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FLASHBACK REVIEW - G.I.JOE U.S.S. FLAGG AIRCRAFT CARRIER
By Thomas Wheeler

It remains to this day the single largest playset ever constructed for use by action figures. There have perhaps been larger toys, but most were designed for use by children. In short, they were scaled to the children -- not to a series of popular 3-3/4" action figures. Even playsets designed for larger-scale action figures have never matched its massive size.

"It" is the U.S.S. FLAGG AIRCRAFT CARRIER, created for the G.I.Joe: A Real American Hero line in 1985.

To hear Hasbro execs of the time tell it, it was a huge risk. Never before had a toy of this size been produced. It was unknown if stores would be willing to commit the shelf space to such a massive object, when that same space could easily contain a dozen or more smaller vehicles, that would sell for a greater total, and probably sell more readily, too.

But somehow, the Carrier managed to make it into the stores. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I first learned about the U.S.S. Flagg in -- of all places -- The Wall Street Journal. They had an article in February of 1985 about that year's Toy Fair, and made specific reference to the Carrier. My first two thoughts were, "How am I going to afford that?" and "Where am I supposed to put it!?" I suspect many people had such thoughts.

The first was answered by my parents, who reluctantly agreed to give me the Carrier for that year's Christmas. But it would still be up to ME to go out and buy the thing (with funding provided by them). They not only never understood my toy collecting hobby, they didn't understand the toys. Left to them, with all due respect to their memory, they probably would've given me a tugboat for the bathtub. Plus, my car at the time was a mid-sized stationwagon. It was likely the only car in the family with big enough "cargo space" to transport the thing.

Even acquiring the toy presented a problem. In 1985, Tucson did not have a Toys "R" Us. We didn't even have a Wal-Mart. Or even a Lionel Playworld (anybody remember THOSE? Tucson eventually had two, and I still miss having one more place to check for toys like that). Our first Toys "R" Us was two years away. I was reliant for my toys on stores like Gemco, Target, and the toy departments of major stores within the then- relatively-new Tucson Mall, such as Dillard's, JCPenney, Sears, and Mervyn's -- none of which have significant toy departments anymore. Anybody else getting depressed yet?

As far as I could determine, none of these stores were planning to carry this behemoth. Fortunately, I knew someone in Mervyn's. She pretty much headed up the toy department, and was aware of my G.I.Joe hobby and was prepared to have a Carrier transfered from a warehouse over to the store. There was just one hitch -- I'd have to pick it up on her last day at Mervyn's -- which was the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year.

I got to the Mall about 10:30 that morning. Ended up parking at he far edge of the parking lot -- probably another Zip Code. It was easily a ten minute walk (not counting dodging traffic) to get to the Mervyn's, which I'd parked as close to as I possibly could. I entered the store, and some bright bulb had had the idea of setting up additional merchandise tables IN THE WALKING AISLES of the store! Let's see, we're going to be more crowded than any other day of the year, let's do everything we can to impede the way. Yeesh.

I finally got over to the toy department. My contact there had seen me coming, and had headed into the back to get the Carrier. I honestly had no idea what to expect. The only images of the Carrier I'd seen were on the animated series -- hardly descriptive of the actual toy. There was no cyberspace. I couldn't call up an eBay auction. I couldn't go to MasterCollector or YoJoe.Com and call up an image of the playset. Personal computers in 1985 were still a relative rarity, and had the approximate capabilities of a modern-day toaster oven.

So, you can imagine that even though I knew I was buying something that would, when fully assembled, be SEVEN AND A HALF FEET LONG, I was still somewhat surprised when my Mervyn's friend emerged from the back with this HUGE box on a wheeled cart, the box measuring five feet by four feet by a foot, with a massive (and highly impressive) color illustration pasted across the front of the box (which I managed to carefully trim off and save as a "poster").

Of course, a toy of this size (and colorful packaging) drew in every kid in the store faster than if I'd yelled "Free candy!", so I'm trying to pay for this thing while having about half an elementary school gathered around the box, and I'm trying not to step on anybody while parents are trying to drag their kids away telling them, "Don't even THINK you're getting something like that!" and giving ME dirty looks for daring to have something like this out in public! What the heck was I supposed to do -- throw a bedsheet over it? Have Mervyn's BEAM it to me? (Granted, I wish they could've...)

I love the holidays, don't you...?

I went to get my car to bring it up close to the store, while this poor woman who'd been so helpful offered to get the Carrier through the store and out to the nearest exit. I don't want to think about what it took to do that, since she would've had to have taken it THROUGH the store, not through the back, given the door she came out of. I was sincerely sorry she was leaving the store the next day. She'd certainly gone above and beyond the call of duty on my behalf.

Boosting the Carrier into the back of my stationwagon showed me another aspect of the vehicle -- it weighed about fifty pounds! I'm not used to hefting weight, but at least I didn't hurt myself.

And so, the Carrier and I awaited December 25th.

Took me twenty minutes just to find the Admiral Keel-Haul figure once I opened the box. Now, of course, I didn't buy the vehicle JUST for the figure, but I do like to inspect any figure that comes with a G.I.Joe vehicle that I purchase. And fortunately, the Admiral was a very cool figure. Nice head sculpt, excellent overall design. Fortunately for those who weren't able to get the Carrier, Admiral Keel-Haul was offered as part of the mail-order catalogue a couple of years later, and was reissued in a different color scheme as a carded figure in 1993.

The Carrier itself wasn't actually that difficult to assemble. What was needed, as much as anything else, was room to work. The "base" of the Carrier consisted of four large deckplates, and I can only imagine the size of the molds that were needed to turn these out. They had a somewhat "graveled" looking surface, and were done in dark grey. The smaller fore and aft sections were supported by the bow and fantail sections of the ship, while the two mid sections of the deck were supported by a sturdy plastic framework.

It helps if you consider the U.S.S. Flagg to be akin to a gigantic stage set, rather than as an "actual" vehicle. This construct wasn't designed to float. It was open in the back to allow access to the lower decks (which didn't really exist, but there was a deck elevator) and to the superstructure tower, which was where all of the "internal" action took place.

The superstructure tower was a three-level construct, each "floor" a separate piece that required some level of assembly, generally the insertion of equipment, such as computer consoles and chairs, and ladders to the next levels. There were doors that allowed Joes to go from "inside" the carrier to the "outside" walkways, and onto the flight deck itself.

The entire ship was designed to be carefully disassembled into several sections for storage. Plastic pins held the deckplates in place, and a different sort of pin held the superstructure. The flight deck was somewhat lower in height than prototype photographs I saw later, but I suspect the reduction was made not only to save a little money, but to make the intended storage option of the flight deck -- under the bed -- a little easier to manage. The superstructure tower on its own, while certainly tall, didn't take up a lot of actual floor space, and could likely be easily kept in a corner of a bedroom until it was time to reassemble the Carrier for its next mission.

Assembly of the Carrier was not all that difficult. The LABELS, on the other hand, were another matter! No less than FIVE sheets of labels came with the carrier, two of which were huge sheets of labels for the flight deck, including ship's registry numbers and lane markers. These required careful precision to place, but then so did the rest of the labels, most of which were fairly small, and had to be placed all over the ship, mostly in the superstructure tower. I think it took me at least twice as long to place the labels as it did to build the ship. And in a few cases, I had to partly disassemble my work to get at the label placement areas.

But the U.S.S. Flagg wasn't just a framework. It had plenty of play value. There were numerous rooms within the superstructure tower where Joes could carry out the operations of being on a Carrier and going into battle against Cobra. Even the fantail deck had some space in which to work. The flight deck itself not only had the deck elevator, but it was a shield which raised up to protect sailors from the blast of an airplanes jet engine, as well as a cable in the back to catch planes on the way in so they didn't run out of deck. The Carrier included a tow hook which could be fit on the back of the SKYSTRIKER Jet, at that point in time the only major airplane in the Joes' arsenal.

There was also a small crane with a winch, cable, and hook, a rack of (non-firing) missiles on the top of the superstructure, several gun ports, a small boat on davits which the Admiral and a few others could use to evacuate the Carrier if necesary, and a maintenance vehicle with a fuel trailer. A great deal was made in 1985 about all G.I.Joe -- and Cobra! -- vehicles having a "fuel port" that could be used with the fuel nozzle of the trailer that came with the Carrier.

An additional item was a small, battery-operated, handheld microphone device, that kids could use to bark out orders "on board" the Carrier, which also featured a number of built in sound effects that could be selected as needed.

The overall detail was excellent, especially for the time. Designing something so massive, and then getting into the detail level needed for use by figrues that were under four inches in height, cannot have been an easy job.

I wish I could include a picture of the full U.S.S. FLAGG with this review. But -- I can't. There's noplace in my apartment where I can really set the Carrier up (without moving a lot of furniture) where I could get the entire thing in the camera. And frankly, my apartment walls and carpet make a lousy backdrop. I am including a couple of pictures of the Admiral, standing on the top level of the tower, which I carefully removed for these photos. However, I am sure that a brief search around the Web, possibly even somewhere right here on MasterCollector, will reveal a good picture of this massive construct.

The U.S.S. FLAGG was truly a one of a kind toy. Hasbro produced several other large playsets in the following years -- the Cobra Terror Drome -- the excellent Defiant Space Shuttle Launch Complex -- but neither of these were as massive as the U.S.S. Flagg. Both are very cool (although I think the Defiant Complex is a fair bit cooler than the Terror Drome), but nothing from G.I.Joe or any other toy line has ever quite matched the U.S.S. Flagg.

And in today's toy market, it would be virtually impossible to reissue it. There have been some large vehicles in recent years -- for 12" military figures, some by Hasbro for G.I.Joe. Some of these have been more expensive than the Carrier was, but none have been as large, despite being for a larger scale of figure. And the video game world has cut into the toy market so severely these days, that if parents are going to spend big bucks on their kids, it's more likely going to be for a video game system. Unfortunately.

I would be stunned if we ever saw the likes of the U.S.S. FLAGG again. For those who own one, you know what a cool toy it is. For those that never had the opportunity, I'm sincerely sorry. To this day, I regard the U.S.S. Flagg Aircraft Carrier as the single most impressive action figure playset ever produced. YO JOE!