Double Nuts Over the Intrepid
Though it existed for only one year in the late 1950s, VF-61 and their F9F Cougars were the proud inheritors of the Jolly Rogers insignia first adopted by VF-17 in World War II.
Various national insignia have been displayed on aircraft of the USAF and its predecessor organizations beginning in 1916. Since then, nearly all aircraft have been marked to permit identification as aircraft of the United States. Changes in the design, size, color, and location of our national insignia have been the result of technical advances, mission changes, and combat experiences during several wars.
The earliest national marking on Army Signal Corps aircraft was a five-pointed star almost certainly red, on the rudder. First used informally at North Island, California early in 1916. It appeared later that year on airplanes serving with the Mexican Punitive Expedition. A variation of the simple star insigne was a star in a circle. The colors probably were red on white, duplicating the colors of the Army Signal Corps. The Army's Chief Signal officer later ordered such "mutilation" of government property halted immediately.
Prior to WWI, Army aircraft had no official national insigne. The first, designed using wrapping paper and children's water colors and colored pencils, was authorized on May 17, 1917. It consisted of a white star with a red center on a blue field and was to be placed on the top of the upper wing and bottom of the lower wing. The rudder was to be marked with three vertical stripes of red, white, and blue. With the blue stripe forward, those aircraft initially deployed to France in 1917 carried this insigne, as did those aircraft which served in the U.S. throughout the war.
Later objections by Col. William "Billy" Mitchell resulted in the adoption of a new design for easier recognition in combat in Europe--three concentric circles similar to the national insignia of Britain and France differing only in the sequence of colors. The U.S. adopted this pattern on Jan. 11, 1918, a red outer circle, a blue middle circle, and a white center. A month later, the sequence of rudder stripe colors was altered with the blue placed at the rear and red at the rudder post.
In May 1919, use of the Star-in-Circle design was resumed on all U.S. military aircraft. The rudder marking was with blue at the rudder post. Although the Star-in-Circle would remain in use until WWII, the altered rudder insigne adopted in 1927, one vertical blue stripe and 13 alternating red and white horizontal stripes.
Changes for camouflaged aircraft were adopted in 1940. The national insigne was removed from the lower left and upper right wingtips as a recognition aid, eliminating any advantage the balanced pattern of marking would have given to enemy gunners as an aiming point. This unbalanced pattern was later adopted for all USAAF aircraft. Also in 1940, the national insigne was added to each side of the fuselage. Nationality markings on the rudder were eliminated in 1940 from camouflaged aircraft and in 1942 from all other AAF planes. The underwing "U.S. ARMY" marking, authorized in 1924, was discontinued in 1942.
The first major change came in the Star-in-Circle insigne in 25 years. To reduce possible confusion with the Japanese Hinomaru ("Meatball") insigne, on May 28, 1942 the red center was ordered removed from the star. A unique non-standard variation of the insigne, possibly resulting from a misinterpretation of existing insignia specifications. A yellow border surrounding the national insigne was used breifly begining in late 1942 on some USAAF aircraft based in England and North Africa.
A non-standard variation of the early WWII insigne is a gray rather than white star. A black bordered national insigne was probably the result of a local attempt to paint out the short lived yellow border. The use of the RAF-type red, white, and blue fin flash on the tail was another recognition marking.
Aircraft were used in an in-flight test at Eglin Field, Florida on June 18, 1943 to verify the increased visibility of the proposed design. On June 29, 1943, the second major WWII design change was adopted. A white rectangle or bar was added on each side of the blue circle and a red border surrounding the entire insigne. While the new design was estimated to be 60 percent more recognizable, the use of the red border was short lived. The final WWII national insigne was adopted on August 14, 1943, this change eliminated red from the national insigne until after WWII. The red border was replaced with one of blue.
With horizontal red bars added to the white blocks on either side of the circle the design was adopted on Jan 14, 1947. This basic design remains in use today on most USAF aircraft. To reduce the infrared image and reduce the vulnerability to infrared guided missiles, markings such as a single color national insigne were stenciled on the aircraft using low gloss black paint.
Aircraft of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have carried
distinguishing markings almost from the beginning of naval aviation.
The earliest being the aircraft building number, preceded by a
block letter A, painted on a vertical surface, usually the rudder.
Before the United States entered into World War I, naval aircraft
were identified by an anchor design on the vertical tail surface,
the use of which continued to the time a National Aircraft Insignia
A National Aircraft Insignia consisting of a red disk within
a five-pointed white star on a circular blue field, and red, white
and blue vertical stripes on the rudder, of the shades specified
for the American flag, was adopted. One of these star designs was to be placed near each wing
tip on the upper surface of the top wing and lower surface of
the bottom wings. The blue stripe on the rudder was nearest the
rudder hinge. This design was ordered to be placed on all U.S.
naval aircraft on May 19, 1917. To avoid confusion with enemy
markings and to conform more closely with designs used by our
allies after our entry into the war, the star design was replaced
early in 1918 with concentric circles of red and blue around a
white center. The order of the rudder stripes was reversed placing
the red forward nearest the rudder hinge. This design was required
on all U.S. aircraft operating in Europe.
However, not all aircraft at home made the change. This remained
in use briefly after World War I, but the earlier star design
and rudder markings were soon readopted. The change on naval aircraft
was directed on August 19, 1919, to be effective on all aircraft
not later than January 1, 1920. A frequently seen error in this design is the red center being
made too large. The circumference of the center circle should
be tangent with the sides of the pentagon formed in making the
star. The practice of displaying the aircraft serial number in
large figures on the side of the fuselage, which began during
the war, continued for several years.
Since 1920, numerous additions and changes have been made
in aircraft markings which over the years built up an awesome
array of variety and detail. The story of these changes is further
complicated by the fact that many were
instituted by the operating forces without official Navy Department
sanction and as a result, some directives issued on the subject
did little more than to make standard practice official. Some
of the more significant, or possibly more apparent, changes effecting
heavier-than-air aircraft of the operating forces since that date
were directed as follows:
- July 12, 1923
- Instructions requiring that the aircraft building letter
and number be placed, in 12 inch (30.38 cm) Black letters, on
both sides of the body midway between wings and rudder, were modified
as permission was given to use squadron designating numbers in
- December 1, 1923
- Display of building letter and number in large figures on
the sides of the fuselage ended as markings to identify the unit
operating the aircraft were ordered placed in that space. With
the formation of the Bureau of Aeronautics, this number became
known as the Bureau Number. The new markings, which were a grouping
of three marks, were described as follows:
- For squadrons - the squadron number followed by a letter abbreviation
of the squadron mission, followed in turn by a number for the
plane within the squadron. Each element was to be separated by
- For air stations - same as for squadrons, except that an abbreviation
of the station name was substituted for the squadron mission letter.
When the plane was from a squadron assigned a combat mission,
the station letter was to be followed by the squadron mission
letter. Both elements being separated by a hyphen.
- The directive also permitted display of a squadron insignia
or device on both sides of the fuselage forward of the identification
- June 24, 1924
- Squadron identification markings were ordered placed on
Marine Corps aircraft following the system previously prescribed
for the Navy except that on Marine aircraft, the mission letter
was to be placed within a circle.
- The same directive added "U.S. NAVY" on both sides
of the fuselage aft of the identification group on all Navy aircraft;
no similar provision was ordered for Marine Corps aircraft at
this time. The letters were to be as large as possible, but in
no case less than 8 inches (20.32 cm) in height.
- December 15, 1924
- Display of the gunnery pennant and "E" on both
sides of the fuselage was authorized. Placement for the pennant
was defined as between the leading and trailing edges of the wing,
and for the "E" as under the trailing edge.
- June 25, 1925
- Aircraft for the use of the Marine Corps were to have
the fuselage sides unmarked so that the Marine Corps insignia
could be applied by the receivlng unit.
- April 6, 1929
- Propeller tips were to be painted with three bands of
four inches (10.15 cm) each, with Insignia Red at the tip, then
Bright Yellow, then Insignia Blue.
- June 1, 1931
- Use of 20 inch (50.40 cm) wide colored bands around the
fuselage of section leader's planes was directed and the colors
Royal Red, White, True Blue, Black, Willow Green, and Lemon Yellow
were assigned to sections one through six respectively.
- With the fuselage bands, the order further required that chevrons
of the same color as the section leader's be painted on all planes
of the section; to be placed on the upper wing surface pointing
forward. It also added colored bands around the engine cowling
in the section color. The leader's plane to carry a complete band,
the No. 2 plane a half band on the upper part and the No. 3 plane
a half band on the lower portion of the cowl.
- The same order permitted use of distinguishing colors on the
empennage whenever two or more squadrons of the same type operated
together. The colors were to be selected from those specified
for section colors but there was no restriction on the assignment
or sequence of colors used.
- U.S. MARINES was now required on the sides of the fuselage
of all aircraft operated by the Marine Corps.
- November 6, 1931
- Branch of service markings - "U.S. NAVY" or
"U.S. MARINES" were ordered placed on the lower surface
of bottom wings of all planes including those of the Naval Reserve,
but excluding training planes. This order was canceled July 8,
- February 1, 1933
- Use of a small number on each side of the upper half of
the engine cowling was authorized to indicate the number of the
plane within a squadron.
- March 15, 1937
- Distinguishing colors were assigned to each aircraft carrier
for use as tail markings by all squadrons on board, thereby ending
the practice of assigning colors to squadrons and eliminating
the confusion resulting when squadrons transferred from one carrier
- Patrol squadron Wings and Squadrons assigned to battleships
and cruisers were now identified by a system of solid colored
tails, horizontal or vertical stripes, or checkerboard designs.
- Responsibility for assigning tail colors-to ot :er Fleet squadrons
was given to the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet.
- March 19, 1940
- Squadrons engaged in the Neutrality patrol were directed
to use an additional national aircraft insignia on each side of
the fuselage or hull of aircraft employed.
- December 14, 1940
- Carrier Air Group Commander's planes were to have a diagonal
band, 14 inches (35.56 cm) wide painted around the fuselage forward
of the service marking, of the same color as the empennage painting
of the carrier group, and the title "COMMANDER (name of ship)
GROUP" be painted horizontally on each side of the fuselage.
- February 26, 1941
- An extensive modification of aircraft marking specifications
introduced the following basic changes: . National Aircraft Insignia
were added to both sides of the fuselage or hull and two were
eliminated from the wings, leaving one on the upper left and one
on the lower right. . Branch of Service marking was moved from
the fuselage to the vertical fin above the Bureau Number, the
figures were reduced in size and letters "U.S." omitted.
. Use of colored tail markings, engine cowl bands, chevrons, fuselage
bands, gunnery pennant and Marine Corps emblem was discontinued.
. Air Group Commander bands were eliminated but use of title continued.
. Use of vertical Red, White and Blue rudder stripes was discontinued.
. Color of markings other than National Aircraft Insignia became
those of least contrast to the background.
- January 5, 1942
- National Aircraft Insignia were returned to both right
and left, upper and lower wing surfaces. Rudder markings were
changed to 13 Red and White horizontal stripes.
- May 15, 1942
- The red disc in the center of the National Aircraft Insignia
and horizontal red and white rudder striping were eliminated.
- November 1942
- In preparation for Operaton Torch, the Allied invasion
of French North Africa, an amendment to Operation Memorandum Number
9, dated Sept. 25, 1942, was published by Allied Force Headquarters.
It directed that all American aircraft participatng in the invasion
display a yellow circle around the national aircraft insignia
on each side of the fuselage and on both lower wing surfaces.
Since this memorandum was concerned with air-ground recognition,
no mention was made of the insignia on the upper wing surfaces.
This was a short-lived markng for naval aircraft since they all
returned to the United States after the invasion. But it was continued
in use in North Africa and Europe by the Army Air Force.
- The Invasion of North Africa took place between 8 to 11 November
1942. Carrier aircraft from USS Ranger and the escort carriers
USS Sangamon, Suwannee and Santee of Task Group 34.2 of
the Western Naval Task Force, covered the landings of Army troops
near Casablanca on 8 Nobember and supported their operaton ashore
until opposing French capitulated on 11 Noovember. The escort
carrier USS Chenango accompanied assault forces to the
area and launched her load of 78 Army Air Force P-40s on 10 and
11 November for operations from the field at Port Lyautey.
- January 12, 1943
- Identification letters and numerals were assigned to air
stations of the Operational Training Command and ordered placed
on the sides of the fuselage of all aircraft of that Command.
- February 1, 1943
- One National Aircraft Insignia was again removed from
the upper and lower wing surfaces, leaving one on the upper left
and one on the lower right.
- Tri-colored propeller tips were discontinued by a new requirement
that all propellers, except those presenting no hazards to personnel,
be painted on both sides from the tip four inches (10.16 cm) inward
with Orange Yellow and the remaining blade area including the
hub, with Black.
- June 28, 1943
- A change in the National Aircraft Insignia added White
rectangles to the left and right sides of the Blue circular field
to form a horizontal bar, and also added a Red border stripe around
the entire design. The dimensions of the insignia are based on
the diameter of the Blue field. A general rule of thumb for the
placement is to be the largest size possible but not to exceed
75 percent of the vertical height of the point of application.
On the wings, it normally should be located one-third of the distance
from the wing tip to the fuselage.
- September 14,1943
- The red border stripe was eliminated from the National
Aircraft Insignia and use of Insignia Blue was ordered in its
- October 7,1944
- The optional display of the gunnery "E" was
omitted from marking specifications effective this date. Provision
was made for optional use of additional identification markings
on combat aircraft by tactical commanders, such markings preferably
to be applied with temporary paint. This resulted in many geometric
- June 13, 1946
- A glossy International Orange band was directed to be
applied around the rear fuselage of all Reserve aircraft. The
width of the band was to be equal to the outside diameter of the
blue border surrounding the National Aircraft Insignia. This band
was to just touch, but not overlap, the blue border.
- November 7,1946
- A letter identification system for marking all Navy and
Marine Corps aircraft, including those of the Training Command
and the Naval Air Reserve, was adopted and letters were assigned
to all carriers, wings, groups and squadrons of the operating
- January 2, 1947
- Display of unit identification letters was ordered on
both sides of the vertical fin and rudder and on the upper right
and lower left wing surfaces near the wing tips, thus requiring
the relocation of several standard markings.
- The model designation-branch of service-serial number grouping
was moved from the vertical fin to the fuselage midway between
the forward point of the horizontal stabilizer and the lowest
point of the fuselage.
- The unit aircraft number was moved from the rudder and fin
to-the fuselage forward of the National Aircraft Insignia, except
on patrol planes where it was placed aft, and also placed on the
upper right and lower left wing surfaces inboard of the identification
letters. Additional optional locations were specified as on each
side of the upper half of the nose and on landing gear fairings.
- The space for optional display of squadron insignia was moved
to a point below the cockpit rim and forward of the windshield.
- Display of unit decorations and campaign ribbons, arranged
in a vertical row below the space reserved for squadron insignia,
was also optional.
- January 14, 1947
- A horizontal red stripe, centered on the white horizontal
bar, was added to the National Aircraft Insignia.
- February 28, 1947
- A modification of the letter identification system provided
that shorebased aircraft of units and stations, to which letters
had not been assigned, would display the air station name or unit
title in its place.
- May 1, 1948
- Changes in aircraft marking specifications made mandatory
the use of distinguishing colors for squadrons of a carrier air
group on the propeller spinner and across the top of the vertical
fin and rudder, assigning Insignia Red, Insignia White, Light
Blue, Light Yellow, Light Green, and Black outlined in White respectively
for squadrons one through six of each carrier group. Painting
of arresting hooks in alternate four inch (10.16 cm) bands of
Black and White was also required. Size of Branch of Service,
Model Designation, was increased to two inches (5.08 cm). Aircraft
Serial Number was increased to 4 inches (10.16 cm).
- The new specifications also provided for the optional use
of the Marine Corps emblem in place of, but not in addition to
a squadron insignia, and the display of the abbreviated rank and
last name of the pilot on both sides of the fuselage under the
- February 1, l949
- A specific block letter alphabet was shown for the first
time. This style has remained in effect to the present time.
- May 12, 1950
- Branch of service markings -- "NAVY" or "MARINES"
-- were greatly increased in size and moved to the fuselage just
forward of the empennage
and additionally placed outboard on the under surface of the left
- Squadron designation was added and located on the fuselage,
centered under Branch of Service, and one-half the height of Branch
- Unit Identification Letters on the under surface of the left
wing were moved to the under surface of the right wing, midway
between the National Aircraft Insignia and the fuselage.
- Unit Aircraft Number on the lower left wing surface was reduced
in size and moved inboard.
- June 16, 1952
- Shore-based aircraft which did not have Visual Identification
Letters assigned were to apply the station or unit name to the
upper surface of the right wing in the location specified for
the Visual Identification Letters. It was also to be applied in
smaller letters on the under surface of the right wing.
- Aircraft used by Naval Attache were now to carry the words
UNITED STATES NAVAL ATTACHE (name of country) on both sides of
the forward fuselage. The United States flag was also to be applied
to both sides of the vertical fin and rudder.
- March 9, 1955
- Aircraft operated by components of both the Navy and Marine
Corps Reserve could now carry both NAVY and MARINE on the aft
fuselage. If used, the station name was omitted.
All identification markings, including the National Aircraft Insignia,
on swept-back wings was now to be applied along the 50 percent
- September 18, 1962
- The system of designating U.S. naval aircraft which had
been in use since 1922, was abolished. All U.S. military aircraft
were now to be identified by the system used by the U.S. Air Force.
To help with the conversion, both identifications were applied,
for a short period, on those aircraft that were in use under both
- May 27, 1971
- The side number designation, for Air Wing (CVW) and Air
Groups (CVSG) was modified to blocks of 100 numbers for each of
the nine squadrons, starting with the basic number rather than
the previous 101, 102, etc. This made possible the 00 identification
associated with the Air Group Commander's aircraft.
- April 1, 1980
- Naval Air Reserve aircraft now were identified by two-letter
designations the same as Fleet aircraft. Marine Air Reserve had
been doing this since January 12, 1972.
- April 18, 1985
- MIL-STD-2161(AS) made sweeping changes in the painting
and markings applied to U.S. naval tactical aircraft with the
introduction of tactical paint schemes utilizing two tones of
flat gray. All the exterior markings remained. However, they were
reduced in size and were to be the contrasting shade of gray to
the background to which applied. In the case of Marine Corps aircraft
in the land camouflage scheme, the markings were to be flat Black.