It was once a staple of aviation: During WWII, pilots and crews would decorate the nose of their beloved aircraft with a piece of art. At first, these drawings were used as means of identifying one another. Later, they became a way to remember what's waiting back home — usually gorgeous women posed in ways that'd make grandma blush.
The practice wasn't given official approval, but it wasn't banned outright, either — for a while, anyway. Then, the Air Force finally put their foot down. We understand that there's a need for nose art to look "professional" in modern times, but the extensive approval process defeats the purpose of the tradition and has effectively killed one of the coolest parts of Air Force history.
New nose art still appears on aircraft, but the instances are less frequent and varied. The 23rd Fighter Group's A-10s, for example, will still have their iconic "shark teeth" — at least until the A-10 retires in 2022 — and many larger aircraft, such as the KC-135 and AC-130, still carry gorgeous and patriotic designs, but these are often relegated to being "Air Show darlings" instead of serving their intended purposes overseas.
The soft ban on nose art isn't without some validity. We understand that you can't slap a drawing of a nude lady on the side of a multi-million dollar aircraft and expect the general population to be happy with it — and it's probably not a good idea to put a layer of paint on the high-tech, radar-resistant panels that cover the stealthier aircraft in America's hangers.
A distinctive marking might just defeat the purpose of flying a top secret aircraft...
(U.S. Air Force)
Today's airmen who feel the need to give their baby some style don't often use any kind of permanent paint. Instead, crews will usually use colored chalk to draw on their designs. That way, they can simply wash it off whenever needed (like when an ornery officer wants to rain on the parade).
There's some practical reasoning behind dolling up an aircraft with chalk — and it's more than just honoring a WWII tradition. It makes it much easier to identify which matte gray aircraft belongs to which crew when you're looking at a massive lineup. Instead of cross-referencing tail numbers, you can simply look for the one with a dragon or a grim reaper or a poor attempt at a tiger.
This also brings a sense of "ownership" to the aircraft. Yes, it ultimately belongs to Uncle Sam and whomever has it on their hand receipt, but when you've got some personal attachment, you'll put in that little bit of extra effort to keep everything in tip-top shape.
It's a combat multiplier, or whatever buzzword that gets officers going these days...
(U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot)
If a crew wants to add some permanent nose art, they'll have to coordinate a request for artistic modifications through their major command and navigate all the bureaucratic red tape that comes along with it. It's not impossible, but getting anything approved that isn't a direct nod to unit history or extreme patriotism is difficult.
So, instead of slogging through all that nonsense, some airmen just go for it and decorate their aircraft. What happens to these renegades? Usually nothing more than a slap on the wrist and an order to remove the offending art. Which brings us to the ultimate question:
Why even have a rule against nose art? If the design is in good (and professional) taste and it's done by a competent artist, why not allow airmen to mark their birds with something that will inspire their unit?
Or, if you really want to reign it in, make it match the unit's history — but let 'em have some fun.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman David Owsianka)
H/T to my friends at Military Veterans of Disqus for the inspiration for this piece. You guys rock!
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