You won’t have to go far in the Museum of Aviation to find one of the most recognized pieces of plane -- nose art -- in military history. Of course, I refer to the sharks mouth on our P-40 in the Eagle Building. Recently, I checked out a new exhibit that Bill Paul, museum collections manager, is doing on the second floor of the Eagle Building on nose art. I had to know more!
The term “nose art” is defined by an article called “War in the Pacific” by the National Park Service as, “the vernacular term for original works of art painted on the fuselages of aircraft for the purpose of individualizing the aircraft.” No matter how you define it, the paintings that have appeared on aircraft since World War I have been interesting to the observer and very personal to the crews on the emblazoned aircrafts.
With the introduction of aircraft in war in World War I, we begin to see pilots painting their planes. The symbols used were rather simple, but the idea was in keeping with the thought that airplane pilots and their air battles were of a chivalrous nature. The Germans were the first to mark their planes with bright colors. The most famous was the red Fokker triplane piloted by Manfred von Richthofen, “The Red Baron.” Other nations quickly followed with markings on their planes.
The American pilots during WWI had insignias that included kicking mules, Uncle Sam’s hat, Native American heads and bison. According to the National Park Service, these images reflected America’s pioneer spirit.
In the United States, after WWI, nose art did not continue until World War II, which became the golden age of painting on aircraft. During WWII, nose art became very diverse in the types of art that were placed on planes. In the article “Why Nose Art?” George R. Klare stated that he reviewed more than 1,000 examples of nose art. Of all he studied, 55 percent were female figures all in different stages of dress. Animals, birds and insects made up about 15 percent and 30 percent were of varied subjects like cartoon characters, babies, children, skull and crossbones or other death symbols and patriotic images. Certainly, there were many planes that had names or numbers that were meaningful to their crews. From the B-17s to the B-29s, the art was colorful and had many different meanings.
Even Disney got involved with the painting of aircraft. In the article “Military Aircraft Nose Art: An American Tradition,” the relationship between Disney and the U.S. government is discussed. “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 WWI into inspired designs. By the end of WWII, Disney’s five-man staff assigned to insignia completed over 1,200 unit insignias never charging a fee to the military.”
After WWII, nose art continued into the Korean War and into the Vietnam War. The practice of art on aircraft also continued during the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, the Iraq War and even today.
Although the museum does not have a lot of nose art in its collection of aircraft, we do have the exhibit that Paul is completing. This nose art comes from C-141 Starlifter planes. In the exhibit are the “Memphis Belle 5,” the “Let’s Roll/Spirit of 911” and “Draggin’ Wagon,” among others. Come by and check out this new exhibit and think about what may have been the meaning behind the art that help build morale. These personalized pieces of nose art helped the crews of fighters and bombers believe that the art brought them enough luck to bring them home.