MSP Airport Model

Posted by Diecast Hangar on

How the idea came to fruition:

We initially got the idea to construct the model on December 31, 2016 at a New Year's Eve party. Shortly after, we started ironing out specifics. The first thing we agreed on was that we wanted to recreate 2003-2004 of MSP.  We wanted that time-frame specifically because it was a time we share some of our fondest memories of doing aviation photography, spotting, and just spending time hanging out at MSP together. Also, MSP was a big part of our life growing up as kids and into our teens, so we wanted to keep that alive. The roar of the DC-9s, 727s, and DC-10s flying around resurrected a lot of memories for us.

After the time-frame was decided we determined that the model had to be 1/400 scale.  Anything bigger simply would be too big, and we wanted to incorporate as much of the airport as we could with the limited space we had. We spent a lot of time using satellite images with mileage scales to figure everything to a 1/400 scale. It was complicated to figure out, but, we basically figured out that roughly 200’ on a satellite map (the runway width of runway 30L), would work out to about 6” on a 1/400 scale model.  From that, we were able generate a model that was 8’ wide by 13’ long that included the parallel runways and the main terminal.  We then began construction on a 2x4 frame box and covered the top with 1/4" plywood. This huge box became our canvas for the model.

Very early stage of the model build

Commentary below written by both Ben and Cyrus:

How we got started - and how long it took to complete the project:

Ben:  The span of the project was just over 2.5 years.  Certain weeks allowed for more work to get done on the model than others. We made a firm promise to each other we would get going right away so that it wasn’t another idea we had floating around that never came to fruition. It was early to mid February 2017 that we got started framing the wood box. Initially things started out very slow. The vision was huge, and lots of moments I found myself asking, “How the heck are we going to do this? - How in the world can we make that?” It involved lots and lots of planning. Every road block or challenge raised the question, “OK, what the hell did we just get ourselves into?" Nonetheless, it didn’t seem to slow our ambition down. Cyrus was busy flying MD-80s all over the country, but somehow, we found time to have long phone calls, nights texting away ideas, and when we could find time, because of Cyrus’s ability as a pilot to non-rev, he’d fly home and we'd get together in person for a few days at a time. So, from there we had a starting point, but still a million unanswered questions on how to do things. 

Cyrus:  I was all over the country in a newly created virtual base with my company. This meant that I was in a new city every month living out of hotels. When I couldn’t physically be working on the model, my main job would be scouring the internet looking for 1/400 scale airplane models and coordinating all the building details with our project partner Dave in the UK (more on that later). We had a goal of creating it as realistic as possible, which meant we needed lots of models to give it a "busy" feel. I think we have over 150 1/400 scale models for our airport, including some rare and very hard to find models. Funny enough, some of the toughest ones to find were the Mesaba Saab 340s and Northwest Airlink CRJs. They are some of the tiniest on the airport, but packed a big price tag.

Showing how the grass effect was created

Outside of the airplanes, jet bridges, and some GSE (Ground Service Equipment), pretty much everything was built from scratch. There are not any Gemini prefab terminal sections to be found. A description of the effort that went into designing and constructing all the buildings and terminals: 

Ben:   How can I quickly explain 2.5 years of custom work without writing a small book? Cyrus and I both knew we were going to struggle with generating realistic looking buildings for the model. Neither of us had any experience creating scale structures from scratch, so we spent a lot of time trying to figure out our path forward. Then one day, out of nowhere we were sent a miracle. Through a friend, Cyrus got introduced to a guy who lives just outside London, UK.  His name is Dave Southam. It turned out he was a modeler and had a lot of experience building scale structures. Cyrus got in contact with him, and after fully explaining what we were trying to accomplish with lots of emails and some photos of our most up-to-date progress, we started getting to know Dave, who jumped at the opportunity to assist us with constructing the terminals, parking ramps, and buildings for the model. This led to a span of 2 years working together. 

Dave had never taken on a project of this size and scope before in his modeling ventures.  Through countless texts, emails, phone conversations, pictures of initial design ideas, pages of notes and instructions, dimensions, color palettes, you name it - Dave constructed everything perfectly to our requests at his home in the UK. Over the span of 2 years, Dave shipped us the buildings in stages that involved 3 large box shipments. It was a MASSIVE UNDERTAKING to coordinate specific measurements and design appearance with somebody that far away. We would never have been able to accomplish this without Dave, there is just no way. What’s funny is that to this day neither Cyrus or myself have met Dave in person.

A terminal template with the completed terminal building

G concourse sections being constructed in the UK

Half of the structures on the model ~ about 50%

Cyrus: I can say without a doubt Dave made our model exemplary. His craftsmanship on the structures is phenomenal and to think that it was all constructed off measurements, a template and pictures online. It wasn’t until later on in the project that we started sending templates for Dave to follow, which helped tremendously in creating the more complicated buildings. One other thing we had to consider was the time difference between the UK and the USA. In turn, sometimes we had a small window of opportunity to discuss business and finalize ideas with Dave. It was a major undertaking to say the least.

As for the GSE, most of our GSE is a combination of custom made from, as well as Gemini Jets 1/400 GSE equipment. We then hand painted each and every piece to correlate with the associated airlines they would be representing at the gates on the model. As to how many we have - it must be over 500 pieces in total, and that’s a rough guess. That's in addition to our 117 Gemini Jet loading bridges, many of which were hand painted as well.

How we set up the wiring to power the lighting and how we created access doors to work underneath the model.  Also, we touch on how we designed the model to be disassembled in sections to be stored or put back together at another location all while inflicting minimal damage:

Ben:   The lighting, ohhhhh the lighting. I cringe a little having to think about it! I’m sure Cyrus agrees :). Yes, there are two doors on the side of the model to access everything from underneath. It also allowed us to cut out a section in the center to stand in and work on the model from that vantage point.  The lighting was another massive undertaking in conjunction with all the buildings, and some parts got so complex I had to rely on assistance from my dad who was an electrical engineer for 30 years. In the end, the lighting truly makes all the difference. The model was going to require a TON of outlets. Being that my basement (where the model is located) is unfinished I decided to dedicate an entire 20 amp breaker to the model. This would permit us to run as much power as needed underneath. We installed a dozen or so outlets inside the frame.

All the runway and taxiway lights are fiber optic. These lights took a lot of time to install as each one had to be pre-drilled with a tiny drill bit, shoved up through the hole, glued in place, dried overnight, and finally cut to length.  Each 4’ x4’ section of the model contains two fiber optic light motors, one for the taxiway blue, and one for the runway white. This way, since the model is made to be disassembled, in theory we shouldn’t have to break any lights. 

One section of taxiway blue fiber optic lights

All the terminal and roadway street lighting took a lot more creativity. We spent the better part of 3 months working on solutions. We tried multiple different types of lights and different ways to wire them before we were sold on an idea. It was tough. We had to power up hundreds of little 3V lights with wires the diameter of fishing line. After tons of experimenting it came down to installing buss bars and using specialty sized screws and nuts to attach the wires to power them up. The street lights were installed by drilling a tiny hole and connecting them to buss bars underneath.  The lighting was broken down into three zones. Within each zone, the street lights were powered in parallel to 3 adjustable DC voltage power supplies. This way we could control the brightness and the amount of voltage to the lights so that they wouldn’t burn out or short the circuit. The street lights took months and months to install. We could only do so many at a time because the working quarters were so tight, and it strained your neck pretty good after a few hours.

How street lights are wired to buss bars

DC power supply to control variable voltage - 3 total

6 of 12 outlets underneath the model

The terminal buildings and parking ramps are lit with led strip lighting. They are glued into the top of each structure and then the power supply goes underneath to be plugged into an outlet.

Cyrus:  Oh the lights, yes - I ditto Ben - they were a giant pain, but in the end, I feel it took our project to the next level. The lighting was a major part of the project but enhanced the model to a whole new dimension. Dave from the UK was the one who gave us the idea to light up the model, and he was blow away by how much lighting we actually included. I can say that Ben's attention to detail is what allowed us to make the lighting work in a well organized way. The amount of wires and cables under the model is an amazing site in and of itself, especially when everything is powered up it looks like a Christmas light display scene!

Model all lit up for the open house August 2019

We've both been asked numerous times - Do you think the project will ever  be completed, and what do you want to do with it in the future?

Ben:   Last summer on August 17, 2019 Cyrus and I hosted our MSP Model Party Open House. We set the date about a year in advance to ensure that we stayed on track and didn’t detour from the project and let it slip away from never being finished. Since we had the date for the party set, we were locked in to make sure it went on as scheduled. We hosted roughly 100 people.  Family, friends, co-workers, individuals from MAC (local airports commission), air traffic controllers and pilots all joined in on celebrating what Cyrus and I called a “complete enough” model. 

Friends flew in from the east and west coasts to come to see the model!  We hosted two mini bars on beverage carts, food, aviation related games, trivia, MSP airport video, and much more! It was a 12-hour open house that left many (not to gloat) leaving very impressed. Cyrus and I both took nearly two weeks off work prior to the open house. This was to wrap up any remaining work on the model itself, but also to coordinate putting together the massive open house. It was a fantastic party. It’s a good thing we did the party last summer, because we may have had to cancel this year (2020) due to COVID-19. 

Of course, Cyrus and I both feel that the model may never feel done to us – that "we could always add more details or "make something a little better." As for the future, we don’t really know what it holds for the model. The model was constructed to be disassembled, moved to be stored, or reassembled somewhere else. Reassembling it would require some touch up work and minor repairs but it would be possible.  Disassembly and reassembly would probably take upwards of a month total. This time would ensure it is completed carefully, and reassembled in the same manner. I’m sure a few things would end up broken or lost but it would be able to be repaired. Some scenery touch up would be required at the “breaks” in the sections of plywood.

Cyrus: I think for Ben and I the model will always be 95% complete. Just the other day we joked about adding 17/35 and terminal 2 while we were sitting around home during the COVID-19 crisis. As Ben mentioned, we know there is always small details to add and it just depends on how much more we want to do with it over the years. The fact that the model does break apart, means we can keep it safe for the long term and always come back to it years down the road. Both Ben and I recently had children, so I think it’s safe to say our time will be consumed with our families for the foreseeable future.

August 2019 MSP Model Open House Pictures

Bar tables with real taxiway accent lighting

Model overview with "MSP 2003" DVD playing


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  • Outstanding effort and attention to detail. What a motivation to others.
    Lighting is EXCEPTIONAL too.
    This should start a movement to have scale dioramas in Aviation museums !
    I have significant collection of obsolete MNIB
    1:200 scale aircraft representing airlines from all over the globe.

    Mark Ray on
  • An absolute work of art congratulations to all involved I have bought a lot of daves items, well done!!!

    Gérard Mc manus on

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