The Air Force has been deploying and supporting contingency operations non-stop for 25 years…and counting. Like running an endless marathon, it has taking its toll on the people, planes, and processes that support the mission. The people are by-far the most important of these. “Service,” now more than ever, needs be less about the grind of perceived indentured servitude and more about character and soul of commitment to cause. Aircraft too have personality, a soul, and the people charged with maintaining and operating them know it. These aircraft are a symbol of a herculean personal endeavor, whether it’s to operate, maintain, or support the mission. We need to recapture the essence of this spirit and soul. We need to bring back nose art.
Nose art was born out of the dawn of military aviation. Markings created by pilots were originally used in World War I for identification in the air prior to radios. Because of this, the original paintings consisted of a unit symbol and a unique pilot identifier (some were simply initials, others were colorful symbols). During the interwar years the creation of cartoons fed their popularity. During the massive expansion of the US aircraft in World War II, nose art became part of military popular culture. In one WWII story, LT Ted Lawson’s B-25 (tail 40-2261) had a mishap, which the crew subsequently coined the aircraft Ruptured Duck, and painted a logo on the side. LT Lawson feared the fallout of the vandalism; leadership was thrilled and saw it a sign of troop morale for an upcoming perilous mission. Ruptured Duck was the seventh of sixteen B-25s that launched from the USS Hornet for the Doolittle Raid and had been damaged during secretive practice take-off training. Nose art showcases the soul of the aircraft, the pride and character of the people who maintain it, and the resolve of the mission that both entities support.
Did you know the US Air Force paid NASCAR more than $1.5 million in 2015 for marketing? That’s insane. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James has even sworn people in in the parking lots before NASCAR events. That’s even more insane. The other services stopped investing in NASCAR years ago due to ambiguous recruitment numbers for justifying the cost. To a growing mass of Airmen, this exemplifies a polarizing culture that keeps moving the elements of people and mission further apart from one another. The attraction to service and the validation of the premise of that appeal is why people stay. When this assumption proves to be false, they leave. What better a way to show character of service than to proudly resurrect the dormant heritage of nose art? And, it could be done essentially for free.
The 21-105 series of Air Force regulations covers the disposition of nose art. Specifically, section 188.8.131.52.1, states that nose art should be no more than 3 feet by 3 feet in size, and prior to being applied:
be distinctive, symbolic, and designed in good taste, enhance unit pride, comply with equal opportunity policies, and match gloss requirements of the basic paint scheme (i.e., flat colors)…World War II nose art that meets the above criteria may be used. Cartoon-type characters may be used; however, the unit will be responsible for all copyright issues.
Sounds great, so what’s the issue? In a bit of twisted irony, according to the most current Combat Air Force Instruction and Air Force Global Strike Command Instruction, this nose art is only permitted to be installed on C-130 series, C-135 series, B-1, and B-52 aircraft (though in previous conflicts deployed aircraft have been given some latitude.) Meanwhile, the inventory of 2,000 fighters remain relegated to a tail number that is something more akin to prisoner identification than a reflection of spirit and resolve.
We have the technology to do this; it’s already paid for by the taxpayers and exists on virtually every Air Force installation that has aircraft assigned. The aircraft maintenance fabrication/corrosion prevention shop has a machine that prints large subdued stickers when markings need to be repaired or replaced. Yes, putting nose art on aircraft is free.
Beyond bolstering morale and building esprit de corps, this would be a proverbial gold-mine for public affairs, marketing, and recruiting potential. It could reconnect the increasingly estranged American taxpayer with their military beyond what the cursory airshow fanfare provides. Individual history and lineage nose art, nose art themes among a wing, nose art competitions, etc.; the stories would write themselves.
Regarding recruiting potential, you know what’s more special for a young man/woman raising their hand and taking an oath of office for the Air Force? Doing it in front of/on top of/inside a US Air Force aircraft! Not a NASCAR parking lot. Realistically we can’t land or stage aircraft at recruiting events, nor would we want to turn the Combat Air Force into a recruiting sideshow at the expense of combat capability. But, there is an alternative.
When I was in middle school, Iraq invaded Kuwait and set the conditions for Desert Shield/Desert Storm. I also happened to collect baseball cards. So, when Topps trading card company starting producing Desert Storm Trading Cards, I noticed. And, it planted a seed long before I even knew what I wanted to do in life. However, instead of equipment-focused cards, a large inventory of aircraft with nose art provides the perfect base for nose art trading cards. The Air Force could simply commission a production run of cards from the seemingly frivolous marketing and recruiting spending.
No doubt there are pitfalls of political correctness to fall into, but no system or endeavor was ever executed flawlessly. Society holds military service in esteem for their character. It’s time to put that character back on our combat aircraft that support and defend the nation. And you know what? Twenty five years later, I still have those Desert Storm trading cards.