R.G. Smith, a former aeronautical engineer whose love of flight led him to become a master of aviation art, died Tuesday at his home in Rancho Mirage. He was 87.
The cause was complications of a Parkinson's-related disease, said his daughter, Sharlyn Marsh.
Smith created 2,000 paintings and drawings over five decades. His best-known work depicts aerial scenes of navy fighter planes soaring and diving in combat. His artwork has been displayed at the Pentagon, the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla., the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, on military bases around the world and on thousands of Navy recruitment posters.
The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington held a six-month exhibition of his aviation paintings and drawings last year.
"Among the fraternity of artists who have recorded the history of flight on canvas, R.G. Smith is regarded by many as the American master," Tom Crouch, senior curator of the Smithsonian's aeronautics division, said when the exhibit opened.
Smith was nearly as famous for his depictions of skies as he was for his portrayal of planes. He particularly loved to paint clouds. "He was an artist who knew how to capture airplanes in the moment as well as the sky they are flying in," Crouch said last week after learning of Smith's death.
Smith's work was so highly respected in military circles that in 1973 he was designated "Honorary Naval Aviator No. 10," a distinction previously bestowed on such notables as Bob Hope and Adm. Hyman Rickover.
Aviators prized the accuracy and honesty with which Smith, who was not a pilot, captured aircraft in flight.
"You could feel the action. His eye and his hand understood what was happening, and he put it down perfectly," said retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Jay Hubbard, a friend.
Robert Grant Smith was born in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles but grew up in Oakland, where his father was a businessman and political consultant.
His love of planes began when he was 13 and was enraptured by the story of Charles Lindbergh's historic solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis. The event "ignited in me an immediate . . . and unending interest in aviation. I just had to get into the world of flying," Smith wrote in his autobiography, "The Man and His Art: R. G. Smith."
Like thousands of boys dazzled by Lindbergh's feat, he began to build model planes, propelling his balsa-wood creations with firecracker powder.
After high school, he studied at Polytechnic College of Engineering in Oakland. In 1936 he was hired as a blueprint trimmer at Douglas Aircraft, where he eventually became an engineer helping to design such classic Navy tactical planes as the SBD Dauntless, AD Skyraider and A-4D Skyhawk.
One day early in his career at Douglas, the aeronautics pioneer Jack Northrup saw a drawing of a gun turret Smith had made in his spare time. He admired Smith's skill and soon had the young engineer turning out other drawings that were used in marketing and promotion of Douglas' military and commercial aircraft.
Though largely self-taught, Smith was influenced by the watercolorist Arthur Beaumont, who gave classes by the harbor in San Pedro in the late 1940s. One of the most important lessons Beaumont taught him was how to paint and sketch from memory. Smith ensured accuracy by studying his subjects from all angles, collecting paint chips from the planes and observing them in combat and at sea. He sometimes built models of the planes as guides.
He did not paint every bolt and rivet, yet was able to convey a sense of reality, motion, even atmosphere. "Something he would say," said Steve Tack, Smith's grandson and a noted aviation artist in his own right, "was, 'I think I captured the feeling of humidity in this painting.' . . . He knew, down to the smallest thing, what to put where, how to give it just enough detail to get you interacting with the painting mentally."
When World War II began, Smith was told his work at Douglas was vital to the war effort and was barred from enlisting. To help Douglas gain new ideas for aircraft design, he was allowed to observe planes during carrier operations under combat conditions. But he always regretted being unable to fight in the war.
When the opportunity arose, almost three decades later, to tour Vietnam as a sketch artist, "he jumped at the opportunity," his daughter said.
He went on two monthlong tours in 1968 and 1969. The Navy wanted him to portray its aircraft in action and made him a captain to enable him to travel freely within the war zone. He joined river patrols along the Mekong Delta, search-and-rescue operations in Huey helicopters, OV-10 Bronco attack missions and carrier operations at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Although other artists documented Vietnam, "as to carrier operations on Yankee Station during the war, no one depicted them with such compelling force as R.G. Smith," said retired Vice Admiral William D. Houser, the former deputy chief of Naval operations for air warfare.
Although Smith went to Vietnam when he was in his mid-50s, he relished being in combat because, he wrote, "it was the only way to document the way it really was."
Painting gradually became Smith's primary occupation at Douglas, which used his art for lithographs, on calendars and in business proposals. He worked for Douglas and its successor, McDonnell Douglas, from 1936 to 1982. After his retirement, he maintained a studio at the plant and continued to produce paintings and drawings as an outside contractor.
He also produced a large body of Western art, including many paintings and drawings of Native Americans. He stopped producing large paintings in 1996, when his illness worsened.
In addition to his daughter, Smith is survived by his wife of 64 years, Betty; a son, Richard, of Thousand Oaks; eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service for Smith will be held July 15 at 2 p.m. at the Officer's Club at the Miramar Marine Corp. Air Station in San Diego County.