Hidden in Plane Sight (Blog or Die! Entry #18)

Accepted entry for the “Article” category.

Author: LettuceBrick (Nice Try)

Word Count: 1,424

Hidden in Plane Sight


Hello again, constant reader! It’s LettuceBrick, back with a smattering of seriousness.

Much has been made of both The Lego Group’s stated repudiation of violence in its products and its obvious, perhaps even aggressive, pushing into gray areas towards outright contravention of its standard of nonviolence. This article is an exploration of the gray areas – with a focus on non-licensed themes, more on that later – that have helped Lego to make a killing and, as a happy and surely unintentional side effect, have produced some rather kick-ass models.

As a preliminary, it seems a definition of those vexing gray areas is in order. To this end, I will, at my peril, ignore the dictionary and even common sense to focus instead on an implicit definition as proffered by TLG itself. Readers may prefer to consult a more authoritative…  authority.

Since TLG’s actions speak louder than its words, I’ll eliminate those categories of violence which, since they have direct representations in sets, are obviously not off-limits. For starters, it seems that the remoteness of the violent actions involved matters. Thus, Western themes don’t seem to count because that violence happened a long time ago, Castle can’t possibly count because that violence happened an even longer time ago, and Star Wars really doesn’t count because, in addition to happening a long, long time ago, that violence happened somewhere far, far away.

Now, of course, other licensed themes contain violence as well. Here we arrive in another gray area. After all, pretty much all of these themes contain no more violence than is perfectly acceptable in mainstream entertainment, even for children. In a sense, Lego is following the lead of the license (though they did make the choice to acquire the license in the first place) and thus of the prevailing (apply all relevant disclaimers here) culture. Said licenses have of course been picked up less for any grand ideals they may or may not espouse than for the absolute shed-loads of cash that they can generate.

So perhaps it is only modern, real-world violence that is beyond the pale for TLG. But what then is modern violence, I hear you cry. (Ok, well, I don’t, but perhaps somebody else did.) Does the American Civil War count? Sure, they had trenches and Gatling guns, but have you seen the facial hair on those people? Not modern at all, hipsters notwithstanding. TLG seems to agree with the “mustache meter” as a measure of antiquity if their old Western theme is any indication. Those bluecoats do look an awful lot like Union soldiers.

So perhaps the First World War? Well, the (really quite lovely) large-scale models of the Sopwith Camel and Fokker Triplane would seem to argue against it, despite that war being the first really stark example of industrial killing. Then again, TLG has refrained from making any sets even remotely approaching the predominant horrors of that war: poison gas and trench warfare. Even if Lego decides to go all Rambo all of a sudden and announces something akin to a great battles theme, I doubt one of the sets would be “Gas at Second Ypres.” Even the Wonder Woman from that period shies away from such horrors in favor of a more innocuous aircraft. We thus seem to be approaching a definition of what flies and what does not: whether or not it flies.

This leaves the Second World War, which we approach via Indiana Jones (yes, yes, it’s a licensed theme). Here, we find several vehicles of a rather military flavor, especially the amphibious 4×4 that bears a resemblance to a Volkswagen Schwimmwagen and the monoplane which approximates a Messerschmidt Bf 109. Still, these vehicles are merely props in a character-driven story removed from the immediate context of the war they seem to fit into, not in a Blitzkrieg battle pack or something. Also, one of them flies and the other isn’t exactly a main battle tank.

Returning to the skies, and in particular the non-licensed atmosphere, we find an interesting phenomenon: that of the (garishly) camouflaged flying object. Many of these are very, very generic and so don’t really enter into this discussion.  Here we come at last, long-suffering reader, to my main point: many flying Lego objects bear a striking resemblance to modern military vehicles.

Let’s start with the F-14 Tomcat, 20,000 kilos of pure killing machine and total crowd pleaser:


Photo credit: US Navy

Awe-inspiring to be sure, but perhaps not the sort of thing TLG is “supposed” to be reproducing in the brick. With that in mind, consider the following Creator set:


Photo credit: Brickset

Sure the intakes are wrong and the colors are bright, but the overall look is very Tomcat-esque.

Next up we have the Eurofighter Typhoon, Europe’s answer to there’s something flying and I want it gone:


Photo credit: Bundesheer

And here we have the excellent Sonic Boom:


Photo credit: Brickset

Okay, okay, the intakes are at the sides and not underneath and it has horizontal stabilizers. So maybe a Rafale? Or a Eurofale?

Lastly in the jet category, we have everybody’s favorite concurrent boondoggle, the effing-35:


Photo credit: US Airforce

And what follows is not at all, in any way, shape, form, fever dream, etc. an effing-35:


Photo credit: Brickset

I can tell because it has two seats, rearward visibility, and actually went on sale within the intended timeframe.

It’s not all about the jets though. TLG also has also offered some familiar-looking helicopters:

Photo credits: Brickset: 1,2,3,4

Clockwise from the upper left we have a slightly tenuous AW101, an S-61R, a CH-47, and a CH-53. These are even more on the nose than their pointy brethren above.

Finding corresponding real-world pictures and other examples is left as an exercise for the reader. (As a slight aside, scavenger hunt time! Find the Lego depiction, in red of all colors, of an armored personnel carrier.)

So it seems TLG has no issues with using the basic shape of a real-life military aircraft in sets, which leads to a few obvious questions. Some of the vehicles exist in civilian versions, which would suggest another gray area, but many others do not. So what are the criteria for depicting an aircraft in a set?

Is it perhaps the color that matters? The Sonic Boom for instance is draped in red and white, the colors of the Red Cross, Canada, and that paragon of peacefulness, Switzerland. The other jets could perhaps emulate aerobatic display team paint schemes, which though less menacing (pretty colors!) than haze gray remain directly tied to military forces.

Or perhaps it’s the application which matters, as suggested by the helicopters? Surely no one can object to volcano explorers or firefighters repurposing ostensibly military airframes, though the thought of cops rappelling from a large helicopter may be cause for rather more pause. Then again, if a military-capable jet is used by a large corporation as a purely aerobatic display aircraft à la Breitling Jet Team, would that be okay? Could we see an official Lego BJT L-39 Albatross?

The overall formula seems to be as follows: take the cool-looking flying thing, make it not gray, don’t attach any missiles, and you’re good to go.

In the end, it seems even Lego is not entirely immune from the realization that violence is just about the only thing that sells as well as the German pronunciation of what you get when you multiply two by three. (Anyone wanna see whether or not that’ll fly on MOCPages?)

So does it matter? Who knows? Does anyone care?

Lego certainly doesn’t seem to. Lego sales have not suffered from any colorful warplane backlash, though I doubt the yay-combat-aircraft-in-cute-colors market is what is really driving the profits. Nobody else seems to care either, with the wider world reserving its ire for Lego Friends and the increase in grrr-faced minifigs. The collective response from AFOLs seems to have been a collective shrug, though there are a few very helpful Brickset bricklists dedicated to military aircraft. As for the children (there, someone thought of them) I’d say they have plenty of more traumatizing things to be traumatized by.

So I’d say Lego has found a middle ground that works. They can capitalize on the sleekness and coolness of modern combat aircraft while at the same time camouflaging the vehicles’ origins. In short, they appropriate a motif that is very familiar while at the same time keeping it within a zone of colorful, garish gray.


17 thoughts on “Hidden in Plane Sight (Blog or Die! Entry #18)

  1. Technically that version of 60010 was a failure, and reissued as a new version within a month of release. (note that Bricklink has just recently processed a “split” for this set, and the part counts and build details vary significantly – link is attached to comment). Now to determine which one of these I could build in a more inappropriate color scheme.


  2. This is one of my favorite articles of the contest, and a very unexpected topic. Good on you to do this research. The resemblance between model and aircraft is very interesting, as is our behind-the-scenes tour of Lego’s probable design process. The F-35 resemblance is uncanny. I still want that set, but it it interesting to compare it to a real-life vehicle.

    I am glad that Lego holds on to standards for their products, whether the line is clear or blurry. But I do wonder whether or not introducing more military sets would see a drop in sales or popularity. One of the first not-Lego sets I grew up with was an F-14 Tomcat, made by the plastic devil itself, Megablocks. And lo, it was decked out with plastic white missiles, tomcat livery, and a grey camo scheme. So here I wonder, what would happen if Lego tried that?


  3. Don’t have much to say here, but that was a very well-written analysis. I’m not normally into official product, but this was fascinating. TLG naturally uses a lot of reference photos for their models, and I suppose some of them end up looking more faithful to one particular source, with minor changes where it makes the set design easier. Why come up with a completely original design when airplane designers have done all the heavy lifting for you? It makes sense rather than starting from scratch, and I’m sure plenty of kids who are into military stuff recognize those planes at some level. Incidentally, that F-35/Blue Power Jet was designed by Mike Psiaki, an AFOL who did a lot of airplane replicas back in the day (though he’s probably best known for highly influential his X-Wing design).


    1. I agree that the lack of comments so far is just indicative of how well-written this is… or at least that’s what I tell myself every time I write an article and hardly get any comments =D.

      For the “instructshuns plz” crowd with military interests, and who REALLY don’t want to do any heavy lifting, I wonder if anyone has compiled a list of these types of sets for them… but then again, perhaps they might still find that it’s too difficult to swap colors, etc. If it’s not 100% laid out before them, and they are told exactly what to do, it will never get done They just want it everything handed to them…


  4. I really enjoyed this article, well done. The pictures comparisons were perfect. I always figured those jets were based off some real life jet but didn’t know which ones. TLGs attempt to be non-violent or non-military does seem to be a bit superficial. It is more like they are going for PG-13 violence and shy back from R ratings, no blood splatters and only one F-bomb.


  5. Lockheed’s going to need some ointment after that sick burn on the F-35. An informative and entertaining article from what appears to be a fellow aircraft enthusiast. You know your stuff and it shows.


  6. Another well put together, and very unique, article! Honestly something I’d never considered before, but after you place the images side by side, the resemblance is downright uncanny. TLG seems to ever so slightly sliding towards that PG-13 club…


    1. Kind of makes sense that they’d target that crowd though, within the realm of their non-violent ethos at least. That’s around when dark ages tend to start, so maybe TLG figures they can hold onto those pubescent kids a little longer. I’m sure Mindstorms does the same thing, though that’s outside most teens’ budget and usually related to school.


  7. Finally got around to reading this and was NOT disappointed. Brilliant indictment of something TLG has tried to skate around for decades and failed. Don’t much care, but saying that they are not orienting any themes towards violence is a total crock of shit. Those were not “scanners” or “probes” that the CS spacemen had, they were fucking guns. I’ve always despised TLG’s pathetic dance to ignore war, violence, and real life when their main themes have been castle with swords (strictly for chopping onions), space with guns (for probing aliens in some Fire in the Sky payback), and town. Town. Where the main focus of sets available involve a police station or fire station. Yes, Lego town; the most crime ridden, flammable town ever to have existed. How about that population density ya’ll got going there? As of late, it seems that the criminally inclined consist of around twenty percent. Is that where my property taxes go?! Incarceration and transportation of robbers? How can there NOT be violence when TLG snuck it in already?

    Lettuce, your article here is genius, and kudos for slamming Lockheed. Disguising a weapon with primary colors doesn’t hide the fact that it is a weapon. You know, for death. I live in Prescott AZ where the biggest gun dealer in town is located behind the Post Office (I cannot make that shit up folks.) They sell AR-15s with pink stocks, handles, and barrels. Doesn’t make ’em less lethal. It really pains me when I see TLG vomit out their bullshit rhetoric when they have pieces that can be called nothing other than a gun, a rifle, a katana, a halberd, or anything that has no other use than to kill another human being. They either need to embrace it or simply shut up. Great way to call them out, Lettuce!


  8. Another great article. I hadn’t considered the various aircraft in the light of modern warplanes, but you’re right. Complete recoloured copies, almost all of them.
    The theme that really crystallised TLG’s doublemindedness about violence was Jurassic Park/Jurassic World. I was writing a Classic Space-related story on the old LMBs during the latter part of Jurassic World’s shelf life (yeah, I was on the LMBs as an AFOL. I was ignorant back then), and got an episode rejected with the terse message “no killing and death in your stories”. And yet… Jurassic World? Here’s a theme directly tying into a movie that shown people getting eaten alive, that you people deliberately chose to get a licence for, and you’re worried about me mentioning that a character didn’t make it out when his spaceship was turned into drifting plasma?!? This is not fair!
    Apparently violent death is fine if it’s rampaging dinosaurs doing the killing.
    Ole Kirk Christiansen’s original line on nonviolence has been twisted into pretzel shapes, it seems. “Fantasy violence”, which they take to include everything from Batman to orcs to pirates to the Western theme is ok, they tell us, but where exactly does your definition of “fantasy” stop?
    It’s been going on for a while, I’ll grant you. Every kid everywhere knew those “torches” the Classic Space guys had were guns, just like the twin bar projection on the front of the Galaxy Explorer were laser cannon. But the blurring of the line seems to be getting more overt and consistent lately, and I think it’s the growth of official story that’s mostly responsible.
    When it comes to stories, without conflict of some kind you have no plot. And TLG these days is all about story, whether it’s licensed themes like Star Wars and superheroes or homegrown stuff like Ninjago. Imagining Ninjago without its ninja being allowed to kick butt is kind of weird, like Harry Potter without the death subtheme, or Star Wars without the destruction of entire planets. It’s there to make the story work. And because the modern TLG is (almost) as much about stories as it is about building, conflict and violence find their way into the sets with increasing regularity. Even modern City sets have their Cops vs Criminals factional conflict, though without overt guns. And once you have conflict, it’s only a short step from there to increasing violence.


  9. Ah… a topic near and dear to my heart.

    Excellent article, but I think you should have treated the rotary wing aircraft with the same care and deliberation you show with the fixed wing aircraft.

    You kept a step ahead of me, as I read, by invoking the notion that many of these helicopters are in fact used by non-military government agencies. That was an excellent point, that speaks to your attention to objectivity, and the importance of specificity.

    What I really liked about your take on Lego and violence was that you took examples from the themes that we all sort of ignore when we think “Lego Violence”. Most of us think: “Violence… yeah, castle, LOTR, and the other franchise kits, super heroes, Indiana Jones, Pirates…”

    You went to “Builder”. My first thought was… Huh? Those generic building kits? What violence? You successfully put unambiguous examples right in my face… and in so doing, the PERFECTION of your title suddenly rang in my brain like a massive bell. Well done man! It’s so obvious… right there… every day… but because I don’t look at those sets? I literally never gave them a second thought! In this respect, your article was SPOT ON! I congratulate you on spotting the potential of this topic.

    Good humor, and good tone as well. Very readable. Not choking on it’s own irony, but pretty funny at times: “Star Wars really doesn’t count because, in addition to happening a long, long time ago, that violence happened somewhere far, far away.”

    A simple joke is a good joke… I laughed.

    As for the discussion beyond your article, I think the topic is huge, and there are a lot of potential sub-topics.

    For example, there is often a lot of jumping around between related, but significantly different topics. Terms that are discrete, and vital to the discussion, but often left sort of spinning around in the wash cycle:

    Municipal Authority.
    First Responder.

    All this stuff is part of our shared culture, our lives, and of course… it all sells like hot cakes. Lego knows that most soccer moms don’t want to HEAR any of these words, AND AT THE SAME TIME, that most soccer moms buy toy and media versions of these concepts for their children without batting an eye.

    I think it is fare to characterize Lego as conflicted on this issue. They strive to down play many of these notions, even while capitalizing on them to drive sales. So, it may even be fare to say that TLG is hypocritical in this regard.

    At the same time, I think its accurate to say that TLG is holding back from some fast easy profit by not launching whole hog into the war toy market (as other brands have). A toy company that does NOT exploit a wide, short path to assured profit? That’s uncommon… and I think TLG deserves some credit for honestly struggling against the tide here. They are losing the fight against violence (he he… fight against violence) … but make no mistake, TLG is fighting. That is a dam rare behavior in our unforgiving market place. I put TLG right there next to Chick Fil’A in terms of “commitment to published values”. Those guys at the chicken sandwich joint could sell those bitchen sandwiches ALL DAY LONG on Sunday… but they don’t. And profit has NOTHING to do with that decision. I want my sandwich on Sunday damnit! But at the same time, I tip my hat to a big company that holds firm based on a cultural decision. I go so far as to call such behavior “morally legitimizing”

    So, I am totally down with your assertion that Lego is MUCH more violent than they want us to think… yep. Agree. But I think we often overlook how much easy money they are turning their back on. Hell, consider all the after market weapons and armor guys are selling out there! Every one of their sales represents money lost by TLG because they wont develop there product more fully in those areas! And all the Megablock and other knock off brands that push modern military weapons.

    In the end, I think TLGs greatest fault is not in their actions, but in their “not quite sincere enough” rhetoric. And in the end… your dam right I’m going to keep forgiving them that small foible.

    Great article on a great topic man.



  10. Official Contest Review
    Entry # 18
    Title: Hidden in Plane Sight
    Author: LettuceBrick
    Views: 119 Comments: 12

    Favorite Quote: “Surely no one can object to volcano explorers or firefighters repurposing ostensibly military airframes, though the thought of cops rappelling from a large helicopter may be cause for rather more pause.

    Favorite Comment inspired by the entry: “At the same time, I think its accurate to say that TLG is holding back from some fast easy profit by not launching whole hog into the war toy market (as other brands have). A toy company that does NOT exploit a wide, short path to assured profit? That’s uncommon… and I think TLG deserves some credit for honestly struggling against the tide here. They are losing the fight against violence (he he… fight against violence) … but make no mistake, TLG is fighting. That is a dam rare behavior in our unforgiving market place. – Rutherford

    Single Sentence Summary: An examination of Lego’s relationship with violence, including an emphasis on comparing generic Lego aircraft sets to real world military aircraft.

    The Good:

    1. Like all of my favorite contest entries, you really surprised me with the topic. I kind of thought the broader subject of Lego and violence might come up because it’s part of the trinity of all-timers along with religion and sex but I didn’t expect the angle you took. The Nazis of the Indiana Jones sets and the space-nazis of Star Wars are the low hanging fruit of the argument but you honed in on something more subtle and ultimately interesting. It was fascinating to see example after example of Lego watering down or making military aircraft more palatable to the public. I’d never considered the connection before and if that’s not a sign of an effective piece of writing I don’t know what is.

    2. I mentioned it in the “whatever” section too, but the strength of this article is the quality of the writing. You nailed the structure, grammar, humor, research, entertainment value…everything. Some of the entries were kind of tedious to read twice, but this article rewarded a second and even third reading. It was also the most difficult for me to pull a “favorite quote”, there were too many to choose from. There is no fluff here, no word-count padding, it’s wonderfully economical and effective writing.

    3. In the conclusion you wrote “So does it matter? Who knows? Does anyone care?” Usually I find it annoying when writers pose new questions at the end of an article, for me the time for questions is in the introduction or maybe in the body of the essay if it makes sense. But in this case I enjoyed you tacking it on to the end and I thought you handled your answer in and entertaining and concise fashion while still leaving the reader with a question to wrestle with since your thesis doesn’t really leave much room for argument. I don’t know if that was an intentional strategy or not but I thought it was smart.

    The Bad:

    1. This may seem like a cop-out but I wanted it to be longer. The article definitely meets the requirements for the contest and structurally the article is complete, but I didn’t want it to end, I wanted to read more about your observations on Lego and violence.

    2. I think you might have beefed up the sections between photos, expanding on similarities between the aircraft. I have the feeling you could really take it down to the nuts and bolts if you wanted to. I’m guessing you wanted the reader to do the heavy lifting here, to observe and compare and make their own assessment of your claim, but it would have been interesting to hear your point-by-point assessment.

    3. 3. I got nothing…well…okay, I thought your title was cheesy. Still kind of a weak point so let me ask you this instead, what do you think of 42066, does it correspond to a real world aircraft?

    The Whatever:
    You write like Rutherford, if he had the ability to ruthlessly self edit, and without all the SHOUTING and pedantic structural signaling. This was the only entry that prompted me to wonder whether or not you were a professional writer, or just had to write a great deal for your job. This piece was really tight, probably the best written of the bunch in terms of grammar, structure, and polish. It also looked like you hammered on this one with multiple re-writes, if you didn’t I’m even more impressed. I will be sorely disappointed if this is your last article for the Manifesto.


    1. Your stupid Keith.

      The title is the very best part of the article. Just like I said in my own comments. I even said it was PERFECTION all in caps, and your stupid Keith.


  11. I avoided this one to be honest; I have no interest in the subject you tackle, be it lego ethics (except that I’m totally against it – against the idea, which is either akin to censorship or goes the “if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist” route) or planes/’copters. That being said, the writing was ace and kept me entertained throughout; I’d love to see more article written by you, I can only imagine how awesome it would be to about something I do care about. So congrats on a well deserved win.

    One thing bugged me though; you keep referring to TLG this and TLG that. I want to give an alternate (possibly wrong) view here – these sets are done by designers that follow a beaten path to building – researching the subject of a build, finding cool references and using them. Some of them might know what those planes are, others won’t aside from looking cool – whichever the option, I don’t think this really matters, doubt the designers are so taken with the ethics to care what the object used as reference is.

    Then comes the green-lighting part – are you sure the people doing this made the connections you did (also if they did, do they care)? I highly doubt everyone there’s an authority on planes. My guess is the review is something like this. Playfeatures – check, sturdy – check, no weapons (the horror, the horror) – check > Good to go, NEXT!

    The way you wrote it, seemed like TLG is an entity entirely characterized by these ethics; but it’s not, it’s a group of people, each with their own ideas, ethics and knowledge. Therefore something like this is no surprise.


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