Amidst the gloom of the pandemic-stricken summer of 2020, an as-of-then unidentified pilot brought some much-needed joy to Bristol and Gloucestershire.
Smiley faces drawn by the smoke of a mysterious biplane first appeared in the skies in June of last year, becoming a beacon of post-lockdown positivity.
The pilot’s handiwork sparked an outpouring of enjoyment online in various counties. With several renditions of the smiley faces since, most recently in July of this year, this contrail artwork has become well-loved by those who can spot it in time.
The identity of the individual responsible was eventually revealed as ex-RAF pilot Rich Goodwin – but, as he admitted to when we met him and his aircraft this week, he isn’t one for personal publicity.
Tracking down the elusive Mr Goodwin was a case of serendipity. A chance conversation with his son at Love Saves The Day Festival in Bristol ended up with us catching up with the pilot-come-artist at Gloucestershire Airport.
“It really blew me away the reaction we had when we did the first smiley face”, the 59-year-old pilot said. “It was exciting to know that so many people enjoyed them.”
Currently plying his trade as an aerobatic pilot, Mr Goodwin said the aim of the aerial artwork was to “deliver some smiles” to people who couldn’t leave their homes.
During lockdown there were no air shows – the events which normally fill Mr Goodwin’s busy summer calendar.
He explained: “Me and my sponsor got our heads together and thought how we could cheer people up.
“I suggested the smiley face, and they jumped at it”.
Mr Goodwin’s airborne acrobatics have been sponsored by Bristol-based company Anana for the last five years, a customer service technology business which has recently acquired by global company Sabio.
“I’m glad we managed to deliver something positive in quite a negative environment,” he said.
He spoke while standing beside his biplane, now sporting the striking blue branding of new sponsor Sabio, which doubles up as an airborne paintbrush.
“It’s a fairly straightforward manoeuvre,” he modestly explained, “It just requires the right conditions”. Mr Goodwin’s smiley faces have taken on a variety of forms, and he admitted that “some are better than others”.
He added: “It’s like trying to paint a picture blindfolded – sometimes they’re quite expressive, but it’s all part of the fun.”
As an ex-RAF pilot, Mr Goodwin’s career in aviation was extensive before he tried his hand at aerial artwork. A short service commission in the Air Force flying the Tornado GR1 was followed by a period flying TUI’s holiday jets, before he embarked on his aerobatic venture 12 years ago – something he described as his “dream”.
His passion for aeroplanes stretches beyond just piloting them, but also encompasses a fascination for design. As Mr Goodwin emphasised, the unique thing about planes flown at air shows is that they have to be built independently – and he built his using his own hands.
“What you see behind me is basically a model aeroplane,” he said, gesturing to the aircraft, “just slightly bigger, and it’s obviously a bit stronger as well.”
The aircraft, gleaming on the runway in the morning sun, was built in an unlikely place for aviation ingenuity – in his shed, at home in Worcestershire.
Referring to the publicity he has received, Mr Goodwin said: “I’d rather people look at my aeroplane and what it can do rather than me as an individual – but now you’ve tracked me down, this is me: Richard Goodwin, in my shed, in the Midlands, building aeroplanes.”
In future Mr Goodwin will be pursuing his aerobatic venture at air shows across the country, alongside sponsor Sabio who will continue to support his craft.
Asked if he expects to take to the skies any time soon, the enigmatic pilot smiled: “There’s always time for early morning smiley faces.”