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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Click to see more of this incredible ship
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is not an everyday occurrence for me to get an email from the South Pole. Several months ago, however, I was contacted by Ethan Rudnitsky, who was spending the winter at the US Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, and who asked me for instructions to build a model of an LC-130 Hercules. This is the aircraft used to fly people to and from the station and Ethan wanted to put the model on display in the station. TBB used the opportunity to find out more about LEGO fans at the South Pole in an interview and agreed to supply the instructions, stickers, and the parts to build the Hercules.
Ethan and I had yet to work out how to get the model there. Enter Martin Rongen, a physicist and LEGO fan, like myself, who contacted me from Germany having seen my LC-130 prototype. He was due to travel to the Pole around Christmas (summer in Antarctica) and wondered whether I was willing to share instructions so that he could take the LEGO model with him. How about that? Problem solved! We could ship the whole lot to Germany.
Click here to read the full interview
“Are you busy in May?”, was a question I got in an e-mail early this year from my friend Ed Diment, co-director of Bright Bricks. The organisers had asked them to build models for a LEGO event in Dubai and to get in touch with fan builders, with large collections of models they would be willing to display at the event.
The event in question was Stack and it was the first of its kind in the Middle East. I’ve been very fortunate to attend many different LEGO events in Europe and in the US, but I knew this one was going to be special.
When you think of Dubai, you may picture incredibly tall buildings, palm trees, desert and fancy cars. All of those are there, but Dubai also houses LEGO fans and the city’s first public LEGO fan event, called STACK, runs 19-22 October, 2016. Tickets for the event are available now!
There are lots of LEGO activities for children and lots of things to see. Bright Bricks have shipped a number of massive models over from the UK and built a few especially for this event, such as a LEGO souk (a traditional Middle-Eastern market) and a 4m tall LEGO model of the Burj Khalifa. You can see a video of their models here. There is also a special fan zone with models built by adult fans from Dubai, the UK, Japan, Hong Kong, Brazil, Portugal and the Netherlands. I am one of these lucky people.
If you’re in Dubai and a fan of LEGO (or you have children who are), be sure not to miss this. The event ends on Saturday and takes place in a purpose-built pavilion next to Dubai Skydive near the Dubai Marina. Tickets can be bought via ticketmaster.
It is no secret that I think the Grumman F-14A Tomcat is the most beautiful jet fighter ever to grace the deck of an aircraft carrier. This is something that I share with James Cherry, who unveiled his massive 1/15 scale Tomcat model at the Great Western Brick Show in the UK little more than a week ago and who posted pictures today.
The Tomcat was also one of the largest carrier-based jets. The end result of building a large-scale model of a large jet is obviously going to be large. The LEGO model is 127 cm long, uses roughly 8000 parts and has taken nine months to build. James has included Power Functions to control the wing sweep as well as various control surfaces. Like on James’ older F-4J Phantom II, the complicated and subtle compound curves are mostly built using carefully angled surfaces and, to get closer to the look of the real jet than is possible with LEGO alone, he has used custom-made vinyl stickers and a vacuum formed canopy.
The jet wears the colourful markings of the US Navy’s first operational Tomcat squadron, VF-1 ‘Wolf Pack’, when it sailed aboard USS Enterprise in the late ‘seventies. One would think that it would make sense for a jet fighter to be painted in colours that are a bit less conspicuous, but that was never really the Tomcat’s style; it’s big and beautiful.