Shark Mouth nose art design (

From WW1 lucky talismans to 'Let's Roll' on B-1s over Afghanistan - HARRY LAWSON presents a short history of aircraft nose art and looks at its rise in popularity up to its present day incarnations.

Nose art has gained a following of enthusiasts, fans and artists and remains a popular subject in military and folk art circles. Unlike official markings and paint schemes, nose art is a departure from the norm and a flickering glimpse of individuality shared amongst air and ground crews. But where did it start and how did it develop? 

The beginnings of nose art

The first reported use of any sort of art on an aircraft was in 1913 when an Italian boat plane was seen sporting a sea monster on its fuselage. Italian pilots regularly adorned their war planes with distinctive markings. One such example was the prancing black horse, Cavallino Rampante, painted onto the body of the Italian ace Francesco Baracca, which later inspired the Ferrari logo. During WWI decorative colours became a popular way of disguising ‘ace’ units. The Imperial German forces famously had Baron Von Richthofen and his Flying Circus. The Flying Circus, officially Jagdgeschwader 1(Fighter Wing), was so called as its relative mobility was like that of a travelling circus and many of its aircraft were brightly coloured, including Von Richthofen’s iconic bright red fighter.

The Cavallino Rampante on Francesco Baracca's aircraft (finnit.reiga)

Different markings clearly visible on aircraft from the Flying Circus (Hulton Deutsch Collection)

Artwork became a well-practised way of distinguishing different units. The Chief of the Air Service for the American Expeditionary Force,  Brigadier General Benjamin Foulois, issued a mandate in 1918 ordering the creation of distinct and identifiable unit insignia. This produced the Hat in the Ring of the 94th Aero Squadron and the Kicking Mule of the 95th.

The first true piece of nose art, rather than body, tail or paint schemes, was the iconic shark teeth design first seen on a Sopwith Dolphin and German Roland CIIs. This particular design has proved to be a popular decoration with fighter aircraft. 


WWII and the golden age of nose art

Generally considered as the golden age of nose art, WWII gave rise to the most popular and well known images of nose art. The Shark tooth design made its first appearance in this conflict on the nose of Luftwaffe Bf 110s. Having duelled in the skies above Crete with the ‘shark mouthed’ German fighters, the members of No.112 Squadron RAF copied the shark tooth smile onto their new Curtiss P40s in North Africa. This was copied again by the First American Volunteer group, the Flying Tigers, in China. The Flying Tigers use of shark teeth is perhaps the most recognisable piece of nose art to be displayed on fighter aircraft during this conflict.

A P-40, from No.112 Squadron RAF, in the North African Desert (IWM)

Bombers presented a bigger canvas to any would-be military artist. The bomber fleets of the United States Army Air Force were representative of flying art galleries, presenting a plethora of different nose art styles and themes.

Cartoons and popular characters were often used as the basis for particular decorations. Many aircraft took on the nickname of their pilots such as the B-29 Bockscar, of Nagasaki fame, named after its pilot Captain Frederick C. Bock. Some were named after events in the aircraft’s service like the Ruptured Duck from the Doolittle raids on Tokyo. The Ruptured Duck, a Mitchell B-25, had suffered minor tail damage during a training exercise, this was remembered with the image of Donald Duck on crutches wearing a headset painted onto the nose of the plane.

The B-29 Bockscar, Fat Man bomb markers were later added under the canopy (

Perhaps the most iconic style of nose art is that of the pin-up. Each aircraft adorned with a pin-up girl had a nickname accompanying it, Memphis Belle, Flamin Mamie and Butterfly Baby just to name a few. The popularity of pin-ups grew as the air and ground crew associated with the individual aircraft were inevitably made up of young men often far from the pleasures of home. Some of the pin-up used were tastefully designed but others were a lot racier. Comparing the aircraft of the US Air Forces in Europe to the Air Forces in the Pacific theatre, there is a noticeable difference in both the names and the amount of clothing worn by the pin-ups. The Pacific Air Forces playing to the advantage of being, for the most part, out of the public eye, took a racier approach to their pin-ups. Risky or just a bit cheeky, the pin-up became a go-to design for nose art ideas.

The crew of Memphis Belle in front of their lucky pin-up (

The artists who spent their time painstakingly painting on these unique works ranged from air and ground crew to enlisted graphic artists and designers. In its simplest form, ground and air crews could paint on the aircraft’s nickname just to form some sort of group cohesion as the aircraft was as much the ground crew’s as the pilots and airmen’s. More elaborate designs may have required the employment of a serviceman with a background in art. Some artists were paid upward of $15 for a painting with some coming from backgrounds including Disney and Esquire, a contemporary of Playboy. The USAAF tolerated the commissioning of nose art as its commanders felt it unified the crews and acted as a much needed morale booster, especially during the height of the conflict when aircraft and personal losses were at their peak. However, the US Navy outright banned nose art and it was rarely seen on British and Commonwealth aircraft.

An artist paints on a pin-up (pineduphair.blogspot)

Post war to the modern day

Nose art reappeared in the theatre of operations in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Particularly remembered are the nose paintings and accompanying nicknames of AC-130 gunships from the Vietnam era sporting names such as Ghost Rider, War Lord and Thor.

The nose art on the AC-130 First Lady (Spectre Association) 

Nose art fell out of the public spotlight with changes in official policy regarding its themes and use. The United States Air Force tightened up its regulations on what could and could not be painted on an aircraft following the Korean war. Changing attitudes towards women saw the decline in the pin-up design and eventually in 1993 it mandated that all nose art must be gender neutral.

During the 1991 Gulf war, allied war planes carried individual pieces of nose art. For the same reasons as the air and ground crews of WWII, these individual markings created unity between the crews who were operating far from home and relative safety. RAF Tornados and Jaguars were seen with the famous shark teeth design as well as several pin-up style designs. Some RAF crews even painted on designs inspired by the popular comic Viz. In a strange piece of trivia, it was only in 2007 the Ministry of Defence ordered the ban of pin-up nose art sighting that it may upset female personnel, however there are no recorded complaints and many crews considered them to be essential morale boosters.

Scud Hunter, both a nickname and a mission statement (

Nose art still exists today in many forms. The USAF has allowed the painting several patriotic and reflective pieces for some of its aircraft. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks a number of reactionary designs appeared on USAF aircraft. A number of different designs exist on the Republic Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt, including both the iconic shark tooth design and one resembling a Warthog, playing on the A-10s nickname. In the civilian world, many airliners have official names but the most widely recognised pieces of nose art are found in the form of the Virgin Airways girls on the forward section of the aircraft's body.

USAF KC-135 with the motto "Lets Roll", a common phrase found in nose art immediately after 9/11 (

The Warthog design found on some A-10s (Fence Check)

Atlantic Queen , one of Virgin Atlantic's A340 Fleet (World Airline News)

In conclusion, it can be argued that nose art has become its own distinct type of folk art as it not only promoted individuality in what are normally regimented and uniformed sectors, but it also produced some of the most recognisable and iconic pieces of art that continue to be used today. More than that, each piece of art, much like a painting hung in a gallery, tells a unique story for each individual aircraft.


Do you have a favourite piece of nose art or story about a particular piece’s origins? Let us know in the comments below. 

8 April 2016