Military Aircraft Artwork
About Aircraft Art
Artwork on military aircraft has been around since the beginning of military aviation. Some artwork has a practical purpose. Sometimes the artwork is for heraldry and esprit de corps. Sometimes the artwork is for fun. Artwork for fun has on occasion become heraldry and in at least one case took on a practical purpose. As with all art forms sometimes it was censored.
Camouflage and Other Paint Schemes
During World War I some German pilots had their aircraft painted in outlandish paint schemes. The most famous of these was the all red paint scheme used by the World War I ace of aces Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. This gave him the nickname, “The Red Baron”. On May 14, 1944 some Me 163 Komet ground crew members painted the rocket fighter then Major Wolfgang Späte[i] was to fly for the first Komet combat sortie. The ground crew hoped it would bring Major Späte good luck. After the sortie Major Späte ordered the plane to be repainted in regular colors lest the red color attract every allied fighter plane in the sky.
In World War II Erich Hartmann, the man destined to be the ace of aces, for a time had the nose of his aircraft panted to resemble a black tulip. The Soviets nicknamed him “The Black Devil”. The markings worked against him because most Soviet pilots would run rather than fight with him. Hartmann had his wingman fly the plane with these markings instead of him. Hartmann reasoned it was the best protection he could give them. This didn’t solve the problem of the low kill count so he abandoned the color scheme.[ii]
Camouflage paint schemes have been a part of military aviation since World War I. For planes that were meant to fly missions at night dark paint was used to make them more difficult to see while they are flying. For other planes camouflage paint schemes were used to make them more difficult targets while they were on the ground. What made airplanes more difficult to see when they were on the ground made them easier to spot in the air. From the Vietnam experience the United States Air Force (USAF) began experimenting with paint schemes that would make aircraft harder to spot when they are in flight. They tailored paint schemes depending on the altitude their aircraft were expected to fly their missions. Another change for American aircraft based on the Vietnam experience were the roundels. These national markings made good targets for groundfire. The U.S. made their roundels smaller then they made them in subdued colors.[iii]
Sometimes paint schemes are used to confuse the enemy. In World War II many Luftwaffe planes had a spiral painted on their propeller hub. Many Luftwaffe pilots believed this would confuse ground gunners.[iv] There doesn’t appear to be any proof it actually worked. One of the post-Vietnam experiments was a false canopy. The Canadian Air Force used this approach. It is done by painting the bottom of a fighter, the CF-188, with what would look like an aircraft canopy from a distance. In a dogfight pilots also use the canopy to tell which way an opposing aircraft will go.
For the D-Day invasion the allies painted the wings and fuselages of their aircraft in black and white stripes. This way they could easily tell which planes were on their side.
[i] Wolfgang Späte retired from the Bundesluftwaffe as an Oberstleutnant.
[ii] The Blond Knight of Germany, by Colonel Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, © 1970 by Trevor J, Constable.
[iii] The U.S. military did a similar thing with name tags.
[iv] The Blond Knight of Germany, by Colonel Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, © 1970 by Trevor J, Constable.
Signs of Success
The Smithsonian has a World War I aircraft in its collection. The plane contained patches with German Crosses on it. These indicated where German bullets struck the aircraft. In World War II the Italian Air Force used survival bands. These markings indicated the number of bullet holes the aircraft took from enemy fire.
There are mission markers which indicate how many missions an aircraft successfully flew. These are usually indicated by a marker resembling a bomb. For electronic aircraft the symbol is normally an electrical bolt. In the case of the SR-71, a strategic reconnaissance aircraft, they would paint an image of a habu, a venomous snake. “Habu” was an unofficial nickname for the SR-71 Blackbird. In one case an SR-71 came to an airshow with a large number or habu images painted on it. Reporters asked about the history of the aircraft. The Air Force response was to remove the habu images.
There are kill markings. These are often silhouettes of the targets destroyed. With air victories the markings tended to be simpler. In World War II the Japanese air victory markers tended to more intricate. For the allies the air victory markings were usually an image of the other aircraft’s roundel. The allied victory markings were usually below the canopy or forward on the fuselage. Soviet pilots tended to add symbols of their awards. Finnish and German pilots normally put tombstone images on their aircraft’s tail. An exception to this is the Me 262 at the National Air & Space museum. It had its victory bands on the rear fuselage. That aircraft is also a case in point. The aircraft’s pilot, Oberfeldwebel Heinz Arnold, had 42 air victories with other aircraft. There is the number “42” next to the 6 Me 262 tombstones. German pilots also tended to add symbols of their awards. Not all air victory artwork is from combat air victories. In the United States Air Force during exercises pilots are allowed to paint victory markings for “kills” during the exercise.
Military aircraft often have markings for non-wartime and exercise achievements. Royal Air Force aircraft sometimes have artwork for flying a VIP. The USAF Thunderbirds have the flag of every nation where they performed.
Heraldry and Hilarity
Unit emblems have been a part of military aircraft artwork from the beginning. Many of these World War I and II emblems had cartoonish symbols. This sometimes causes a dilemma in the USAF. For heraldry purposes a unit emblem shouldn’t have a cartoonish look. Sometimes units are units or descendants of units that had cartoons as emblems. In World War II the United States Army Air Forces had hundreds of official and unofficial emblems. Many units didn’t bother to submit their emblems for approval. The USAF has Air Forces Instruction 84-101. Chapter 5 provides guidance for Air Force heraldry. The Air Force Historical Research Agency is responsible for processing emblem requests.[i] USAF aircraft often have multiple emblems signifying different levels of command.
The USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) often had a ribbon of stars on a blue field painted on their aircraft. SAC aircraft, and its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), were two legs of the United States nuclear Triad. Under the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) the concept was a nuclear exchange would destroy both sides. That led to a joke about SAC bombers:
They are like wrapping paper. They come with a ribbon around them and are meant to be used only one time.
Then there is the artwork for the crew. Comic characters were popular in World War II. Mickey Mouse has the distinction of being used by both sides. Many American planes used his image. Luftwaffe pilot Adolf Galland[ii] had Mickey Mouse as his personal symbol.
Probably the most famous examples of aircraft art were on the USAAF heavy bombers in World War II. Cartoon characters were popular and all manner of names and artwork appeared on them. What set this artwork apart was the ones that had women on the nose. In many cases the aircraft name was a double entendre. Sometimes the amount of clothing the woman’s image had depended on how far away from civilian population the plane served. The USAF continued this tradition in the Korean War. Legend has is the spouse of the Kadena AFB commander didn’t like all the nudity on the aircraft so clothes and other alterations had to be made to the artwork. Corporal Dick Oakley took photographs of the different versions of many of these B-29s.[iii]
This unofficial artwork all but disappeared from the scene for a couple of decades. It made a comeback in the 1980s. The artwork was no longer just on the nose. During Operation Desert Storm a favored place on the F-117 Nighthawk was inside the nose wheel well. During the 1990s the USAF put some of the World War II artwork on their aircraft as commemorations to famous aircraft. This brought protests from some feminist groups. A letter to the editor about the news of this nose art wasn’t pleased with the effort. She suggested the crew had a depiction of their mother on the aircraft. The Air Force seemed to steer away from more questionable artwork.
The last words heard from flight 93 on September 11, 2001 was Todd Beamer. He and some others on the doomed flight reported they were going to try to take back the plane from the terrorists. The last words were “Let’s Roll”. The Air Force created a “Let’s Roll” emblem that they have used as nose art on many of its aircraft.
[i] A Guide to Air Force Heraldry, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, 1996, (http://www.usafpatches.com/pubs/afheraldryguide.pdf), last accessed 3/25/2018.
[ii] Generalleutnant Adolf Galland, credited with 104 aerial victories, was the General of the fighter arm for much of the war.
[iii] Air War Over Korea by Larry Davis © 1982 by Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc.
Would you have a painting of your mother on the nose of your aircraft?
© 2018 Robert Sacchi