American Society of Aviation Artists 2008 Award of Distinction winner.
The clean, distinctive lines of Jack Fellows’ award- winning painting are indicative of his careful research and close attention to detail and accuracy. That painstaking approach has resulted in countless magazine covers and commissions over the years.
The oil-on-canvas Corsair! (a portion of which is shown here) depicts Lt. Cmdr. John T. “Tommy” Blackburn and his executive officer, Lieutenant Roger Hedrick, flying Vought F4U-1A Corsairs across a seemingly endless expanse of ocean prior to an attack on the Japanese forces at Rabaul, New Britain. Fellows explained that this work does not depict a specific mission but rather a snapshot of the action that took place during raids on the Japanese “around the end of 1943 and into 1944.”
Blackburn’s and Hedrick’s Corsairs are shown with distinctive skull-and-crossbones flags emblazoned on their cowls, indicating they were “Jolly Rogers” of the U.S. Navy’s fighter squadron VF-17. In early 1943 Black – burn, an experienced Grumman F4F-4 Wild – cat pilot, was ordered to form and command VF-17 and to begin training with the new F4U-1. After completing carrier qualifications, the fighter squadron’s first assignment was to the new aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill. It proved to be a short-lived tour of duty, as early landing and maintenance problems with the Corsair resulted in the unit’s reassignment to the Marine air facility at Ondonga, New Georgia.
There were many quirks to the F4U-1, but one in particular that plagued inexperienced carrier pilots was dubbed the “Corsair bounce”—rebounding of the main landing gear oleos that caused the aircraft to lurch out of control down the deck. Another problem involved oil leaking from the hydraulically controlled cowl flaps that splattered on the windscreen and restricted pilot visibility. The Corsair’s extremely long nose and aft cockpit location also impaired visibility on approach to the carrier deck. The Navy brass decided that the F4U was promising but might be better suited to land-based service until its carrier problems could be worked out.
The two Jolly Rogers in Fellows’ painting are shown after they had been assigned to Ondonga, where they operated alongside Marine squadron VMF-215. In the course of his research, Fellows spoke with Blackburn, exchanged correspondence with him and also consulted the commander’s book, The Jolly Rogers, an account of his days in the Solomons.
Blackburn vividly recalled one mission on November 11, 1943, when VF-17 tangled with a group of six Kawasaki Ki.61 “Tony” fighters. In the melee, the Japanese fighters ended up “all over” Blackburn, who headed for a cloud. When he broke out of the overcast, his Corsair was hit by several shots. Seconds later a red-faced Roger Hedrick formed up with him to see how badly he had shot up his CO.
Fellows, who has a background as a commercial artist, starts out by building scale models of aircraft he’s depicting, then poses them in various attitudes—which he said helps him to get “just that right perspective” in initial sketches. He next modifies and refines the sketches, emphasizing particular features of the aircraft. “In the case of the Corsairs,” he explained, “I made the noses slightly longer, so that the perspective in the painting looked exactly right to me.”
Jack Fellows is no stranger to the readers of Aviation History. His paintings have graced numerous covers and feature articles. “Covers are the hardest to paint,” he pointed out, noting that the subject not only has to grab readers’ attention but must also mesh with the magazine’s logo and headlines.
Corsair! certainly caught our eye.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.