It took 31 days to transform this otherwise dull gray F-15 Eagle into a colorful abstract worthy of its noble avian namesake. The powerful warplane is adorned with wisp-like feathers that stretch across its 43-foot wingspan and onto its fuselage.
Its nest, Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon, is home to the the 173rd Fighter Wing and the Air Force's only F-15C training schoolhouse. The ramp holds 32 Eagles in all.
But this bird — tail number AF79-041 — stands out among its siblings.
The colorful nose art — well, body art — is so loud that the airmen who created it required special permission. Painted to celebrate the Oregon Air National Guard's 75th anniversary, the plane is turning heads everywhere it flies. It's a throwback to a era when American combat aircraft weren't just deadly; they had swagger.
Across the Air Force today, airmen are once again decorating all kinds of aircraft. Fighters and bombers, sure, but also refueling tankers, cargo transports and even a few drones. In the process, they're reviving a tradition that may not be as racy as it was during World War II but one that resonates just as strongly today.
"Basically, we just wanted something bold that was going to make an impact," Master Sergeant Paul Allen, the artist behind the 173rd's F-15 design, told Air Force Times. Allen and his team — six airmen working days, two working nights — created stencils and applied them to the jet using low-tack vinyl. "The guys took a lot of pride in this. ... And people considering coming into the Guard who see this see we have a lot of pride in our unit."
AF79-041 is currently on deployment, part of a six aircraft rotation to Finland where it's getting "some serious PR," said Col. Jeff Smith, the 173rd's commander. The design will be erased by next year, so the wing wants to make the most of its awe-inspiring appearance.
Painted aircraft are popping up all over, flying combat missions against the Islamic State group, deterring a resurgent Russia and keeping a wily North Korea at bay. What's driving this trend? In a word, nostalgia. Throughout history, those who've fought in battle have immortalized their experiences through art. During the dawn of aerial warfare, pilots began to personalize their machines.
"Nose art," said Brett Stolle, curator at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, "was first conceived during World War I by French and German aviators who pioneered the application of personalized markings, insignia, and garish paint schemes for their combat aircraft."
The practice became common in Europe, migrating from a combat phenomenon to a staple in victory celebrations. It caught on among American aviators during World War II, in what became known as the golden age of nose art.
It was the hey day of America's pin-up culture. The leggy ladies photographed in magazines made motivational cameos on deployed military hardware. Some of the images were notoriously bawdy — work that would never fly in today's Air Force.
Roger Connor, an aeronautics specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, called it a "unit cohesion thing." Often, he said, "the further the theater was from the home front, the more elaborate and often the more risque the nose was."
It wasn't all racy ladies, though. Well-known cartoon characters — like Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Bugs Bunny — were also favorites, Stolle said. This sort of art was embraced by women as well as men. In 1943, for example, Walt Disney drew a "Fifinella," depicted as a small winged female gremlin coming in for a landing. She became the Women Airforce Service Pilots official mascot and insignia patch.
After the war, much of the fleet's nose art was wiped away. It reappeared sparingly during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, but the resurgence was meager. In the early 1970s, Air Force Chief of Staff John D. Ryan placed a moratorium on aircraft art. Still, some aircrews quietly brought it back for the more recent wars in the Middle East.
Today, there are strict rules in place, and all nose art suggestions must go through a rigorous approval process. The policy is not unlike those governing troops' tattoos and workplace decor. Designs must be "distinctive, symbolic, gender neutral, intended to enhance unit pride, designed in good taste," and abide by copyright and trademark laws, according to an Air Force memorandum signed in 2015.
Noses pointed on the runway, contemporary Air Force models are ready to take flight.
Capt. Donald M. Covic makes a "command decision" by flipping a coin, just like the artwork on his B-29. Command Decision was a 28th Bomb Squadron, 19th Bomb Group B-29 that became famous for shooting down five MiG-15s, unofficially making it a bomber "ace" during the Korean Conflict.
Photo Credit: Air Force
Increasingly, airmen seem willing to play by those rules. The beloved A-10 Warthog has its snarling teeth. Airmen will pay homage to local communities with popular mascots on KC-135s or C-130s, hatching the plane's nickname. Even a RQ-4 Global Hawk donned chalked-on nose art for a brief time in honor of a Tuskegee fighter pilot.
"This is a tradition across the Air Force," Smith said. "This truly is a source of morale and pride, especially for the dedicated crew chief to know that they have a little mark of themselves on the airplane."
Six F-15s from the 493rd Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath in England fly with "kill marks" painted on them, simple stars marking the number of enemy takedowns during past conflicts, said Lt. Col. John Stratton, the squadron’s commander. Together, the jets have nine stars.
Some of these aircraft were among the F-15s that deployed to Turkey's Incirlik Air Base in November, from which they launched combat air patrols to help protect the host nation's airspace from Russian jets operating out of Syria.
"That's the way we honor a [past] aerial victory," Stratton said, noting that the stars stay on the aircraft even after the pilots transition. "We’re flying aircraft ... over 30 years old. There'sno F-22, still not an F-35, with a star painted on the side of it, so it’s very much a source of pride."
Senior Master Sgt. Chad Heithoff, with the 55th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, helped jump-start a nose art project in 2014 for the KC-135 tankers at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. Now he's moved on to the RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Known as "The Cobra Ball," one of Offut's RC-135s bears a serpent, tightly coiled around a black sphere.
Heithoff recently returned from a deployment to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. "I saw a lot of aircraft with nose art," he said.” I think this is starting to spread."
Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.