers aren’t applied across multiple pieces, and they don’t disintegrate over time. This set incorporated functionality as well: a control stick in the cockpit actuated the wing ailerons and tail elevators. I must admit I’m a little jealous of Ralph – this set was the apple of my eye for a long time! All I can probably afford at the moment is its miniature promotional tie-in counterpart, 40049

But let’s get back to the early noughties. After waiting 35 years for one, we then got two more planes in the next two years. Opposing the Sopwith Camel the following year was a bright red Fokker Dr.I. Unusually another military plane, and one that enabled brave owners of the two to act out dogfights! The set was titled, perhaps misleadingly, 10024 Red Baron; not the name of the plane, but the nickname of its famed pilot Baron Manfred von Richthofen.

Clearly on a bit of an early aviation kick, in 2003 LEGO celebrated 100 years of the first powered flight with 10124 Wright Flyer. This used wires as structural elements, just like the real thing; although great for detail, it did make for a slightly flimsy model. Though to be fair, by some accounts, that’s just like the real thing too!

These three were by far the biggest planes LEGO had produced up to this point, and even by today’s standards are pretty well detailed. But their respective piece counts of 574, 664 and 670 are obliterated by 10177 Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which at 1194 parts almost doubled the previous best. In a way this is the spiritual predecessor to 10318 Concorde – a large-scale model of a big airliner. Up close, though, some bits do a leave a bit to be desired. The fuselage is very blocky, the wing attachments don’t look particularly sturdy, and the engine shrouds look downright ugly. It’s not all bad: the brick-built Boeing livery is great, and it can’t be denied that 10177 looks impressive on its stand. It might look a bit clunky next to the much smoother Concorde though.

Minifigures were still limited to what aircraft the LEGO City and Town lines could offer though. That is, until 2008 – in the unlikely form of the Indiana Jones theme! The movies were of course based in the real world, or an alternate version thereof. A by-product of that was that the contents of sets were also based on real-world vehicles. One of them is even available on shelves right now: 77012 Fighter Plane Chase‘s Messerchmitt Bf.109…

… Which, as it turns out, is not a Messerschmitt at all! It’s certainly meant to be one in the Last Crusade (and more films besides). But, as you might expect, Messerschmitts were not very easy to come by following the Second World War. The easier (and cheaper) option was to use the Swiss Pilatus P2. As it used a lot of the same parts as the Bf.109, it made for a good lookalike. The same is also true of the Jones’ plane in 7198 Fighter Plane Attack. Likely intended to be a Bucker Bu 13 Jungmann, the plane used in the film is a Stampe-Vertongen SV.4. (I am a pedant, as we have established!)

Indiana Jones also gave us a Douglas DC-3, and a Waco UBF-2. The only other occasions minifigure-scale planes have shown up so far are in 40450 Amelia Earhart Tribute, with Earhart’s famous Lockheed Vega 5B; and in 76075 Wonder Woman Warrior Battle, which includes a Fokker EIII Eindekker. To date, the latter is the only First World War fighter we’ve had that seats a minifigure. Vehicles at this scale can get distorted by the awkward proportions of minifigs, but Amelia’s Vega gets a lot of plaudits for its design: the excellent use of curved elements makes for a beautiful little model. Coupled with the Earhart figure, this is surely the best plane LEGO has produced at minifigure scale.

But what about the other end of the building scale? Given its propensity for real-life scale models, it’s perhaps surprising to find that there has only been one ‘real’ Technic plane. And even then, it didn’t get a proper release. Other flying machines have appeared, in the form of helicopters (42145 Airbus H175 Rescue Helicopter) or drones (as included in 42158 NASA Perseverance Rover). But the only real-life Technic aeroplane we’ve had so far is the infamous 42113 Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey.

LEGO canned the Osprey at the 11th hour, prior to its planned August 2020 release. A limited number did make it to some retailers, alongside copies sent out for review, but it remains exceedingly rare. While some have theorised that the military source material is what led to its cancellation, it’s more likely that a severe design flaw in the motorised mechanism is what led to its demise. Our own Alexander covered the set in more detail at the time. A shame – it was an attractive model with clever functionality, despite its issues. It’s also the biggest aircraft by piece count that LEGO has made to date.

But that all changes this September! 10318 Concorde is the next addition to LEGO’s fleet of real planes. As the first commercial aircraft to hit Mach 1 (and Mach 2, for that matter), it’s perhaps fitting that it’s the first one to break the 2,000 piece barrier in LEGO form. For my money it’s also one of the most attractive planes ever to come out of Billund! (LEGO HQ, that is. I doubt Billund Airport has the capacity to accommodate planes like Concorde.)

For one final interesting tidbit, you’ll notice the packaging for 10318 Concorde bears an Airbus logo. The development of Concorde was largely carried out between the British Overseas Aircraft Company (BOAC) and French firm Aerospatiale. The set itself sports a BOAC livery from the 1970s. So where does Airbus come into it? Well, they acquired Aerospatiale in 2000 – just three years before Concorde’s last flight. So while Airbus has no direct connection to Concorde, it seems they still own some rights to the craft itself.

And with that, the seatbelt sign has come on, and we’re at the end of our flight. Thank you for flying through LEGO’s aviation history with TBB airlines! A big shout-out to my co-pilot Ralph for his invaluable help with this article – most of the design insights and factoids are attributable to him. We hope you enjoyed your trip, and that you maybe even learned a thing or two.

What’s your favourite LEGO plane? Is there one you wish they’d make? Let us know in the comments!

3 comments on “Come fly with me: real-world aircraft in the brick [Feature]

  1. Isaac

    Great article, just a couple corrections: the British Overseas Aircraft Company didn’t exist. British Overseas Airways Corporation did exist, however. It was an airline that merged with BEA in 1974 to create British Airways. As such, Concordes were never operated under the BOAC banner. British Aircraft Corporation was the British manufacturer to design and produce Concordes, alongside Aérospatiale. This set is not accurate to any one plane, but a mix of at least 2 planes. The livery is based on one of the BAC-produced aircraft that rolled off the line at Filton. The two aircraft it could be based on were the Concorde prototype made there (Concorde 002, G-BSST), or the pre-production aircraft made there (Concorde 101, G-AXDN). Though, while the livery is based on one of those two planes, the airframe of the set is neither. Concordes 001, 002, and 101 all had the stubby tails. The elongated tail began with the Aérospatiale produced Concorde 102 at Toulouse. While Concorde 001 and 002 are already disqualified for being the basis of the airframe seen in the set, they also can’t be the basis due to their cockpit windscreens. Concorde 001 and 002 did not feature the full frontal windscreen, and instead had just two small windows. Airbus also didn’t acquire Aérospatiale. Aérospatiale was a founding member of Airbus (which in the ’70s and ’80s was more of a consortium with many companies having stakes in it, than an entire company by itself). Aérospatiale continued to operate separately of Airbus (while also making contributions to the consortium) until the late ’90s, by which time Airbus had become the company we know it as today, with Aérospatiale fully merging with Airbus outright. Airbus completed several entangled and confusing mergers and acquisitions throughout the ’90s. No one really understands it lol. It’s also not entirely clear how Airbus came to own the rights to Concorde. As BAE Systems today owns what was at one point BAC, yet seems to have no ownership stake in Concorde. There were likely backroom dealings in the late ’90s/early ’00s between the recently reformed Airbus and the newly formed BAE Systems as to who would own the rights to the declining Concorde. Sorry for the whole rant! I didn’t mean it in a condescending way, I’m just a huge Concorde fan that can’t shut up when I get going.

  2. marc-andre boulianne

    Great article! If you would like to see more Lego aircraft in the future, you can always visit the Lego Ideas website to support the many aviation related projects.

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