I ended the last post with a promise to talk about a project bringing visual artists and decommissioned aircraft together. But before I do that, let’s talk about aircraft nose art (e.g. that pinup girl on the side of a B-17 on its way to a bombing raid). The golden age of nose art was WWII until the end of the Korean Conflict, and though it’s associated with the US Air Force, it wasn’t just an American thing.
Painting logos and graphics on military aircraft starts around the beginning of WWI in Germany and Italy. The first documented example was in Italy in 1913, with a sea monster painted on the side of something like this:
Painted by ground crews, not pilots, in this period, the artwork was usually just embellished squadron insignia.
British and American airforces eventually followed, though in much smaller numbers.
Nose art flourished during WWII, with both Axis and Allied powers getting into the action. By Allied, we mean US Air Force (USAF), as nose art was prohibited in the US Navy and not as common in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Nose Art was painted by professional civilian artists or talented servicemen during WWII. At the height of the war, artists were paid well, as the USAAF and AAF saw it as a way to boost morale. Nose art was usually painted by the crew chief and the plane was named by the pilot (or captain of a multi-crew aircraft).
The German Luftwaffe had a less personal approach to nose art. Whole squadrons were often painted with unique insignia on all aircraft, though some individual aircraft had more personal touches.
Though nose art wasn’t as widespread in the RCAF, some squadrons took to it. Here are some photos of Canadian H.P.56 Halifax bombers before they were scrapped at the end of the war:
And the aircraft flown by the war’s top Spitfire ace, RCAF Wg Cdr James “Johnnie” Johnson:
The popularity of nose art continued into the Korean conflict, though with the word from on-high to at least put some clothes on the pinup girls. The planes that commonly had nose art included the A-26 and B-29 bombers, and C-119 Flying Boxcar transports.
Due to policy changes, nose art declined after the Korea, though still continued in Vietnam. USAF Special Ops painted their AC-130 gunships with graphics associated with the Squadron names like ” Thor”, “Azrael – Angel of Death”, “Ghost Rider”, “War Lord” and “The Arbitrator.”
There was a revival of nose art during Operation Desert Storm and has continued to Desert Shield and Afghanistan.
Canadian Forces serving in Afghanistan have gotten into the act with Chinook and Griffon helicopters:
The most popular themes in aircraft nose art are humour, sexuality, patriotism and bravado.
NOSE ART INFLUENCES
The 2 biggest influences on Allied Forces’ nose art were Disney and the Vargas pinup girls.
Disney Studios played a MAJOR role in the war effort, producing propaganda films, training films and providing artists to design military insignia and nose art for the Allied Forces.
Disney had operational momentum by the start of the war. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) debuted 2 years earlier and Bambi (1942) was in production. It went on to make propaganda films, such as “Der Fuehrer’s Face” and “Donald Gets Drafted”. It also produced training films for the US Army, US Navy and even the Canadian Army (e.g. “Stop That Tank” explaining how to use the Boys anti-tank rifle). After the release of Bambi, “90% of Disney’s 550 employees [were] making films that bear directly on the war” (Life Magazine, August 31, 1942).
According to author and aviation historian Jeffrey Ethell:
“Disney Studios and the U.S. government had a history of cooperation. At the beginning of the war in 1939, Walt Disney and his artists designed and painted squadron and unit insignia. Disney raised the spirit of the troops when he transformed the ‘once staid military heraldry format created during World War I’ into inspired designs. By the end of World War II, Disney’s five-man staff assigned to insignia completed over 1,200 unit insignias, never charging a fee to the military.”
Disney was also a major influence on nose art. Along with the Vargas pinup girls, Disney characters were one of the most popular graphics on the side of Allied aircraft. The proximity of Disney’s studio in Burbank to the Lockheed factory – producers of the P-38 Lightning fighter – made it easy to provide artists to paint nose art on the aircraft as they rolled off the assembly line. As Disney artists were drafted into the Air Force, many painted the aircraft in their squadrons. Eventually, the military paid some artists directly to design and paint nose art, in an effort to boost morale.
When you think WWII nose art, you think of the pinup girl. The most popular pin-ups were the “Varga Girls” from Esquire Magazine, named after staff artist Alberto Vargas.
There are up to four elements of aircraft nose art:
- the picture
- name of the aircraft
- number of enemy planes or ships shot down or destroyed
- bombing missions completed (bombers only)
The number of bombing missions was important for medium and heavy bombers in the USAF, like the B-17 and B-29. A bomber crew completed a tour of duty and could go home after a certain number (if they didn’t get shot down).
In 1943, the US Air Force set the number of combat missions for a complete tour of duty at 25, because of the “the physical and mental strain on the crew”. In 1942, The average bomber crew completed 8-12 missions before being shot down or disabled. The USAF eventually raised the number to 30, then 35 (for medium bombers) then 50 and eventually 100 missions (for heavy bombers) before they were sent back to the US.
Aircraft Nose Art: From World War I to Today by Jeffrey L. Ethell & Clarence Simonsen.
Fighting Colours: The Creation of Military Aircraft Nose Art by Gary Velasco