War paint

  • Published
  • By Josh Plueger
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
Painted teeth menacingly stretch across a conical canvas of riveted steel, animating the inanimate. Shark-mouthed aircraft taunt enemies with snarling grins. Mobile galleries patrol the skies. Whether a functional designator, reminder of home or a symbol of intimidation, aircrew artists have been tagging the fuselage of aircraft since its earliest application as a weapon of war.

Marked on all sides, aircraft affiliation was readily identified by both military and civilians in war-torn areas around the globe. Function evolved into expression as maintainers began to customize their planes with nose art. While self-expression contradicts the fundamental ethos of military life yet any regulation against it was seldom, if ever, enforced. A type of folk art was born from the stresses of war.

Paint gave the aircraft personality. Mission complete icons, squadron insignia, memorials, comical and sinister imagery embellished the sides of aircraft. Its decorations represented the collective sum of the unit's personality and accomplishments. The same illustrations that gave the plane a name, a personality was also believed to bring luck and good fortune.

"Nose art brings character to each airplane," said Master Sgt. Rick Brown, the assistant lead production superintendent for the 83rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit. "Each nose art has some kind of history or story and meaning behind it. It shows those who see it the obvious pride that we have for these 50-plus-years-old aircraft. Also, the aircraft becomes more recognized as it travels the world."

From conception to application, nose art has predominantly been the sole responsibility of aircraft maintainers. As the popularity of nose art peaked in World War II, professional illustrators were hired to paint the sides of aircraft. Generational and social changes have been mirrored in the evolution of nose art. The usage has regressed since its peak during World War II but has been in a steady resurgence since Operation Desert Storm.

Senior Master Sgt. Chad Heithoff has been an integral part in nose art returning to the Offutt’s fleet of aircraft.

"The dedicated crew chief for each aircraft submits their idea in accordance with Air Force instruction guidance," Heithoff said. "It then goes on to the wing commander for his or her approval prior to final approval at the major command."

Two inaugural airframes have been selected for aircrew customization. The iconic RC-135S Cobra Ball with its trademark matte-black starboard wing, along with a trainer plane. The two planes flew in tandem out of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, prior to being permanently reassigned to Offutt in 1992.

A serpent tightly coiled around a black sphere has been commissioned and approved for the Cobra Ball. The trainer plane, given the moniker "North Star," has a celestial-based design that pays homage to its past with a Pegasus, as well as stars indicating the aircraft's dual home bases.

"We wanted to bring back a piece of our Air Force heritage that has been gone for over two decades," Heithoff said. "Nose art is a way to display the pride many of us have maintaining or flying these aircraft."

The nose art approval process has traded its autonomy for a multi-tiered approval system ending with a MAJCOM stamp of approval; the process is much the same as it was in previous generations. The image is still the result of the crew chiefs and or air crew's vision which is then passed on to illustrators for final rendering. Final application reaches full circle as the approved nose art is printed on vinyl by select members of the sheet metal shop, and carefully applied to the prepped surface of the aircraft.

The revival of nose art is a collaborative campaign. Artists and illustrators, from around the country, have been given the opportunity to have their art grace the skies above. Internally, public affairs illustrators have and will be providing future nose art pieces as Brown and Heithoff go through approval formalities. Externally, private illustrators are being commissioned for other pieces as well

Two illustration worlds exist at Offutt. Ron St. Pierre, assigned to the 55th Wing Public Affairs office, has hand-painted several works of nose art over his 40-plus-year career. The digital approach offers no shortcuts as it rivals the brush process taking up to 30 hours to complete a project from sketch pad to prepress printing.

Though the times and mediums have changed, the appeal of nose art remains uncontested. The morale is tangible as maintainers discuss and go over art proofs that will soon be worn by their aircraft: a personal indicator adhered to riveted steel.