Usually I don’t build space-themed models, but my latest two models are exceptions. Then again, they aren’t exactly your everyday space builds, representing real-world spaceplanes developed for the US military. The first is the X-20 Dyna-Soar (for “dynamic soarer”). This was an ambitious program to build a reusable manned spaceplane. It started within weeks of the Soviet Union’s first Sputnik launch. It never came to fruition, though. A few years later, with the first prototype already under construction, escalating costs and an unclear mission resulted in its cancellation.
The second is the much more recent and successful X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. This is an unmanned reusable spaceplane currently in service with the US Space Force. So far, two vehicles have flown six missions. The latest was the longest, with almost 909 days spent in orbit. Its official role is to demonstrate reusable space technologies. However, there has been speculation that it carries reconnaissance equipment and may even be intended for anti-satellite missions or to test space-based weapons.
In less than two weeks, both of these models will be on display at BrickFair Northern Virginia, as part of the “eXperimental Military Collaboration”.
Lego is not Denmark’s only market-leading company; Vestas, the world’s largest builder of wind turbines, is also Danish. After I built my mega-windmill trailer with a Vestas wind turbine nacelle, I seriously considered building a truck carrying one of the wind turbine’s blades. However, these blades are so big that, even at minifig scale, the model would have to be more than a meter long. This did not strike me as a particularly fun build, but I found a suitable alternative. It is a truck that carries the wind turbine’s hub. The tractor unit is a Volvo FM; another powerhouse from Scandinavia.
There’s a Dutch twist too. It is in the largely orange livery of Dutch heavy haulage specialists Van Der Vlist. And the trailer represents a semi-low loader built by Nooteboom, which is also Dutch. Its load is a lot more manageable than a turbine blade, but it is still a fairly substantial piece of equipment. It is wider than the trailer and so tall that its nose cap is transported separately on the trailer. It tapers and it has a complicated geometry because of the holes for the three blades in the sides. I built three identical sections, with angled panels between them. These all attach to a six-section bottom ring. There is a smaller ring and a separate truncated cone on top. Building all of this did turn out to be a fun challenge.
In the Netherlands, wind turbines are a big part of the transition to renewable energy. With the turbines getting bigger, moving their components to wind farms requires ever larger vehicles. My latest LEGO model represents such a vehicle: a Volvo FH16 with a so-called mega-windmill trailer, in the livery of Dutch heavy haulage company Van Der Vlist.
The real truck has a six-cylinder engine that produces 750 HP. It needs all that power because the Vestas wind turbine nacelle that it carries weighs a whopping 70 tons. And the nacelle’s transport frames add another four tons. This also explains the combination’s large number of axles. They distribute the weight to protect the road surface. As a result, this is a big model. Even on a small scale suitable for LEGO minifigures it has a total length of 93 cm (about 3ft).
For me, as long-time fan of the Transformers and having built LEGO Transformers myself, LEGO releasing LEGO Transformers 10302 Optimus Prime was a pleasant surprise. It looks great as a robot, decent as a truck and the transformation sequence is fantastic. Its look is also largely faithful to the original Optimus Prime toy from the eighties. In my book, the one thing that could make it even better was for Optimus to have his trailer or Combat Deck. So, I built one myself.
Click to see inside!
Hot on the heels of my Mammoet mobile crane, I decided to build another minifigure-scale crane. This time it is a truck-based crane: a Liebherr LTF 1060.
Unlike the Mammoet crane, this one uses a commercial truck chassis built by Scania. This type of cranes typically has better on-road mobility than those that use dedicated chassis. I primarily liked it because it was different and, when I found a yellow one operated by the Dutch company “Kuiphuis” pulling a trailer with accessories, I was hooked.
LEGO’s long history and the quality of the elements mean that there is a vast collection of parts suitable for this type of build. For instance, among the real crane’s accessories are a crane crab and a concrete bucket. And LEGO made a crane grab in yellow. And there is a suitable handle for the bucket, in yellow too. These parts are thirty and twenty years old, respectively.
Even LEGO construction workers need a portable toilet and a trailer for a temporary office while on a job site. Coming from builder Ralph Savelsberg, these two items are no doubt appreciated by the construction worker minifigures, despite their moods. The portable toilet features the ever lovely orange LEGO pieces for that classic look–just don’t be inside it when it comes time to move it…. The trailer itself is small, but there’s enough room inside to have a coffee break away from the elements. There’s a cute little window with shutters to watch the site and a nice step-up so no one has to jump in or out. To keep the trailer steady, since it’s only on two wheels, there are four supports. Between the two items, the color choices are spot on and the designs are keen.
A fair few of the Dutch builders that I occasionally hang out with are very much into building heavy-duty trucks and construction equipment, such as cranes or mining excavators. And they tend to like to build them BIG. I’ve dabbled a bit in the genre, but I’ve always been somewhat the odd one out in our little group, mainly building smaller models. And I’ve gone progressively smaller: in recent years more and more of my models are scaled for minifigures. I rarely have the time or patience to build really big things. I am also running out of space to display large models.
If you take a big crane and build it to a small scale, you still end up with a fairly substantial model, though. Case in point: my Liebherr LTM-1350 mobile crane, as operated by the Dutch company Mammoet (Mammoth). Despite its relatively small scale, there is just enough room for some functionality. For instance, the crane’s outriggers and boom can extend and it has working steering on five of its six axles. When fully extended, its boom reaches a height of close to a metre (about three feet). Furthermore, cranes like this may be mobile, but they do require a fleet of support vehicles. This includes a separate truck to carry its counter-weights. The crane’s crew also tends to have a small “pool car” to drive around. If the crane is in transit, an escort van usually accompanies the convoy. The small scale meant I could build all of them.
After President Trump’s failed attempt to broker peace on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea resumed ballistic missile tests in 2019. They have done so many since, it has become quite hard to keep track of them all. However, two tests, in September 2021 and in January of this year, stand out because the missiles were launched from a train. Putting missiles on a train makes some sense. If it were to come under attack, North Korea needs to ensure it can still launch its missiles. Mobile launchers make it much harder for an adversary to find and destroy them on the ground. And North Korea has poor roads but a fairly well-developed train network. Finding the launchers becomes a shell game; just about any box car in the country can house an unpleasant surprise.
The train in September consisted of a single Soviet-built M62 diesel locomotive; a very common type in communist countries. This pulled two freight cars. The first was a regular Chinese-built P61 box car. The second was externally similar, but it had an opening roof, extra doors in its side and launchers for two ballistic missiles inside. I admire the skill that goes into building a LEGO train, but the last time I built one was in 2014. And the one before that was in 2009, so it is fair to say that I rarely build trains. But North Korean missiles on a train definitely piqued my interest. I have built number of other missile launchers recently, including a Soviet MAZ-547 transporter erector launcher for an SS-20 ballistic missile and a Cold-War cruise missile launcher. This fits that theme perfectly.
Furthermore, I also happen to write professionally about missiles from North Korea and I write computer models to predict their trajectories. So, the research that went into building this model is directly linked to what I do for a living. Over the years I have found that quite a few people in similar lines of work are actually LEGO builders.
Time flies. It has been 14 years since my LEGO aircraft were first featured on The Brothers Brick. Perhaps surprisingly, I still have most of the models I had back then. However, although I updated several of them over the years, my F-16 Fighting Falcon, commonly known as a Viper, and my F/A-18 Hornet were now really showing their age. My jet models usually have a retractable undercarriage and that takes up quite a bit of space. As a result, the fuselages on the old versions were about a stud too wide for their scale. So, my main goal was to make those narrower. This obviously requires major changes and, rather than updating the existing models once more, I decided to rebuild them from scratch.
Using curved parts, wedge plates, and various brackets that didn’t exist when I built the originals, I further improved their shape. Some things have stayed the same, though. Lately, I have built some studless models, but it is no secret that I do like studs on my models. To fit with my older models, these two still have them. And while the old versions may have been old, they had features that I liked, such as the design of the cockpit canopy on the F-16 and much of the design of the main landing gear on the Hornet, so I copied those. While I have become somewhat fatter as I have reached middle age, my models are now slimmer and far more elegant. And with these changes, they’re good to go for another decade.
I keep a few folders on my computer, as well as a paper folder, with pictures and drawings of possible future LEGO projects. That paper folder has held a three-view drawing of a USAF F-22 Raptor fighter for at least ten years now. The drawing included a few measurements, for how large it would be if I were to build it LEGO. The reason it was in its folder for so long is that I could never figure out how to actually build it. However, I am still learning new tricks. Furthermore, LEGO keeps coming up with elements that make previously impossible things possible.
Now, I didn’t actually build the F-22. Other people have done admirable jobs on that (notably Corvin Stichert and Lennart Cort). I wanted something different, so instead, I built the YF-22 prototype. This won the “Advanced Tactical Fighter” competition in 1991, to replace the USAF’s F-15 fighters. The F-22 Raptor is its production version. The jet’s design really pushed the envelope, with low observability (“stealth”) combined with high speed and high agility. And building it, I feel I pushed the envelope too.
In the last few years, I have been building a range of LEGO minifigure-scale missiles and missile launchers. They range from cruise missiles launchers to ICBMs. My latest model is a so-called TELAR, part of the Soviet surface-to-air missile system called “Buk” (Russian: “Бук”; English “beech”). NATO calls it the SA-11 “Gadfly”. Soviet military doctrine emphasized integration between ground forces and their air defenses. Because of this, many Soviet surface-to-air missile systems used tracked vehicles, so that they could move together with the ground forces.
TELAR stands for a transporter-erector-launcher and radar. The name covers what it does quite nicely. The Buk TELAR carries four missiles on top of its turret, on rails that can be erected before launch. It has its own missile guidance radar in a dome at the front of its turret. The crew sits inside the armored hull below. Usually, such TELARs operate together with a few others, as well as a command post and a surveillance radar, which also are tracked vehicles. But, because it has its own radar, it can also operate on its own. Like most of my LEGO builds, it is not actually all that tough, though. It is only tough in the sense of that I found building a minifigure scale armored and tracked vehicle tough going. So, my hat is off to all of you out there who build minifigure-scale armor. This is one of the first times I have done it and I really struggled to keep it small enough. I wanted the scale to look right with the minifigure soldier next standing next to it. As a result, there is so little space inside that I could only fit a driver. And, like most of my builds, the model is actually quite flimsy. In fact, none of my models from the last ten years or so would ever be suitable as a child’s toy, even those that aren’t weapons of war. However, I do like the end result; it is a unique addition to my collection.
Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun building minifigure scale trucks, instead of, say, aircraft or larger-scale vehicles. These are three of my latest: Dutch DAF trucks. The first represents an XF105 Super Space Cab, with a trailer carrying a 40ft Maersk refrigerated container. It is similar to thousands that roam European motorways.