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Nose Art Through the History of Warfare

Updated on April 18, 2012
Airplane Nose Art
Airplane Nose Art

An Italian started the Nose Art trend

With hot ladies, fearsome jaws and comics, the pilots made their planes personal, but not always housebroken. Throughout the 1900s united states has been the leader, but it was an Italian who started the Nose Art trend.

Aviators are often individualists who want to put a personal touch on their aircraft. One of the most popular ways has been Nose Art - figures painted on the nose of the plane.

In aviation's infancy, there were hardly any particular painting, not even nationality plates until 1913. Then everything changed when an Italian Nieuport-Macchi flying boat was painted as a sea monster. It started a trend that lasts to this day.

Initially there was often discreetly painted names on the machines. One example was the German aviator Ernst Udet who named all his planes to "Lo", the name of his future wife. During World War I the German fighters painted their planes in spectacular, colorful paintings. When the first American pilots came over to Europe, they began to copy the German style and other nations followed. But not the UK who wanted everything as uniform as possible.

Francesco Baracca Nose Art
Francesco Baracca Nose Art

In Italy the legend Francesco Baracca painted a prancing horse on his plane. After Baracca died his mother gave the label to Enzo Ferrari and this is why the car manufacturer have this mark.

During World War I the first faces appeare. The flat fronts on radial engine-equipped machines were made for the eyes and mouth on the air inlets. Those who were in-line engine could instead get a jaw from a shark and another tradition was born.

After the World War it was once again order, although some units sometimes had a little more colorful and larger painting selections. It was instead civilian aircraft that was decorated with special paintings. Often it was the machines that took part in the long flight games or air race.

Cartoon Nose Art
Cartoon Nose Art
alberto vargas
alberto vargas

Cartoons became popular as Nose Art

The military nose art reappeared in the mid-1930s, in an unexpected way. Many of the German aircraft in the Legion Condor got special paintings in the Spanish Civil War. A popular character was Mickey Mouse who was on several different aircraft. Mickey knew, however, no political boundaries and on the Republican side he appeared on the tail of a Soviet fighter plane. The cartoon characters became popular as a personal mark, but also as a dressing brands primarily in the USA.

American Volunteer Group which fought against the Japanese in China, equipped with Curtiss Hawk 81 (P-40) spring of 1941. The plane was painted with a jaw from a shark on and soon all the machines had one. The various divisions within the dressing was also given special markings. One of them, the Hell's Angels, had naked girls on the wings. According to myth, a few pilots from this unit after the war started the notorious motorcycle gang.

Just as during World War I, British Royal Air Force was hostile to the special paintings on its planes. Initially, it was only committed names and some discreet text that was approved. The planes donated to the Air Force through fundraisers used to get a comprehensive text with the donors names. Over time, particularly the losses of the bombing war rose, the restrictions eased and Nose art began to be painted on the bomber planes. Nose art was still relatively discrete and focused on mocking the enemy. Within the Canadian and Australian aviation it was however more common with hot ladies. The further away from the homeland the plan was, the more daring the Nose art became. Allied P-40 pilots in North Africa took after the American Volunteer Group and jaws were painted on their planes.

United States loves Nose Art

The nation that really loved nose art was the United States. The paintings often alluded to liquor, gambling and women, and it is easy to understand what the aviators was missing most when on the field. The names of the planes were usually ambiguous and sometimes even vulgar. Examples were Nip on Knees, Mount'N Ride and Finito Benito, Next Hirohito.

The often lightly clothed ladies were inspired by cartoon pin-up models, but of course also of movie stars. Many of the planes with female beauty on have become famous, as are the artists behind the original cartoons. Among these artists some stand out. The chief was Peruvian Alberto Vargas, who published his works, Varga Girls, in Esquire. A large number of planes, also British got inspired by him. Along with Vargas was Gil Elvgren the Great in the niche. Among his other famous work was the classic Coca-Cola advertising in 1940 - and the 50's. Among the Hollywood actresses who were role models for paintings were Betty Grable, Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth.

There are many different analyzes of the importance to the nose art to soldiers. Adherents of Freud sees sexual couplings in all, while others see nose art as a way to give the machine a human character. Some interpret it only as a pilots love of his plane.

Pin-ups became popular as Nose Art

The most popular subject was the pin-up models: 55 percent of the U.S. planes had women in the Nose art. The rest were cartoon characters, animals, slogans or designs related to the family. For example, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb, Enola Gay, named after the pilot's mother.

After World War II, the USA imposed a ban on Nose art in peacetime. There were a few exceptions in the form of planes used in record attempts and experiments.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950 the paintings came back almost immediately, although in high places not always seen with approval. Among the new role models to the artworks was Marilyn Monroe. The planes were the most spectacular, but most unclothed art, was the B-29. This resulted in the censorship of the machines that were based in Kadena, Japan. the bosses wife did not like the naked women, who therefore were covered with painted swimsuits. Some crews just painted over a strip of text "censorship". In Vietnam the nose art further dimmed and most commonly as cartoon characters. Most popular were those from Snoopy.

When there was peace the nose art disappeared again almost completely.

In other nations, nose art was used frugally after the war. An annual event is Tiger Meet, where all the NATO units, which have a tiger in his unit mark meet. At these meetings always painted some participating machines in the tiger. United States dropped the Strategic Air Command's ban on Nose art in 1988, when they felt that the paintings promoted cohesion. Since then, U.S. planes again started to be painted, sometimes inspired by the same motives that were used in World War II.

sadman saddam
sadman saddam

During the Kuwait war in 1991, the nose art got a renaissance in most of the nations in the alliance. U.S. tried to downplay his, mainly for political reasons not to offend its Arab allies. The British however, does not seem to have had such misgivings and had spectacular paintings on its desert cut plan. One of the most famous was the Jaguar 1 dubbed "Sadman" in which a cartoon Saddam Hussein was kicked by British army boots.

However, it was not easy for artists to obtain suitable material for their works. The only colors that were through official routes was for camouflage. It discovered the flight engineer and inveterate model builder captain Kenny Letham at 208. division that flew Buccaneer for target marking for the laser bombs. He wrote to his parents who sent the appropriate colors. After that unit's plan was gilded with female beauty and all the machines named after brands of whiskey as it was normally based in Scotland. cartoon figures were as previously popular, but reflected, of course, for a new generation's taste. One of the most common on the American plan was Bart Simpson.

In recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have the nose art has continued to flow. However, it has been more subdued by design choice, especially in terms of women's images and the production of other religions. Instead, patriotism is highlighted more clearly.


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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 years ago

      Thank you. For a time, circa 1990, the USAF started painting nose art on their planes to match WWII style nose art. This caused a bit of a stir among feminists. So this style of nose art didn't last long. I understand it was popular with F-117s during Desert Storm to paint artwork in the wheel well.

    • must65gt profile image


      6 years ago

      This hub has evidence of fantastic research and great information. Although it is somewhat evident the author is not an English Speaking native; with some minor editing this would be a quality magazine article. Voted up and well done!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      6 years ago from The Beautiful South

      This is really different and very good. I am sharing it and hopefully others can see something a little refreshing and enjoyable! Voted up.

    • lejonkung profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thank you seeker7

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 

      6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      A fascinating hub! I didn't realise that the artwork on the planes went back so far. This was a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing hub! Voted up!


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