|The underside of John Stahr's RV-8 is decorated with an airbrushed "American Angel." (photo by Phil Weston)
By Randy Dufault
When Richard Dreyfus' pilot character Pete perishes in the 1989 movie Always, he returns to the cockpit as an angel guiding his successor through a number of difficult situations. The familiar plot originated in the 1943 World War II movie A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy playing the mentoring spirit.
When it came time for John Stahr to design a paint scheme for his new RV-8, memories of that classic aviation film, along with a lifelong enthusiasm for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team, there was no question that the central theme would involve angels.
Stahr's RV-8 American Angel, which flew for the first time in April of this year, is adorned with small and large angels, many of which honor family members and others who played a significant part in Stahr's, or in his wife Patti's, life.
"It was a way to do pretty girls on the airplane," Stahr said, "but reverently clad so they don't become offensive to people.
"As an airplane painter nerd who loves to do artwork, doing pinup art is always a lot of fun to do."
Stahr is an artist and illustrator and has a business painting airplanes. He developed his skill for creating art on large mobile canvases - like airplanes - over years spent custom painting trucks, buses, and motor homes.
Starting a tour around the plane at the right wing, the motif on the top honors Patti's father Wilfred "Charlie" Charlton. Charlton was a P-38 pilot in WWII and the scene depicts his twin-tailed fighter hurrying to guide and escort a damaged B-17 home.
The left side of the vertical stabilizer displays what Stahr calls the "experimental" Angel. Instead of a typical set of feather wings, this figure is equipped with wings of aluminum, carbon fiber, and titanium. A Mylar flight suit rounds out the streamlining.
Pictured with the angel are two experimental airplanes: a Giles 202 and a RV-8. The Giles honors a pilot friend of Stahr's and the RV-8 depicts how Stahr believes the original owner of his RV-8 project might have finished the plane.
On top of the left wing is a "blue" angel honoring the Navy flight team. According to Stahr, the swept-wing spirit is flying off into the western sunset.
Over the years three pilots have perished in the F/A-18 jet while serving with the Blue Angels. Stahr included their faces and names on the left wing as well.
By far the grandest angel on the plane is a likeness of Patti, decked out in red, white, and blue, that nearly covers the bottom of the plane from nose to tail, and from wingtip to wingtip. The image is obviously difficult to see when the airplane is on the ground, though Stahr has a strategically placed mirror here at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2012 to show off portions of the painting.
Stahr used a number of techniques to paint the large belly graphic.
"Mostly it was done with a lot of planning," he said. "A complete paper pattern was made, full size, of the belly of the airplane, including the wings and where all the panels come together. That was all taped together and hung up on the wall."
Once the pattern was up Stahr created the drawing and used sign painting techniques to transfer it to the airplane. He painted the wings while they were off the plane and painted the fuselage while its bottom was rotated to be vertical.
To complete the work the wings and fairings were attached and the entire plane, minus the engine, was hoisted up by the nose, into a vertical position.
A bit of work remained after the airplane returned to its normal ground attitude, work that might remind one of a certain Italian painter's works on the Sistine Chapel.
"About 10 to 15 percent of the work was done over my head, but most of it was done by carefully planning," Stahr said. "It would be a lot more difficult to do on, say, a Mustang that you couldn't take the wings off of.
"It was fun to figure out a way to do it."
Stahr's plane is parked just west of Knapp Road in the Homebuilts area.