An engineer-artist offers a unique perspective with his personality-infused illustrations.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an aviation enthusiast who hasn’t seen some of Hank Caruso’s “Aerocatures.” They’ve appeared on calendars and graced the pages of many publications. His work is easily recognizable because of the quirky personalities he bestows on all types of flying machines.
Caruso’s unusual illustration style undoubtedly owes much to his background in systems and reliability testing and his degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University. As a test engineer at Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group in Baltimore, Md., he produced artwork intended for corporate trade shows as well as icebreakers for company briefings. In the late 1980s Westinghouse sent copies of Caruso’s illustrations to the then-editor of Naval Aviation News, Captain Ted Wilbur.
Now an Artist Fellow in the American Society of Aviation Artists, Caruso has also continued his engineering work. “I use the illustrations to translate technical situations into something that is easier for the uninitiated to understand,” he says. “I like describing my work as ‘caricature’ because you start with a baseline of reality and then you exaggerate in selected directions.”
In a recent series of illustrations for Naval Aviation News,“Seabirds Over Korea,” Caruso picked several topics that would portray “an exciting and dynamic time in the development of naval and Marine Corps aviation.” One example is his portrayal of Navy AD-4 Skyraiders attacking the Hwachon Dam.
The Douglas Aircraft Company developed the Skyraider as a replacement for its SBD Dauntless carrier dive-bomber from World War II. The AD-4 version of the aircraft was primarily used for ground attack, since it could carry 8,000 pounds of bombs, air-toground rockets and various other ordnance.
“The Skyraider has that ‘can-do attitude,’” Caruso explains. “The aircraft has a positive and aggressive look that just fits the situation.” He says the cross-section of the engine seems disproportionately small compared with the “huge slab sides” of the fuselage. As a result the fuselage is exaggerated and the engine is understated. Since the arc of the propeller looked abnormally large to Caruso, he accentuated it. The cockpit and canopy appear to be buried in the oversized fuselage. Then there’s the pilot: Note how Caruso has placed the eyes in the drawing.
The inspiration for Sink the Hwachon came from a Korean War panel discussion that Caruso attended in 2002. One of the panel members was Navy Vice Adm. James Sanderson (ret.), who served with VA-195. The mission depicted in Sink the Hwachon took place on May 1, 1951, when eight Skyraiders from the carrier Princeton destroyed the sluice gates of the dam used by the North Koreans to flood the Pukhan River valley and keep UN forces from advancing northward.
Princeton’s commander, Captain William Gallery, a WWII veteran, suggested that the Skyraiders be armed with Mk.13 torpedoes. That attack earned VA-195 its nickname, the “Dambusters.”
Caruso met with retired Navy Commander Bob Bennett, one of the pilots who participated in the attack. Bennett explained that Vought F4U Corsairs provided flak suppression and Grumman F9F-2P Panthers flew bomb damage assessment photo assignments. Bennett noted that ordnance technicians modified the torpedoes with large wooden dummy casings on the front of the weapons to keep them from diving too deep in the water after being released. Look closely and you can see the pieces of wood breaking off as a torpedo hits the water.
Caruso says he does not start with “a lot of reference books open to the right page.” That, he insists, would result in “a bad copy of a photograph rather than something that has its own personality.” He consults reference materials only after he has developed the overall concept and pose.
Creating his initial sketch with a felt-tip pen, Caruso then uses a light table, tracing a light pencil copy.“From there, I’ll work in all of the research and details,” he says. Many of his finished works appear in black and white, created with a rapidograph drafting pen used to outline the penciling and to work in crosshatching and shading. The black and white shading allows Caruso to define “what is going to be in light, what will be in shadow, what the contrast will be, which way the sun will be coming from,” he explains.
He admits to a particular fondness for creating in black and white. “I kinda like the way it looks,” he says. “I like the way the same small lines can suggest water, metal, clouds, dirt, grass, and so many other surface textures, as well as contours and shadows. Hardly anyone else seems to use black and white crosshatching.”
Perhaps not, but that’s just one of the reasons why Hank Caruso’s Aerocatures are unique in the field of aviation illustrations.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.