Addicted to Airplanes

Bob Mincer in his vintage Piper Cub lands at Middlesex Airport's grass strip.

“It has been said by people who love airplanes, at least it has in almost every article I’ve read about them, ‘It started with my childhood.’ But my dad didn’t take me to the airport when I was a kid or anything. That’s not the case here,” admits Ted Williams.

Ted, a Rochester native, has spent most of his life consumed by planes. “I used to bicycle from the north part of Rochester all the way to the airport to watch the airplanes take off and land,” he says.

It is a love that accompanied an era. “I was born in 1944, and grew up in a post-war era, a time when aviation was really a household topic,” he explains. “It was around us all the time. Chuck Yeager was breaking the sound barrier. The military was making the transition from propeller planes to jet aircrafts. Fathers and uncles were coming home from the war. I would go to family gatherings and picnics, where men would gather, and drink their beers, and tell their war stories. That started it for me.”

Ted would grow up to become very successful in the advertising world. He worked as an illustrator, a creative director and then, eventually, started his own agency. But on the side, he spent his time recreating vibrant World War II bombers and fighters through elaborate, well-researched oil paintings of them.

Today, Ted creates his historic masterpieces from his studio overlooking Canandaigua Lake. His artwork may be found all over – from private commissions for aircraft owners to museums to magazines and books.

We spoke more with Ted about his life, his passion for planes and his artwork. Here’s what he had to say.

Life in the Finger Lakes: What is your most memorable moment with airplanes?

Ted Williams: My most vivid memory from my childhood that really got me interested in airplanes took place on Armed Forces Day when I was in the fifth grade. I was at the airport in Rochester, and there was this big U.S. Navy patrol bomber there.

My buddy and I were admiring it. I came across the pilot, who looked at me and said, “So, you and your buddy wanna go for a ride?” And he took us up – with my mother’s permission, of course. We went up above Lake Ontario and back. Of all the things I have enjoyed about aviation since then, that memory is still the one that remains in the forefront of my mind always.

LIFL: How did you end up in the Finger Lakes Region? And how does it inspire your artwork?

TW: Having grown up in Rochester and having been a city kid, it wasn’t until the 1970s that I first made a trip down to the Finger Lakes Region. I just fell in love with it. I ended up buying some land overlooking the lake, and the rest is history.

I have travelled a lot in my few years as an artist. Because I was in the advertising industry, I had the opportunity to travel all over the country for business. No matter where I was – and you always compare it to where you came from – I never found a spot in the lower 48 that compared to the Finger Lakes.

Today, I get up in the morning, go to my studio and look at the lake and the hills. What else can inspire you?

LIFL: Which one of your creations is your favorite? Why?

TW: Which one stands out above the rest? You know, it’s one of the paintings I did when I was just getting started in this business. In fact, I am looking at it right now.

Thirty years ago, when I was in the ad business doing illustration and layout work, the creative director at the agency had a client out of Chicago by the name of Spitfire Tool & Machine Co. Well, “Spitfire” is the name of a very famous British fighter plane that flew in the Battle of Britain. The client thought it would be neat to do the ads for the company around the visual of a Spitfire.

You need to understand that a lot of photography from World War II was in black and white – nothing that had the look needed for an advertisement. At the time, I was already drawing and painting airplanes for private commissions. I had never done one commercially, though. The creative director came up to me and said, “Ted, how would you like to paint a Spitfire for one of our clients?” Of course I agreed to it.

The funny thing is, it was probably more successful for me than the Spitfire company. They were getting all these responses from people asking how they could contact the artist for a print of the Spitfire, or to do a painting of a plane that their grandfather flew, or whatever. The creative director would always pass these comments on to me, and that’s what really started my career. I started getting calls from aviation magazines and that type of thing. What started for me as a career as an advertising illustrator became another career entirely.

LIFL: Tell me what it’s been like to work with aviation enthusiasts, engineers and historians.

TW: The Battle of Midway is historically the turning point in World War II in the Pacific. It was this terrible battle between air fleets and aircraft carriers, and was historical in two respects: 1.) it was America’s first major victory against the Japanese six months after Pearl Harbor; 2) U.S. Navy pilots and crews dealt a devastating blow to the Japanese by sinking all four carriers sent to destroy the Midway Island base.

I created this painting I called “Day of the Dauntless.” The Douglas SBD Dauntless was the dive bomber used in that particular battle. I really did my homework on this one. Now, Navy airplanes had prominently displayed numbers on them in those days. The number was significant to the plane’s squadron and the ship it was stationed on. I chose aircraft number B12 of Bombing Squadron Six (VB6).

This was about 10 years ago. And one day, the phone rings. “I am Admiral Lewis Hopkins, U.S. Navy, retired,” says the voice on the other end. “Are you the Ted Williams that painted ‘Day of the Dauntless?’ I was there. That was my plane,” he says.

I happened to pick his airplane for the scene. He was there, flying off the U.S.S. Enterprise at the Battle of Midway. As a young Ensign just out of flight school, his first taste of combat was his participation in the most famous air/sea battle in American history. He kept telling me what a great painting it was. As he talked about that day in 1942, he was struggling to hold back his tears.

This is not an unusual story. It’s happened to me many times. I have veterans call me up to say thank you. But the Lew Hopkins story is what always struck me. Before that, I had never had anyone call me up and say, “Hey, you got it right, kid.”

Ted Williams has been drawing and painting airplanes since he was a kid, but didn’t seriously begin painting historic aircraft until 1973. Forty years later, he continues to create these aviation artworks in his home on Canandaigua Lake. If you are interested in purchasing some of Ted’s artwork, visit tedwilliamsaviationart.com. 

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It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s a Book(s)!

“I’ve always wanted to create a series of aviation books,” says Ted. “I wanted a visual for these American fighters and bombers. I am a good copy writer, but to sustain a book with over 200 pages? That’s not me. So I roped my daughter Amy Williams-Malpass, a writer, into my dream. ‘You have a degree now,’ I told her, ‘so I am going to press you into service.’ We did loads of research. Then she wrote it, and I illustrated it.”

Ted and Amy’s first book, The American Fighter Plane, hit shelves in 2002. A second book called The American Bomber Plane followed seven years later in 2009. The two are currently working on a third installment called The American Airliner. All three books cover a span of more than 90 years, from 1919 to today.

If interested in purchasing any of Ted and Amy’s books, go to the nearest bookstore near you. The books may also be purchased through Amazon (amazon.com) and Barnes & Noble (barnesandnoble.com).


by Alyssa LaFaro