Bill Lear and surplus WWII aircraft-what’s the connection?

Finding the real story behind a specific work of art often can be as satisfying as a good mystery thriller, especially when seemingly unrelated events leads one to the image being depicted.

I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but there I was talking on the phone to William P. Lear Jr. During the conversation he mentioned that at the tender age of 18 he was the youngest P-38 pilot.

My mind began mulling that comment over – how could it be? Near the end of World War II the Army Air Force was accepting men for pilot training as young as 18, but by the time they finished flight training and were assigned to a squadron they would most likely be 19. Even if he was still 18 how could he say he was the youngest P-38 pilot?

It turns out that Lear, just four days before his 18th birthday, with a check in hand from his famous father, bought a P-38 and flew it out the same day from Kingman, Ariz. Not a war weary bird or an ex-trainer, but a brand new P-38L-F5G with only 18 hours, 20 minutes total time on its airframe and engines. He was someone who actually bought a World War II fighter for $1,250.

Not only was he flying a P-38 at that tender age, but he would occasionally fly it into Cable Airport, in Upland, Calif. It seems his sister was attending one of the local Claremont Colleges, and on weekends he would pick her up and take her home. At the time, the runway at Cable was only 2,300 feet, which doesn’t allow much room for anything less than a perfect landing in a P-38. He was pretty game for an 18 year old, but then the title of his autobiography “”Fly Fast…Sin Boldly – Flying, Spying & Surviving,”” sort of explains it.

Last year I was working on the layout and scanning images for William T. Larkins’ book “”Surplus WW II U.S. Aircraft,”” which documents what happened to thousands of U.S. military aircraft after the war. The book contains more than 300 photos, many of them never published before. The book is the most comprehensive account of the locations where surplus aircraft were stored, as well as the type and number of aircraft worth millions of dollars that the government disposed of between 1945 and 1949 for a fraction of their original cost.

Among the photos taken by Larkins during that period was an air-to-air shot of young Bill Lear in his P-38. You never know when someone you meet today will be friends with someone you meet later under totally different circumstances – it is indeed a small world.

Now you may be wondering what this has to do with aviation art. Art is the artist’s way of making a statement or telling a story. It may be a bold and dynamic statement of power and strength or it may be a subtle statement bringing peace and tranquility or a pleasant memory to mind. It can be abstract, leaving the artist’s message somewhat of a mystery to be divined by the viewer. But it must always have a message that the artist wants to share with the world.

To limit aviation art to lithographs is far too restrictive, because art can include any type of media that depict aviation or uses aircraft in some way to tell a story. Even an elaborate paint scheme on your favorite aircraft can be art. For instance, Alaska Airlines has one of its new Boeing jetliner’s fuselages painted as a king salmon.

Photographs that are carefully orchestrated compositions, which the artist crops, sizes and edits to provide only the image or story the artist wants the viewer to see, is art. Most everyone has heard of Ansel Adams’ photographs. His majestic images of nature didn’t just happen but took hours of planning and patient waiting for the light to be just right.

William T. Larkins, who recently received the 2006 “”Admiral Arthur W. Radford Award for Excellence in Naval Aviation History and Literature,”” has been photographing aircraft since 1934. One “”Surplus WWII U.S. Aircraft”” book reviewer, Brian Baker, said, “”Bill Larkins is one of the surviving giants of American aviation history. A longtime photographer, one of the early ‘616’ photographers along with Gordon S. Williams, Peter M. Bowers, Howard Levy, and others…””

Are Larkins’ photographs works of art? Of course they are. His photograph of a vast sea of B-24s and B-17s at Kingman certainly qualifies. Yes, and on the back cover of Larkins’ book you will find the photograph of William Lear Jr. in his P-38.

Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be contacted at 909-986-1103 or at

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