'Nose art' is one term for the practice of unofficially decorating the fuselage
of a military aircraft
, generally (as the term indicates) at or near the nose. It was a practice most widespread during World War II
, although the roots of the practice originated earlier during World War I
and the Spanish Civil War
During World War I, Italian and German pilots began to decorate their aircraft with fanciful painting. German aviators began the tradition (which continues to this day) of painting 'shark noses' at the front of their aircraft, giving them 'faces' of a sort. Eventually, this practice morphed into the habit (by all combatants) of painting decorative squadron insignia onto their aircraft for identification and morale purposes. The famed red paint of the Fokker Triplane flaunted by Baron von Richthofen - the Red Baron - was, in its way, an extreme example of insignia art.
Part of the purpose of this decoration was tactical. Richthofen's famous red Fokker meant that his much deadlier flying group, the Flying Circus, was nearby - and that fact alone could swing a battle, as Allied aviators tried to determine whether they were defending against a lone flier or a squadron. Such decorations could also be signals to friendly aircraft; in World War II, one squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen flew P-51C fighters with bright red tails, and once their reputation for protecting their bomber charges had gelled, those tails were as reassuring to the bomber crews as they were dismaying to the enemy. In a sense, this use of decoration can be traced back much farther, with one prominent example being the "Nelson Checker" paint scheme that Admiral Nelson commanded be painted on ships of his command.
True nose art, however, is a fairly distinct subset of aircraft decoration. Even in World War I, some of the more famous aces began painting their airplanes with personal insignia. As World War II rolled around, the painting of nose art on fighters and bombers came to be a means of expressing unit cohesion and maintaining morale, as young men far from home fought grimly just to return to base at the end of the day. They weren't above nabbing techniques from anywhere, friend or foe. The famous 'shark face' motif, which had begun with German pilots in World War I, was resurrected in Crete on Messerschmitt Bf-110s. The RAF pilots facing them, initially overmatched in their obsolete biplanes, began to paint their own craft with the shark nose in defiance. They were eventually refitted with Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks, the same aircraft that was flown by the famous American Volunteer Group in China - the 'Flying Tigers' - and those worthies, having seen a picture of an airplane just like theirs from the Med sporting the shark nose, gleefully adopted it and made it their own. The P-40 is almost always seen, in pictures from its day, wearing this menacing bit of artwork.
Probably the most famous nose art, however, remains the fanciful designs painted on American bombers by their ground and aircrews during the great bombing campaigns of World War II. The crews came to refer to their aircraft by name - initially, boring phoenetic designators like 'E for Easy' or 'D for Dog', but eventually taking those assigned letters and spinning whole themes from them. Images were taken from magazines like Life and Look and pasted onto the aircraft; crews with artistic skills painted huge versions of their images on their planes. Generally, these images were placed on one side, just behind the turrets and blisters in the nose. Mothers or girlfriends or general unrequited crushes of various crew members were favorite models, with the airplanes being named for their imagery. Perhaps the most famous aircraft name of all, the Enola Gay, bears the image of its namesake - the mother of her pilot, Enola Gay Tibbets.
The traditions continue into present day, albeit somewhat more muted in tone. Racier versions of aircraft art were explicitly forbidden as female service members joined the ranks. One of the attractions of nose art was that it was never formally permitted during World War II, rendering it a relatively safe and innocuous form of independent expression by the crews. Many fewer aircraft sport nose art these days, but some maintain long tradition. The A-10 Thunderbolt II tends to almost always sport a 'shark nose' outlining the barrels of its enormous GAU-8 main gun.
Iron Noder 2010