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

How to build a Grumman E-1 Tracer early warning aircraft from LEGO: Part 3 [Feature]

This article is the third and final installment in a series. Read about the LEGO Grumman E-1 Tracer Part 1 and Part 2 here.

In the last four weeks, I have been building a LEGO scale model of a Grumman E-1 Tracer aircraft. Part 1 described how I planned the build, and part 2 dealt with how I built some of the difficult bits; in this, the third and final part, I explain how I built the last bits, and present the finished model.

E-1B Tracer of VAW-12 "Bats"

For weeks this build seemed to progress really slowly. I know that for some builders September means building huge spaceships. It took me most of this month to build just the radome, the nose, the wings and the engine nacelles. When I started building the fuselage, however, it felt like I had reached the home stretch. All of a sudden things went really quickly. Building the final parts wasn’t necessarily easy, but certainly easier. It was great to see the collection of separate sections come together into something that looked like an aircraft. The anticipation of seeing the end result motivated me. So, here it is.
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How to build a Grumman E-1 Tracer early warning aircraft from LEGO: Part 2 [Feature]

This article is Part 2 of an ongoing series. Read about the LEGO Grumman E-1 Tracer Part 1 here.

About two weeks ago, I started building a new aircraft model: a Grumman E-1 Tracer. Because some of you might like to know how one might build such a LEGO scale model, I am documenting my process in a short series. In the first part I described why I decided to build such an oddball aircraft in the first place and how I plan a build like this. I also explained that I usually start by building the difficult bits. A few of those are the subject of this article.

E-1 Tracer WIP (9th of September)

The Tracer’s wings are not quite perpendicular to the fuselage. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the engine pods and the main undercarriage weren’t attached to them. I have built angled wings before, including some rather large ones. In practice, however, it is almost impossible to mount the wings using hinges and also have them carry much of the model’s weight. Furthermore, if I were to build the wings at some weird angle, I would then have to figure out how to align the engines attached to still be parallel with the fuselage. My solution is to attach both engines directly to each other and also to the fuselage using a bridge structure. I built this bridge perpendicular to the fuselage using plates. I then put the actual wings on top of it. By combining 2×3 and 2×4 wedge plates I filled in the gaps where the tops of the engines join the wing. Getting everything to fit nicely involved a lot of trial-and-error, but it works.

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How to build a Grumman E-1 Tracer early warning aircraft from LEGO: Part 1 [Feature]

Question: “How did you build this?” Answer: “By making a plan and sticking to it.” The question is one that many LEGO builders will have had. The answer, in my case, is completely true, but also wholly inadequate. So, in an attempt to give a more fulfilling answer, in the next few weeks I’ll occasionally write a piece detailing the progress on my latest project: a scale model of a Grumman E-1 Tracer aircaft.

E-1B VAW-121 CVW-6 CVA-42

Some builders start by experimenting with a few pieces until they find a combination they like. They then build the rest of the model from there. I’m not one of those people. I plan my builds. “Doesn’t that kill spontaneity?”, you may wonder. Well yes, it does, but if I wanted to build a scale model of a complex object such as an aircraft spontaneously, it simply wouldn’t happen. My brain doesn’t work like that. Furthermore, I enjoy looking at pictures of aircraft, reading about them and thinking about which to build and how to build it. To me this is half the fun. If If I am spontaneous, I’ll build car.

E-1B Tracer WIP (26th of August)

Read more about how Ralph plans and design his LEGO aircraft

Brickfair Virginia: fourteen builders from six countries collaborate to commemorate the Vietnam War [Feature]

Last year, after Brickfair Virginia 2017, over a few drinks Magnus Lauglo, Aleksander Stein and I had a discussion on what to bring for 2018. The three of us have been attending BrickFair for years and have often admired the large collaborative displays at the event, with builders creating something together. Because of this we figured it would be nice for us to collaborate too rather than bringing our own stand-alone models. We soon agreed to build scenes from the Vietnam War.

I suspect that most ideas that come out of conversations in bars lead nowhere and that is probably a good thing. However, earlier this year we found that we were still pretty excited about this idea and we found that more people wanted to get involved. Ultimately, eleven more builders contributed (in no particular order): Peter Dornbach, Stijn van der LaanMatt Hacker, Dean Roberts, Eínon, Evan Melick, Casey Mungle, Corvin, Yasser Mohran, Bret Harris and Brian Carter. Corvin, Aleksander and I are the only builders who don’t live in the US or Canada to regularly attend the Virginia event, but our Vietnam group turned out to be a pretty international crowd. We had builders who live in six different countries: the US, Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, Norway and the Netherlands.

We picked Vietnam as the subject because we all watched classic Vietnam War movies when growing up, it is largely novel for most of us and it is far less common for military builds than models from, say, WW2. We considered building a single collaborative battle diorama, but chose to build separate scenes instead. It is hard to find a single battle that is actually interesting to build, as there is usually just a lot of terrain involved and multiple copies of trees, bunkers or vehicles. Separate scenes have the advantage of allowing different builders to give the subject their own twist. I was excited to see what the other guys came up with. The Vietnam War offers a lot of scope for building interesting military hardware, but we could also show some of the history, including the aftermath. Given the wide range of different models on display, we nailed it.

See more details and a gallery of the builds

Dog fighting in the sky over Vietnam with the Fishbed and the Phantom II

Even though the North Vietnamese didn’t have much of an air force at the start of the air war over Vietnam in 1964, with Soviet assistance they were soon able to present US pilots with a few surprises. Their MiG-17 fighters were old-fashioned and only had guns as their armament. The jets were small, though, and well-suited to out-turn heavier US jets mostly optimised for higher speeds. Peter Dornbach has built the more modern MiG-21, known as the “Fishbed” in the West. This entered Vietnamese service in 1966.

VPAF MiG-21PFM Fishbed (1)

Peter’s model has a retractable undercarriage, opening cockpit and a brick-built representation of the characteristic camouflage used by the Vietnam People’s Air Force. With its higher speed and two AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missiles the Fishbed was typically used in hit-and-run attacks. The US countered this threat using the F-4 Phantom II. This wasn’t particularly agile, but had powerful twin engines. Its crews were taught to use these as an advantage against the MiGs by manoeuvring in the vertical.

F-4J Phantom II

The particular example built by Evan Melick is “Showtime-100”, a US Navy F-4J flown by Randy “Duke” Cunningham and William Driscoll who put this tactic to practice shooting down three Vietnamese fighters during a famous mission in May of 1972. Added to their two previous victories, this made them the US Navy’s first and only aces of the Vietnam war. Like most US Navy aircraft from the time period, it had distinctive squadron markings, which Evan recreated on his model using a mix of brick-built patterns, custom vinyl stickers and water-slide decals intended for 1/48 scale models. Note his clever use of new 45 degree angled tiles to build studless leading edges on the jet’s wings.

Both jets are part of a Vietnam collaboration by about a dozen builders, including yours truly, which will be on display at Brickfair Virginia in a little less than three weeks.

Having fun for charity at Bricktastic Manchester 2018 [News]

Little more than a week ago, I had the pleasure of attending Bricktastic, in Manchester, England. It is a somewhat different kind of event than ones I’ve attended before: not organised by a regular LEGO Users Group or with a commercial goal, but run by and on behalf of Fairy Bricks. This is a UK Charity that donates LEGO to children in hospitals.

Bricktastic was a two-day public event, that attracted LEGO builders from all over the UK, as well as sizeable contingent from Ireland and small numbers of builders from other countries, including Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands. UK professional LEGO building company Bright Bricks are one of the sponsors of the event and they brought along a collection of “Mythical Beasts” including a stunning seven-headed hydra built using roughly 200,000 bricks, that greeted visitors near the entrance and surely was one of the highlights of the show. During set-up I got to whack some bits of the hydra into place with a mallet, which is certainly not a sentence I ever expected to write.


A 200,000 brick model of a hydra built by Bright Bricks

Bricktastic ticked all the boxes. The quality of the models on display was fantastic. Noteworthy is also that the exhibition room, at Manchester Central, was very nice: it was carpeted and surrounded by curtains. Because of this, the atmosphere was a lot cosier and quieter than is common in exhibition halls. Such a detail may seem unimportant, but imagine spending two days in a bare concrete box with harsh strip lighting and hundreds of excited children. That’s what you normally get an an exhibition hall. The public were wonderful. We didn’t even need barriers to protect the displays, which meant that everybody got a good view of the models and which made it easier to talk to people. The children could get creative themselves using large play areas. Fairy Bricks arranged the hotel for the exhibitors and organised a social program for both the Friday and Saturday evenings. Everyone seemed to have a great time and the proceedings went to a good cause. What more could you want?

See a few highlights and our extensive gallery

Fighting “Yankee Air Pirates” with the S-75 missile

From the way pop culture depicts the war in Vietnam, one would think it was all about fighting guerillas, involving lots of helicopters, close combat in jungles or rice paddies and music by the Rolling Stones. However, the US was simultaneously fighting a high-tech war, with US combat aircraft bombing targets in the North and duelling with air defenses of ever-increasing sophistication. Peter Dorbach has expertly recreated some of the North’s main tools in their fight against the so-called “Yankee Air Pirates”: the “Fan Song” guidance radar and a matching missile with its launcher.

S-75 Dvina unit

These missile systems were part of the Soviet-built S-75 “Dvina” / SA-2 “Guideline” surface-to-air system. The comparison with the minifigs shows the size of these missiles. They had two stages and flew at 3.5 times the speed of sound. They weren’t particularly agile and they could be evaded, but this required careful timing. Initiating the evasive manoeuvre too soon gave the missile time to compensate. Manoeuvre too late and its massive warhead, with a 75 m blast radius, would do its job. S-75 missiles shot down dozens of aircraft during the conflict, with many crew members being killed or captured.

SM-90 launcher diorama (1)

The model is part of a Vietnam War collaboration that will be displayed at BrickFair Virginia this summer. A surface-to-air missile may be a slightly unusual choice of subject, but it is certainly historically significant. The introduction of these systems completely changed air warfare. The S-75 is famous for shooting down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spyplane on a secret mission over Russia in 1960, and another over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It is a Cold War classic and amazingly is still in service in about two dozen countries almost 60 years later.

The A-3B Skywarrior is a whale of a plane

In the last year or so, I have been steadily building a collection of classic US Navy aircraft. The latest addition is the A-3B Skywarrior, a twin-engined carrier-based jet bomber.

A-3B Skywarrior of VAH-6 Fleurs

Back in the late forties nuclear weapons were large and heavy. According to the US Navy, a jet built to deliver one over a meaningful distance would have to weigh about 45 tons and be the size of a small airliner. Given that they wanted to operate their nuclear bombers from aircraft carriers, where space is at a premium, this posed an obvious problem. To add insult to injury, the first of a new generation of super-large aircraft carriers intended to operate these bombers was cancelled within a week after its keel had been laid. So, when the brilliant designer Ed Heinemann, also known for the A-1 Skyraider, proposed that Douglas Aviation build a bomber of about 30 tons that could fly from existing aircraft carriers, he definitely caught the Navy’s interest.

A-3B Skywarrior of VAH-6 Fleurs

The resulting aircraft entered service in the mid fifties as the A-3 Skywarrior. It was still a big beast. It was the heaviest aircraft to routinely fly from aircraft carriers, which earned it the nickname “Whale”. The LEGO model is a pretty big beast too. At my usual scale of 1/36, it is about 78 studs long.

Read more about Ralph’s latest airplane, including the design process

Keeping the North Sea safe with the Guardian: an incredible 40k piece LEGO ship over 1.65m long

More than three years ago Arjan Oudekotte started design work on a new ship model. He then got side-tracked for a bit, building a few other things such as a lovely American themed harbour and a large excavator, while the unfinished ship gathered dust. He still has to add a few small details, but he has now finally posted pictures that show the model in its entirety.

ETV Multraship Guardian

Click to see more of this incredible ship

Patrolling the Mekong River Delta with the PBR

Army and Marine Corps ground troops bore the brunt of the American casualties in the Vietnam War. Serving aboard a Navy ship off the coast may have been comparatively safe, but part of the US Navy was right in the thick of things too: the Riverine Patrol Force. They operated on South Vietnam’s many rivers, in particular in the Mekong river delta.

Vietnam War Patrol Boat Riverine

Hot on the heels of my USMC Seahorse helicopter, this weekend I built one of their boats: a Patrol Boat Riverine, which, like just about anything in the military, had its own abbreviation: ‘PBR’, which was typically pronounced as ‘Pibber’. These were small and fast boats that could operate on some of the smaller tributaries of the Mekong, often surrounded by jungle, with crews living in stifling heat and primitive conditions. This type of boat was made famous by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a war movie whose ‘Making of’ is at least as memorable as the movie itself.

Vietnam War Patrol Boat Riverine

The making of my model was considerably less of a psychedelic trip than the journey described in the movie. Despite the dark green, which is still a somewhat awkward colour to build with, it came together very quickly. The diorama will be part of a collaboration and for it to fit with the other builders’ styles, the boat has very few visible studs. I built its hull mostly with bricks on their side, which gave me both a smooth deck and a nicer shape. I used BrickArms M60s and helmets as accessories for the minifigures, but the rest is all LEGO, including the luscious jungle foliage.

Search and Destroy with the Sikorsky Seahorse

The war in Vietnam was the first in which helicopters weren’t mainly used for resupply missions or as flying ambulances, but were a central element in newly developed tactics. In ‘Search & Destroy’ missions, helicopters flew troops into countryside controlled by Communist insurgents in order to, well, seek them out and destroy them. The troops would then be helicoptered to another location to repeat the procedure. I will spare you the details, but the insurgents had their own ideas about this and things often didn’t work out all that well.

Vietnam War USMC UH-34D Seahorse

My latest model represents a US Marine Corps Sikorsky UH-34D Seahorse helicopter on just such a mission, picking up troops from a rice paddy somewhere in South Vietnam. The helicopter most people will associate with the war in Vietnam is the UH-1 Huey. Consequently, there already are really nice LEGO Hueys out there. I wanted something different, so I built the Seahorse instead. Because this will be part of a larger collaboration, the model represents something of a departure from my normal style. It is minifig scale, I built the helicopter with only a few visible studs and I’ve used some third-party accessories in the form of BrickArms weapons and helmets.

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The bandit in one the best bad movies ever made

Watching Top Gun is like eating a Philadelphia cheesesteak with cheez whiz. Some of the ingredients are a bit dodgy and there really is an awful lot of stringy cheese, but it tastes oh so good. Why? Forget Tom Cruise—the undisputed star of the movie is the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. However, instead Lego Admiral chose to build one of the villains, called the MiG-28, and that’s cool in my book.

MIG-28 as featured in "Top Gun"

The MiG-28s in Top Gun weren’t really Russian, of course, because they never made a MiG-28. In reality, the planes on-screen were F-5 Tigers, which are normally used by the US Navy as adversaries in air-to-air combat training. However, the jets certainly looked the part, as for the occasion they were painted in temporary color schemes with fictional national markings of some Communist country. This made them look even more sinister, as we all know that evil wears black. The LEGO model has a long shark-nose and an expertly rendered coke-bottle fuselage. Even more than thirty years later the MiG-28 still looks bad-ass.