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An Interview with Lou Drendel by Flightgear and Aviation Art

Thursday, June 9, 2011
MAY 2011 – Artwork can transform subjects from our mind into something beautiful on paper. Many people including myself do art but dont get enough time to become professional artists.

A famous and well known aviation artist amongst the warbird and aviation community, is Amercian Lou Drendel. Lou is well known to most aviation enthusiasts as he has written and illustrated many Squadron Signal books since the 1970s.

HFGD was recently able to catch up with Lou to gain an insight into his aviation experiences, art skills and flights he has taken during his life. He is a very interesting person with much to share about flying and art.
What made you become interested in aviation and then aviation art? Were you taught art at school or did you self teach yourself to paint?
My interest in aviation, specifically military aviation, was generated at an early age. My father built scale models of all the then current military aircraft during WWII. Some he let me play with (and destroy), but most were hung from the ceiling of my bedroom, so I went to sleep with their images imprinted on my mind. Since I didn’t have the wherewithal to build models, I picked up a pencil and starting drawing them at about age 5. My formal art training consisted of some weekend and evening classes at the Chicago Art Institute and the American Academy of Art. I also learned a great deal from the Famous Artists Course. Beyond that, it has been trial and error, combined with imagination and a fairly rigid adherence to “rivet counting” as some of my fellow aviation artists call it. (I try to get all the details of the airplane correct.)

You have experienced many different aspects of flying, how did these
experiences reflect on each time you do a painting? Could you grasp the situation better?
My first 550 hours of flying were very prosaic, limited to Piper J-3, Cessna 120, 140, 172, 182 aircraft…..all straight and level for the most part…..strictly getting from here to there.
The one exception to that was when the flying club I belong to bought a new Citabria. I was president of the flying club, and convinced enough of the membership that we needed some aerobatic training. (Citabria is Airbatic spelled backwards.) The Citabria was brand-new at the time, and we picked up one of the first examples at the factory in Osceola, Wisconsin. The basic airplane had no electrical system, hence no lights and no radios. It was strictly day-VFR only.
We took delivery late on a November afternoon, and it became obvious that most of the flight home was going to be in the dark, but it was a severe-clear day, and we reasoned that we could pick out the lights of Madison, Wisconsin, then Rockford, Illinois, and finally, Chicago. The air was smooth and the whiskey compass gave us a good beginning heading. We trimmed the airplane for straight and level flight while there was still twilight, then settled down for the long ride to our home field outside of Chicago. When we arrived, my back-seater made the landing while I leaned sideways and held a cigarette lighter to illuminate the airspeed indicator. This first Citabria was really underpowered by a Continental 100hp engine, and aerobatics were a real challenge, requiring precise entry airspeeds and G loads for the maneuvers, but it was light on the controls and a joy to fly.

After my first book was published, (The Air War in Vietnam, ARCO publishers 1969) I was able to talk the military into giving me “dollar rides” in high performance jets. My first such ride was in the F-4 Phantom at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, home of the Naval Air Test Center. My pilot was Chief of Carrier Suitabilty Test, and we were in a clean Phantom. I got the ride of my life, starting with a high-performance takeoff and climbout, followed by Machbusting runs and aerobatics. It was my first taste of the freedom that comes with a truly highperformance airplane. In the following years, I have flown in other F-4s, the F-14, F-15, F-16s, F-18, B-52, B-1, A-6, OV-10, A-1, AH-1, UH-1, T-34C, AT-34, T-28, SNJ, and what became my favorite airplane, the T-34 Mentor. Each of them provided a unique experience and unquestionably allowed me to visualize the situations I portray more accurately.

How did your profile grow to become of the most recognised aviation artist in the US of modern times?
The majority of whatever prominence I have achieved as an aviation artist comes from the quantity of work I have done for Squadron/Signal Publications. My first book for Squadron/Signal was published in 1972. In the nearly 40 years since, I have authored and
illustrated 70 books for Squadron/Signal. The popularity of the internet has made it possible to share much of that work, and to create new commissions for aviation art patrons via my
website. My first widespread exposure came via the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, which published an 8-page spread of my paintings which depicted the Vietnam Air War. That article prompted Len Morgan to ask me to write and illustrate “TheAir War in Vietnam”, which he published as part of his “Famous Aircraft Series”.

What is your most favourite painting and why?
I have many favorites, but a particular fave is the cover painting for my first S/S book, “F-4 Phantom II In Action”. The painting depicts BG Robin Olds’ Phantom. The Phantom is my favorite modern fighter (closely followed by the F-105), and Robin Olds is far and away the
most impressive combat leader I have interviewed. He was extremely articulate and exuded fighter pilot from every pore. He generously volunteered to write the foreword to my second book “Aircraft of The Vietnam War”, published in 1970.

You have painted pilot profiles and flightgear as well, are they more challenging than a aircraft or easier in some ways?
Len Morgan once told me that people want to read about people. That statement has influenced my writing style and, to a lesser degree, my painting style. One of my favorite artists is Norman Rockwell, who really knew how to capture the essence of people on canvas. One of
my favorite aviation artists is James Dietz, who does for aviation what Norman Rockwell did for pop culture. People and their clothes are infinitely more difficult to portray accurately that aircraft. At least, they are for me, but I do enjoy the challenge and try to include them in most of my books.
How many paintings have you done in your career?
Literally, thousands. I have almost never not painted, no matter where I was or what I was doing. Even while I was in the Army, I drew and painted when I could find the time and space.

How do the abilities you have of hand painting stand up in this modern world of digital artwork and photography?
Photography is a tool of every aviation artist, but the camera can seldom portray combat aircraft in realistic operational scenarios. Though digital artwork can and does produce beautiful and realistic paintings, what it doesn’t do is produce an original individual piece of
art. Digital paintings, by their very nature, can be reproduced over and over, but the original art can never be hung in a gallery as the genesis of all of those prints. Digital art requires just as much talent to create, and maybe even more skill in the manipulation of the tools of its
creation. I consider myself fairly literate in computer skills, and I do use Photoshop, but I just cannot bring myself to give up the satisfying tactile feedback of brush and paint on canvas.

How do you perceive aviation artwork for the future – will it continue or is it reaching a limit?
I don’t really believe in limits of any kind, other than those imposed by law. As long as aerospace evolves, so will the art that chronicles the advancements of manned flight. Our knowledge base is expanding exponentially, so I would think that art will also continue to

As you are not only a accomplished artist but a pilot what do you view as your most memorable flight and why?
Like my favorite painting, there is no one single most memorable flight. Certainly some of the most memorable experiences were produced by flying my T-34 to and from Anchorage, Alaska.
All those rides in high performance fighters certainly produced memorable experiences, but my own 4,500 hours of flying, mostly in the T-34 produced the greatest memories.

How do you find flying the T-34 Mentor in aerobatic displays as you have done for many years?
The first T-34 I flew was also the last T-34 I flew, with nearly 4,000 hours of T-34 flying in a variety of Mentors in between. I began flying the T-34 in 1974. Our flying club was formed as a result of the efforts of an aircraft brokerage trying to sell the veteran CAP Mentor. No single buyer could be found, so they started a 15 member club. We quickly discovered that the Mentor is one of the best flying airplanes ever designed. It was the last airplane designed by Walter
Beech, and he wanted its handling qualities to mimic that of 1950s era jet fighters. It is light on the controls and very responsive, while still being relatively easy to fly and forgiving.
The T-34 Association was founded about this time, and I became an early member. That association provided some of the most rewarding relationships in my flying career. The T-34 Association was at the forefront of the civilian formation flying activity, and produced the first formation manual, which was eventually adopted by all of the different warbird type clubs. It led to the organization of FAST, the FAA-authorized and mandated civilian formation certification
organization. All warbird pilots who wish to participate in formation flight within waivered (airshow) airspace must be certified annually by FAST.
Our own flying club eventually morphed into an association of several T-34 owners and led directly to the formation of the Lima Lima Flight Team. (The name derives from the FAA identifier for our home field, LL-10, aka Naper Aero Club in Naperville, Illinois.) I chronicled
the formation and evolution of the team in my self-published book; “The Lima Lima Flight Team”, which can be purchased through my website Lima Lima Flight Team.html
We did things with the T-34 that no one had imagined could be done, eventually creating an aerobatic formation routine that mirrored that of the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds. That flying certainly created many, many memorable moments!

As a pilot in the US, how have you seen flying change over your lifetime?
The current leader of the Lima Lima Flight Team is Bill Cherwin, a retired UAL 747 captain that was also one of the founding members of the team. His aviation career has spanned over 50 years of aviation development. He is fond of saying; “Navigation is a lost art!” That sums up the most revolutionary changes in my aviation experience. During my flying career, navigation progressed from the A/N Range to VOR, LORAN, and finally GPS. Glass cockpits and GPS navigation have made getting from here to there much easier and more certain.
While aerodynamic laws have not been repealed, the new shapes and materials appearing on general aviation aircraft and on modern military aircraft have certainly stretched the limits of those laws.

What are your plans for future – keep on painting?
The future is every day, and I don’t see any reason to stop painting and writing. Since I no longer fly, I have more time for both. (In between rounds of golf…..and I still have hopes of shooting my age!)

Lou has his own webpage with many artwork examples, details on books he has written and how he does commissioned artworks –

Link to complete article with Lou’s paintings:

HFGD thanks Lou Drendel for allowing him to share his aviation and art history with the readers.

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