Army Aircraft Markings

by Captain Peter Bowers

Ever since markings have been applied to aircraft of the US armed forces, they have been subject to constant changes in design, arrangement, and color. A knowledge of just what insignia and color combinations were used, and to which periods of aviation history they belong is invaluable to model builders and artists, as well as to military aircraft fans in general, in that it permits the application of proper coloring to models, making them true scale in finish as well as in technical detail through avoidance of impossible insignia and camouflage combinations, etc. Although the changes in marking were specified to become effective upon certain dates, they did not do so immediately in most cases, there being a transition period of sometimes several months during which both the old and the new markings were in use, occasionally upon the same airplane. Wherever possible, the actual dates upon which markings described below were decreed is given.

National Marking: The warring powers of Europe had developed national markings for their military aircraft soon after the outbreak of World War I, but it was not until the Mexican Punitive campaign of 1915 that the United States followed suit, when it sent two squadrons of Curtiss Jennies into Mexican territory carrying red five-pointed stars on each side of the rudder. This became the standard marking for Army aircraft, and was used until a month after our entry into the war, when we adopted a three-color insignia on May 19, 1917. The red of the star was changed to white, a red circle was placed in the center, tangent to the inner projection of the points of the star, and the whole was circumscribed by a blue circle. This new marking was placed on the upper surfaces of the upper wings and the lower surfaces of the lower wings of the biplanes then in use, inboard of the ailerons, one point of the star pointing in the line of flight, the size of the insignia being limited by the chord of the wing. A rudder marking following French and British practice was adopted, consisting of three vertical stripes, red, white, and blue, with the red at the trailing edge. While this marking was used on a number of the training planes shipped to France lat in 1917, but was not used in action. On February 8, 1918, the old Czarist Russian insignia, three concentric circles similar to those used by the other Allies, but with the red on the outside, then blue, and a white center, was adopted for use by the AEF. This change was made to keep the markings of the Allies uniform, and because the white star of the US markings could be mistaken for the white-bordered German cross at a distance. The order of the tail stripes was reversed, the blue being placed at the trailing edge. For a few months, the first American squadrons carried still another stripe arrangement, the early production models from French factories having the stripes painted in the same order as the wing circles, red, blue, and white, with the red at the trailing edge. Planes delivered from the US carried the standard striping, and continued to carry the circles inboard of the ailerons, while those obtained from England and France carried it on the wingtips, and, in some cases, on the side of the fuselage, although this was only done when the original British insignia was pained over with US. Most of the Nieuports obtained from France also carried the insignia on the under surface of the upper wing, a Nieuport characteristic. By the end of the war, all US-built planes delivered overseas carried the insignia on or near the wingtip.

The star insignia remained in wide use in this country during 1918, and trainers were frequently seen with the star on wing and the circle on the other, a wing with one marking having been drawn from supply and fitted to a plane carrying the other. Planes on which the stars had been changed to circles often left the tail stripes in their old order. On March 30, 1920, the wartime marking was officially abandoned, although it had been largely replaced by the star and the original tail stripes before that time. The star remained unchanged except for size until June of 1942, having been reduced from full-chord after the Armistice to a size limited by the distance from the leading edge to the aileron, with a maximum allowed diameter of 60", but the tail stripes were changed in November, 1926, to an arrangement based on the American Flag. The vertical blue stripe was retained, but the red and white were replaced by thirteen alternate red and white horizontal stripes. This marking was standard for all Army aircraft until February of 1941, when it was removed from camouflaged types, and until June of 1942 for all others, when it was abandoned altogether. Its revival was authorized in the Spring of 1946, but very few squadrons to date have exercised the option of using it.

The red-centered star was used for the first six months after Pearl Harbor, after which time the center was removed because of its similarity to the red disk of Japan. This revised marking remained in use for the next thirteen months, although a few squadrons operating with the RAF in England and in the invasion of Africa late in 1942 followed British practice by adding a yellow border to the blue circle. The next official change was made June 29, 1943, when two white rectangles, equal in length to the radius of the circle, and in width to half of it, were placed alongside the insignia, the tops of the rectangles being level with the upper edges of the side points of the star. Around the whole was painted a red border, equal in width to one-eighth the radius of the circle. However, after only two months of use, the red border was changed to blue. Red was again added to the insignia in the form of a stripe painted longitudinally through the centers of the rectangles on January 16, 1947.

[ Also see "Insignia Evolution" for illustrations of sevearl of the insignia discussed and a couple of suggestions that were not adopted. —JLM ]

Basic Coloring: There were no standard color schemes for Army aircraft until late in 1917, when some advanced trainers were painted an overall orange-yellow. Up to that time, planes had been mostly unpainted fabric color, which varied with age and material used. Combat aircraft obtained from Britain and France used the basic camouflage schemes of those countries, olive drab on tops and sides, with natural fabric or silver undersides for the British, and multi-color green, brown, and buff, with natural fabric undersides for the French planes. Our early production de Havilland 4s were natural fabric on all but the top surfaces, which were olive drab, although they were standardized at olive drab all over by the Armistice, while standard trainers retained the natural fabric coloring. In 1920, the Air Service adopted a two-color peacetime scheme consisting of olive drab fuselage, struts, and landing gear, with chrome yellow wing and tail surfaces. This was standard until 1934, although a few individual planes were finished either in silver or natural fabric. Trainers, as a whole, and a few observation types, began using blue fuselages in 1929, and in 1934 the blue replaced the olive drab on all types. Most all-metal types delivered from 1937 were left in their natural metal finish, although the Ford trimotors had been unpainted since their adoption in 1928. By 1941, the blue and yellow had practically disappeared from all but primary and basic trainers and Beech C-45s, most of the fabric-covered tactical types that had carried it having been painted silver.

In the summer of 1940, camouflage was applied to production aircraft for the first time since 1918, when P-39s, P-40s, and A-20s were painted olive drab on tops and sides, with gray underneath. The application of insignia remained unchanged. By February, 1941, World War II had brought about a state of national emergency, and the olive drab and gray with the new insignia arrangement was decreed for all tactical types, and most others except trainers. These continued to use the yellow and blue coloring and the old insignia arrangements until June of 1942, when silver was made the standard color for all non-camouflaged types. The exceptions to the blue and yellow coloring for trainers were the Ryan PTs, which used the yellow wings and tail, but left the fuselage in natural metal, and the Vultee BT-13As, which dropped the coloring early in 1942.

Other camouflage schemes than the olive drab were adopted, depending upon the mission of the aircraft or the terrain over which it operated. Some planes in the Alaskan theater and in Greenland were painted all-white to blend them with the snow, while those slated for desert operations substituted a coat of reddish-buff for the olive drab, although retaining the gray. In 1942, dull velvet black was adopted for night fighters, changing to glossy black with the appearance of the Northrop P-61 Black Widow in the spring of 1944. Non-standard camouflage schemes were used frequently in cases where aircraft built for foreign powers were requisitioned by the AAF, the planes being flown with only the insignia changed from the original. The use of the olive drab camouflage was no longer mandatory for any but a few specified transport and liaison types after January, 1944, although the majority of the planes to which it had been applied retained it, its removal being an expensive and time-consuming job. It was not unusual after this time to see planes with some parts silver and some camouflaged, the result of replacing parts, or cannibalization. Further use of glossy black was made by some B-24s and B-29s operating in the Pacific in 1945, the under surfaces only being camouflaged. The appearance of the P-80 in the summer of 1945 introduced a new color, since applied to other jets, a light pearly gray on all surfaces, but this paint is applied mainly to improve the finish, and consequently, the performance of the plane, rather than to conceal it.

Special Markings: The first markings applied to Army planes were the serial numbers of the aircraft themselves, which were assigned in order of procurement, and were painted in large black figures on each side of the fuselage. After our entry into World War I, these were sometimes preceded by the letters "SC", standing for Signal Corps. Tactical types built during 1918 carried the serial in small figures at the top of the white rudder stripe, as did a few trainers, although the trainers continued to use the larger figures on the fuselage, except in cases where they were replaced by training field numbers. In 1919, the serial was again applied universally to the fuselage, the letters "AS" having replaced the "SC".

After July 1, 1921, the start of the fiscal year 1922, a new system was adopted, whereby aircraft were recorded in order of procurement within the fiscal year, the first plane ordered in fiscal 1922 becoming 22-1, the second 22-2, etc. The new serial continued to be applied in large figures until 1925, when it was reduced in size, and the letters "US ARMY" painted above it. In 1926, the Air Service became the Air Corps, and the letters "AC" replaced the "AS." Late in 1927, the words "US ARMY" were painted, in black letters 24" high, on the undersides of the wings, the "US" on the right and the "ARMY" on the left, and the manufacturer's name and the model number of the plane, which had been carried in small black letters on the rudder since 1924, were placed between the service name and the serial number, which were now located just forward of the horizontal tail surfaces. The lettering was changed from black to white for use on on olive drab fuselages, and remained in use through 1931, at which time it was removed, being concentrated in what is now known as the technical data legend, stenciled in ½" to 1" lettering on the left side of the fuselage near the cockpit. The "US ARMY" was removed from the wings in June, 1942.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the serial was applied in modified form to both sides of the vertical tail surfaces, the first digit of the year and the dash being eliminated, and zeroes being added to low numbers to bring up to a minimum of four digits. 42-1 then became 1001, no conflict ensuing with plane 32-1, as the AAF retired aircraft before ten years of service. The serial was applied in yellow to all olive drab and buff aircraft, in red to black, and in black to all others. Not all planes carried the serial on the tail; many trainers and most of the early P-51s carrying it on the fuselage. Some trainers that had field numbers on the fuselage, especially during the six months when both tail stripes and the enlarged serials were in use, carried the serial on the nose. The use of field numbers for trainers had been standard since 1918, running into three digits at some of the larger fields. In 1940, a letter was added as a prefix, separated from the number by a dash, and identifying the particular field to which the plane was assigned. These numbers were yellow on blue fuselages, and black on silver.

During the first World War, squadron insignia came into use, and was carried on the fuselage or engine cowl until Pearl Harbor, when it was removed for security reasons, as was the striping used to identify squadron and group leaders, not reappearing on combat aircraft until after V-J day. In 1918, squadron leaders were identified by two parallel white bands painted chordwise on the wings, while flight leaders used a single stripe. After the Armistice, these lead markings were pained on the fuselage, between the cockpit and the tail. Each squadron in the group was assigned a color, and squadron leaders used those colors for their double 5" stripes, with flight leaders using a single stripe in the same color, vertical for the leader of "A" flight, a forward-sloping 45° diagonal for the leader of "B", and a rear-sloping diagonal for the leader of "C." Group leaders used three vertical stripes, one in each of the squadron colors that made up "K" for Air Base, "R" for Reconnaissance, "W" for Wing, and "HQ" for Headquarters, identified the type of organization, while the second gave its number, except in the case of observation or reconnaissance planes, which were numbered by squadron in consecutive blocks of fifteen from 1 to 90 for the 18th, 21st, 38th, 41st, 88th, and 89th squadrons respectively. The number of the plane was painted below the letters on the fin, and, in some cases, by itself on the nose. The letters "PA" over the figure "19" would designate plane 19 of the 1st (A) Pursuit group (P), while the "R" over "25" would identify the tenth plane of the 21st reconnaissance squadron. On the wing, the designator was written in one line, with the number of the plane following the letters: PA19 and R25. Early in 1940, this system was applied to all AAF aircraft, and the designation was revised to identify the group by its actual number, with one to three letters following the number to designate the type of organization. "A" and "B" still identified Attack and Bomber, while "AB" replaced "K" for Air Base. "AF" preceded by a number identified individual Air Forces, and "ED" was used for training squadrons. Observation planes used the Greek symbol <theta> (U+0398) to avoid confusion with zero, and <theta> (U+0398) followed by "R" designated planes belonging to the organized reserves. The number of the plane was now painted above the letters on the fin, following it on the wing, and by itself on the nose.

This system was dropped immediately after Pearl Harbor, groups after that time being identified through a basic color arrangement, with the squadrons using the same design in a different color. Groups operating from British bases in 1942 and 1943 used the British system of two letters on the fuselage to identify the squadron with a third, separated from the others by the national insignia, to identify the plane.

Special coloring for specialized aircraft has been used since 1917, when advanced trainers were painted all-yellow, and ambulance planes all-white with red crosses. The last white ambulance was the Fokker Y1C-15, used from 1933 through 1937, subsequent types merely applying the red cross to the standard coloring of the plane. In 1941, Beech F-2s delivered to Alaska were painted in orange and green checks on the upper surfaces to make them visible against the snow. The ATC followed this example after the Japs were driven from the Aleutians, and painted the wings, from the ailerons to the tips, and the entire tail a bright red for increased visibility. Further use of red is made by pilotless target planes, which are red all over, and by instrument trainers, which have red cowls and vertical tail surfaces, and an 18" wide red chevron on the upper wing, sweeping back at an angle of 45° from the leading edge to the center section. A modification of this marking is that used by the all-weather flying center at Wilmington, OH, which paints its planes with a red nose and wingtips, set off by a yellow band, yellow engine nacelles, and red vertical tail surfaces with a yellow chevron, apex forward. Piloted target planes are painted orange to distinguish them from the expendable drones, and tow-target planes carry the basic coloring for the particular aircraft but have the wingtips, engine nacelles and movable tail surfaces painted yellow.

Special striping was applied to both British and American aircraft to provide positive recognition during the invasion of France in June, 1944. Three wide white stripes, separated by black, were painted completely around the outer wings and the rear part of the fuselage. After a few weeks, all but the striping on the lower half of the fuselage was removed, some planes retaining them until V-E day.

Personal decoration was carried to an extreme by air and ground crews during World War II, practically every plane having either a name or a fancy cartoon painted on the nose. Missions were faithfully recorded by small painted symbols according to their nature, bombs for bombing sorties, red crosses for ambulance evacuations, etc. Victories over enemy aircraft were tallied by flags of the nationality of the vanquished.

After V-J day, a new means of identification was applied to the sides of the fuselage and the underside of the left wing, consisting of two letters and three numbers, the first letter designating the type of plane and the second the model, "BA" for B-17, "BB" for B-19, "BC" for B-24, etc. The second letters were not assigned in strict sequence of models, but in sequence according to models in service at the time. The numbers represent the last three digits of the serial number of the plane. Known as "Buzz numbers," this system was adopted primarily to insure positive identification of individual aircraft by persons unskilled in aircraft recognition, a citizen only having to be able to read and remember two letters and three numbers when he wishes to report a low-flying Army plane. The system is also convenient for Air Force personnel in that it permits ready identification of such structurally identical types as the Beech AT-7 (TR), the C-45 (CC), and the F-2 (FA) without close examination.

Another marking adopted immediately after V-J day is that used on air-sea rescue planes of the Army, Navy and Coast Guard, consisting of yellow wing tips, set off by a black border, and a yellow band around the fuselage, also set off by black. The upper side of the center section is painted yellow and, in some cases, the name of the base is painted in black on a black-bordered yellow rectangle on the nose.

This article was originally published in the October, 1947, issue of Air Trails Pictorial magazine, vol 29, no 1, pp 40-42, 96-100.
The article is illustrated with 17 black-and-white photos showing examples of the insignia and other markings discussed in the article.
The photos are not credited.

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