In 2016, Atlanta doctor Akaki Lekiachvili had a vision to encourage kids to get into the sciences: build a “Star Wars” X-wing starfighter.
Lekiachvili, who works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, decided to create something that was much closer to life size. In fact, he would have loved to have built one to scale but it wouldn’t fit in his garage. So he opted instead for two-thirds actual size.
The recently completed X-wing starfighter is still an impressive 26 feet long and 23 feet wide with four microcomputers controlling various functions including a cockpit with cameras, sounds of lasers blasting and the voices of R2D2 and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Lekiachvili had no template. He had to figure it all out in his own head.
“It was a lot of taking screenshots from the movie,” Lekiachvili said. “It was lots of R&D and redoing things.”
Modestly, he dubs himself a “tinkerer.” Or as his wife Karolina affectionately calls him: “a mad scientist.”
Lekiachvili, now 50, grew up behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union in the country of Georgia as a child and had no access to the “Star Wars” films. He didn’t see the original “Star Wars” until he was a teen in the late 1980s on VHS after glasnost made Western films more readily available.
In the film, Luke Skywalker flew the X-wing starfighter for the Rebel Alliance against the evil Galactic Empire and used it to destroy the Death Star.
While working on the X-wing, Lekiachvili spent several years posting videos on Twitter of the build out and teaching workshops about electronics, geometry and tooling, with dozens of kids helping do the work. He was thrilled when actor Mark Hamill, who played Skywalker, liked one of his Tweets.
Lekiachvili was about finished with the X-wing when Russia invaded Ukraine. He wanted to help and contacted the non-profit local chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee, which aims to build stronger ties between Americans and Ukraine.
“Russia is like the evil empire and Ukraine the Rebel Alliance,” said Lekiachvili, who first came to the United States in 1994 as an exchange medical student at Emory University before starting his residency in 1997.
He has so far brought his X-wing out twice to raise money for medical supplies for Ukraine, including at a Kroger parking lot in Embry Hills this past Saturday. He is planning to do so again at the Atlanta International Night Market at the town square in Suwanee from 2 to 5 p.m. this Saturday, April 23.
Lekiachvili’s neighbors were well aware of his project, which sat under a blue tarp in the garage for five years until his wife convinced him to build out a 30-by-30 feet hangar in the backyard.
Behind the Kroger last Saturday morning at Embry Village, Lekiachvili was struggling to get the thruster lights to work before moving the X-wing out to the main parking lot via remote control. While the fighter can’t technically fly, it has an engine so it can move on the ground with wheels. The wings also move up and down.
“I’ve been here for this entire adventure,” said Doug McGaughey, a 53-year-old neighbor and one of his biggest cheerleaders, as he watched Lekiachvili fiddle with wiring. “I was the first person to say it was a great idea. Every time there was an obstacle, I was his champion.”
The final result in McGaughey’s mind? “It’s nothing short of miraculous.”
Lekiachvili’s son Leo, now 13, also kept pushing his dad forward no matter how frustrating things got: “I did a lot of soldering and welding.”
Natalia Onyskiv, president of the Georgia branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee, watched Lekiachvili guide the X-wing to an agreed-upon spot closer to the main road in mild awe: “I’ve seen videos but it doesn’t describe the feeling when you see it in real life! I wish I was a little girl and I could sit inside there.”
Two adult “Star Wars” fans, one who was coincidentally wearing a T-shirt with an X-wing on it, spent several minutes shooting videos and frantically texting friends and family about what they were seeing.
“It’s amazing!” said Kevin Nelson, who lives nearby and briefly postponed a visit to Kroger. “He got the paint exactly right!”
“All he needs is some scorch marks!” added Todd Hughes, fellow fan, who saw “Star Wars” on opening day in 1977 and has since seen it more than 200 times. “This is so dope!”
The cockpit can comfortably fit small kids and uncomfortably squeeze in a medium-sized adult. Lekiachvili spent two hours lifting children in and out, opening and closing the hatch and letting them gleefully press the buttons.
Lekiachvili admits this was a pricey project but well worth it in his mind. He estimated materials alone cost about $50,000 with another $10,000 for the hangar and trailer. The hundreds of work hours involved were not included his calculation.
His wife Karolina was not on board in the beginning. “Over my dead body!” was her initial reaction.
“It’s very difficult to follow Akaki’s mind,” she said. “He is wired differently. I was not able to stop him.”
Karolina, a radiologic technologist who has never watched a single “Star Wars” movie, said she did have an empathic ear: her now 16-year-old daughter Sophia.
“Why do we have a spaceship in the garage?” Sophia would ask her mom.
“I don’t know,” Karolina would respond in resigned tones.
Now that it’s finished, she said she admires her husband’s work: “I’s a beautiful thing he created.”
Sophia said she was happy to help him paint and weld on occasion. “My dad is like a little kid in a grown man’s body wanting to build a spaceship.”
Lekiachvili hopes to eventually auction the X-wing off to a collector or an organization to raise more money for Ukraine. And if he still has it in his possession by Labor Day, he would be open to bringing it to the heralded annual parade at DragonCon, the science fiction convention in downtown Atlanta that draws tens of thousands of people.
Still, he is not sad about letting it go and moving on. “I have accomplished what I wanted to do,” he said. “That’s my personality: I like the journey part more than the destination.”
WHERE TO SEE IT
Atlanta International Night Market
The X-wing will be there 2-5 p.m. Saturday, April 23.
Town Center Park, Buford Highway and Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, Suwanee. atlnightmarket.org.