Nose Art

High-flying descendants of the ship’s figurehead, the colorful, non-regulation artworks that decorate the metal skins of combat aircraft are great morale boosters for pilots and crew alike … (T)he slogans and images used in aviation art, surveying the genre from … cheeky graffiti; cartoon characters “borrowed” from Disney, Warner Bros., and Charles Schultz; animal art—from snarling tigers and fire-breathing dragons to predatory sharks and eagles; and that glorious staple of the species, the pinup!

—Nose Art Book Review by J. P. Wood

When many hear the phrase “nose art,” it invokes imagery of World War II fighter planes zigzagging across the wild blue yonder engaged in dogfights with Luftwaffe while sporting pin-up girls, predatory eagles or “Old Glory.” It is a fundamental part of military aviation history that deepens the mythology of classic bomber planes and other military aircraft.

Like what Warhol’s art did the sixties, the paintings on B-17s and B-24s during the Second World War summed up the popular art of its time. The drive to personalize an object is basic to the nature of man and history illustrates that this form artwork covers almost a century, from World War I — to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Its most distinguished era was unmistakably during World War II and Korea.

Boosting the morale of the pilots and crew was important and it was a time when military commanders weren’t as concerned about political correctness during the crew’s most hazardous and deadly duties. It was the aviator‘s obsession under great stress and uncertainty among the underlying current of war. To personalize their war chariots, these renegade pilots chose a variety of designs to distinguished each plane from the thousand that rolled off the assembly line. Many times matching patches for a crew’s flight jackets accompany the themes.

Flying battalions began to use it as early as 1913 and the art went beyond nationality as both Allies and Axis pilots went to war in their individually marked war craft. The beginnings of the practice of painting planes is credited to the Italians who “painted a sea monster on a flying boat” and the Germans, who frequently painted a mouth beneath the propeller of their planes during World War I.

In the past airmen had named their aircraft, but it was nose art that let them to bring that name to life. Artist had to use whatever was at hand. Working overnight to create their art piece they used second-rate paints, brushes, and solvents. Even fuel was used in place of turpentine. Even though professional artists were paid up to $15 per aircraft, many artists were off-duty enlisted personnel that painted aircraft for free.

A wide variety of services and units had special procedures about aircraft usage and decoration. Marine and Navy different pilots usually shared aircraft so they had a more generalized decoration. Army Air Force airplanes were assigned to individual pilots and in particular the aircrews of bombers. Because of these units many of the most colorful and creative nose art decorated USAAF planes.

Nose Art gave individuality, spirit, and absurdity to cold machinery in ways that a serial number never could. It made the members of the crew feel unique, inspiring hope that their plane and their painting would bring them luck and get them safely home. The ideas came from wives, girlfriends, posters, calendars, and the comics. Some of the catchier names from the B-17’s are the Shady Lady, Loaded Dice, Miss Behav’in, and Heavenly Body to name a few.

Pilots, their combat crews, the ground crews, and others picked most names and many were modeled after the cheesecake art of Gil Elvgren, Alberto Vargas, and George Petty. Probably the most well known painted lady that adorned the nose of the B-17 is the “telephone girl” the Memphis Belle of the 324th Bomber Squadron. She assumed its place in history in May 1943 as the first B17 Flying Fortress to have completed 25 missions.

To the crews, each craft was different; Nose Art made them unique. Separated from home, family, loved ones and a familiar way of life men at war sought ways to personalize and get away from the very cruel business around them

The Gulf War saw a renewal of nose art. With hundreds of aircrafts and thousands of the Air Force’s finest deployed to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the Emirates, it didn’t take long for nose art to resurface. As in the past, it was allowed to stay, but only for the extent of the war. The most recent example appeared soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the DoD allowed the use of Let’s Roll art on aircraft. Originally designed by Senior Airman Duane White attached to the Air Combat Command’s multimedia center at Langley Air Force Base, VA.

The nose art depicts an eagle soaring in front of the U.S. flag, with the words “Spirit of 9-11” on the sword blade and “Let’s Roll!” on the bottom. Todd Beamer, a passenger on Flight 93, made the phrase legendary. “Beamer, a 32-year-old businessman, Sunday school teacher, husband, father and hero, led other passengers in fighting terrorists for control of Flight 93 before it crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania. He was overheard on a cellular phone reciting the Lord’s Prayer and saying “Let’s roll!” as passengers charged the terrorists.”

Let’s Roll began to show up on Air Force aircraft by the middle of January in 2002. Soon after the Thunderbirds and Air Force Single ship demonstration teams began using the art on all of their assigned aircraft. Other commands and wings are authorized to use the nose art on one aircraft of their choice as their tribute to the events of September 11, 2001. It was removed on the one-year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Still the legacy lives on.

On January 29, 2003 for the first time in a half-century of launch history Cape Canaveral featured this artwork displayed on the rocket Delta II carrying a Global Positioning System satellite and the experimental XSS-10 micro-satellite.

During its heyday nose art served many purposes: as a battle cry, a good luck symbol, a way to ward off evil, death, and bullets while giving the aircraft a personality. Today the military tries to keep a sense of decorum and professionalism in regulating nose art and it’s doubtful there will be more leggy images of another Memphis Belle anytime soon.

However, nose art is still alive and well and the military enforces a “3-ft. square rule” with the art has become low key and less colorful because of the need for camouflage. The tradition continues to maintain a strong presence as a reminder to the Air Force members that current customs, courtesies and procedures are rooted in past accomplishments and traditions of the U.S.Air Service, the Air Corps and the Army Air Forces.


Aircraft Nose Art

B-17 Memphis Belle

381st Bomb Group Nose Art

Frugal’s World of Simulations – Hill AFB

Legendary USA “Let’s Roll!” Nose Art Decal

McChord Air Museum Homepage

Nose Art

Patrick honors 9/11 victims through artwork

Picture Source

Pretty Deadly (Nose Art)

Unison Industries

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  1. While nose art is probably the best known way that American servicemen and later servicewomen personalized their “rides”, other non aircrew GI’s wrote phrases and or drew caricature’s on their vehicles as well. From jeeps to tanks these personal touches  gave some respite from the deadly games at hand. Other attempts to personlized a part of their standardized and structured environment included; organizational patches and having nick names for their living areas and bases.

    Nose art tended to be unique.  But in the case of my Dad’s B-25 nose art (Disney’s character of Ponchito) in the WWII Mediterranean theater was replicated on the nose of another B-25 in the Pacific Theater. There was some level of uniqueness though; as both characters were somewhat different in style and personalty.

    We can also see a rough parallel to this personal customization in the thousands of cubicals, vehicles, etc. within today’s workplaces.

    • Hi, I am Barbi, a 57th Bomb Wing Researcher, and Historian for my Dad’s 321st Bomb Group.  We are working in the 310th Bomb Group right now, I contact the Vets/families, and we add Logs, Diaries, etc to the war-diary and are working there now.  I am the one who places Albums, photo’s of the men and their stories and makes them web-sites.  I would be thrilled to put your Dad’s pictures in, I did add the link to the 310th BG Albums in the 57th Bomb Wing, I look forward to hearing from you, I see Carl A Jr. Carl SR and Michael 🙂  (All in WA 🙂

      Thanks !  Blessings, Barbi

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