Angels have been part of aviation myths since the early days of flight — so much so that two successful Hollywood movies, “A Guy Named Joe” and the 1989 remake “Always,” were centered on a pilot turned angel who comes to the rescue of fellow pilots. John and Patti Stahr from Eugene, Ore., enthusiastically embraced that angelic connection with their RV-8 “American Angel.”
The Stahr’s RV, N707AA (that’s AA for American Angel), bears images of several angels, each with their own story.
It was one of the most talked-about RVs at this summer’s AirVenture. It was not uncommon to see several people gathered around the airplane admiring the detail and imagery that literally reaches from spinner to tail, wing tip to wing tip, inside and out.
John Stahr, who owns Artistic Aviation, did the artwork himself.
“I am an illustrator, but most of my bread and butter and avgas money comes from painting other people’s airplanes,” he explained. “I have painted scores of other airplanes from experimental aircraft to business jets. Most of the work I do is for someone who wants something a little more outstanding than run of the mill. For me, designing the artwork for someone’s project is sort of like the dessert of the project. The artwork creates a focal point that people remember.”
Stahr gestured to the field of RVs parked in the experimental area as he said, “There are 100 red and white RVs out there with checkerboards on the tail, but there is only one RV out here with angels plastered on the tail.”
Stahr said that, just like in the movie “Always,” he believes that all pilots fly with the spirits of pilots who’ve passed before them.
“It keeps us thinking straight, and the angels help us make good decisions, something that flying requires to an even higher level than most any other motor sport or transportation endeavor,” he said.
The RV-8 was acquired in 2007 as a project from his friend Stan Auferoth.
“Stan got his private pilot’s license when he was 55 and he was passionate about flying,” Stahr said. “He was also a wrench-twisting hot rod builder his whole life, and one day he sold his Cessna and decided to build an RV-8.”
Unfortunately, Auferoth’s wife fell ill and he had to shelve the project, and then he passed away before he could finish the airplane.
When the Stahrs brought the airplane home, most of the metal work was complete, but the instrument panel needed work and, as John Stahr noted, “It is said that the last 15% takes 75% of the time. The instrument and radio systems are very complex and, of course, the engine system needs every detail and control tuned to perfection.”
The airplane made its first flight March 26, 2012.
“Between March and July I flew as much as I could to fly the 50 hours off of it so Patti and I could fly it to Oshkosh,” Stahr said.
It’s not unusual to see an RV with a military inspired paint scheme, and Stahr admits that his first inclination was to copy the look of the Blue Angels, the US Navy flight team.
“I did some artwork for them and in 1993 I had the opportunity to fly in Blue Angel No. 7, which is the two-place jet they have. It was the most incredible day of flying I’ve ever had!” he recalled.
His paint scheme plans changed, however, when one of his customers reminded him that he’d be copying a design, and suggested that it would be more appropriate for an artist like Stahr to come up with his own design.
“And the American Angel was born,” Stahr said. “It is the paint job that sets the overall mood and this plane has a special design that is a visual tribute to the significant people and the angels that have been guiding this plane to completion. Part of the theme is to honor those who have passed on and who contributed to aviation and, particularly, to our lives.”
John and Patti Stahr graciously agreed to explain the images on the airplane, starting the tour at the tail.
“On one side of the tail is your basic reverent angle, lost in thought,” John said. “On the other side is an angel dressed in a mylar flight suit. She’s my experimental angle, her wings are made of carbon fiber and titanium and she has two experimental planes flying off her wing. One of the airplanes is a memorial to a buddy of mine. He passed away before his time from an aortic aneurysm. He was one of those guys you just loved — the world certainly misses him. The other is an RV-8 to represent Stan Auferoth, who started this RV-8 project which Patti and I got to finish.”
A full-length mirror was placed below the aircraft to show off the crowning glory of the American Angel, a female angel with a wingspan equal to that of the RV-8. I couldn’t help but notice that the angel looked an awful lot like Patti Stahr.
“The American Angel is my wife,” John nodded. “She is wrapped in the stars and stripe gown and is lost in thought in flight. Spiritually, I think that I am flying on my wife’s wings every time I get into the airplane.”
Patti, he noted, had her own connection to aviation established well before she and John met. Her father, Wilfred Charleton, is immortalized on the right wing, along with the P-38 he flew during World War II.
“He was in a classroom in 1943 learning how to fly B-17s when someone walked in and asked if there was anyone in there who wanted to learn how to fly P-38s instead,” Patti Stahr said. “Of course, everyone in the room raised their hands and he was one of the lucky ones and that’s what he got to do for the duration of the war. He came home on leave in April of 1945 and never had to go back. He settled down and raised a family.”
Aviation was an interest she acquired from her father. “The last time I was at Oshkosh was in 1974,” she recalled. “I came here with my Dad just to see the warbirds.”
Although her father has gone west, Patti was pleased that, symbolically, her father made it back to Oshkosh for the big show through his likeness on the wing of American Angel.
On the other wing are the images of three members of the Blue Angels who were killed in aerial accidents.
“The image shows the Blue Angels, along with the Blue Angel herself, who is flanked by Blue Angel No. 6 and No. 7 off her wing,” John Stahr said. “She is leading them off into the western sunset because over the course of 25 years the Blue Angels have had a few accidents leading to fatalities, so these Blue Angels have given their lives in service to the country as ambassadors to the Navy. I thought it would be very fitting to have a few angels on my left wing. It keeps me in good company and spiritually well protected.”
For more information: ArtisticAviation.com