The Art Of The Nose

Phil Wilhelm takes us through the magical world of Nose Art

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“Not to be confused with nose job, nose-jewels, or nose piercing.  Nose art is a decorative painting or design on the fuselage of a military aircraft, usually chalked up on the front fuselage, and is a form of aircraft graffiti.” – Wikipedia

That’s the way Wikipedia defines Nose Art. Many of us were introduced to nose art while watching movies such as Twelve O’clock High, Memphis Bell, Spirit of St. Louis or Flyboys.  It is believed that nose art came about during WWI when the airplane was first used for military purposes.  It is otherwise difficult to pinpoint the origin of nose art.  The first piece of nose art recorded was a sea monster painted on the nose of an Italian flying boat in 1913.  In this article we will explore the fascinating history of nose art and the part it has played in military flying history.

While begun for the practical purpose of identifying friendly units, the practice of painting images on the noses of aircraft evolved to become an expression of individuality.  This practice helped to overcome the uniformity of military life, evoke memories of home and peacetime life, and acted as a kind of psychological protection against the stresses of war.  Most fighting Americans came from a civilian background, and while they understood and obeyed the uniform way of military life, nose art was a minor escape.  It was a morale booster, and those in daily combat needed the boost. Facing the prospect of death on every flight, especially B-17 crews early in the war, the crews deserved all of the encouragement and smiles they could get.  The ground crews needed that encouragement too. If an aircraft didn’t return, the crew chiefs had no way of knowing whether it was because of enemy fire or faulty maintenance on their part.  The wait for a bomber or fighter to return to base was their private hell.   When the flight crews didn’t return, their hell would continue.

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The art on the plane unified the crew and identified it; made it unique from all of the aircraft in their unit or on their base.  Also, there was widespread appeal in the practice since it was not officially approved, and it provided a playful outlet against “authority”. Regulations against it were not routinely enforced.

While World War I nose art was usually an embellishment of an extravagant squadron insignia, true nose art appeared during World War II – which is considered by many observers to be the golden age of nose art – with both Axis and Allied pilots taking part. At the height of the war, nose artists were in very high demand in the United States Army Air Force.

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In 1941, for instance, the 39th Pursuit Squadron commissioned a Bell Aircraft artist to design and paint the “Cobra in the Clouds” logo on their aircraft.  Perhaps the most enduring nose art of WWII was the shark-face motif, which first appeared on the Bf-110s of Luftwaffe 76th Destroyer Wing over Crete; In November 1941, AVG pilots saw a 112 Squadron Tomahawk in an illustrated weekly and immediately adopted the shark-face motif for their own planes.  This work was done by the pilots and ground crew in the field. The shark-face is still used to this day, most commonly seen on the A-10 Thunderbolt II (with its gaping maw leading up to the muzzle of the aircraft’s GAU-8 Avenger 30mm cannon), and a testament to its popularity as a form of nose art.  The insignia for the Flying Tigers – “a winged Bengal Tiger jumping through a stylized V for Victory symbol” – was developed by graphic artists from the Walt Disney Company.

The nose art of WWII was varied, ranging from pinups such as Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable to cartoon characters such as Donald Duck or Popeye. Patriotic characters like Yankee Doodle or fictional heroes like Sam Spade also found place on the noses of aircraft.  Lucky symbols such as dice and playing cards became inspired nose art.  There were also characters and references to mortality such as the Grim Reaper.  Cartoons and pinups were most popular among American artists, but other works included animals, nicknames, hometowns, and popular song and movie titles. Some nose art and slogans conveyed contempt to the enemy, especially to enemy leaders.  The farther the planes and crew were from headquarters or from the public eye, the racier the art tended to be.  For instance, nudity was more common in nose art on aircraft in the Pacific than on aircraft in Europe.

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The artwork was done by professional civilian artists, such as those from Disney Studios, as well as talented amateur servicemen.  Some servicemen were paid quite well for their services while AAF commanders tolerated nose art in an effort to boost aircrew morale. The U.S. Navy, by contrast, prohibited nose art, the most extravagant being limited to a few simply-lettered names, while nose art was uncommon in the RAF or RCAF.  If truth be known, nudity nose art really began its demise when pictures and movies of inclusive aircraft started showing up in hometown USA newspapers and movie theater newsreels.  When letters from mothers and wives of fighting servicemen started reaching the desks of commanding officers, regulations started to be enforced, if not invented.  If our “boys and men” were going to kill the enemy, they were going to be wholesome while doing so.

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With each succeeding American involvement in the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars, nose art diminished, and to the extent it survived, was quite different from the “golden age”.  One may get as many different explanations as book authors as to why this was.  I contend it was because the closer the public came to “seeing” these wars, the more the military had to be sensitive to the feelings of the viewing public.

Navy Nose Art On F-14 Tomcat

Navy Nose Art On F-14 Tomcat

Attempts are being made to keep nose art alive via surviving war birds and the noses of some commercial aircraft like Virgin Atlantic.  However, one can find countless number of coffee table books loaded with nose art from WWI to present day.  During WWII there were 12,731 B-17s built.  Most of them had something painted on their noses.  Today’s publishers are doing their best to keep nose art alive by trying to show every possible example from every theater of operation, of every war, both friend and foe alike.  Nose art can be as addicting as Aviation Art.  So get a good book, take off your shoes, and indulge yourself in a bit of history that may just bring a smile to your face.

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