Aviation Images

I know nothing about art or photography. Nothing. Can't tell a Rauschenberg from a Rosenquist; a Diane Arbus from an Airbus. I do, though, have some favorite images that I store in my mind and, when I have the money and the wall space, in my home or office. Of course, most of these images have a connection to aviation.

I subscribe to a very personal definition of art. I feel that any image, book or song that does not wear out its welcome, is art. If I don't tire of it, if I find new things to see, hear or feel, then it is art to me. No classes in art history, music appreciation or creative writing have ever graced my course list. I am an artistic dunce.

That said, I defy you to look at some of the framed images in my life and come away with any emotion other than awe, any feeling other than a whistle of appreciation. Though my tastes have changed over decades of flying, the central pleasures are still hanging there for you and me to see.

I'll start with a pencil drawing made in 1973. The artist was the girlfriend of a friend of mine. The picture is of a Beechcraft Musketeer, poised for landing. The drawing was made from several photographs taken by the boyfriend. He and I had flown to a small field in Missouri to photograph my new (to me) Musketeer. As I did touch-and-goes, my friend snapped away furiously on a single-lens reflex camera that was popular with anybody in the military back then. We all had Japanese cameras.

Since I did not yet know how to land the Musketeer and was deep into experiments as to the best technique, the drawing depicts an airplane inches above the ground in an absolutely flat attitude. Apparently flare was not part of the experiment. I do remember several rough landings, taxiing back to pick up the patient photographer and the subsequent celebration over the photographs when they came back from the developer (remember?).

When the picture was drawn, I framed it at a do-it-yourself shop. This drawing has been in my line of sight for over 30 years and it still brings me pleasure. It was my first airplane and my first real picture of my first real airplane. You can see the young pilot's face and even his moustache. Some subsequent photo shoots of subsequent airplanes were less successful technically but still gave great pleasure. I've got an air-to-air shot of a Cessna P210 I had for many years. The photograph is slightly out of focus, so I never enlarged it or framed it, but it has scuttled across my desk at work for some 25 years. It is here right now.

I got to thinking about airplane pictures when I visited John Sanchez at the Dorsch Gallery in Miami recently. John had a show called "Take Off" opening in March and I had been intrigued by a picture of a painting of his featuring a nose-on view of a 727. On a Sunday afternoon my wife and I negotiated some of Miami's lesser-traveled streets to find the gallery stashed among warehouses and vacant lots. Sanchez is an artist in residence and this means exactly what it says: He lives above his studio with a set of stairs leading from the painting space to the sleeping space. An electrical cup heater and some cans of soup gave us an inkling about how John eats while he paints after a long day working elsewhere as a picture framer.

Hanging in his workspace were some arresting images. There was a large picture of a 737 at the gate; jetway still attached, looking pensive and expectant, almost impatient to fly. Another huge oil was the one I'd seen on his website, that Boeing, in for maintenance, resting in the harsh light bathing the hangar. The bright yellow and orange logo colors of the plane contrasted with the white glare of the fuselage. The dark background of the hangar bespoke some heavy maintenance, a C check maybe. I got the sense of an animal in a cage, submitting to necessary repairs, eager to be back on the line or out on the savannah, but grateful for the rest nonetheless.

Several smaller oils were hung on his studio walls. These were silhouettes of DC-8s and 747-400s made alive by the perspective and the paint. The paintings are not over burdened with photorealism. I especially liked the view of a 747's front half, framed by the winglets to the right, the nose to the left and those huge engines dangling from the wing almost boasting of the power necessary to lift such a heavy object and its human freight into the sky.

Littered about his painting space were Sporty's catalogs, The Private Pilot, How to Be a Pilot, and Ask the Pilot. John's interest in aviation is not confined to the canvas. John's father was a DC-3 pilot in Cuba before he escaped with his family to New Jersey in the 1960s. "I have a favorite picture of my father, taken during the good times. He's sitting in what I think is a Cub. My love of flying comes from him." So does his art. His father drew constantly.

John paints from pictures he takes at airports around Miami. "This cargo DC-8, I took the pictures at night. I drove almost right up to the airplane, parked and stuck my lens through the fence. The security guy went right by me, I was almost begging him to question me." As a Chet Baker arrangement drifted out of his Apple speakers, John talked about saving money to take flying lessons, about his application to the Art Institute of Chicago and about being a 32-year-old single man living in this part of Miami. "It's pretty safe, I think," he said while I turned over a copy of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand.

On the short flight home to Tampa I ruminated about some of my most favorite aviation pictures. I've got some beautiful photographs. One, a nose-on view of an F-14 on the fantail of the USS Ranger, used to hang in our guest bathroom. How many evenings have I excused myself from guests and retreated momentarily in there, only to find myself surprised yet again by the sheer drama of the airplane and the sea, lit by a bright, almost garish sun?

In my study hang my most prized possessions, enlarged photographs given to me by the photographer, Consulting Editor Russell Munson. Two are of a Beech 18, taken in the early morning during springtime in Tennessee. These air-to-air photographs were burned into my memory many years ago and when I first met Munson, I couldn't wait to tell him how I remembered those images. He rewarded me with signed copies.

The Beech is seen from above. One picture looks back at the airplane, props glinting in the morning sunlight, giving the distinct impression that the observer is about to be overtaken by this beautiful silver aggressor. You can almost hear the roar of those radial engines. The other is taken from behind the twin engine, twin-ruddered sweetheart. You can see the lush countryside swaddled in a morning mist and the sensual arc of the airplane's back, looking like an elegant giant egret sailing across time and farmland.

I've got a drawing of a Connie, said to be leaving Australia. There's a rickety set of crew stairs pushed up near the door just aft of the cockpit. This picture is wistful, an homage to a simpler time with more complicated engines.

At work I've got a huge framed photo of a 767 at dusk (or maybe dawn), an artist's idea of the Thunderbirds in flight, and models of our former Cessna 340 and our current Cheyenne. Up until recently, this was all I thought I could get away with, without appearing to be an eccentric airplane fanatic misplaced in a medical school office. A recent gift changed that premise.

Kathy Morgan, daughter of the legendary aviation writer Len Morgan, brought me a gift after her father died. It is a framed picture of the space shuttle and its 747 mount painted by Mike Machat. The artist has inscribed a message that says, "For Len Morgan, Who captures the magic of flight through the written word! With high esteem." The picture is also signed by the shuttle commander and by the 747's pilot. Entitled "Free Enterprise," this framed piece of history now resides in the most prominent space in my office and sets a tone for me. During difficult discussions about medicine, money and education, I'll look up at the picture and quickly realize that, by comparison, what I am doing is not that difficult at all.

There's one other place I keep treasured images: on my screen savers. On one at work I've got a rotation of pictures of family and airplanes. There's a shot of me with three Southwest captains just prior to our takeoff from Boeing Field on a delivery flight of a brand spanking new airplane. A panel shot of our Cheyenne and its companion, a close-up of our Avidyne EX 500 showing some nasty Nexrad weather and our course of careful circumnavigation around it, are interspersed with pictures of the kids and grandson. At another work computer I've got a picture of a Cheyenne landing in Europe with impressive mountains in the background. The airplane is dirty; full flaps, gear down and lit up like a Christmas tree.

On my laptop, there's a missing image. I had a Cessna Mustang on there until it became clear that I can't afford one. When I got a new laptop, it came with a beautiful picture of a mountain at dusk and I haven't changed it. I'm still playing the lottery to get the Mustang, but until I've got it made, it seems to me to be inappropriate to be flaunting any pictures of very light jets.

At work and at home I'm almost constantly in sight of an airplane image. About the only place I don't have a picture related to aviation is in our airplane itself. This is an acceptable state of affairs. The real thing is better than the image any day.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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