Space Engineers

Space Engineers

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Scale Modeling Historical Aircraft in Space Engineers
By picea_scabies
An overview and discussion of effectively balancing detail, authenticity, and proper scaling when building recreations and interpretations of historical aircraft as it relates to the block-based building systems in Space Engineers.
For the past 2 years I've been involved with an alt-history modeling project studying aviation history using Space Engineers. I've designed dozens of interpretations of real historical aircraft in a mod-lite server and I would like to use this space to impart what knowledge I have learned, as well as some observations that I have, in the hopes it will generate discussion and potentially help other engineers who are interested in this sort of thing.
Preface: Mods
Before I get too deep in the weeds here, we need to all understand that the existence of mods and modding tools can sort of obviate the necessity of this discussion at all. If you can't get a part to look/work right, there's probably a modded part that can meet your needs (for PC players at least). I love mods; I use them, I've created them, and I love that this game has such a mod-friendly community. However lines must be drawn somewhere. When you're in an environment where you're trying to create a consistent alt-history/historically realistic build style, you need a consistent set of tools. For this project we wanted to keep mods as light as possible and use as many vanilla/stock components as possible. The result is a sort of alternate universe where aviation history unfolds if all designers had available to them were Space Engineers blocks. This discussion will focus on the visual design elements, specifically with how they relate to scale, so I won't be talking much about the functional systems/flight model, we can save that lecture for another time...

Anyway, the following mods are used in these builds:

Takeshi's Plane Parts mod +propellers

CDR Aurora's Armored Ramp Compendium

...and that's it. There's a few other mods on the server but these are the only block parts that come from the workshop. These aren't "small" mods but they give us the tools that vanilla blocks simply can't provide: granularity in slope and airfoil blocks. Plane Parts mod does a lot of heavy lifting on these designs, as well as providing the server's flight model (I believe it uses an older version of Digi's aerodynamics code). ARC is not totally necessary and isn't used on every build for reasons we'll get into later, but it is a godsend for smaller designs.

So let's get into it!
Before we "take to the air", let me show you what a Kübelwagen looks like in this server:

(engineer for scale) something seems...a bit off... 😅

Now here's what a Kübelwagen looks like IRL:

Source: User Liftarn, Wikipedia: Prins Bertil Memorial in Stockholm, Sweden 2005., CC BY-SA 3.0,

And immediately the problem becomes clear. The first picture meets the server rules to be a "Kübelwagen": it's a four-seater, 4 wheeled utility scouting vehicle, and it superficially resembles the historical design...but it's the size of a got damn hummer. This is one of the smallest vehicles we attempted to model, and vehicles of this size, at this attempted scale, simply don't work. The block-based building system we have in Space Engineers breaks down at these small modeling scales. The bounding boxes are just too big and clunky, and our engineer models can't "squeeze" into them effectively enough to plausibly keep the dimensions realistic, so this is what happens. (Note: this vehicle was designed before 2x2 wheel blocks were introduced in-game so it might look a little different if designed today but probably wouldn't be much smaller)

Now, there's an exchange you could make: turn it into a single-seater, redesign the exterior, and you'd have a dimensionally more accurate Kubelwagen but you've compromised functionality. More like a Kubelwagen kit car dropped on a go-kart chassis. On our server we like to emphasize that the model should do what the vehicle did as much as it looks how the vehicle looked so we really strove to strike a balance between visual accuracy, functional authenticity and, of course, as close to 1:1 scale as possible. We try to find the exact "midpoint" of that triangle. When you're modeling something as small as a Kübelwagen, you're forced to make some hard choices to find that midpoint.


Fortunately, aircraft are larger than Kübelwagens. As we add size we can add granularity; new slope transitions and exterior angles become possible, interior volume grows. Yet the problem doesn't go away completely. For the purposes of "exactness" when it comes to dimensions, you don't need to be a 5000 hour veteran of the game to know that an exactly dimensionally perfect replica is impossible. For a small grid, on this server, any measurements within 50cm of the IRL vehicle is considered "perfect scale" (50cm being the size of a 1x1 small grid block). Yes we know there are half blocks and panels that can get you closer but even our pedantry has its limits.

Let's see how this issue manifests in a small aircraft.

This aircraft is a model of the PZL P.11 of the Polish Air Force:

PZL P.11 ca. 1936, "True" 1:1 Scale

This is a TRUE 1:1 in that its wingspan and length are considered "perfect scale" in this server. Similarly, it is functionally "perfect" in its armament/crew size/basic features. Where it lags a bit is in its aesthetic qualities: it looks stubby, the fuselage is a bit bloated, and the overall form is somewhat "blocky". The guns sort of hang awkwardly off the sides. While I still think it's a great model, especially when you think about the limits imposed by our 1:1 problem with builds of this size, it's probably the absolute bottom end size-wise of what is "practical" at this scale. Luckily this was a small aircraft IRL, it's actually the smallest we've modeled, so the fact that we got away with it would seem like we're in the clear, no? No. As much as we like this one, we need to move a bit along the "visual fidelity" axis of our triangle to find a more consistent midpoint. We'll have to give something up.
This solution came by pure happenstance, a new player showed up with a number of their own models: beautiful, richly detailed recreations that they claimed were "1:1 models". After picking over them, we informed the designer that while they were accurate in many ways, they were all overscaled. It turns out this player had been building under the assumption that a small grid 1x1 was 40cm on each side! Their builds were around 20-25% larger than their dimensions would indicate. And yet they weren't so ridiculously overscaled that they seemed unrealistic.

This is a 5:4 scale replica of a Sopwith Dolphin:

Sopwith Dolphin in 5:4 scale

And here it is along with the aircraft shown in the previous section. IRL the Dolphin was slightly smaller than the P.11:

Dolphin 5:4 VS P.11 1:1

When you bump up scaling in a server where multiple designs are being measured against each other, boundaries must be set. You can't have a single-seat light fighter/interceptor larger than the multi-engine bombers it's supposed to be fighting. And yet we mustn't restrict players to make too many compromises regarding other aspects of modeling fidelity, especially at the lower end of the sizing scales.

With a system that sets 1:1 as the practical "floor" and 5:4 as the "ceiling", you have a range of scaling options that allow you to balance realistic approximations of relative size both between and within any given class. For example, a large aircraft at the smallest range of that scale (1:1) would always be larger than a small aircraft at 5:4 scale. In general, any multi-engine aircraft at any scale would be larger than any scale of single-engine aircraft. This gives a degree of consistency without creating a barrier to quality.

Of course, there are edge cases, particularly in the medium-sized range which lead to some odd, perhaps ahistorical size discrepancies...although this only becomes apparent when the models are right next to each other.

Shown here is a good example of such an edge case. These two aircraft could have plausibly faced off in the skies over Europe or the Mediterranean. We have the Messerschmitt Me-110, which was a heavy fighter, on the left in 5:4 scale. To the right is the Douglas DB-7 "Boston", which was a light/medium bomber at 1:1 scale:

Me-110 5:4 (left) VS Douglas Boston 1:1 (right)

Now, dimensionally the Boston was about 2m longer and wider than the Me-110, but they appear to be the same size here, with the 110 actually having a slightly longer wingspan. This is ok. If you park them right next to each other it doesn't look great but in most cases the difference will be imperceptible. One advantage this fuzzy line gives you is that you can add more functionality to a smaller model at a larger scale. We were able to cram more guns into to the nose of the Me-110 simply by making it at 5:4. We had to cram those guns in to preserve the functional authenticity of the aircraft. It's worthwhile in these cases. Simply put, the Boston has less need of being overscaled, but the 110 benefits more from it.

The corrolary of this trend benefits us as well; as you increase the scale, you have less need to increase the scale further to sharpen the detail (this would seem obvious of course). So if you're operating within a 1:1 to 5:4 scale range, only adding one or two blocks to the 1:1 length/wingspan can give you a lot more options as far as shaping/face transitions. You're in the scale range but you're closer to 1:1 than 5:4. This is good! Remember we're aiming for the center of that triangle.
You'll run into a number of other scaling issues beyond just overall length and width of course. For most small aircraft you can just about give up on having a historically-accurate fuselage will almost always take on a somewhat bloated and "rotund" sort of appearance to accomodate console blocks, connectors and engines. This is where a mod like ARC is your friend. It increases granularity at smaller scales, allowing you to transition from armor on the bulkier sections of fuselage (armor blocks or panels) to smaller functional blocks hidden in the tail section (fuel tanks or gyros, for example).

Here we see the same aircraft with and without ARC. I suppose you can decide for yourself which is better, but the transitions can be helpful more often than not:

Piper Cub 5:4 with ARC (left) VS same without ARC (right)

Another thing to consider, especially once again in that pesky medium-sized aircraft range, is just how accurate you want the interior to be. For smaller fighters a simple cockpit block is sufficient, but we always like to have an internal space accessible to the pilot that isn't just a console block for larger aircraft; it's nice to be able to hop out and check out the inside of the plane while you're in flight. Of course, this brings up a lot of somewhat controversial issues involving the physics of the player character model...we can crouch but we can't really crawl. We can't squeeze ourself into a 1m width passage which seems a bit unrealistic, even with the bulky spacesuit and jetpack and all that nonsense...

...but I'm getting off topic. This essay is long enough already. We accept the character model for what it is. We don't allow jetpacks on the server, so if you can't fit inside the plane when you exit the cockpit in flight you'll pop out on the fuselage roof if you're lucky, or plunge to your death if you aren't. The introduction of armor panel blocks have made more practical aircraft with accessible interiors possible, however.

For example, you can see the Me-110 again here...the interior cannot be accessed with the character model, although there are two seats inside:

Even with it being overscaled I still can't fit in this damn thing

When you exit the seat your character will always pop up outside of the aircraft with builds like this. It's a nice detail to have but doesn't wind up adding to the utility of the model. It's effectively an invisible greeble. Contrast that with the interior of a Ford Trimotor model:


Nice and roomy! you can hop around all kinds of seats and always pop out where you entered from. When a key feature of the model in question is its interior, as would be the case in a large transport aircraft like the Trimotor, you can focus on those details. Using armor panels as the outer skin of the fuselage can lead to better utilization of that precious interior space in builds that require you to move around inside them. Now we see a much better execution of a medium-sized accessible interior in a 5:4 scale Avro Anson:

Cozy and a bit tight, but very much accessible!

The character model can fit, has a place to spawn upon seat exit, and there are a number of passenger seats, as well as a proper access door over the wing. It's a great use of space, and all those litle blocks that look like radios and radars are functional parts of the build. Although the specific layout of that interior is somewhat ahistorical, an historically inaccurate interior is always better than no interior.
Rather than give a detailed breakdown of the build process, I want to keep the scope of this unit primarily focused on how you build to scale. Now, this will vary from person to person, but in general I like to bring up the wiki, have the 3-view drawing on one tab, the "specifications" section of the wiki in another tab, and a google image search of the plane in a third browser tab. Build a cross shape in the EXACT wingspan/length dimensions, with the span section located about a third of the way to the rear from the front (this will vary from one aircraft to another).


Wikipedia usually gets these numbers right


By Emoscopes - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Literally all the aircraft I build start out like this

Look at your cross. Visualize the aircraft. The dimensions are perfect, so on the "Scale" axis of the triangle of excellence, you are right smack in the middle. The other two axis are at the edge, but everything you do from here on out will send them towards the middle. Start in the front and work your way backwards. If it looks like it's coming out all stubby, maybe add a block or two to the rear. If it gets too stretched, maybe add a couple blocks to the wings. Try to add to both dimensions evenly, since if you go off scale in one direction too much it can really distort the layout and shape of the aircraft.

...and then you build the rest of the aircraft...😅

In the end you should be somewhere between a 1:1 and 5:4 scale. The closer to 1:1 you can stay the better, but we don't consider a model to be detrimentally "overscaled" until you pass that 5:4 threshold. (5:4 could also be written as 1.25:1)

...a nice paint job and some doodads...all done! 😎
The wonderful thing about this game is that it allows us to set our own goals, set up our own challenges, and gives us tools and environments to explore creative avenues of expression. The militant obsession with "scale accuracy" for me didn't make the game any less fun, in fact it made it more challenging! Focusing on how to efficiently and judiciously use blocks in a constant exchange of scale, detail, and accuracy has made me a better scale modeler, and vastly improved the quality of my builds in these past two years.

Thank you for sharing this moment with me.

Miremry Apr 21 @ 2:15pm 
Wow! This was such a neat guide/essay! I really enjoyed reading the whole thing. All of the models are so impressive too! I never thought this quality of model was possible in Space Engineers! Hat's off! :healthyhearthling:
☭VOROSHILOV1957☭ Apr 13 @ 8:29am 
War thunder 2 . :steamthumbsup: