About Ralph

Ralph Savelsberg, also known as Mad physicist, is an actual physicist, but he's not all that mad. He has been building with LEGO ever since he could first put two bricks together. He primarily builds scale models of cars and aircraft. You can find most of Ralph's stuff on his flickr pages.

Posts by Ralph

The distinctive markings of British emergency vehicles

A lot of young boys want to become policemen, firefighters, or paramedics when they grow up. I, too, was fascinated by emergency vehicles. There was something about their bright markings, flashing lights, and sirens. As an adult, I realise that the work done by emergency services can be far from glamorous, but emergency vehicles do make for fun and attractive LEGO models. So, I have built models of vehicles from Tokyo, New York and the Netherlands. For years I’ve also had a collection of vehicles from the UK. In the last few weeks, I had a go at building a few newer ones to replace models of vehicles that are no longer in service. They are a long-wheelbase Ford Transit van, as used by the London metropolitan police, and a Mercedes Sprinter ambulance used by the London ambulance service.

For most builders, myself included, painting LEGO is not an option. I do use stickers, but I build most of the color scheme into the model. Because of this, it can become integral to the model’s construction, and I very much enjoy figuring out how to include a particular pattern. Given their colorful liveries, this applies to models of emergency vehicles in particular. Nowadays, most British emergency vehicles use a distinctive checkered pattern, known as “battenberg” markings, after battenberg cake. On the ambulance, I built its blocks using green and lime green parts. This was not easy. The vertical boundaries between them have to line up with features of the vehicle. Furthermore, the blocks on the side of the van body all have the same length. Due to the scale of my model, I couldn’t recreate them using the straightforward studs-up building. So, I had to get creative. I ended up building most of the blocks sideways, to make them just a plate narrower.

The London metropolitan police switched to yellow and blue battenberg markings in 2012. Older vehicles still use a livery called a “jam sandwich” though. This, too is very distinctive: it’s a gold-colored stripe with orange and blue stripes above and below it. This was a lot easier to build. Frustratingly though, I did have to contend with variations in the gold color of the various elements, including multiples that came from the same set.

A high-visibility pattern of yellow and orange chevrons covers (part of) the rear of both vehicles. As I did with most of the lettering, using stickers for those would have given me a cleaner look. However, I do like the LEGO-like look I get by building them using bricks and plates. My vehicles are unmistakably LEGO models. Yet, almost anybody who knows what the real ones look like will recognise them.

I can’t imagine that Transit vans like mine will remain in service for much longer, but that is just the excuse I will need to build a newer vehicle in a couple of years’ time.

Not all Blackbirds are black

Starting in the sixties, the CIA and the US Air Force operated a fleet of Lockheed Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. At first, the aircraft were top secret, but over the years a lot of information has become unclassified. They were spectacular. Even now many of their speed and altitude records remain unbroken.

 

The most famous Blackbird is the SR-71 and those indeed were all black, as their name implies. However, some of the SR-71’s older relatives were not black at all or only partially black. My latest model represents one of these: the sole surviving M-21. This was a version intended to launch a ramjet-powered D-21 reconnaissance drone. The model is minifig scale (roughly 1/40), can seat a pilot and launch control officer under two separate cockpit canopies, and carries a model of the D-21 on its back.


M-21 Blackbird

Most of the outside of the real jet consists of unpainted metal. I like that it is not actually black; a lot of the details are much more visible that way. The aircraft still exists and is on display at the Museum of Flight, in Seattle, where I saw it during a trip to Washington State back in 2016. I also find the history of this particular version fascinating. To me it was the obvious Blackbird to build for my own LEGO aircraft collection.
Continue reading

A terrible name for a pretty plane

Despite the cancellation of the event where I was going to display them, I’m still building a collection of LEGO minifig scale experimental aircraft. I like building them, and there’s always next year (or the year after that). The latest addition is the British Aerospace EAP. This stands for Experimental Aircraft Programme. Americans may object to the spelling of “programme.” However, they should bear in mind that it is British. The name is still terrible, though. It just doesn’t have the same ring as, say, Spitfire, Hurricane, Lightning, or Tornado. Furthermore, it doesn’t suggest that it refers to an actual aircraft rather than to some study.

It was designed in the early eighties, as a technology demonstrator for a new fighter to counter the Soviet MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker. These jets were far more advanced and agile than most of the jets that served NATO. Italy’s fighter was the ancient F-104 Starfighter. The RAF and German Air Forces still used F-4 Phantoms, from the sixties. The new Soviet jets outclassed all of them. New Tornado jets entering service wouldn’t fare much better, because they were fighter bombers. The three countries started collaborating on a new fighter. However, as is common with European defense programs, the collaboration soon ran into political difficulties. Germany hoped to collaborate with France, instead and withdrew its funding. Nonetheless, the UK’s defense industry forged ahead, with private and with UK and Italian government funding.

British Aerospace built a single prototype. It’s a very pretty aircraft, with an elegant fuselage, a cranked delta wing, and canard foreplanes. It first flew in 1986 and was retired five years later, after about 250 flights. The French would only collaborate with Germany if the French industry could have the lead. So, when the time came to build a production aircraft, Germany joined the UK, Italy, and Spain. They built the new European Fighter Aircraft, popularly known as the Typhoon. Now, that’s a good name. The British, with their EAP, paved the way, though.

When greed was good and spoilers were big

The eighties: hair and shoulder pads were big, smoking was cool and greed was good. If you wanted to show off your financial success, the car to buy was the Porsche 911 Turbo. Because of the weight of its rear-mounted engine and the massive turbo lag, flooring the throttle pedal whilst driving through a slippery curve resulted in a fair few investment bankers wrapping their Porsches around a tree. However, in the hands of a good driver, these things were rally monsters. Dennis Glaasker brings us 1/14 scale LEGO models of two of these classic racers.

This pair competed in the 1984 Ypres Rally in Belgium. Henri Toivonen, with Ian Grindrod as his navigator, won the rally in the white and dark blue car in ‘Rothmans’ livery (a tobacco company). The red and white car failed to finish, though. Belgian racers Robert Droogmans and Ronny Joosten didn’t wrap it around a tree, fortunately. They retired from the race because their gearbox failed. There is much to love about the models. For instance, note how the B-pillars (the struts under the roof at the back of the doors) are sloped slightly aft, just like on the real car. Everything opens and the cars have realistic interiors, with racing seats and roll cages. Dennis recreated their colour schemes using a mix of different coloured parts and perfectly matching custom stickers. Best bit: those iconic whale tail spoilers.

Porsche 911 SC/RS in Lego 1:14

Taking the gasser to a car show

Earlier this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was looking forward to spending three weeks away from home this summer. At the end of July, I was going to attend BrickFair Virginia. After that I’d fly to Denver, to make a road trip with a friend. I’d subsequently return to Virginia for a work meeting before finally jetting home. Now, of course, none of that is happening. Instead, I’m currently having a short “staycation” at home and will actually be working most of August. In the hope of putting myself into a relaxed vacation mood nonetheless, I built a Chevrolet Express conversion van a couple of weeks ago.

It is a very American concept: convert a regular passenger van into a luxury cruiser with captain’s seats, rear seats that can be folded into a bed, tinted windows, a raised roof, cool rims, and some snazzy graphics on the outside. SUVs have cornered much of their market in the last decade or so, but this is the kind of vehicle I imagine would work well for long road trips and family vacations. I particularly enjoyed building the pattern into the sides, with dark tan and old dark grey plates. However, as much as I enjoyed building it, the end result was a bit underwhelming. So, to fit my vacation theme, I considered building a trailer for it, with a jet ski or an all-terrain-vehicle. However, I wasn’t looking forward to building either.

I finally got a little bit excited thinking about putting a custom car on the trailer instead. Custom cars generally don’t float my boat, but since I liked building the pattern on the van so much, I relished building a car with a paint scheme with flames. To fit the van it had to be American, of course. So, I picked a “Gasser”. This is a particular type of classic drag racer. It uses a body shell of a stock car, with really fat rear tires, a stripped-out interior, an oversized engine, and a jacked-up front end. The flames are optional, but I built mine using yellow, bright light orange and orange plates. The car is a ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air, which is just about the most American car I can imagine. It isn’t quite the holiday vehicle I had in mind, but at least it’s fun.

New York’s Best and Bravest are life savers

My hair may be turning grey, and I have a job, a professional reputation and responsibilities, but hidden just under the surface is the same six-year-old boy who marveled at his first LEGO fire truck, back in the eighties. With the pandemic, for many of us, the last few months probably haven’t been easy. For me, personally, things could be a lot worse. I am healthy and so are my loved ones, I have job security and can work from the comfort of my home. Nonetheless, I am stressed by the uncertainty and by a never-ending amount of work, in combination with not being able to do many of the things I usually do to relax, such as traveling, meeting friends and attending LEGO events.

One thing that does help is being able to channel that six-year-old. I pop up to my loft and put some LEGO bricks together almost every day. And what does my inner six-year-old lifesavers? Well, fire trucks, of course. With a few decades of building experience under my belt and an adult’s disposable income, they’re obviously going to be elaborate. This pair of vehicles represents a Seagrave ladder truck and an ambulance, as operated by the New York Fire Department (FDNY). They are life savers in a real-world sense, but building them also kept me from going nuts.
Click here to continue reading

New wheels for my LEGO Ambulance service

Some LEGO fans primarily collect sets; others focus on building their own creations. I’m very much in the latter camp. That doesn’t mean I don’t collect anything LEGO-related, though. I don’t just build for the sake of building and sharing pictures on-line. Most of my models fit into collections, like my Japanese cars, that I display at shows. Because they are part of a collection, I tend to keep them around for a long time. However, as a result, by now some of my vehicle models are so old that their real-world counterparts were retired years ago.

Case in point: the Dutch Chevrolet Express Ambulance that I built in 2009, as part of a collection of Dutch emergency vehicles. If I were to display this at a show, some of the children there might not even recognise that an ambulance used to look like that. So, even though there aren’t any shows in the foreseeable future, due to the pandemic, I felt my Dutch LEGO paramedics could do with a new set of wheels. The current type in North Holland, where I live, is the Mercedes Sprinter. All its doors, including the sliding doors in the sides, can open, to give access to a detailed interior. The lights on the roof have a snazzy aerodynamic shape, which was fun. I particularly enjoyed building the colour scheme. Ambulances in the Netherlands are yellow, with a complicated pattern of diagonal red and blue stripes. As I did with the old Chevy, I recreated this using stacked plates. Stickers would have given me a cleaner look, but to me this looks more authentic as a LEGO model. It is good to go for a few more years.

Stalking through the night with the MH-47 Chinook

Way back in 2008, I built a LEGO US Army Chinook helicopter. It was one of my first models to be featured on The Brothers Brick, long before I became a contributor. While I do take older models apart every now and then, I kept this one around. It has been sitting on one of my shelves almost unchanged for years. It still looks decent, but LEGO has moved on and so have I. A lot of new parts offer possibilities that I simply didn’t have more than a decade ago. In 2018 I completely rebuilt my Pave Low helicopter, also originally from 2008, using new parts and techniques. Now I have turned my attention to the Chinook.

There was a bit of snag, though. I built the original using old dark grey, a color that LEGO stopped making in 2004 because it looked unattractively dirty or muddy. Muddy is great for a military model, and old dark grey was a nice match for the olive drab color of most US Army helicopters. Unfortunately, since LEGO stopped making this color, none of the new parts, such as curved slopes, cheese slopes, and brackets, that are so useful when building aircraft and helicopter models exist in old dark grey. So, I had to pick a Chinook variant in a color in which these are available.

Fortunately, the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), nicknamed the “Night Stalkers,” has been flying special operations versions of the Chinook, called the MH-47, for decades. Most of these are black, which is perfect in terms of parts. They also have a lot of features that regular Chinooks usually lack, such as much larger extended-range fuel tanks alongside the cabin, an air-to-air refueling probe and radar and laser warning receivers and various other antennae dotted around on the outside. Adding all of those details made this a more challenging and interesting build. The end result looks like an angry beast.

Catching Scoobies on the Shutoko

As much as I like building LEGO cars, I never quite got into building contemporary car models. On a small scale it will never be possible to capture all the details. So, to make a LEGO car model recognisable, it helps for the real car to look distinctive. You can mess up a lot when building a Hummer or a Volkswagen Beetle and they will still be identifiable. Unfortunately, a lot of modern cars kind of look the same. Perhaps none more so than Japanese cars.

Last year I went to Japan BrickFest. If the COVID-19 pandemic won’t prevent it, I hope to go again next year. With that in mind, I’ve been building more and more Japanese cars. So far I’ve managed to build a fair few recognisable ones, including an ambulance and a rather wacky-looking courier van. I’m still looking for more distinctive examples, though. My most recent Japanese cars are the Toyota Crown and a Subaru Impreza WRX.

Continue reading

The X-47B UAV may have no pilot, but it still needs minifigures

During the war in Vietnam, the US Navy monitored the heart rates of some of their pilots. Flying though Hanoi’s air defenses understandably raised their pulse. However, their hearts went even faster at the end of the flight, when they had to land their jets on an aircraft carrier. These may be big for a ship, but they are very small for an airport. Unlike pilots, unmanned aircraft or ‘drones’ don’t have hearts and they are never tired. If a drone crashes or gets shot down, its pilot can’t get hurt or taken hostage. Instead, the operator is safely at his or her home base, in a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned container. So, it’s easy to see the attraction of unmanned aircraft. For the US Navy carrier landings remained a major hurdle, though. Enter the X-47B. Northrop Grumman built two of these weird-looking experimental jets, to demonstrate integrating unmanned combat aircraft into carrier operations. Between 2012 and 2014, the second of the two jets, nicknamed “Salty Dog 502”, performed several autonomous carrier landings and take-offs on three different aircraft carriers. At the time, the Navy expected to put unmanned combat aircraft into service in about five years’ time, but it has yet to happen.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying myself by building a series of LEGO models of experimental aircraft. Unusually, for me, these new models are mostly studless. I also built them to a scale for LEGO minifigures. Therefore there is a bit of irony in adding Salty Dog 502 to my collection. Not having to carve out space inside for a minifigure’s substantial rear end was a bit of a relief, though; I really struggled to fit a pilot in my YF-23. The X-47B is grey, much like operational US Navy aircraft. While its shape is certainly interesting, that is not enough for an attractive display. Fortunately, while the X-47 doesn’t need a pilot, it does require a ground crew to take care of it, like any other aircraft. So, I built a minifigure deck crew, as well as part of the deck and a small deck tractor to go with it. On US aircraft carriers the deck crew wears color-coded outfits that depict their different roles. These minifigures add a welcome splash of color.

How to organise and sort your LEGO collection, by the Mad Physicist [Feature]

With a lot of people holed up in their homes, as a result of stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19, The Brothers Brick has been getting questions on how to best organise one’s LEGO collection. There are obviously many different ways to do this. These range from not organising it at all, via sorting elements by colour or type, to giving every type of element in every different colour a separate container. The latter is seen by some people as the “ultimate” or “most advanced” sorting solution. A behind-the-scenes discussion among our contributors revealed that we all have somewhat different sorting systems. So, for those of you staring at a large pile of random unsorted LEGO, we’ll be sharing our ideas in a few feature articles. We’ll also go into the process of cleaning and sorting your LEGO.

In this installment, we kick off with our very own Builder in Residence, Ralph Savelsberg aka Mad physicist.

Click to read more about how Ralph sorts his LEGO collection

A shape unlike any other fighter: The Northrop YF-23

Aviation history is littered with beautiful and promising designs that did not make it into production. Famous examples are the Canadian CF-105 Arrow and the British BAC TSR-2. Imagining what they could have achieved can entertain aviation enthusiasts for hours. That also applies to my latest aircraft model: the Northrop/McDonnell Douglas YF-23, unofficially known as the Black Widow II. It was the losing contender in the USAF’s Advanced Tactical Fighter competition. It should replace the F-15 Eagle and counter the new Soviet/ Russian fighters under development in the seventies. To do this, it had to incorporate three features that were never before combined in a single aircraft: fighter-like maneuverability, stealth, and the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds.

The shape of the world’s first known stealth aircraft, the F-117A, was all straight lines and flat panels. At the time Lockheed designed it, they couldn’t yet calculate how curved surfaces would reflect radar signals. Northrop, however, experimented with much smoother Gaussian shapes. In the deepest secrecy, they built an aircraft called Tacit Blue. It looked like an inverted bathtub with wings, but it worked. They applied this knowledge to the YF-23 in an altogether more pleasing shape. Cross-sections of the forward fuselage have a rounded top and sloping sides that end in a distinctive fuselage chine. The wings have a diamond shape, as do the large, angled tailfins. These combine the function of traditional horizontal and vertical tailfins. Humps on the aft fuselage, known as bread loaves, hide the engines. To reduce their IR signature, the exhaust gasses are guided through long troughs. The jet is long and sleek. It looks unlike anything else ever flown.

Lockheed won the competition in 1991, with its YF-22 design. This became the F-22 Raptor, which is the USAF’s primary air-to-air combat fighter. It, too, is stealthy, of course, but its configuration is similar to the F-15 Eagle. If you let them, those same aviation enthusiasts that can rave about the Arrow or TSR-2 will tell you a whole plethora of reasons why the YF-23 lost. I think it was the prettiest of the two contenders, but perhaps its configuration was a bit too radical. Recreating it in LEGO certainly meant digging deep into my bag of tricks.