Rick Herter is one of the most prolific artists in the world of aviation art. His work hangs in private collections, museums and both corporate and military headquarters. So how did Herter get so good at painting aircraft? Part of it is his firsthand experience with them.
Herter’s fascination with aircraft and history first came from illustrations of the Battle of Britain in Time Life Magazine. He loved the drawings of Spitfires and Messerschmitts dogfighting over the Tower of London.
Working on a southwest Michigan farm as a boy, Herter also regularly saw Cessnas and Piper Cubs flying the navigational route directly overhead. However, his love of flight was propelled furthest on his 13th birthday.
His mother, an amateur artist herself, took him to their local airport to fly in an airplane. With a former WWII B-24 pilot at the controls, Herter’s half-hour in the air solidified his love for all things aviation.
Through the rest of his childhood, Herter hung out at the airport in his spare time. A family friend occasionally took him flying in a Cessna 182. “I tried to fly as often as I could from the age of 13 until I went away to college,” Herter recalled.
In 1984, Herter graduated from Spring Arbor University with a BA in art. He initially went into the advertising industry as an illustrator with a diverse portfolio. However, after meeting with the art director of an ad agency, Herter decided he needed to specialize in just one subject. Naturally, that subject was aviation.
His foray into aviation art came in the form of an air show poster. Thirteen weeks before the show, Herter walked into the director’s office and said, “You guys need a souvenir poster and I’m the guy to do it for you.” With continued confidence, Herter donated the art and worked with a local print shop to donate the posters to the High on Kalamazoo Air Show. The poster went on to win a national award and Herter began receiving commissions the next year.
Herter worked commissions all across the country. Within two years, he was approached at an air show by an Army colonel who was a fan of his work. The colonel referred Herter to the Air Force Art Program at the Pentagon to which he submitted his portfolio and was accepted in 1987.
AFAP artists create and donate art free of charge to capture the service’s modern history. To best do this, artists like Herter generally travel Mil-air and stay on bases with service members during a mission. In fact, taxpayer dollars are only used to reimburse their travel per diem. The artists have furnished all the art supplies necessary to create the AFAP’s 10,000+ piece collection.
Using Herter’s work for recruiting purposes, the Air Force Recruiting Service nominated him for their highest form of recognition, the American Spirit Award, which he won. “It was quite an honor,” Herter humbly noted, “and it still is an honor.” Other notable recipients of the award include Bob Hope, Dolly Parton and Ted Turner.
Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Herter received a call from Russell “Rusty” Kirk, the director of the art program. The Secretary of the Air Force tasked Kirk with finding an artist to paint the first F-15s as they arrived over the World Trade Center on that infamous day. Kirk offered the job to Herter who gladly took on the challenge.
In January 2002, Herter travelled to Langley Air Force Base where he met with the Air National Guard Squadrons that responded over Manhattan on 9/11. In the back seat of an F-16, he flew with the 119th Fighter Wing and joined F-15s of the 102nd Fighter Wing in a Noble Eagle combat air patrol over New York.
“We flew down Manhattan and we started to make the turn at the south end, and you could look straight down past the Eagles and see Ground Zero,” Herter recalled. “As I came over the site, I could see the massive pile of debris…I was stunned.” From this mission came two of Herter’s most renowned paintings, “First Pass, Defenders Over Washington” and “Ground Zero, Eagles on Station.”
In addition to Noble Eagle, Herter flew with the first wave of Air Force transports that brought the 82nd Airborne Division into Haiti during Operation Uphold Democracy. He also flew on multiple combat missions in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Outside of his military work, Herter has been commissioned by top aviation companies like Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Delta Airlines. He also holds a Guinness World Record. Herter painted the mural “Century of Flight” at the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science museum in Kalamazoo. Measuring 32x900 feet, it is the largest indoor, hand-painted mural in the world. Still, Herter remains humble about his achievement in the record book.
“On the other side of the page is the guy who can stick the most marbles up his nose,” he joked. “I’m proud to just say it was a big piece of art.”
Herter has also flown with the other branches of the military to capture their aerial histories. Through his work, Herter hopes to be able to communicate the service and sacrifices of the armed forces to the rest of the country.
“I’ve met so many incredible troops…and for me, truly, as a civilian who has never had to deploy, it blows you away,” Herter said. “I wish more civilians had a chance to see those things.”
Feature Image: Composite of Herter after a flight with the 79th squadron and "Spirit Visitation" by Rick Herter