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Heritage of the Air Collection

Origin of the Collection

Leach International, a California manufacturer of aircraft relays and now a subsidiary of Esterline Technologies, originally commissioned these images depicting heroic stories of the planes and pilots of early aviation history as advertising art. What started out in 1959, as a three- or four-image advertising campaign in conjunction with Aviation Week and Space Technology, became a series of 45 paintings many of which graced the magazine's inside covers over a period of about 10 years. Later in 1997, Leach added a 46th painting to the collection to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's historic trans-Atlantic flight. And in February 2006 at the Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA, a new 47th painting was unveiled to the public.

According to Corning, "One of my favorite pastimes as a kid was drawing WWI airplanes in combat. So when the opportunity came along years later to create a series of paintings depicting famous airplanes of WWI and their legendary pilots, well, I was thrilled. Getting paid to paint a subject I so admired! Of course there was no way to know what was to have been a series of three or four paintings, illustrations as they were called, would become 47 paintings in all, covering most of the famous incidents of that period in aviation history."

Award Winning Campaign

When the full-page reproductions of Merv Corning's paintings appeared for the first time, requests by the thousands flooded the magazines office, the advertising agency and Leach Corporation. The response was so overwhelming that the ads won the "McGraw Hill 1959 Readership Award" for the most responses to a printed advertisement.

Merv Corning worked as an illustrator at Studio Artist Inc. of San Francisco at the time of the first commission. Colleague Richard Foes completed two of the earliest watercolors in the series for Leach, but Corning was responsible for all the rest. As he became involved with the project, Corning grew increasingly excited by the stories and the research. He worked with Lt. Col. Kimbrough S. Brown, USAF Hanscom Field, Bedford, Mass., historian and curator of the Air Force archives, combing through the scant, grainy photos of the period and even aircraft blueprints. Corning recalls, "Our goal, really, was not only to make these paintings authentic in every detail, but illustrate each incident (true stories) in a way that would make the reader feel some of the excitement of being there!"

Paintings Donated

Leach International donated ten paintings from the Heritage of the Air Collection to the U.S. Air Force in 1961. Shortly before that, Pierre Salinger, press secretary to President Kennedy, accepted a specially framed set of Corning's reproductions for the White House. At about the same time, Merv Corning met with Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who put his stamp of approval on the paintings. In fact, the Rickenbacker watercolor America's Ace of Aces was subsequently donated to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. In 1981, as a result of their immense popularity, Corning, along with the Circle Fine Art Corporation, brought out a portfolio of prints on a variety of subjects which included four lithographs based on the original Leach paintings entitled The Great Airplanes, 1914-1918.