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 was adopted.
US Naval Aviation dates back to 1910, when the US Navy designated Captain W.I. Chambers as the officer in charge of all aviation matters for the USN. CV-1 Langley was recommissioned as a carrier in March of 1922, the first airplane did not take off from her deck until October of that year.
At that time Navy Aircraft were overall silver-doped fabric, with chrome yellow wing tops on the upper wing and aft horizontal stabilizer. While the chrome yellow was not officially ordered until May of 1925, it had been an unoffical standard that had been adopted starting in 1920 as an aid to locating aircraft that had made fored landings in water.
Markings consisted of a National white star with a red circle in its center contained within a blue circle on the top of the upper wings and botom of the lower wings and the aircraft's Bureau Number on the fuselage sides.
The Star was to be no larger than five feet in diameter, with the actual size determined by the length of the distance between the leading edge of the wing and the leading edge of the ailerons on the wing. It's position spanwise was defined by the chord of the wing; if an aircraft's wing had a 3 foot chord (The distance between the leading and trailing edges) the disc would be painted three feet from the outer edge of each wing.
Early silver paint formulas had problems adhering to the metals that they were supposed to protect from corrosion; consequently the Navy specified a substitute light gray paint. This gray was similar in tone to the silver paint but could vary in shade from light to very pale. Not all aircraft would receive this gray paint on their metal surfaces, but those that saw service on ships were much more likely.
By 1934 formulas had improved enough such that silver paint was again called for on metal surfaces, and newly constructed aircraft started appearing from the factory in all-over silver. Aircraft that would have undergone overhaul at this time would also repaint their gray surfaces to silver. Monoplanes would have definately been overall silver with no gray substitute.
The yellow wings and tails saw some changes during the 30's; a minor point is that the yellow was extended onto the undersides from the leading edge of the wings to a point six inches aft of the leading edge. Forward or rear facing chevrons were painted on the top wing as well to identify which section the aircraft belonged to as well as to provide an easy method for wingmen to line up against their section leader as well as sections to line up with each other for large formation flights.
The yellow on the top of the horizontal stabilizer was also often replaced with a different color when squadrons began to color code the tails of their aircraft.
Pilots needed a way to recognize and differentiate other aircraft and efforts were made to mark individual aircraft in a way that its squadron and place within that squadron could be determined visually. Before this was officially standardized in 1931 these methods had included different tail colors and colored bands on the tail.
The experimentation started at a squadron level around 1925; by 1928 the horizontal and vertical tails began to become an unofficial squadron identifier and by early 1929 the fuselage bands were used to identify sections within a squadron, with the section colors unofficially standardized throughout most of the fleet.
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.
The initial US Army Signal Corps aviation insignia used during the Pancho Villa punitive expedition just before American involvement in World War I began, used on the vertical tail and wings was a red five-pointed star.
A tricolor roundel (A roundel is a circular disc used as a symbol. The term is used in heraldry but also commonly used to refer to a type of national insignia used on military aircraft, generally circular in shape and usually comprising concentric rings of different colours. Other symbols also often use round shapes.) was introduced by the US Army Air Service in February 1918 for commonality with the other allies, all of whom used such roundels.
Even with American aircraft using British and French style fin flashes on the rudders during World War I, the British and French markings were painted with the blue vertical stripe forwardmost at the hinge line or leading edge, with red at the rudder's trailing edge - American aircraft reversed the red and blue vertical fin flash stripes' locations during the World War I years to avoid confusion.
In addition, allegedly like the Union Jack for the British RFC earlier in the war, the May 1917-adopted red circle-centered white star in a dark blue circular field for all United States military aircraft was said to potentially resemble the German Luftstreitkrafte's Eisernes Kreuz at a distance, making its use in western Europe a possible hazard. Contemporary with the U.S. Army Signal Corps' red star, the US Navy was using an anchor symbol on the rudders of its seaplanes.
As of 19 May 1917 all branches of the military, outside of the Western Front of Europe were to use a white star with a central red circle all in a blue circular field, painted in the official flag colors.
Following the Armistice that ended World War I, in August 1919 the colors were adjusted to the current standards and the proportions were adjusted slightly so that the centre red circle was reduced slightly from being 1/3 of the diameter of the blue circular field, to being bound by the edges of an imaginary pentagram connecting the inner points of the star.
During the First World War and into the early post-war period, US Marine Corps aircraft often had a tricolor roundel with an anchor painted on the sides of the fuselage.
In the months after Pearl Harbor it was realized that the central red circle could be construed as being a Japanese Hinomaru from a distance or in poor visibility, and in May 1942 the central red circle was eliminated permanently.
On aircraft in service they were painted over with white. During November 1942, US forces participated in the Torch landings and for this a chrome yellow ring (of almost random thickness) was temporarily added to the outside of the roundel to reduce incidents of Americans shooting down unfamiliar British aircraft, which could themselves be distinguished by a similar chrome yellow outline on the RAF's "Type C.1" fuselage roundels of the time.
None of these solutions was entirely satisfactory as friendly fire incidents continued and so the US Government initiated a study and discovered that the red wasn't the issue since color couldn't be determined from a distance anyway-but the shape could be.
After trying out several variations including an oblong roundel with two stars, they arrived at using white bars flanking the sides of the existing roundel, all with a red outline, which became official in June 1943. This still wasn't entirely satisfactory and the red outline was replaced with a blue outline whose color exactly matched the round blue field that held the star in September 1943.
On US Navy aircraft painted overall in gloss midnight blue starting in 1944-45, the blue color of the roundels was virtually identical to the background blue color, so the blue portion was eventually dispensed with and only the white portion of the roundel was painted on the aircraft.
In January 1947 red bars were added within the existing white bars on both USN and USAAF aircraft - both replacing the old center red circle, and restoring the official presence of a red-colored device in the insignia, much as with the red stripes of the American flag - and in September of the same year, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) became an independent service and was renamed the United States Air Force (USAF), during the timeframe of the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 by the U.S. Congress that established the independent USAF service.
In 1955 the USN would repaint all its aircraft from midnight blue to light grey over white and would use exactly the same roundel as the USAF again. Since then there have been some minor variations, mostly having to do with lo-visibility versions of the star and bars roundel.
Air superiority F-15's eliminated the blue outline in the 1970s, and later some aircraft replaced the blue with black or a countershaded grey, or used a stencil to create an outlined version.
Partly due to the 1964 adoption of the "racing stripe" insignia on all of its aircraft, the United States Coast Guard, unique among the U.S. military organizations in the 21st century, places the same insignia used by the main Department of Defense aviation forces on the vertical fin of its fixed-wing aircraft, as a form of fin flash.
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