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Bringing History to Life: Aerial refueler paints his way into retirement

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Citizen Airman Magazine

I’m so thankful the Air Force Reserve gave me the opportunity to finish out my career doing this thing I love.

A Reserve Citizen Airman with a distinguished 33-year military career, including 20 years as a KC-135 boom operator, wrapped up his time in uniform with a rather unusual two-year assignment that took him out of the boom pod of his beloved Stratotanker.

Darby Perrin, who retired in December as a senior master sergeant, spent his last two and a half years before retirement as an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to the Air Force Reserve Command Office of History and Heritage, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. His tasking – create large, very detailed oil paintings celebrating significant events in Air Force Reserve history.

“I would be given a subject that may have possibilities of becoming a great painting,” Perrin said. “Then, it would be up to me to do the research and interview the parties involved, if they were still alive, and come up with sketches and a small study. If the History Office thought it was still a story that needed to be told, I would be given the go-ahead to create the painting.” 

In all, Perrin created 14 paintings during his 30 months as an IMA. Some hang in the halls of the Pentagon, while others are displayed at the AFRC headquarters building at Robins. Among the paintings he created while assigned to the History office include: “Earth, Blood and Fire,” “MGM Grand Rescue,” “The Last Ace” and “We Move Your World.”

“Earth, Blood and Fire” depicts the heroic Modular Airborne Firefighting System flight of a crew from the 302nd Airlift Wing’s 731st Airlift Squadron, Peterson AFB, Colorado, over the Sierra Nevada fire in July 2020. On their third attempt to drop fire retardant, the crew ran into trouble when shifting winds changed the path of a smoke column, forcing the crew to fly directly through the column. Ash and debris shut two engines down completely and slowed the other two. Losing a third engine at their present speed and altitude would have proven fatal. Flight engineers were able to stabilize the third engine and eventually the crew had enough power to climb out of the valley.

“MGM Grand Rescue” captures the events of Nov. 21, 1980, when a large, rapidly spreading fire broke out in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Civilian authorities reached out to Nellis AFB, for help. As luck would have it, the 302nd Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Florida, was participating in a Red Flag exercise nearby. Along with two active-duty Huey squadrons, the three units rescued 93 survivors over the course of 38 trips.  

“The Last Ace” depicts the Spad XIII flown by Lt. Charles d’Olive from the 93rd Aero Squadron (now the 93rd Bomb Squadron at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana). By the end of World War I, d’Olive scored five aerial victories. However, due to a clerical error, he did not receive official credit for his last engagement until 1963. Forty-five years after the end of the conflict, d’Olive, then in his 60s, received official recognition as the last World War I aviator to obtain the coveted status of “Ace.”

 “We Move Your World” shows a C-17 flown by members of the 445th Airlift Wing’s 89th Airlift Squadron, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, after landing at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana, on April 18, 2019. Aerial porters from the 49th Aerial Port Squadron expeditiously loaded the aircraft with equipment bound for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

“It was an amazing gig,” Perrin said of his career-ending IMA tour. “I got to go places and unveil a lot of paintings with three- and four-star generals, and then sign prints and give them away all day. They treated me like a rock star.”

“We were fortunate to have Senior Master Sgt. Perrin’s caliber of talent on our team while he served in uniform to capture some of the rich stories of the Air Force Reserve legacy for generations to come,” said Warren Neary, director of AFRC’s Combat and Heritage Art program.

“It was an honor to serve with Senior Master Sgt. Perrin along with our Combat and Heritage Art team as we personally connected and shared Air Force Reserve stories and contributions to national defense in outreach activities across the country with tens of thousands. The outreach efforts included our own Reserve Citizen Airmen along with our sister service members in uniform, various public audiences and the most senior leaders in the Air Force.”

While most of Perrin’s latest creations feature Reserve aircraft, he even had the opportunity to paint a portrait during his time as an IMA. “We were looking for conferences we could take advantage of and we knew we had the Women in Aviation conference coming up, so we started brainstorming ideas,” he said.

“We were having a hard time coming up with anything until one of my colleagues said, ‘Hey, doesn’t Darby know Lt. Gen. Stacye Harris?’” Harris is a retired Reservist who was the first African-American female to hold the three-star rank in the Air Force and the first Reservist other than the AFRC commander to be promoted to lieutenant general. Among other assignments, she served as the inspector general of the Air Force and as the vice chief of staff and director of the Air Staff for the Air Force.

“I had flown with General Harris as a boom operator while she was our vice wing commander at the 507th Air Refueling Wing at Tinker (AFB, Oklahoma),” Perrin said. “I called her up and she sent me a bunch of photos and we got the painting accomplished without her having to physically pose for it.

“Our reception at the WIA conference was fantastic. General Harris and I signed 1,000 prints and we gave away more than 500 that day.”

Perrin has been combining his love for painting and aviation since he joined the active-duty Air Force in 1986.

“I loved to draw and paint when I was a kid, but I thought I was going to have to give it up when I joined the military,” he said. “Luckily, I was asked to do an honor guard mural in basic training, then a mural or two at tech school and then some nose art work. I produced my first print when I was at Eielson (AFB, Alaska) in the ‘80s, and it just snowballed from there. Next thing you know, I have my own gallery.”

Though retired, Perrin still operates out of a 1,000-square-foot studio at the Tinker Skills Development Center, where he continues to deftly put paint to canvas to bring fighters, bombers and transport planes to life.

His latest venture is a non-profit called Blue Canvas he is developing with two former enlisted historians he worked with at the Reserve History office, Evan Stroumpis and Darrel Good.

“The idea is to cater to civilian organizations that want to commission us to do a historically significant painting,” Perrin said. “We’ll print it with their logos and information at the bottom and unveil it at a big convention. Any money will go toward our cost of production and anything above that we’ll donate to Folds of Honor, Wounded Warrior or another military charity.”

As Perrin transitions from military life to civilian life, he said he is grateful to the Reserve for the opportunity to combine his love for both painting and flying for so many years.

“I loved being a boom operator,” he said. “The only thing that could get me out of the boom pod was the chance to paint full time. I’m so thankful the Air Force Reserve gave me the opportunity to finish out my career doing this thing I love.”

“Since at least World War II, the armed forces in the Department of Defense have employed combat and heritage artists to visually document military operations and significant historical activities along with informing and inspiring members in uniform and public audiences,” Neary said. “Combat art offers a unique tool to capture, inform and inspire using an artist with the lens of the heart or emotional response rather than a machine to capture our stories.”

For more on AFRC’s Heritage and Combat Art collection, check out