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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
New Dehli had the Hindustan Ambassador, London the FX4 and New York the Checker Marathon and the Ford Crown Victoria. All of these taxis became instantly recognizable icons for their respective cities. What about Tokyo, you may wonder? On a visit Japan, you will occasionally see modern MPV-like vehicles, but the typical Tokyo taxi is a boxy contraption called the Toyota Comfort. They seem to be everywhere. I must have taken about ten taxi rides during my own trips to Japan and I’m pretty sure all of those were in a Toyota Comfort.
Toyota started building them specifically for use as taxis for a whopping 22 years, starting in 1995. You may expect them to be high tech, but these cars are actually fairly basic. A particularly Japanese exception is that the driver can open and shut the rear doors at the push of a button, from behind the wheel. The doors are an important part of the build, of course. On most of my LEGO cars, the rear doors cannot open without the front doors being opened first. However, I wanted this particular model to look good with the rear doors opened. They are attached to a little arm that slides in and out and I have added appropriate window frames. I also added a “Kawaii” passenger. The Comfort may not be as iconic as London black cab, but my collection of Japanese cars would be incomplete without one.
LEGO Minifigures are oddly-proportioned little fellows. Because I am fussy about the scale of my models I rarely use them with my builds. However, thanks to a number of collaborative builds I’ve been involved with, which all involved minifigures, I’ve grown to appreciate them a bit more. Recently I have been steadily building a collection of minifig-scaled military models. These are the latest two: a US Army M936 wrecker truck towing an M1025 “HumVee” armament carrier. There are countless quotes about how logistics are at least as important to fighting a war as tactics. Equipment used in combat may capture people’s imaginations, but modern armies include vast numbers of support vehicles that are true workhorses. To me those are at least as interesting as tanks or artillery.
What constitutes minifig scale can be difficult and LEGO themselves have muddied the waters. When I was growing up, LEGO cars were just four studs wide. About ten years ago, most LEGO city cars were five studs wide and trucks seven studs wide, including their mudguards. With the recent Speed Champions sets the width of a supposedly minifig scaled car has been bumped up to nine studs, again including the mudguards. The cars look cool and seat two figures side-by-side. However, if you pose a figure next to the vehicle, it’s clear we’ve moved firmly into silly territory. I based my scale on the figure’s height. The wrecker truck ended up being seven studs wide. The HumVee is only six studs wide, which is much smaller than most minifig scale HumVees that are out there. Despite this small scale, both vehicles still have enough space inside for a driver.
It’s a bit of a cliché, undoubtedly, but Japan is a land full of contrasts. Last year I was lucky enough to travel to Japan in order to attend Japan BrickFest. It’s a two-day LEGO exhibition that takes place on Rokko Island, an artificial island in Osaka bay, off the coast of Kobe.
Read more about Ralph’s LEGO adventures in Japan
The last of the US Navy’s Tomcat fighters — the plane of Top Gun fame — made its final flight more than a decade ago. However, Tomcats continue to soldier on in one other military: the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. Given its strained relation with the US, it may seem strange for Iran to have some of these iconic jets, but it is due to a quirk of history. Prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, Mohammad Reza Shah ruled Iran. His rule became increasingly autocratic over time, but he was pro-Western and eager to modernize his country and its military. Iran was also a useful buffer between the Soviet Union and the other oil-rich states surrounding the Persian Gulf, so the US was willing to sell the Shah 80 Tomcats, as well as hundreds of long-range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles. My latest LEGO model represents one of these Persian Tomcats.
After the 1979 revolution, relations between the US and Iran soured. Subsequently, the US suspended weapons and spare parts deliveries. The serviceability of the Iranian Tomcat fleet dwindled, but their Tomcats had some successes in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Details are murky, but according to Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop, the Iranian planes shot down dozens of Iraqi fighter aircraft. Forty years later, thanks to illicit parts acquisitions and reverse-engineering, some survivors are still flying, and I finally built one.
Almost two weeks ago, the first example of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to be based in the Netherlands arrived at Leeuwarden Air Base. It marks the beginning of the end for the forty-year career of the F-16 with the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The F-16 is officially named the Fighting Falcon, but commonly known as the Viper. I’ve been thinking about building a larger scale version of the Viper for years. A reason why I didn’t was that the 1/18 scale model by Everblack basically was just too good.
However, the arrival of the Viper’s eventual replacement and the 40th anniversary finally made me decide to bite the proverbial bullet. I picked the same scale, 1/22, as most of my cars and my Top Gun Tomcat. The F-16 was a lighter and cheaper alternative to the F-15 Eagle and, as such, it’s a fairly small aircraft. The large scale does make the model quite a big beast, with a span of 56 studs and a length of more than 80 studs. However, it also allowed me to add more details and to more accurately represent the jet’s sleek shape. I couldn’t have done this on a smaller scale or without some of the new parts that LEGO has released in the last few years.