Military Aircraft Nose Art: An American Tradition
676 "Black Maria"
COURTESY OF CHUCK RUTH
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PHOTOS COURTESY OF BOB STROUT
During World War II, and again in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars, colorful images appeared on the nose sections of American military aircraft. Loved and hated, photographed and censored, the paintings known as nose art have been a controversial tradition.
Not to be confused with official markings or insignia, nose art personalizes a plane for its crew, because it is the crewmembers who name the plane and create the art, imbuing the plane with an identity of its own. Although some examples of nonregulation art can be found on the military aircraft of other English-speaking countries, the phenomenon is predominantly American, perhaps due to the streak of rebellious individualism attributed to American culture. Nose art is important as an historical and societal indicator over time, an example of folk art or popular expression, and a record of the past.
Heavier military regulations against all nose art in general, and sexually-oriented art in particular, caused not only a thematic shift, but a decline in nose art overall. Nose art may have been overlooked by officials in past eras, but in the Vietnam period a more conservative mood governed the military. In 1968, the mood was set when General William Momyer, commander of the 7th Air Force in Southeast Asia, ordered the shark mouths to be removed from the first F-4Es deployed. It has been suggested that the regulation only encouraged more innovation in the application of art. In July of 1970, a 7th Air Force directive outlawed all individual markings. The urge for self-expression could not be suppressed, however, and, although complying with the order to remove art from the fighter-bombers, pilots moved their nose art to the nose gear door, where it was less visible. In one instance, the order was ignored until the announcement of the visit of the USAF Chief of Staff in November.