|Set reference: 9396 |
Set name: Helicopter
Theme: LEGO Technic
Release date: 2012.Aug
Number of elements: 1056 (some spare elements added in the box)
LEGO Designer: Kossi (Markus Kossman)
Model under review: Main model
Approximate set dimensions (unfolded rotor):
Length - 73cm (28,7")
Width - 55cm (21,5")
Height - 21cm (8,3") extended landing gear; 18cm (7,1") retracted landing gear
Approximate box dimensions:
Length - 37,7cm (14,8")
Width - 47,5cm (18,7")
Height - 6,4cm (2,5")
Building instructions: 3 booklets (80, 60 and 60 pages each), with 144 major building steps for the main model: 1-3/3
B-model: Twin-Rotor Helicopter - Instructions available online only: 1/1
Recommended for ages: 10 - 16
Building difficulty level: Medium
Estimated building time: 4 - 5 hours
Price range: 90€ (Estimated average retail price)
Price per part: 8,5 euro cents (Estimated)
Inventory (Bricklink): Link (when available)
Inventory (Peeron): Link (when available)
Other user reviews (Brickset): Link (when available)
These have been some intense times here at TBs , haven't them? Just as the 9398 4x4 Crawler got an unexpected early release, so did the comparatively smaller 9396 Helicopter. And here is the review for you to get to know more about this set and hopefully help you decide whether to buy it.
Markus states in his bio that he loves everything that flies, and for the second half of 2012 he got the opportunity to give that fondness a spin (pun intended). In the vein of other remarkable models like the 8421 Mobile Crane, the 8275 Motorized Bulldozer or the 8265 Front Loader, again he gives us another large set with plenty of stuff to build and play with.
1. The package and contents
The box, as expectable from the second-largest set of the semester, is quite large, albeit without a front flap further highlighting the model; that gimmick is reserved for the really bigger sets. To open the box, you’ll have to cut the stickers at the front and tear the "ears" on each side. The front displays prominently the main model, with a detail of its functions. These functions are:
- spinning main and tail rotors;
- retractable landing gear;
- opening rear loading ramp;
- side winch;
- adjustable collective pitch;
- manually operated side doors.
For the first time, a LEGO set has the "Ready for Power Functions" logo. This means the set is made to be motorised, but the relevant elements must be bought separately. Some previous sets like the 9395 Pick-Up Tow Truck (reviewed here)can be motorised too, but this caption is new; I have a feeling this isn't the last we see of it. 2012 already offers "out-of-the-box motorisation" for two sets, the 9397 Logging Truck (soon with a kind of review here at TBs ) and the 9398 4x4 Crawler (reviewed here), and making motorisation optional on the Helicopter helps in keeping the set's cost down for those who don't like motorisation or already have the required elements.
The rear of the box's surface is equally divided between an image of the model with the optional motorisation, which uses elements from the 8293 Motor Set, and one of the B-model. Like the main model, it is a helicopter, but this time it is of a Twin-Rotor variety.
1.1. Inside the box
Surprisingly, there isn't much empty space inside the box (sorry, I forgot to take a picture). Practically all space is taken by the unnumbered element bags and a large plastic bag apparently containing the Dreaded Sticker Sheet, the instruction booklets, and two sheets of cardboard.
The instructions are divided in three booklets, with 80, 60 and 60 pages, respectively. These show how to build the main model, how to motorise it, its element inventory, and some suggestions on other Technic sets you can buy or nag someone to buy for you.
The stickers bring a lot of detail to the model, and mainly feature various markings you typically see on aircraft, markings for the tips of the rotors (so that they look more realistic and can be better seen for safety reasons), and colour transitions to help with the global scheme where "unstickered" elements aren't enough.
2. The new elements
Wait, did someone mention there were two cardboard sheets protecting the instructions and stickers, not just one? Yes, ever since the 8070 Supercar TLG has been packaging the instructions and stickers for large sets inside a plastic bag, together with one cardboard sheet to avoid having them damaged during transit/storage. But inside the Helicopter's plastic bag there is an extra sheet. And it's there for a good reason: the two sheets are here to protect something else sandwiched between them: the new large rotor blades.
This set premieres two new elements (along with another one, which will be discussed later, but that one is shared by the 9398 4x4 Crawler), which play a significant part of adding realism to this model: the large and small rotor blades, which, predictably and respectively, form the bulk of the main and tail rotors. We get four copies of each.
Each large blade is dark bluish grey, and appears to be made from standard LEGO ABS. Its tip, however, is entirely composed of black rubber and is quite malleable. While this adds to its weight and moment of inertia,this is a safety measure: you wouldn't want to be hit by a thin piece of hard plastic spinning at high velocity, would you? The element is 30.5 studs long and 2.25 studs wide, and its BI (Building Interface) consists of three pin holes oriented perpendicularly to the blade's surface. I'm not sure about the aerodynamic efficiency of this blade, but, from looking at it, I'd say it would be lower than that of the Propeller 1 Blade 14L with Two Pin Holes and Four Axles (which was designed specifically with aerodynamics in mind), but obviously better that any plate-built contraption. The element number engraved on it is 99013.
Besides the large blade, there's the small blade. It is entirely composed of ABS (no rubber tip here), and also dark bluish grey. It measures 8 by 1.25 studs. It can be connected to other elements via a pin hole perpendicular to its surface, and also via an axle hole at its end. Since its larger cousin is expected to withstand more powerful centrifugal forces, it lacks this connection to encourage better bracing. I guess we will see people experimenting with this blade in boat propellers, replacing elements like the Propeller 2 Blade 9 Diameter. The element number engraved on it is 99012. Funnily enough, both blades have in them a copyright mark from 2011, which certainly is when the Helicopter was in full development.
We also get three of the new 4L axles with stop, which are also present on the 9398. These are mainly used on the switching gearbox, as you'll see below.
3. The element assortment
This being a rescue helicopter, naturally we get lots of brightly-coloured elements. Unfortunately, they are in the usual reds and yellows typical of Technic: other, less common colours like blue or green would admittedly look out of place in a model like this, but the yellow elements could be replaced with white and still look realistic.
Still, fans of buying sets to use their elements in MOC's will like the large selection of panels, which include two of the smallest panels in black, one red Panel Fairing # 5 Long Smooth, Side A without its symmetrical counterpart (it is used as a stabiliser in the tail), and one light bluish grey Panel Plate 1 x 5 x 11.
There are also two of the new Axle and Pin Connectors Perpendicular Double 4L, which made their debut in the 9397 Logging Truck.
Curiously, this set gets its rigidity without any Technic frames, namely 64178 and 64179.
There is also a rich selection of gears, including quite a few Gears 16 Tooth, both regular and clutch, a pair of Changeover Plates and Catches, and one uncommon Gear 36 Tooth Double Bevel.
Also present are two Linear Actuators Mini, an element that would be more expectable in a big, heavy construction vehicle than in a nimble helicopter.
4. Building experience
Having opened the bags and spilled their contents in orderly piles on my table, it's time to start construction, under the watchful eye of my assistant, who made sure I'd build everything right.
Unlike most studless models which are built inside-out, or more traditional "studmore" models which are built bottom-up, the 9396 gets built from the front to the rear. The construction process first deals with the assembly of the cockpit and the front landing gear, then the middle (including the main rotor assembly), and finally the tail and some details at the top.
Roughly half-way through the first booklet, it's time to install the Panels Curved 11 x 3, and to (gasp) apply the first stickers. These mark the beginning of the red portion of the helicopter, which dominates its bottom and rear.
And now, a mind-blowing seven studded elements are added all in the same step! These form the instrument panel on the cockpit, and take two more stickers for extra realism. One thing I noted is that the two sets of instruments are symmetrical. Supposing the helicopter's crew includes a pilot and a co-pilot and any of them has at his or her service all the required controls to fly the aircraft, I guess the instruments should be the same instead of symmetrical.
And here the first of the new 4L axles with stop gets added. Soon this assembly will go into the helicopter to become the "Hand of God" mechanism that brings life to four of its functions. Now this element's purpose becomes clear: it is used to clamp a Gear 16 Tooth with Clutchbetween two other elements. The 16T gear rests around the axle's stop, and, because of that stop, the elements clamping it (like other gears or axle joiners) are unable to squeeze it and keep it from freely spinning.
By the end of the first booklet, the helicopter looks like it was bitten by a shark: while its front is practically complete (only a few details above the cockpit still remain to be built), the back is completely missing. The two mLA's are already assembled into the model, and clearly visible.
They are already connected to part of their mechanisms, so it's time to test if everything works smoothly so far, and to have the first glimpse of the extensive use the model makes of linkages instead of traditional gears; in fact, all mechanisms at the bottom of the model are linkage-based, whereas all at the top are gear-based. Appropriately, the mLA's are in the middle. The left mLA extends and retracts the landing gear, and the one at the front is already built. So far, the right mLA, which raises and lowers the loading ramp, isn't connected to anything relevant. Below you can watch how both mechanisms, when finished, work.
Now the model's main point of attraction gets built: the main rotor hub. On the very first year the theme that would be called "Technic" was born, TLG launched a helicopter with collective pitch control. It took 35 years for us to see another official set with this feature (of course, many of us are young enough to be seeing this for the first time).
The new small turntable is what makes the whole rotor spin. A non-rotating axle passes through it, and pushes or pulls vertically an assembly inside the hub. This assembly, which spins together with the rest of the hub, connects through a link to a blade and makes it pitch. The blades can pitch from 0º to about 45º. Even though I'm no helicopter expert, I think there are very realistic values.
While it is a minor disappointment that the rotor has only collective pitch and not cyclic, the hub is complex enough as it is (although maybe one or perhaps two studs could be shaved off its height if shorter links were available), so, for this model's size, I think this is an acceptable absence.
Next, this assembly is integrated in the rest of the model, including the linkage for the pitch control. On each side of the helicopter, near the cockpit, there is a black Pole Reverser Handle, that can be rotated to change the pitch of the blades. On real helicopters, the collective control is in the shape and position of a car's handbrake. Given that the space inside the cockpit is already taken by the landing gear mechanism and reaching your fingers inside the cabin is cumbersome, turning this into a Hand of God control, while obviously unrealistic, is understandable.
Here comes the by far worst part of the model: the winch. I don't have anything against it being fixed instead of retractable like on the 8856 Whirlwind Rescue, as the rest of the model's functions more than makes up for that. What I really, really dislike is the way the axle on which the Reel 3 x 2 is supported at the front, with a Pin Long with Friction Ridges Lengthwise and Stop Bush instead of a regular axle. I always dislike it when mechanised functions hinge on friction pins: we already have to contend with the unavoidable friction introduced by tolerances between gears, lack of lubrication (imagine getting oil stains all over your lovely LEGO models... yuck) and excess of load, so I don't see a need to artificially increase it further. Furthermore, the long version with bush offers a lot more resistance to rotation than the bog-standard friction pin. This makes the mechanism very hard to move by hand, and barely functional when motorised. While I understand that having no friction at all in the winch would have it unwind as soon as it got disengaged from the multiplexing mechanism, there is room for the traditional "pair of 8T's and friction axle pin" arrangement we've seen on countless official winch-equipped Technic models, which isn't so stubborn to move.
Now it's time for the multiplexing mechanism, so popular nowadays in Technic models that are or can be motorised. You can see the rest of the 4L axles with stop attached to the Axle Connectors. Again, they're here to allow the 16T clutch gears to spin freely without being squashed by adjacent elements. Also, note the 2L liftarm at the centre: the empty hole in it will be crossed by the axle leading to the tail rotor, so, when building, you'll want to make sure it is perfectly aligned with the beam behind it and any axle going through the assembly spins as smoothly as possible.
This mechanism, however, differs from other LEGO multiplexing mechanisms in one detail: one of the outputs transmits movement in one direction, and disengages in the other. A bit like a bicycle: if you stop pedalling or start pedalling backwards, the bike's rear wheel keeps spinning forward. This peculiarity, implemented by a ratchet on the output that drives the rotors, is here for two good reasons. First, it allows the rotors to spin in only one direction. No "oops, I had the silly thing in reverse" here! Second, it allows the rotors to keep coasting for a while after you stop rotating the knob. There are quite heavy and have a lot of inertia, so trying to brake them suddenly could, in extreme situations, lead to axle twisting, gear breaking and tear shedding.
A peculiarity of this ratchet mechanism, and one I doubt the Technic Team has tested, is that most certainly it prevents the rotor from working in zero gravity... The Liftarm 2 x 4 L-Shape Thick that is part of the ratchet effect only has gravity to pull it back into position. So, if any astronauts in orbit wish to swoosh this Technic helicopter, they will need to slightly modify it to include a rubber band, like the following proposal.
Next, the rear landing gear is built. You can see on the first video how the finished linkages work, before they get covered by the side struts and sponsons.
The loading ramp is finished. One of the pins on which the ramp itself hinges is of the variant with friction, which, like I wrote before about the winch, I really don't like. That said, at least in this case the mechanism still works fluidly and without problem. The winch is by far worse.
And thus ends the second booklet. The bottom of the helicopter is finished and the tail begins taking shape. The large panels with stickers for the bi-colour scheme are in place too. By this time, there was a change of shift and my assistant was replaced by my other assistant, who took the opportunity to try to hypnotise you into giving him a can of tuna and buying a 9396.
Like in all Technic sets launched or manufactured in 2012, the Triangle was replaced by its newer mould, with increased building possibilities, even though those increased building possibilities still aren't used. However, unlike the instructions for previous sets, the ones for the 9396 already show the new version.
And, finally, after mounting the rotor blades (equivalent on other sets' instructions to putting on the wheels: the grand finishing touch) the thing is built. Note that, although the model is quite large, the unintentional forced perspective effect makes it look larger than it is, thanks to my assistant being further away from the camera than the helicopter.
The last pages of the third instruction booklet, before the instructions for motorising the model, show how to operate it and what you need to motorise it.
After construction, the usual selection of small elements is left over as spares. Joining them, unexpectedly, is a pair of black 2x4 tiles (two other were used for the helicopter's instrument panel). Since these aren't used for the B-model either, I don't know what they're doing here. But hey, I'm not complaining: there's no such thing as "too much LEGO", right? (UPDATE: they're used to cover the studs on the instrument panel, near the other two tiles. Thanks szeidler!)
I'd classify the building experience as enjoyable. There were no dull or repetitive moments, and there was opportunity to try out the mechanisms (and eventually correct any building mistakes that may have been made) before the whole thing is in one piece, as you could see from the videos above.
Whenever an element was added that could fall off (like a Gear 16 Tooth with Clutch upon insertion into its axle), in the next step it would be secured in place. During building, the whole model never required additional care to avoid accidentally falling apart.
The experience was only slightly marred whenever a sticker needed to be applied: it took me a lot of care, patience and, in some cases, a few tries to have them in the ideal position. I'm really not a sticker person.
5. The finished model
As you saw from the last image, the 9396 is quite large for a LEGO set. Even being studless and without using any frame elements, the designer managed to create a solid model that practically doesn't twist.
I don't know enough about helicopters to recognise any specific model represented the 9396, but it appears similar to a Sikorsky S-61R with four blades per rotor; in any event, this is immediately recognisable as a rescue helicopter. The shape is good, with rounded panels and elements at an angle giving this model smooth, pleasant curves. I just think that the sponsons look a little too messy, but, to be honest, I can't think of a way to do them smoother without an excessive number of elements. I also wish there were come lights on the model: aircraft, especially rescue versions, tend to be well-lit, and not a single transparent element is included in the set.
Due to their length, weight and thinness, the main rotor blades curve down slightly. This is OK, since real helicopters also exhibit this behaviour. I just don't know what will be the long-term effect on them as LEGO elements.
Except for the black nose (to avoid having sunlight reflecting off it into the crew's eyes), the body is yellow in the front and red in the rear, with these colours divided diagonally around the middle. Too bad that a substantial part of that diagonal is achieved with stickers. The colour scheme is nice and realistic for this kind of aircraft, although red and yellow are too frequent on LEGO Technic and other colours would still be realistic.
Courtesy of the multiplexing gearbox, four of the helicopter's functions are actuated from a single knob on the left side. On each side, there is a switch to choose what functions get power: the left one lets you choose between spinning the rotors and extending/retracting the landing gear, and the right one switches between raising/lowering the hook and opening/closing the loading ramp.
In terms of gears, the model, even though it features a multiplexing gearbox for motorisation and has the interesting ratchet mechanism for the rotors, isn't overly complex: the functions come out of the gearbox practically without any gear trains. The real complexity of the model, unlike most other Technic sets, comes from linkages: it is quite interesting to see motion from the two vertically-mounted MLA's turn into the opening of the loading ramp and the extending of the landing gear. Speaking of landing gear, it is very stable when extended and has no problems at all withstanding the weight of the helicopter, even when motorised and loaded with batteries.
The biggest novelty in this model is, of course, the collective pitch mechanism. Even though the rotor hub has a considerable size, managing this functionality with LEGO elements at this scale is a feat, and the pitching works gracefully and is a pleasure to see in action.
Even though probably nobody would complain about their absence, the sliding side doors are a nice and unusual touch. My only problem with it is that they open too easily: maybe that could be remedied by placing a Pin 1/2 at the beam each door touches when it closes, and modifying the door to fit into that half-pin's exposed stud.
The mounting of the blades on the main rotor made me curious: why are they affixed with a friction pin and a Pin Long with Friction Ridges Lengthwise and Stop Bush each, instead of simply with two friction pins? It turns out this is probably an undocumented feature. Some real-life helicopters, to take less space when parked, can fold the main rotor blades so that they all point backwards. And, by partially pulling put the long pins on the 9396, we can do the same. It's a simple, yet thoughtful touch to provide the model with this extra.
It's not too hard to swoosh the helicopter around with one hand while turning the knob with the other to spin the rotors. Yet, that task could be much, much simpler if, instead of a knob to power the functions, the helicopter had a crank, like the Technic models of the old days.
Adding a motor and battery box to the helicopter is as simple as adding a motor and battery box (and two gears): the base model has quite a few assemblies and elements that do nothing other than ease motorisation. Therefore, all you need to bring this model a little closer to life is to temporarily remove the upper rear structure and a beam beneath it, slap on a pair of gears, a motor and a battery box, and put everything back together.
Unlike the infamous case of the motorisation of the 9395 Pick-Up Tow Truck, and, on a lesser scale, of the 8053 Mobile Crane, the motorisation of the 9396 is a lot more inconspicuous and blends in very well. Of course, the fact that this model has a much roomier interior helps.
The battery box's switch peeks from underneath the helicopter, between the rear landing gear. It's not especially easy or difficult to reach, but has the usual problem inherent in its design: sliding it to the "off" position is almost impossible without going all the way to the opposite "on" position. As the model is intended to use the 8293 Motor Set and that includes a Pole Reverser, it could be used here to alleviate the problem.
With the motor on board, swooshing is a lot easier: you just have to hold the model and optionally make some helicopter noises. Knob turning and subsequent carpal tunnel syndrome are no longer required. It also lets you see better the effect the collective pitch has on the blades while they're spinning.
As the rotors spin when the motor is running in one direction and stop when running in the other, you can't do actions like lowering the hook simultaneously with the rotors spinning (raising is possible, however). Also, since you have to select between the rotor and the landing gear, operations like taking off and retracting the gear (or extending it and landing) are impossible too. For that, the model would need the rotors to derive power from the motor before it gets split at the gearbox, with a mechanism to have them always spin in the same direction regardless of the motor. That, or having a second motor. The ample interior space should combine well with fans' ingenuity well.
You can see the problem with the friction with the winch's axle: while it just makes it hard to power by hand, when motorised it barely functions. The friction is just too much for the Gear 24 Tooth Clutch to handle, and it keeps slipping.
Overall and winch aside, all the motorised functions work smoothly and with realistic speed. I just wish the main rotor could spin faster, but that could become dangerous to kids (who we often forget are the main target market).
8. The B-Model
The alternate model for this set is an intermeshing rotor helicopter. Its functions are shown on the back of the box: spinning the main and tail rotors, extending/retracting the landing gear, and varying the collective pitch for the main rotors (adjusted together). Like usual for recent large Technic sets, the instructions for building it aren't included in the box and have to be downloaded from the LEGO Technic site, here.
Since I didn't build it, I can't comment on its construction and playability... But at least one thing can be said straight away: that tail rotor is redundant. A helicopter's tail rotor serves the purpose of countering the torque effect generated by the main rotor; without a tail rotor, a (conventional) helicopter would spin uncontrollably. On the other hand, helicopters with two rotors (be them intermeshing, coaxial, transverse, or in tandem) always have them rotating in different directions, thereby automatically countering each other's torque and avoiding the need for the tail rotor. On the 9396, I guess the Rule of Cool prevailed, and the opportunity to reuse the new small rotor blades and increase the quantity of mechanisms (something fans can never get enough of) on the model was too good to pass. Grohl did the same with his great Manta Helicopter, as well as TLG themselves with the 8971 Aerial Defence Unit (albeit with a different kind of tail rotor).
9. Final thoughts
The LEGO Technic line has been sorely missing a large helicopter set: the 8046 Helicopter and the 8068 Rescue Helicopter were just appetisers, and the fans sure were hungry. Fortunately, the Technic chefs didn't disappoint and gave us a banquet called 9396.
The functions are interesting (except for that horrible winch mechanism) and the building process isn't dull. The shapes and colours unmistakably identify the model as a rescue helicopter. The Technic team could have used the opportunity given the theme of the model to use more unusual colours.
The motorisation is well integrated and works smoothly (except for that horrible winch mechanism). The rotors could work more independently of the rest of the functions, but that would complicate the model too much.
All in all, this is a model worthy of being a flagship set in its own right. It has its shortcomings (colours excessively defined by stickers, doors that open too easily, and that horrible winch mechanism), but, summing everything up, the goods outweigh the bads by a comfortable margin.
10. The Ratings
This is by no means a small or cheap set. Both fans of LEGO Technic and fans of helicopters should find it appealing for three reasons: the unusual theme, the interesting mechanisms, and the combination of fun build with shelf display value. MOC'ers have a fourth reason of interest: the two new kinds of rotor blades should open up lots of possibilities.
as value for the money
for parts innovation
for set innovation
for set design
for functionality and playability
Overall rate: Recommended
For all the above, I have no trouble at all recommending the 9396 Helicopter. If you get it you won't regret it.