Bob Rasmussen is still surrounded by airplanes. When he flew the slot with the Blue Angels in the late '50s he had them front, left and right. Now they surround his office at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. In his 13 years as director of the museum, he has tripled the museum's size and collection, and now has his eyes on some unique airplanes that Mother Nature has been storing at the bottom of Lake Michigan for over 50 years. In this month's Profile, Capt. Rasmussen, who is also an accomplished aviation artist, talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about life as a Naval aviator, flying with the Angels, running the museum, and the interesting medium he uses for his paintings: watercolors.
August 9, 2000
|About the Author ...
Joe Godfrey mixes his love of flying with a
love of music. He is an instrument-rated private pilot who flies a 1974 Bellanca
Viking based at Palomar airport just north of San Diego, Calif. He composes
music for commercials, films, broadcast and corporate media and has composed and
produced thousands of music tracks for America's largest advertisers. In
addition to writing for AVweb, Joe contributes to
The Aviation Consumer
and IFR Magazine.
He is a director and pilot for
Flight West, a non-profit organization that uses private airplanes to fly
indigent medical patients. He is married and lives in Leucadia, California.
So far, Joe is the only AVweb staff member who has logged time with Ella Fitzgerald and
conducted the London Symphony.
Robert L. Rasmussen was born May
26, 1930, in Sacramento, Calif. and grew up in the small farming community of
Rio Vista. He got hooked on aviation thanks to the barges full of warbirds that
parked in the river by his home during WWII. He had enough talent to win an art
scholarship to a school in San Francisco, but he was more interested in the
airplanes flying out of NAS Alameda across the bay from the school. He left art
school, got the required college credits, joined the Navy, trained at Pensacola,
and spent 30 years as a naval aviator. For three of those years he flew as a Blue
Angel. He served two cruises in Vietnam as commander of Fighter Squadron 111
during "Rolling Thunder," the round-the-clock bombing missions over
North Vietnam. He was Chief of Staff for a navy carrier division, commanded an
ammo ship, commanded the now-controversial Roosevelt Roads base in Puerto Rico,
and headed the aviation assignment division of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. He
retired as a Captain in 1983 with 650 carrier traps and 5,000 flight hours in
Four years later, after serving as development director of the Naval Aviation
Museum Foundation, he became director of the National
Museum of Naval Aviation, a job he still holds. When you enter the museum
you see a bronze sculpture that he designed depicting naval aviators from the
five major wars of the 1900s. And you'll see several of his watercolors hanging
by the gift shop and in the art gallery. Most museum visitors don't get to see
the rest of Captain Rasmussen's paintings, which line the hallways around his
office, and which earned him the R. G. Smith Award for excellence in naval
aviation art. But they do benefit from his philosophy that a museum can both
honor its subject and still be a fun place to go. Kids are all smiles when
they're sitting in the open cockpit area working the controls of a Harrier or a
Sea Cobra. An exhibit called "Home Front" depicts life at home during
WWII. There's an IMAX theatre and a combat simulator ride. Part of the floor of
the museum is an exact replica, except for length, of the deck of the Light
Carrier Cabot, complete with superstructure. And, of course, there's the
collection of aircraft, both inside and outside, up and down, including four
Blue Angel A4F Skyhawks suspended in diamond formation from the ceiling. The
museum is one of the star attractions on the Gulf Coast, and last year nearly
one million people visited the museum.
How did aviation get into your life?
Everybody my age was interested in aviation in World War II. I was 11 when
the war started and aviation was a big part of the war on the west coast, where
I lived. I got really hooked when the Army Air Corps started sending planes up
from San Francisco to Sacramento to have them reworked. The Sacramento River ran
by my home and the barges full of airplanes — most of them were P-39s and P-40s
— would stop there because it was about halfway. So a group of us would sneak
down there at night onto the barge and sit in the cockpits and pretend we were
aviators. I was hooked on the whole aura of aviation but the smell is what
really stuck with me. To me there was something special and almost hypnotic
about the smell of a military airplane.
I was too young to get into World War II but I did get interested in military
aviation during and after the war. After high school I had a scholarship to an
art school in San Francisco, but I only lasted a couple of weeks there. Other
more pressing interests called. The school was across the bay from Alameda Naval
Air Station and as I watched the planes I decided I'd rather be up there than
down here. The San Francisco cable cars had advertisements on the overheads, and
I saw one that said "Be a Naval Aviator" which sounded pretty inviting
to me. You needed 60 credit hours to do it, so I left art school, which was a
commercial school with no college credits, and enrolled at Sacramento State
College. As soon as I had my 60 hours I applied for aviation training and that
was the end of my civilian world for about 30 years.
My first airplane ride was from my home to Pensacola to begin flight
training, and I was sicker than a dog the whole trip. Not because there was
rough air, it was just like sitting in this room. I thought "I'm going to
be some kind of naval aviator." But that was the last time I was ever
airsick. I guess I was always too busy after that.
What airplanes did you train in?
I came to Pensacola in 1951 and started flying at Whiting field early in
1952. The first airplane was the SNJ Texan, which, for a novice, was a real
handful of airplane. I guess that every airplane is a real handful, but for me
at that time that bird with its 600-horsepower radial engine was a real thrill.
Intimidating, but exciting. We had several primary training fields in Pensacola
then. Right now we only have two. We bounced around from field to field in the
Pensacola area in various phases of initial flight training. Then I went to
Corpus Christi, Texas for advanced training in the F6F Hellcat. In those days we
had two carrier qualification periods, one in the SNJ and one in the Hellcat. We
trained on the Light Carrier Monterey — CVL 26 — then later on the the Light
Carrier Cabot, which is replicated here on the floor of the museum.
Standing left to right: Lt. Sheldon O.
"Lefty" Schwartz, #3; Cmdr. Edward B. "Ed" Holley,
Officer In Charge/Flight Leader, #1; Lt. Robert L. "Ras"
Rasmussen, #2; Kneeling left to right: Lt. Nello Pierozzi, #4; Lt. Mark
Perrault, #7; Lt. Herbert P. Hunter, #6
Do you remember your first trap?
I remember I was scared to death. None of the carrier training is dual —
ever — so you have to rely on your training. We had gone through a lot of field
carrier landing practice, but when it came to the real thing I felt I was just
along for the ride. It's hard to say you're in complete control of any carrier
landing, but especially the first couple of landings are especially challenging.
In those days we took our parachute off to land aboard ship, which is a
strange feeling. These days they have much better capability to egress from the
airplane in case of emergency, but in those days the only low altitude emergency
option was to land in the water and we didn't want to get trapped in the
parachute if we wound up in the water. I completed the required six landings on
my first day. It was the ultimate high of my life, at least at that point.
Did you see combat?
Not in my first tour in the fleet, but I had my share in the 60s, during the
Vietnam conflict. My first assignment was to VF-51 at Miramar in San Diego. The
squadron had just returned from an air combat cruise in Korea. They were flying
F9F-5s on the cruise, but when they got back we transitioned to the F9F-6
Cougar. We finished this transition and deployed on the Philippine Sea at about
the time the war ended so I never saw any combat in Korea.
I spent three years with the squadron. We were operating off a straight deck
carrier with a jet that was really designed for an angled-deck carrier. The
straight deck carriers were designed for WWII airplanes, and it was interesting
operating a high-performance jet from a straight deck carrier. There were no
bolters, you had to make it every time.
How many wires did a straight deck carrier have?
There were nine wires, plus three barrier wires, and then a 12-foot
barricade. The barricade was eventually raised to 21 feet because jets could
easily bounce over the 12-footer. There was a downside to the higher barricade
though; on more than one occasion the jet would take a wave-off and not get
enough height to get over the barricade and go smashing into the pack at the
front of the deck. That happened once on our cruise, and that was always a real
possibility. So the advent of the angled deck, around late 1953, was necessary
for the progress of naval aviation.
What other changes in design did you see?
I saw hydraulic catapult technology improve, and then eventually steam
catapults. In the training command we used the WWII vintage H4 hydraulic
catapult for the F6F, which was a jolt in the rear, but nothing like the jolt we
got when launching in a jet like the F9F-6. With 20 knots of wind across the
deck the F6F only needed about 60 knots boost from the catapult, but the F9F-6
needed about 130 knots flying speed to get comfortable, and the maximum the
catapult could deliver was 94 knots. So even with 30 knots of wind on the deck
you're still on the edge. There were many times when we couldn't fly because we
didn't have enough wind. Those problems were all solved with the technology
advances in carrier aviation in the 1950s and 60s.
I wanted to continue to fly at the time I reached the end of my obligated
service, and the airlines were hiring like crazy. So I did consider that. But at
the same time that opportunity came along, I got a chance to come back to
Pensacola and fly with the Blue Angels, and I did what every other 25-year-old
would have done. And I've never regretted that decision.
How do you get picked to be a Blue Angel?
In my day it was a pretty casual setup. It's much more formal and structured
now. But in those days, it was mostly a case of who you knew and where you
happened to be. You had to have a good endorsement from your commanding officer
and it helped if you knew someone that was already attached to the Blue Angels.
Then, as now, they pick their successors. I happened to be sharing an apartment
with a couple of guys, one of whom had just come from the Blue Angels. That
certainly helped. So I think for me, it was a case of being in the right place
at the right time.
Most people believe that Blue Angel pilots have to be especially talented
aviators. But I'd say that any of the people in my squadron could have come back
here and been successful. We used to watch and be awed by what the Blue Angels
did when we were junior officers and I'm sure junior officers still do that. Our
attitude, which is probably still the case, was that you had to be some kind of
superwhiz pilot to even attempt those maneuvers. When I joined the Blues I
quickly found out that just is not true. Just about everybody I know that's
competent enough to fly airplanes off of ships can do the Blue Angel routine if
they get the right training. In fact, I think landing an aircraft on a ship at
night in bad weather is a lot harder than what the Blue Angels do.
Can you give us some history of how the Blue Angel teams evolved?
Originally, in 1946, there were only three pilots, then they went to four,
then four plus what they called the Beetlebaum, which was an SNJ painted to look
like a Japanese Zero. The four would do a show, then they'd put on a mock
dogfight with the SNJ. Then they went to four in formation plus a solo
performer. All those changes took place in just a few years. In 1953 they added
another solo so they had four in formation plus two solo performers. That's what
was in place when I arrived in 1956 and it hasn't changed.
The year I joined the Blues we juggled airplanes a lot. When I got here, we
were flying the F9F-8 Cougar. We transitioned to the F11 Tiger in April of 1957,
two months after we had started the show season. So that year we flew the first
few weeks of the season in the F9 and went to Grumman and picked up six brand
new Tigers and started the transition into the new plane. We would practice
during the week in the F11 and go fly the weekend shows in the F9. We flew our
first show in the F11 in July of 1957, then the F11s — all of them, not just
ours — had to be grounded for some mechanical reason. So we shifted back to the
F9 for a few shows, than back to the F11 to finish out the year. It was pretty
hectic ... but interesting.
Normally the tour of duty with the Blues is for two years. Once in a while
they keep somebody there for three years, because of an anomaly in the rotation
or something else. Basically they bring two or three new people in every year. I
originally came in to be one of the solos, but a day or two after I arrived one
of the diamond pilots was killed in an accident during practice, so they put me
in that position. I was with the Blues for three years because one of our
replacements was lost in training just as my two-year tour was up. Somebody had
to stay on, and I was a bachelor and I was enjoying it, so I stayed. I flew the
right wing for the first year and then shifted to the slot.
The slot seems to me like it would be the most work.
We slot pilots like to make it look that way. [Laughs.] In the echelon
formation and the trail maneuvers it is more difficult, but in the diamond it's
actually easier. Four has more responsibility to keep the formation honest.
Sometimes the slot can see things in the formation that the leader can't see.
Sure you have a better visual picture in the lead, but the slot often has a
better feel for the whole situation. I think just about any slot pilot would
tell you that.
Can you give us an example?
The slot man can often tell when the rhythm of a maneuver is off, or if the
leader's not pulling enough g's during a maneuver, or if the roll rate is too
fast or not fast enough. Not that this would always cause the formation to come
apart, but you want it to be as clean as it can be.
One time we were performing in Las Vegas, on the 50th anniversary of powered
flight. We were in the F11 and we went into a loop. A loop is a relatively
benign maneuver, but not something where you can make many mistakes, especially
at a high and hot environment like Las Vegas. And we were not accustomed to that
environment with the F11. I was flying slot, and I could feel, almost from the
start of the maneuver, that we were not pulling enough, or were perhaps a little
too slow . So I began talking to the lead, trying to maximize our power, g
forces and other factors throughout the maneuver. The slot is always the most
critical on power and controllability in the formation used for the loop. And,
if we were to recover from the bad start we had, it would require the lead to
fly his aircraft as close as possible to the performance edge without exceeding
the capability of the wingmen, and especially the slot. Being able to feel the
maneuver from the slot and passing this on to the lead was helpful in working
We were very slow going over the top of the loop (well under 100 knots). We
didn't have the speed necessary to put the necessary g's in starting down the
back side without stalling. That's an especially critical point because, if you
put too much in you stall or mush and not turn the plane around the pitch axis.
Too little and the same thing results without the stall. The bottom line is the
same, you simply may not have enough vertical room to avoid hitting the ground.
We all realized well before this that we had a real problem but all we could
do was see it through trying to maximize the performance of the airplanes. We
were at maximum power and right on the edge of the stall all around the back
side. Fortunately, the two wingmen simultaneously moved out of the formation
several feet as we started to bottom out of the loop which gave me the
opportunity to slip up a little higher into the lead jet wash. I don't know if
this made a difference but it might have. We blew up a huge ball of dust as we
bottomed out, and observers claimed that they were surprised that it was not a
ball of fire.
As we started up again the lead called me on the radio with one word: "Ras?"
His meaning was clear. Being a bit of the ham, I waited just a second before
responding. The rest of the guys never let me forget that little bit of
We never made that mistake in a maneuver again either.
Just to get there takes a lot of ego. How do you train to fly as a team?
There is a lot of ego involved, for some more than others. But it cannot be a
big part of the experience, it has to be controlled to make a good team. It's
like any other type of military flying, you can do it if you have the right
leadership and training and attitude and a bit of flying talent. And it helps to
keep in mind that you are not as special as people will undoubtedly say you are.
There's a lot of camaraderie. To say that you're all best buddies all the
time is probably stretching it. We each had our individual lives, but we stuck
together much more than any other group I've been with. Most of us were
bachelors, so most of us lived together on the base in bachelor's quarters. In
fact, being a bachelor was one of the unofficial requirements until just before
Are there other traditions that have changed or been abandoned over the
Originally you had to be a former naval aviation cadet as opposed to
receiving your commission from the Naval Academy or ROTC. That's no longer the
case. The policy of having one of the demonstration pilots be a Marine started
in 1952 and, of course, that's still in place.
We only had six airplanes. I think there are 12 now, but we only had six, so
I always flew in the same airplane. And we didn't have the luxury of ever having
an aircraft unavailable for a performance...and they practically never were.
What happens when you wake up and you just feel like hell? Does it even
cross your mind to cancel a show?
When you're 25 or 26 it doesn't matter so much. I couldn't do it today, but
back then you'd just grit your teeth and go out and do it. Our show was about 35
minutes. It's a little longer than that now. But it's 35 minutes of very
concentrated hard work. You're tense physically and mentally, and when you
finish you're pretty much exhausted. If you start the routine exhausted or
feeling like death warmed over, it's only that much worse.
There's no backup pilot?
No. If there's an emergency you go with one less pilot. In the three and a
half years I was with the team we never had one pilot cancel because of
sickness. We had pilots who flew with minor illness, with the sometimes
reluctant stamp of approval from the flight surgeon. On one occasion we had a
pilot who had a painful back spasm that would only go away when he was seated.
So once he was seated in his jet he was fine, but getting in and out was a bit
dicey. The lead once had to take a local shot to eliminate a muscle pain that
would otherwise have made it difficult or impossible for him to fly the high g
maneuvers. The bottom line was that we never missed a performance or even had an
aircraft out of the lineup because of sickness. I guess that we were lucky in
part that we never had a debilitating sickness situation, but we were also
pretty healthy and we knew our limitations, so even if it was strenuous and
difficult at times we never exceeded these limitations.
Did you have a particular place that you liked to perform?
I like the Midwest most because of their enthusiasm. They didn't see a lot of
Navy planes and in those days didn't see many military aviators at all. As a
result an appearance of the Blue Angels was a major event.
I'll never forget Mason City, Iowa. We flew out of a base around Minneapolis
on one of those crystal clear days. We flew over the field for our opening
maneuver and it looked like a million people. There were probably ten or twenty
thousand people in Mason City, so it was obvious that they had drawn people from
all over the state.
We were not scheduled to land there because the runway was only 5,000 feet or
so, but our public affairs officer radioed us about the enthusiastic crowd so we
decided to land. We managed not to run off the runway, but while taxiing back in
echelon we kept getting slower and slower. Then we realized we were sinking into
the hot asphalt taxiway that was not built to handle heavy jets. About that time
the crowd broke through the barrier, the snow fence, and we shut down. You would
have thought we had won World War Three. The crowd was just amazing. I think
that was my favorite place. There were other big crowds, like in California and
New York, but they saw so much Navy that they weren't the die-hard fans that
you'd find in the Midwest. But they were all fun.
What did you do after the season ended?
"Old Nick One": A VF-111 F-8C
Crusader cats from the USS Oriskany
Our season was over in late November. Now they finish in early November. We
took December off and in January took off for either El Centro or Key West to
begin training and working in the new people.
What did you do after the Blue Angels?
First, I married a girl from Pensacola, with whom I just celebrated a 40th
anniversary. I then went to a fighter squadron in Oceana flying F11Fs. This was
a much different F11, with all the guns and extra weight of a fleet configured
aircraft on it. Of course, it wasn't sleek and blue and polished like the one I
was used to in the Blues. I made a couple of deployments to the Mediterranean on
the USS INTREPID, most of which was uneventful.
I did have one interesting flight while preparing to deploy. One night I was
doing carrier qualification off the coast of Virginia with another pilot. We
couldn't get the last landing in because the weather was so bad. We got down to
bingo fuel so they sent us to the beach. They told us we were about 65 miles
offshore, but we were more like 105, and we were right down to minimum fuel as
it was. The field was supposed to be 10,000 overcast, but when we got there it
was 1,500 overcast and 800 broken. As we got close the pilot who was leading me
ran out of fuel and had to punch out. Fortunately he was recovered. In fact,
that was probably one of the first ever successful night helicopter recoveries.
I came in on a radar controlled simulated dead engine approach with my fuel
gauges on zero. It was a nail biter, not something you want to do every day.
After that I became an aide, working for the Deputy Commander of the Atlantic
Fleet. Then I went to postgraduate school at Monterey. About that time the
Vietnam conflict started and we naval aviators worried that we would be left out
of the war because we were stuck in school. Our wives did not share that worry.
Well, that sure turned out wrong, because it lasted 10 years and we got more
than our share of it. I did two cruises in Vietnam, one as the Executive Officer
of VF-111 and one as Commanding Officer. I was on the Oriskany when she burned
in 1966. It was during the "Rolling Thunder" period of the war, where
we had major strikes into North Vietnam, sometimes three a day, for months and
months. It was a difficult time for us, we lost about 20% of our air wing
Following that, I had a tour as an aviation assignment officer in Washington.
Then I got an assignment back on the West Coast to be Commander for Air Wing 19,
when I was unexpectedly selected for Captain and got derailed. It was
unfortunate for me because being an Air Wing Commander is the plum assignment
for an aviator. I was an Ops officer and Chief of Staff for a carrier division
in the Vietnam era, then took command of an ammunition ship, which took me back
out for another 12 months. I was gone for about 30 months out of three years.
Then I was Commanding Officer of Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico for two
years, then back to the Bureau of Naval Personnel, this time as the head
assignment officer for aviation. I finished up my navy career in Pensacola as
Commanding Officer of the Naval Aviation Schools Command — pre-flight school.
Ending up here right where I started 30 years earlier was nice because it was
full circle. My daughter and my niece both married naval aviators while I was
here. I think that was probably a foregone conclusion since they were about
college age when we moved here. My son is a naval aviator, flying FA-18s in
VFA-105 at Oceana. I retired in 1983.
Did the people and the local politicians support the base at Vieques when
you were there?
The relationship between the navy and the local leaders at Vieques was very
active, open and cooperative while I was CO at Roosevelt Roads. There was no
overt dispute with Vieques over the navy presence. Despite this, there was some
effort by political organizations in Puerto Rico to reduce or eliminate the
navy's involvement in Vieques. A short time earlier the navy had shut down its
live impact range on the small Puerto Rican island of Culebra and it was obvious
that Vieques was vulnerable to the same type of programs that saw the end of the
range at Culebra.
How has the museum changed since you've been here?
When I got here it was about one-third as big as it is now, and we had less
than one-third the collection we have now. The artifact and archival collections
were much smaller. There was no library. The staff was small and was pretty much
limited by its size to basic operation and maintenance. There wasn't the money
or the capability or the people to run it like a first-class museum. We have
been able to turn much of that around in the past several years.
My philosophy is that museums should fill the traditional role of being
educational and inspirational and should represent the history of the community
they serve, but in this day and age, they have to also be interesting and fun
places to go. I don't intend to and won't allow it to be a fun house, but we
have added some elements that we believe make it serve this philosophy. For
instance we let people integrate themselves with our exhibits, including
airplanes. Our open cockpit area is unique to this museum, and it's always full
of kids pretending to be pilots. When I became museum director, all the
airplanes were cordoned off, not accessible to the public. I decided to remove
the barriers and allow visitors to interact with the aircraft.
There were plenty of skeptics when I introduced this idea, so we went
incrementally. First I opened the ropes on the less vulnerable airplanes, and
gradually we've opened up the wood and fabric airplanes, too. People respect
them and don't abuse them. In fact, I think people appreciate it because they
can't do this — get up close with the aircraft — anywhere but here.
Are there any airplanes you wish you had?
There are two that I really, really want and several others I'd like to have.
The big gaps in the collection are F2A Buffalo, and we have a chance of picking
that up. The one we have in mind came out of Finland, via Russia; now it's in
Ireland and the Navy's negotiating to get it here. The other one is the TDB
Devastator which was the famous torpedo plane from the battle of Midway. There
are three underwater that we know of, and we're negotiating for them.
Who owns an airplane that's underwater? Is it yours if you can dig it up?
It's ours anyway. The Navy never gave up ownership. We've pulled 31 airplanes
out of various bodies of water here and there. Most of them came out of Lake
Michigan, two came out of the Pacific Ocean, our F6 Hellcat came out of 3,400
feet of water off San Diego. The F3F was submerged in 1,800 feet of water off
Del Mar, California. Of course they needed to be restored but they're mostly
original. Before we started pulling airplanes out of the water we didn't have
examples of these airplanes.
We didn't have an SBD. We didn't have an F4F or an F3F or SB2U Vindicator. So
acquiring these aircraft has been very significant for us. In addition to being
very rare and valuable artifacts, they are basically undisturbed. Unlike an
airplane that's been crop dusting or been somebody's hobby, or reconfigured
several times, these are basically untouched and historically accurate. It's
especially gratifying to get the WWII airplanes because, when the war ended most
many of those airplanes were pushed over the side or trashed or left where they
were. Most of those that did come back were ground up for scrap. The Navy, like
all the services, purposely destroyed most of the WWII fleet.
"Turning Point": SBD
Dauntless bombers dive for the kill
Why are there so many airplanes in Lake Michigan? Is it because of the
training station at Great Lakes?
No, not directly. There were two carriers operating in Lake Michigan during
the war, and they were the real source of the aircraft. The two ships —
Wolverine and Sable — didn't start as carriers, they were excursion steamers.
The Navy bought them, cut the tops off, and made small training carriers out of
them and trained student naval aviators on them. Virtually all of the naval
aviators who became carrier pilots were taught the skill of landing on a carrier
on these two ships. The few carriers we had at the beginning of the war were out
there trying to stay alive and later on in the war they were too busy to train
aviators. So Lake Michigan became the training ground for carrier aviators and
also, as the result of accidents that took place there, a graveyard of stored
World War II aircraft.
What shape are those airplanes in after 60 years in water?
It's fresh water, and it's cold so it's a pretty good place to preserve an
airplane, which fit in pretty well with part of our mission of preservation of
the history of naval aviation. This has not always been the case. A good case in
point is the Hellcat. There were almost 13,000 Hellcats built, and there are
only about 25 left, and most of those are in civilian hands. The navy did not
preserve even one for history. The museum didn't have a Hellcat until we
acquired one from a civilian collector. So now when an older airplane comes offline,
I make sure we get at least one copy of it even if we acquire it only for
preservation and often that preservation takes form of a loan.
We have 350 airplanes on loan throughout the U.S. We probably have requests
for 1,000 different airplanes. We try to parcel them out to responsible museums
that we believe are reputable. The Navy keeps title of the loaned property and
it could always be recalled. But, for the most part, when we put it out on loan
it's going to stay there. If they treat it right and we don't need it — and
every airplane on loan is a duplicate of what we have here so usually we don't
need it — then it can stay there.
What if a generous AVweb reader wants to donate something? What are you
I don't accept something we don't need. In other words, if we've already got
a thousand flight helmets and somebody offers one, I probably won't accept it.
But I don't want to discourage people from offering because that's how we get
most of our small artifacts. Right now we are looking for artifacts from the
Vietnam conflict. Surprisingly, despite the length and scope of that
involvement, we have little in the way of artifacts to represent it.
How is the museum funded?
The museum receives funds both from the government and through the Museum
Foundation. I have 35 people working for me that are civil servants, and I'm a
civil servant. I have another 20 people working for me that are employed by the
Museum Foundation. And there are about 300 volunteers. So it takes three
different categories of people and two categories of funds to keep the place
running. Our budget is about $3 million a year and of that the government
provides about $2 million and the Museum Foundation provides another million.
Were you painting during your flying career or did that come later?
I've always known I could draw. I was drawing airplanes when I was a kid. The
art school experience sort of turned me off to art as a hobby, and I didn't
really have time for it when I was flying. So I didn't do much with it until the
'80s. When I came to the foundation they needed some artwork for promotional
pieces, and for some architectural renderings of things we were planning to
build. So that's how I got involved again, and I started painting aviation art.
I work exclusively in watercolors. I like the freedom of watercolors because
they do their own thing and you can't control them absolutely. Watercolors are
challenging in any art subject, but dealing with that unpredictability in
aviation art is especially risky. You can spend hours on a painting and screw it
up in a heartbeat and you can't fix it. You can't fix watercolors without it
being obvious. So it's an unusual medium for aviation art because it is a blend
of the abstract that is necessary in watercolor and the historical realism that
you have to portray in aviation art.
I've been fortunate to be able to pursue an exciting and rewarding career in
naval aviation and to have a part in the development of the museum and of the
art venue that celebrates that profession. Going back to the day I saw the
"Be a Naval Aviator" sign in that San Francisco cable car ... I'd do
it all again in a heartbeat.