Published On: June 25th, 2020By Categories: Editions, Feature, Flarepath, New8.7 min read
new rules

Art can open doors. A painting by South African aviation artist, Tiro Vorster (ASAA), opened significant and memorable doors in Russia: The Ryazan Air Base and Museum for Long Distance Aviation.

His gift of a painting of the iconic Russian Tupolev Tu-95 (NATO code name: “Bear”) gave him access to an inner aviation sanctum, not seen by Western civilians or military before. He received a hero’s welcome.

Back in South Africa where the SA Air Force, the second oldest in the world, celebrates its centenary, Tiro ticked off a major bucket list item. A two-year dream had become reality. The Russian corner in his house in Van Riebeeckshof, Cape Town, with Russian gifts displayed, will forever remind him of the adventure.

Tiro is drawn to classic aircraft, especially military, but also civilian. His works include American, British, German, South African, French and Russian subjects.

“This oil painting, entitled ‘The Mighty Bear on Patrol’ has realised one of my greatest ambitions in life. To see and touch the aircraft and the best of Russian military innovation and design in long range bombers, to speak to high-ranking Russian Air Force officers who have flown and still fly them, their warm reception and appreciation of my art was an absolute highlight in my career as an artist. I was there not just as an individual artist, but as a proud South African, former Air Force member and member of the renowned American Society of Aviation Artists (ASAA).”

Tiro, former, decorated flight engineer on the Alouette and Shackleton, veteran of ten operational tours of duty, is an internationally recognised aviation artist.  As a Life Member of ASAA, he may use this abbreviation behind his name on paintings. He has also received recognition for the SAAF

“During my art exhibition at Air Force Base Ysterplaat in Cape Town in 2013, I met Elina Komarova-Tagar, a medical doctor involved with reconciliation work with veterans and member of the Russian Club in Cape Town. I told her of my love of Russian aircraft. We became close friends.  She was involved in the journey of my next three paintings of an Augusta Westland Lynx helicopter, a PV Ventura from World War 2 and a C 130 parachuting special forces over Langebaan in South Africa.

She introduced me to her Russian network. She brought Father Konstantin Tatarinchev to my house. A former Tupolev Tu-22 pilot himself, he became a priest and today heads up the worldwide outreach of the Russian Orthodox Church for military veterans.

“Two years ago the dream to paint the Tu-95 started. In December 2018 I decided to go ahead. I knew the aircraft well, but did additional research and drawings before starting on the canvas in January 2019. My plan was to donate the painting to Russia in the hope of seeing the Tu-95 close-up and meeting its crew. Of course I would give all my paintbrushes for a flight in one of them!” he quips.

It was a painstaking labour of love. For aviation artists, lovers and collectors every military, technical and historical detail of the aircraft must be one hundred percent correct even before the background, natural, aerial or battle setting comes into play.

While Tiro was painting, planning started for the trip to Russia and the handover. Efforts to gain the support of the South African Government through the Departments of Defence, International Relations, and Arts and Culture came to naught, even though the request was not for money, just endorsement. The South African Embassy in Moscow was immediately supportive.

Tiro eventually joined a tour group to Russia and simply paid his own way.  “When I boarded the aircraft it needed some very smooth talking to get the carefully wrapped panting accepted as cabin luggage. One misstep on the boarding steps could have scuttled the whole mission. As I sat down, there were no firm arrangements in place for the handover.”

It was to be Father Konstantin and dr Komarova-Tagar who ultimately made the breakthrough. Tiro used one of his tour days to break away.  He was met at his Moscow hotel and driven to Ryazan, 200 km south east of Moscow, by Father Konstantin, dr Yuri Skubko, political economist and art expert from the Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences and Lt-Col. Igor Zhdarkin, military interpreter and member of the Angola Veterans’ Union.

En route Lt.-genl. Michael Oparin, former commander of Russian Long Range Aviation, chairman of the Veteran’s Society and vice-chairman of Tupolev’s construction division joined them. A large party at the Ryazan Air Base and Museum for Long Distance Aviation, the museum director, flight crew of the Tu-95, other aircraft and officers welcomed them.

“This kid from Middelburg in the Cape saw museum displays no Western eyes had seen before. I felt at home sitting in front of the cockpit instruments of the Tu-16 “Badger”.

The painting was unveiled in the Museum for Long-Range Aviation. Then Tiro and company were taken to a collection of Russian post-World War 2 bombers, representing the innovation, design and ingenuity of Russian military aviation also at.

“It’s a humbling experience. Everything I had read about or seen on television became real.  I was talking to the pilots who, through the interpreter, enthralled me with the aircrafts’ features, performance and their experience flying them.  This is simply heaven for an aviation artist!”

Heavy traffic on the way back to Moscow almost made Tiro miss his train connection to St Petersburg. He boarded with minutes to spare, but elated at how it had all turned out.


As a young boy in the small town of Middelburg, Tiro started drawing planes, locomotives, tractors and anything with machine detail on soap wrappers.

“I scoured the library for books about aircraft.  I walked to the railway station to draw locomotives and went to the agricultural show to draw farm machinery. Technical detail fascinated me. I also developed a great interest in performance cars. I saw my first large aircraft at age sixteen and knew what I wanted to do – I joined the Air Force and notched up 4 5000 hours of flying.”

Son of a watchmaker and gunsmith father and a bookkeeper mother, Tiro dreamt and drew. He built, painted and flew model aircraft with friends. He drew a yellow Caterpillar for a school inspector, Ms. La Grange as a 9 year-old. He still keeps her handwritten thank you letter dated 1953.

His childhood books about aircraft are in his home library together with memorabilia, autographs, gifts and personal messages from famous pilots, commanders, generals, comrades and captains of industry. Tiro Vorster’s aviation art opened doors to many shielded by protocol and high office. He became a silent ambassador for South Africa and the SA Air Force, behind iron curtains and despite military sanctions.

“Art gave me wonderful opportunities. In 1984 I sent the Chief of Staff the US Air Force a print of a Mustang P51, without permission from my superiors and against military protocol.  I still have the handwritten thank you letter from General Charles A. Gabriel. I met my role model, US aviation artist Keith Ferris, after seeing his famous mural at the Smithsonian Institute and met senior Pentagon officers.

Generals and top aviators supported him and thanked him for his art: Generals Dennis Earp, Roelf Beukes, Willem Hechter, Jan van Loggerenberg and Fred du Toit, Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson, top Royal Air Force pilot in WW2, Bob Hoover, pilot of the chase plane for Chuck Yeager’s first ever supersonic flight and Oberst Wolfgang Zebrowski, Luftwaffe hero and FW 190 pilot.

Tiro was the only South African artist to be invited to display eight of his paintings at the US “Centenary of Flight” celebrations at Dayton Ohio in 2003. His painting of a Spitfire in a hangar was the cover of the official invitations. At the largest military aviation museum in the world (150 aircraft displayed indoors) the military band played South African songs in Tiro’s honour.

His photo albums record all these memories. There are logbooks from an era when flight engineers without computer help had to calculate, takeoff weight, fuel supply, speed and many other figures to ensure safe takeoff, mission and landing.

He flew many search, rescue and patrol missions over the oceans, the desert and in guerrilla wars in Namibia, Angola and former Rhodesia – nine tours of duty of ten weeks each. He lost comrades and had close shaves: doing emergency repairs to a helicopter under enemy fire and insisting on being on board for the flight back to base.

In 1968 his pilot does an emergency landing – on the edge of a cliff. His helicopter draws fire in 1976 and they just manage to land the now unserviceable craft. The Pro Merito medal for “exceptionally meritorious service and particular devotion to duty”, The Military Merit Medal for editing SAAF’s Nyala magazine and other decorations on his wall tell their own story.

Aviation art demands all the “regular” elements such as perspective, colour, scale, contrast, texture, lighting, brush technique. Aviation artists have to master still life (aircraft in a hangar on the runway), landscape (aircraft over mountains, oceans, desert, in clouds), battle positions, light, reflection, camouflage and precise historical, military and technical detail. One mistake detracts from the merit of the work. Tiro had the advantage of a day at the office in the air over many decades.

On his walls, in collectors’ homes and military bases hang his beloved Shackleton, Spitfire, Mustang P51, Bristol Beaufighter, Cheetah, English Electric Lightning, Lockheed Constellation, Junkers, Rooivalk, Wasp, Albatross, Kittyhawk, Focke Wulf and more.

Tiro and his wife, Hannatjie, a former teacher have a daughter, Tihanna, a former South African 400 metres athletics champion, musician, now physiotherapist in Mossel Bay. They are just as proud of her as she is of her parents and her artist father.

“As I reflect on my life, there is nothing I would do differently.  My family, good friends and art have enriched my life and I am truly grateful for that.  My Tu-95 has a place of honour in Russia.”

Hannatjie cooks and bakes up a storm and Tiro is a coffee connoisseur. During a visit I notice the piles of books, sketchpad and drawings on the table. Tiro’s dreaming again. A big canvas, an iconic aircraft. What a wonderful compulsion.

*Pieter Cronjé is a friend who loves aircraft, journalist and international advisor.

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