April 9, 2009:
Canadian troops in Afghanistan are joining the growing trend to revive nose art on aircraft. In this case, the Canadians are putting distinctive art work on their CH-47 and CH-146 helicopters, often images with a hockey (a particularly combative sport) theme. It was three years ago that two retired U.S. Air Force sergeants (Glenn Parker and T.P. Westbrook) began trying to revive the lost custom of affixing "nose art" to warplanes. Troops in many nations responded to this, another example of the Internet rapidly spreading new ideas.
From World War I, through the 1950s, U.S. combat aircraft often had customized, and unofficial, cartoons or insignia painted on the front portion of their aircraft. The illustrations were usually created by someone on the ground crew, and personalized the aircraft for the crew. It boosted morale. But in the mid-1950s, air force commanders decreed that the nose art was "unprofessional," and by the 1970s most of it was gone. It would have gone faster, had not the Vietnam war intervened. Nose art tends to sprout spontaneously in a combat zone. Nose art managed to survive in some reserve units after the 1970s, but was forbidden for active duty aircraft.
The air force says the official reasons for the policy has to do with security and "sanitation." Basically, it's become part of the air force traditions not to have nose art. So the two retired sergeants enlisted the help of two professional artists (Mickey Harris and Dru Blair), both with backgrounds in painting on metal and depicting aircraft. Some senior air force commanders are favorably disposed towards nose art, and the air force is keen to boost morale, now that the air force is going through a period personnel and leadership tumult, and tight budgets. Allowing nose art would not cost anything, as it would be voluntary, and up to units to find artists and materials for creating it. But like bureaucracies everywhere, changing something like this can be difficult.
After September 11, 2001, the only U.S. Air Force aircraft allowed nose art were some A-10s, that had their nose painted to resemble the front end of a shark, with the emphasis on teeth. But as usually happened in wartime, nose art began to appear, unofficially, on aircraft in combat zones. It was often ordered removed once the aircraft returned home.
These days, the racy nose art images that were so abundant during World War II, are quickly banned by politically correct brass. That happened two years ago, when someone with more rank than sense got wind of the enticing images some British crews were putting on warplanes based in Afghanistan. Combat aircraft from many nations are painting nose art on their aircraft when in Iraq or Afghanistan, but usually find they have to remove it once they get back home.
Meanwhile, ground troops in the combat zone have taken up the challenge, affixing names or slogans to their vehicles, and sometimes nose art. This also traces itself back to World War I, and even earlier. Centuries ago, the first cannon had names and slogans painted on, and the ancient Romans would sometimes affix a name or symbol to their siege weapons (giant catapults or bows used to batter down gates and walls). Old customs die hard, if at all.