By Nick Carrion, The Corsair
Mike Machat is one of the biggest names in aviation art and history, but you’d never tell by looking at him. At the unveiling of his newest mural, “Flying Navy,” at the Museum of Flying at the Santa Monica airport, he blends in with the modest crowd that has gathered to admire his work.
In fact, it’s not until a particularly eager aviation fan asks him to sign her book of art prints that a visitor might not realize that this man, sitting by himself in a plastic folding chair, is indeed the man that we had come to honor.That this man has had pieces on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Kennedy Space Center, and even The Pentagon.
But when he starts talking about aviation, it is easy to see how Mike Machat has made a very successful career for himself as an artist, pilot, historian, and all around expert on all things airplane. He talks with a passion that goes back to his childhood, which was spent sketching airplanes and building models.
“Model kits of the 1950s. These were my first art teachers,” he says with a childish twinkle in his eye. “When I was a kid, I did this because I loved it. I never expected to have the opportunity as an artist to do the flying I’ve done, to work with the pilots and astronauts I’ve worked with. It’s been a dream come true.”
A dream that has manifested itself most recently in the form of “Flying Navy”, the 10’ x 20’ mural that now adorns the west wall of the museum’s main hall. And although this is the unveiling ceremony, we are hardly the first to see it.
“A lot of it was done during museum hours, and it’s actually been great,” says Sheri Machat, Mike’s wife of almost 33 years. Mike elaborates. “They wanted visitors to see the process. It was a big deal for the kids to see mixing colors, paint going on the wall. It created visitor interest to see it actually going up.”
Dan Ryan, managing director of the Museum of Flying, says having Machat paint his mural has been great for the museum. “I think people really enjoyed coming back and watching the progress. Kids especially got to ask questions about the painting, and mixing the colors. It’s also something to draw people back to visit the museum. It shows that we’re not static, that there’s always something new,” Ryan said.
And “Flying Navy” is definitely something new and exciting. Drawing from his experience as a technical illustrator for Douglas Aircraft Company, Machat prides himself on attention to detail. Every aspect of his mural, which depicts the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal laden with Douglas aircraft such as the A-3 Skywarrior heavy bomber and the A-1 Skyraider attack fighter, was carefully designed and sketched first at Machat’s studio, then painstakingly transcribed onto the wall over a period of five full months.
Machat is eager to stress how much art goes into the building of actual aircraft as well. “The relationship is airplanes wouldn’t exist without the tech art, so it’s all connected.” Although he does admit that the aircraft design industry, like many others, has changed dramatically recently.
“When I worked, I was at a drawing board using a straight edge, technical pencils. Tech art today is all done on digital media because airplanes today are designed, built, and flown digitally.”
Machat’s technical expertise is clearly visible in “Flying Navy”, which interestingly is his second mural at the Museum of Flying. His first, “Fly DOUGLAS!”, chronicles the history of the Douglas passenger lines from 1933 to 1958.
The aircraft company has been a huge part of Machat’s life, so it is no mystery why so many of his pieces portray their aviation accomplishments. “It’s an honor for me as an artist to keep the name of the Douglas Aircraft Company alive for future generations.”
And surely Machat’s own name is one that will be remembered. “He’s very well known,” says Dan Ryan. “Besides being an artist he’s also an author and a well respected historian of aviation history.”
Despite his many credits and qualifications, Machat is a humble and humorous man, ending his speech at the unveiling with, “It’s amazing what you can do with a paint by numbers set these days.”
So next time you pass the fleet of private planes at Santa Monica Airport, or hear the roar of the jets arriving and departing from LAX, consider going down to the Museum of Flying. You might find out the history of man’s attempt to conquer the skies is more interesting than one might expect.