Air Force Vet Uses Military Aircraft as Canvas for Her Art

  • Shayne Meder touches up the tail of the HSC-8 show bird. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
    Shayne Meder touches up the tail of the HSC-8 show bird. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
  • A close up of the HSC-8 show bird's tail art painted by Shayne Meder (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
    A close up of the HSC-8 show bird's tail art painted by Shayne Meder (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
  • A close up of the HSC-8 show bird's doghouse painted by Shayne Meder. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
    A close up of the HSC-8 show bird's doghouse painted by Shayne Meder. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
  • A close up of the HSM-75 show bird's tail painted by Shayne Meder. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
    A close up of the HSM-75 show bird's tail painted by Shayne Meder. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
  • A close up of the HSM-49 show bird's tail painted by Shayne Meder. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
    A close up of the HSM-49 show bird's tail painted by Shayne Meder. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
  • A close up of the HSC-14 show bird's tail painted by Shayne Meder. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
    A close up of the HSC-14 show bird's tail painted by Shayne Meder. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
  • Shayne Meder's favorite helicopter, the show bird for HSC-21, which is also the 50th Seahawk she painted. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)
    Shayne Meder's favorite helicopter, the show bird for HSC-21, which is also the 50th Seahawk she painted. (Photo: Daniel Langhorne)

It's a brisk January morning at San Diego's Naval Air Station North Island, and Shayne Meder is touching up one of her masterpieces, an SH-60 Seahawk.

Emblazoned on the bird's tail is a spiked eightball, the emblem of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Eight. "Speed and Violence" is inscribed on the side of the doghouse underneath the main rotor.

Meder, a retired Air Force master sergeant from Riverside, Calif., embodies the patriotic and proud spirit of this flying piece of art. The Eightballers' show bird is one of 57 Seahawks across the country she has painted for free.

"It's a big deal for us just to have it," said Cmdr. Justin Issler, executive officer for HSC-8. "All of the guys busted their butts on deployment. Seeing this in the sea of gray helps amplify that pride."

HSC-8 recently returned from a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf with the carrier USS Nimitz, which supported ground operations against the Islamic State.

The Eightballers have many missions including anti-surface warfare, SEAL team support, search and rescue and logistics.

Murals on military aircraft have been around since World War I, when ace fighter pilots marked their birds to tally the number of enemy aircraft or observation balloons destroyed. Meder carries on that tradition by painting mascots of the units she works with.

Her artwork also includes scorpions, charging horses, snarling wolves, a Native American brave pointing a bow and arrow, a Japanese Samurai and dueling six-guns.

Without a doubt, though, her favorite is the "show bird" for the HSC-21 Blackjacks, an aircraft she nicknamed Betsy. The "show bird" is a designated aircraft in a squadron featuring a custom paint job, highlighting symbols of unit pride and tradition.

Emblazoned on Betsy's nose is a waving American flag and a screaming bald eagle. On the tail are two playing cards, the Jack and Ace of clubs.

The flag alone took two to three days to complete.

"I don't always focus on how long it takes me," Meder said. "I just work until I'm happy with it."

It's important to note that the military contributes no money to these paint jobs and the logistics behind them. The only thing it contributes is paint, which squadrons typically stock anyway, Meder said.

The Officers' Mess Fund pays for lodging and travel expenses for Meder and sometimes her husband Scott Donnell, who assists with preparation and laying out designs.

"I'd be happy if we broke even doing this," Donnell said. "People ask her all the time if she'll paint their car, and she has no interest, because a car doesn't have wings and rotors."

Beginnings

Meder's father volunteered to fly bombers during World War II, but was rejected for having bad knees. Despite the setback, he had a lifelong passion for aircraft, which he passed on to his daughter by traveling with his family to air shows around the country. Her mother also worked as a Boeing-contracted riveter and electrician for the B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress bomber.

When Meder was in middle school, her grandmother noticed she had a knack for painting and later bequeathed all of her art supplies to the budding artist.

It wasn't long until these two loves intersected.

Meder received a lot of mail about women in the Air Force while attending high school. With multiple members of her extended family serving in uniform, the idea of joining the military had already been on her mind.

After high school, Meder enlisted and qualified for various maintenance and quality assurance jobs, including maintaining the electronics and hydraulics on the B-52. Early in her career, she started painting artwork on aircraft, hangar doors and ammo boxes.

While stationed at Castle Air Force Base in central California in 1990, Meder realized someone should paint the old planes in the base's air museum. Before her retirement in 1994, she was asked to assist the museum and supervise its restoration efforts.

Her career in painting nose and tail art took off in 1997 when she painted an American flag and bald eagle on a B-17 Flying Fortress at March Air Force Base in California. A Navy commander saw her artwork and knew he wanted her to dress up his show bird.

The Product

The show bird, also known as a command bird, is flown by the commanding officer and used as a display piece at special events. Other aircraft generally remain gray because they're harder to spot at night.

In addition to nearly 60 Seahawks, Meder has painted KC-135R Stratotankers, a C-17 Globemaster III and a C-141C Starlifter at March Air Force Base.

She's also painted CH-46 Sea Knights and V-22 Ospreys for Southern California-based Marine Corps squadrons. The only active naval fixed-wing aircraft she has painted is an EA-6G Prowler based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington.

By far, her biggest murals are the red, white and blue naval aviation wings on the island of the amphibious assault ship USS America.

Before Meder paints an aircraft, she seeks inspiration from the squadron's mascot and history.

For some of the more obscure unit names, such as the Swamp Foxes, she gets a little more creative. The Swamp Fox dates back to the Revolutionary War, when patriots fought unconventional warfare against the British in America’s swamplands.

As a tribute to that era, Meder painted a grinning fox wearing a Revolution War-era uniform and holding a musket. In the background is the original version of the American flag with 13 stars.

The Impact

Standing in front of Meder's beloved Betsy, Cmdr. Nick Leclerc, commanding officer of HSC-21, said his Seahawk gets more attention than any other aircraft in his squadron.

"The sailors love to fly in it," he said.

He also said Meder's "exceptional work" on her helicopters is easy to see while walking down the flight line at NAS North Island.

When asked how it feels to pilot a helicopter emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes, Leclerc said it's humbling because it represents everything his sailors sacrifice and fight for.

"It gets more attention than any other aircraft," he said.

Meder currently works for Aircraft Restoration Services at French Valley Airport in Murrieta, Calif. The company restores decommissioned military aircraft as projects for wealthy individuals.

Wings and Rotors Air Museum, its nonprofit sister organization, educates the public and school groups about military aviation history, particularly the Vietnam era.

Her boss allows her to take unpaid days off so she can complete her active military projects.

Knowing that a show bird is a big morale booster for squadrons, Meder has at times pulled all-nighters to finish a paint job so she could catch a flight home the next day. She sees younger versions of herself in the troops she meets, she said.

At first, they assume Meder is highly paid contractor, but then she tells them that all of her work is freely volunteered.

"Their eyes get as big as bowls," she said. "All of the sudden, you see this warmth come in their faces."

Some people bake cookies or send care packages to support service members.

"This is just my way of doing it," Meder said.

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