Leonardo da Vinci of the Air Force:
Lewis Eugene Thompson and American Aviation
by Steve Clugston, Curator of Exhibitions, March Field Air Museum
The first concrete thought on aviation began with the charcoal and pen drawings of flying machines by Leonardo da Vinci in Florence, Italy during the Renaissance. Just as Leonardo was also known for his portraits of personalities, so would Lewis Eugene Thompson in his own way become the Leonardo of American aviation. Thompson was born in 1894 in Michigan and became an accomplished sign painter and a natural folk art illustrator of local barns even before he was of high school age. His favorite image which he painted on buildings and signs was an American eagle, sometimes in flight, which would prove to be prophetic. He studied Art at Hillsdale College in Michigan from 1913-1915, and enlisted in the Army on November 14, 1917 in the 2nd Indiana Field Artillery as a musician (usually interpreted as a bugler). His discharge on December 27, 1918 caused him, in his own words to: spend a great deal of time in Dayton, Ohio and there he met many of the Early Birds: (an exclusive society of the earliest American Aviation pioneers), who deepened his interest in aviation. Dayton is also regarded by many scholars as the birthplace of American aviation as the home of the Wright Brothers and their early subsequent pioneering flight activity from 1904-1908 after their initial success at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.
Thompson, however, states that it was while he was working as a bellhop in Hillsdale, Michigan, that he first met Art Smith in 1912, and was taught by him to fly, possibly as late as 1914. It was also during this period (1912-1913) that he met President Taft who gave him a personal tour of the White House through an arrangement by his Michigan state senator. This left a lasting impression on the young Lewis Thompson as he would eventually paint portraits of nine U.S. Presidents, including F.D.R. Lewis Thompson moved to Ohio to marry in 1919-1920. His association with Dayton and eventually the national Army Air Corps Headquarters at Wright Field in Dayton, starting in 1942, would prove to be significant.
He was employed by Army Air Corps research and development to paint images of proposed aircraft which would help Army general staff decide on which experimental airplanes would actually be developed. This was a classified position. Wright Field, (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) is also where Thompson would be fueled by his acquaintance with the subjects of his impending portraits of aviators he met there. Many important experimental aircraft of the day, such as the Bell X-1; which piloted Chuck Yeager in his epic breaking of the sound barrier in 1947, were conceived in part due to Thompsons efforts. It is also significant to the current Thompson portrait collection in that most of these experimental aircraft were tested under management of March Army Air Field personnel, who provided the administration of Muroc Air Field in the Mojave Desert of California, which later became Edwards Air Force Base. Both March Field, from the 1920s and Muroc Air Field in the 1930s and 40s were major experimental bases for the Army Air Corps. Therefore, it was fateful that the home of the Thompson portrait collection now resides at the former home of March Field. March Field Air Museum is proud to own and present this important collection to the public in this current exhibition of American Aviation Pioneer Portraits.
Professor Lewis Thompson came by the idea to produce a body of work depicting aviation greats at this time, in 1945-48, where he then painted the initial 61 portraits of those whom he felt contributed the most to American aviation. He stated during this time at Wright Field, and his timely painting of Orville Wright in the mid 1940s, just before Orvilles death: I expect to be panned by the critics for these portraits, Thompson says: because I have violated one of the cardinal principles of portrait painting. I have painted in the background, objects which represent the contribution of the particular person to American aviation. For example, in the background of Orville Wrights portrait is a bust of Wilber Wright; and at one side of the painting, resting on a desk, is a model of the airplane in which the Wright Brothers made their first flight. Eddie Rickenbackers portrait has in the background, an Eastern Air Lines insignia (he was president and general manager) and the insignia of the 94th Aero Squadron: his World War I group. It is noteworthy at this point to observe that Thompson centers much of his work on portraits of military aviators accomplishments, which is in keeping with the spirit of the war years. Rickenbacker, a former Army aviation officer, is glowingly noted as general manager of Eastern Airlines, but other civilian aviation greats are ignored: Juan Tripp, the CEO of Pan Am airlines and Howard Hughes, the aviation pioneer on the cutting edge of much of aviation at the time, including being the CEO of TWA, are not subjects of his work. Other obvious omissions were some of the female greats in aviation: Jackie Cochran, Nancy Love, and even Pancho Barnes just to name a few. He only painted one small portrait of a WASP pilot: and no others. It is therefore not a comprehensive study of aviators but a select or subjective one.
Since he left school in 1915, Thompson painted about 200 portraits, by 1948, including the aviation series. He preferred to have the subject sit for him (which took about 22-25 hours) and always developed a personal rapport with his subjects in order to capture their true personality. Even when he had to paint the subject from a photograph, he liked to have a personal interview with the subject and he traveled many miles for those interviews. A photograph is static, he says, but from talking to the person, I can get an idea of what he is really like.
Much of the quality of Thompsons work still remains to be judged by the critics, although he has achieved intermittent critical acclaim over the past 50 years. Thompson was confident that the aviation portraits were good enough eventually, to be purchased by the government for exhibition in a museum, possibly at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Museum). An exhibit in New York in January of 1948, of thirty of his paintings was considered the first step toward national fame according to Daily News staff writer Margaret Taylor at that time who also stated: Certainly to the untrained eye, his portraits appear to be excellent; They look as if they really were about to speak! The Institute of Aeronautical Sciences in Washington D.C. also honored Thompson for his debut exhibition that year at the insistence and participation by some of the great aviators themselves whom he painted.
Lewis Thompson stated that at the time of the exhibit, Orville Wright passed away and the portrait which I painted of his was draped in black. Thompson adds: What the Wright Brothers did, every one of us knows well. All possible adjectives have been used in every possible combination to describe their early struggles. In a very real sense, Orville and Wilber were aeronautical scientists. They could not draw upon any accumulated store of aeronautical knowledge. They could not profit by the mistakes of others. What they knew of the problem of mechanical flight they had to work from scratch. They had to find out for themselves.
These eulogized statements reflect a genuine sense of mourning and awe of Orville Wright, the aviation icon whom he had known personally at the time. Professor Thompsons research and writings on aviation history are exceptional in every way, but often his affinity for the Wright Brothers sometimes influenced him too subjectively.
It is now well known among aviation scholars that Octave Chanute was the Wright Bros.s mentor as the Wrights initially approached Chanute and he shared much information with them in order to get them stated. Chanute had already invented the bi-wing glider and demonstrated it several times as early as the 1890s. This was coupled with Lillienthals own successful glider experiments and flights in the 1890s in Germany. The Wright Brothers admittedly referred to Lillienthals research. It is also significant that John Montgomery had begun glider flights in California as early as the 1880s and published by 1894, and Samuel P. Langley had also published his experiments with his successful unmanned powered flights in 1894, five years before the Wright Brothers began their experiments in 1899.
Prof. Thompsons writings and paintings still encapsulate a sense of national identity and sometimes even myth and iconography when it comes to the Wright Brothers --- like a young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree; which is considered doubtful today, but lives on in national folklore.
Another very early pioneer, not mentioned by Thompson was Gustav Whitehead: who was featured twice in Scientific American and newspaper publications for his powered flights in 1901 and 1903. The Wright Bros. even approached Whitehead in Connecticut upon Chanutes advice in order to buy a more advanced aircraft engine for their initial Wright Flyer in 1903, but they later declined.
Thomsons real strength comes from his first hand knowledge of the majority of aviation giants whom he knew personally. Aviation had grown by leaps ever since 1903, and in fact was unstoppable since 1906, the fateful year when Glenn Curtiss built his first aviation engine for Capt. Baldwins powered, lighter than air dirigible, and Alberto Santos-Dumont flew the first powered airplane in Europe: a unique and original box kite design by Australian scientist, Lawrence Hargrave. His treatment of many early aviation pioneers like Thomas Baldwin, who sold the powered dirigible to the Army before the Armys purchase of the first military airplane: the Wrights Model A, does demonstrate an admirable objectivity. Prof. Thompsons documentation of the Aerial Experiment Association, (the A.E.A.), who competed with the Wright Brothers, and included Alexander Graham Bell and Glenn Curtiss, was also likewise very fair and accurate.
Prof. Thompsons major work Aviation Pioneers is based on exhaustive and unique research. Much of it is first person documentation given to him by the aviation pioneers themselves! His artists eye is impeccable in his imagery of major American aviation groundbreakers and their contributions from just before and including World War I, World War II, and onward to the tremendous innovation and experimentation of the jet age. This led up to the quest for the edge of space with aircraft like the X series: (which eventually traveled 6 times the speed of sound). His observation of aerial pioneers was a subject with which he had direct contact, due to his work with the Air Forces own experiments at Wright Field. His death in 1968 saw the threshold of what was soon to be the 1st lunar landing a year later (in 1969) but included up to the first manned orbit of the Moon in December of 1968.
The first portrait that he ever painted, as a teenager, was that of an angel in flight. The first half century of aviation was fortunate to have been documented by this artist and scholar who personally preserved these visionary reflections of the mortal angels who drove the first chariots of the heavens across our skies.
Curator, March Field Air Museum
Foreword to Mr. Lewis Eugene Thompson's
"American Aviation History"
By General of the Army H . H. Hap Arnold
The history of American aviation is so absorbing that people frequently become engrossed in interpreting the significance of aerial events and accomplishments; in projecting the limitless possibilities of aircraft, - and are inclined to lose sight of the individuals who have made these things possible.
What kind of people were the men and women who first dared to fly? What did they look like? Were they different from the average man and woman? Mr. Thompson has gone to enormous trouble to give us the answer to these questions. After long, patient research, he has produced a portrait gallery of the early sky trail-blazers, accompanied by thumb-nail word sketches.
Because of its authentic, graphic material, and its intense human interest, this work is a most important addition to the library of American Aviation History, for the men and women whom Mr. Thompson presents, and their air contemporaries, made American Aviation History over the past thirty or forty years.
Mr. Thompson had a splendid idea, and I am convinced it will do much to fill the void left by authors and their works on Aviation History.
Lewis E. Thompson: Autobiography and biography; original unpublished manuscripts. From the former Jack W. Mullan collection: March Field Air Museum Library.
Henry H. Arnold: Foreword; manuscript from the former Jack W. Mullan collection: March Field Air Museum Library.
Chariots of the Heavens: An Odyssey of Flight; original text from an exhibition by Stephen Clugston for March Field Air Museums Centennial of Flight Observance, 2003.
Combs, Harry, Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secrets of the Wright Brothers, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979.
Shulman, Seth, Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane, Harper Collins, 2002.
The American Heritage History of Flight, American Heritage Magazine, Simon and Schuster, 1962.
Contemporary web sources: National Air and Space Museum and USAF Museum, the Hiller Museum, San Diego Historical Society, and Glenn Curtiss web sites.