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Nose Art
"Thanks for painting me cross-eyed, you jackwagons..."

So you have your Cool Plane and your Cool Ship, but somehow, they're still not cool enough, truly not worthy of such a Bad Ass Ace Pilot as yourself. You know what would help? Let's paint a freaking shark face on the nose. That will get the desired reaction from your enemies. Plus, it'll look great at airshows! The Plane Spotters love this kind of thing!

Typically, you will see five varieties of this:

Type A: Distinctive artwork on the nose or tail. If on the nose, expect something akin to the classic "Shark nose" made famous during World War II. If on the tail, expect distinctive (or even flashy) designs intended to easily identify the plane's unit.

Type B: The "Pin-Up Girl". Made famous in World War II, these designs often featured scantily clad women in suggestive poses. Many of these were very temporary in nature, and it was not at all rare for the pinup art to reflect the name of the aircraft (such as the famous "Memphis Belle"). This went out of style after the war, due to a variety of reasons.

Type C: Full-body flashy paintjobs: Often invoked when Rule of Cool is the primary motivator behind the paint scheme. This is common for demonstration aircraft used at air shows or VIP transports not intended to be used near the front lines. Sometimes, even camouflage can fit into this category, as some patterns designed to be very effective at a distance can look downright garish up close.

Type D: Patriotic slogans or pictures, or taunts to the enemy. The most common taunt are simple silhouettes on the fuselage showing how many aircraft the plane has shot down. This kind of nose art was especially popular in USSR (and is still in Russia), where pilots named their planes after their parents, siblings, fallen comrades or historical national heroes (Dimitri Donskoy, Aleksandr Nevsky, Aleksandr Suvorov etc). Some artforms could depict a Soviet eagle subduing a Fascist beast, or slogans like "Mstitel" (Avenger), "Na Zapad" (To West!), Za Rodiny ("For Fatherland") or "Smiert fashistam" (Death to Fascists). They were also popular in the USAAF and RAF.

Type E: Humorous cartoons. This type was especially popular in the USAAF and Finnish air forces, and would often depict a popular cartoon character, such as Donald Duck or Batman. This type of nose art is common even today. It usually depicts either the war itself or the enemy in ironic or satirical way, and is usually connected to the individual name of the plane. The extreme example of this was a B-24M Liberator "It Ain't So Funny", whose entire nose was covered with cartoon characters.

In Real Life, this trope has generally become much more subdued due to a combination of PR and practicality. Flashy artwork tended to clash with specially-designed camouflage patterns designed to help conceal the plane in combat, making such artwork Awesome, but Impractical. Even the traditionally applied roundel insignia, such as the RAF's bullseye had to be replaced with subdued monochrome variants. A typical workaround with those limitations is to put the artwork in a normally-concealed place, like the inside of the wheel wells, or to simply draw it in less contrasting colors.

On the other hand, nose art can be an immense morale boost. The nose art personifies and antropomorphizes the aircraft, creating a bond between the inanimate airplane and its pilot (and ground crew). Even in air forces where strict discipline was stressed, some form of nose art was always tolerated.

Since Tropes Are Flexible, this applies to other vehicles or equipment as well, as long as it fits the spirit of the trope. If the ammunition has nose art on it, then it is a Marked Bullet.

Can overlap with Ace Custom, which is when the vehicle's design, rather than it's decoration, is unique, often to give a particularly important hero (or villain) particular advantages. Nose art may display the ship or plane's name.

This is not for examples of face painting, tattoos, or artwork inspired by the human nose.

Truth in Television.


Examples

Anime & Manga
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: Many of Char Aznable's Ace Custom mobile suits featured his trademark red paintjob. Played Straight to the point of parody, where several mangas even featured "Char Aznable" custom RB-79 Ball designs, painted red with horns attached.
    • We actually get to see the classic shark face on a few Federation units. MS Igloo features a Ball with one and there's a popular artbook scan (or possibly fanart, this troper's not quite sure) featuring a GM Custom from 0083 in a hangar getting one painted onto its helmet.
    • The original MSV series of model kits and accompanying story inserts gives us an example of the classic pin-up girl version, with the "Gouf Lady", an MS-07 with a topless woman on its shoulder wearing a Stripperific version of the Mobile Suit's own armor, serving as a precursor to the MS Girls artbooks by the guy who made Galaxy Fraulein Yuna.
  • Macross (and Robotech) had the "Skull Squadron" inspired by VF-84 the "Jolly Rogers" colors here via the other wiki.
    • Macross Frontier has a healthy dose of all three, including the skull as a Shout-Out to the original Macross on Ozma's VF-25S (and his car). The König Monster has A-10 style Type A nose art originally, then later Type B pinups of the protagonist females of the series. Type C occurs in the Variable Fighter air show special with full body paint jobs again featuring the two female protagonists.

Film
  • Discussed in Apocalypse Now,
    Kurtz: We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes because it's obscene!
    • In an earlier scene, Colonel Kilgore flies into battle in a Huey with "Death from Above" painted on its nose.
      • The Hueys of the 1st Air Cavalry have the units crossed saber insignia on their noses (which the real unit was known to do in real life, some even wore Stetsons like Kilgore.
  • Memphis Belle: The Belle and all the other bombers have nose art, with the bombers' callsigns being derived from the nose art (One of the other planes is called "C-Cup").
  • Red Tails, a 2012 film based on the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen, takes its name from the highly recognizable paint job their planes featured. (See also The Tuskegee Airmen and the Real Life section below)
    • Several pilots in the movie also had small logos painted under the cockpits to tie in with their callsigns, and Pretty Boy had his yellow-nosed fighters.
  • The Tuskegee Airmen, an HBO film from The Nineties about the first black fighter pilots in the US military during World War II, featured the pilots painting the tails of their fighters bright red, to ensure that the white bomber crews would know who was protecting them. (See Real Life below)
    • The Luftwaffe's yellow-nosed BF 109s also appear in the film.
  • Serenity shows that the ship's name is painted in a stylized seal on the bow of the ship, in both English and Chinese.
    • The crew later invokes this trope by disguising their ship as a Reaver vessel, complete with lots of red paint and human corpses lashed to the hull.
  • Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo has the Ruptured Duck, the main character, Captain Ted W. Lawson's aircraft. Based on the real aircraft from the Doolittle raid.
  • In the Transformers Film Series, many of the paintjobs used by the Autobots in vehicle mode could arguably count, but the best example is Starscream's Cybertronian War Tattoos, a set of Cybertronian writing covering his entire body, starting immediately after the Decepticons drop the Masquerade in Revenge Of The Fallen.
  • Watchmen: In the Opening Montage we see a bomber with nose art of Sally Jupiter.
  • Aliens had the Colonial Marine's Dropship. On the nose was an eagle in combat boots and the phrase "We Endanger Species". The marines had slogans painted on their armor and weapons as well.
  • In Flyboys, the Lafayette Escadrille members each paint a personal symbol on the side of their biplanes. Blaine Rawlings uses the logo of his old ranch in Texas.
  • Avatar: Trudy has a blue and white cheatline painted on her Samson helo in the film's climax, matching the warpaint worn by her Na'vi allies.
  • Pacific Rim: All the Jaegers have kill markings and various other writing on them. Gipsy Danger sports a pinup on the right chest plate (by Word of God in emulation of World War II bombers).

Literature
  • Used as camouflage in Path of the Fury by David Weber. The protagonist have a full-on military assault shuttle while posing as a free trader, which they can hardly justify given their cover. They give it the gariest paintjob imaginable.
    "Giolitti winced as he took in the garish crimson and black hull. Some unknown artist had painted staring white eyes on either side of the stiletto prow, jagged-toothed mouths gaped hungrily about the muzzles of energy and projectile cannons, and lovingly detailed streamers of lurid flame twined about the engine pods."
  • L.A.C. Crews in Honor Harrington frequently adorn their ships with nose art in a direct reference to the nose art used on aircraft.
  • In The Riftwar Cycle, on Kelewan, seaships have eyes painted forward on the hulls to scare away sea monsters that actually exist.
  • Normally averted in the X-Wing Series (the closest they come is kill markers), but when Rogue Squadron resigns for the duration of The Bacta War, they repaint their X-Wings with individualized paint jobs to further distance themselves from the New Republic military. The straightest example is Gavin Darklighter, who paints his up like a krayt dragon: tan with a reptile scale pattern, and a toothy mouth similar to the page picture. Ooryl's fighter looks rather plain unless you can see in the ultraviolet spectrum.

Live-Action TV
  • Babylon 5: The Starfuries operated by the Earth Alliance feature a plethora of custom paint jobs on their upper wings, even on ships flown by Red Shirts and Mauve Shirts. Usually it will just be a distinctive pattern, but some of the fighters include custom artwork, occasionally taking up the entire top wing.
    • Two Starfury squadrons are depicted as having whole-body paint jobs: The escorts for Earth Force One, with a blue-and-white paint job inspired by the Real Life Air Force One, and the Black Omega Squadron.
    • In the fourth season of the show, Captain Sheridan has Babylon 5's emblem painted on the hull of his flagship when he personally leads the fight against President Clark.
    Lt. Corwin: (about White Star 2's paint job) I mean... won't they know it's him?
    Ivanova: I believe that's the idea, Lieutenant.
  • Several ships and watercraft operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society on the Animal Planet series Whale Wars feature this; their rigid inflatable boats and the Bob Barker sport shark mouths on the bow, while the Gojira had a picture of the titular monster before being rechristened the Brigitte Bardotnote , whereupon the nose art changed to that of a woman bearing a trident and the organization's flag.
  • In the TV series Riptide the boys use a custom painted helicopter called "Screaming Mimi."
  • Space: Above and Beyond: Chiggy Von Richtofen's Super Prototype: A human skull painted on the nose with Abandon All Hope written on the side.
    • When the squadron receives its Hammerheads towards the end of the pilot episode, some squadron members paint slogans on their fighters, such as West's "Above and Beyond" and Hawkes' "Pags' Payback". The nose art isn't seen in future battles, however.

Pinball
  • In Ruiner Pinball, the top of the "Ruiner" table features two bomb-dropping pinup girls, "Drop Target" and "Da Bomb".

Table Top Games
  • BattleTech has Legacy Character "The Bounty Hunter". His Mech is painted a bright green with various currency symbols all over it.
    • Custom paint jobs are generally popular in some MechWarrior circles in the universe, such as among mercenaries and — of course — in the game arenas on Solaris VII. Larger forces tend more towards standardization, although unit-specific paint schemes (for parade purposes if nothing else) aren't uncommon.
  • Eldar Corsairs in Warhammer 40,000 are fond of ostentatious color schemes, and the Void Dragon Phoenix, a special variant of the Phoenix ground-attack craft, is depicted with a full-body paintjob reminescent of a dragon's scaled hide. Their craftworld cousins are also known to embellish their vehicles - a motif from Biel-Tan is a long coil of thorned vines, while the Wild Rider clans from Saim-Hann are even more individualized.
    • Imperial aircraft can actually buy a distinctive paintjob or decals as an upgrade that let one unit that sees the plane reroll one leadership test.
    • Orks, being orks, commonly have garish personalized paint jobs; indeed, it's the idea of uniformity that's odd to them. Yes, the red ones go faster.

Video Games
  • A staple in the Ace Combat series, from about Ace Combat 3 onwards. Shooting down certain enemy Ace Pilots allows you to slap their paint jobs onto your planes of the same model. Other special paint jobs were unlocked by completing certain plot missions. Ace Combat 6 also introduced downloadable custom paint jobs.
  • In Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the titular mech is decorated with a butterfly insignia on its head. Naked Snake uses the word 'nose art' to describe it.
  • X2: The Threat allows you to import an image file from your computer that would be applied as nose art to all your ships and stations. It could be a pin-up, a coat of arms, whatever. (Game Spot's reviewer used a character from The Simpsons.) In X3: Reunion, Pirate ships have flame paint jobs on their nose, with graffiti scrawled over the rest of the ship.
  • The A-10 Warthog ground attack planes in Battlefield 2 have a warthog face on the nose of the aircraft.
    • The Vietnam version of the Project Reality mod features UH-1 Huey gunships with a massive shark mouth on the nose of the chopper.
  • Sabre Ace Conflict Over Korea used the "shark mouth" on the F-51 Mustang.
  • Team Fortress 2 features a rather half-assed variant on the payload carts. It seems that the Heavy vandalizes them; they all have something he says scratched into the paintjob or spraypainted on them. For example, the one that's used most often says "CRY SOME MORE" on it. One of them also happens to be designed like a mechanical shark's head.
  • MechWarrior Living Legends's scout aircraft, the Sparrowhawk, has a shark mouth and triangular eyes painted onto each side of the catamaran-like fuselage. The rest of the craft is painted with red stripes.
  • The officially released MechWarrior 4 titles featured a fair amount of paint work, which only grew in number and complexity as time passed and Game Mods were introduced. It is probably no surprise that a large number of Atlas paintjobs emphasize that it has a Skull for a Head, usually in some manner of bone-white, gap-toothed grotesqueness. A number of 'Mechs with 'fuselage' bodies (that is, longer front to back than tall) have optional paint jobs featuring the iconic shark-mouth nose art.
  • The Red Baron games feature aces from both sides of the war who have their own custom paintjobs, including the Red Baron himself. You can get one, too, provided you do well enough in the campaign.
  • Certain planes in IL-2 Sturmovik can be customized with these. Most of the available nose arts are reminiscent of real WWII nose arts, but it's possible to mod in your own as well.
  • As prominently displayed in the closing movie, the Highwind of Final Fantasy VII has a Pin Up girl on the nose.
  • In Starcraft II, the Goliath has several variant skins, randomly applied when the unit is created, that have different body art, including flames, teeth, angel wings, and the Confederate flag.
    • The Marine unit has a large variety of helmet decorations, like wolf/tiger/panda faces or a Rage Helm. Some are available as in-game avatars.
    • Tychus Findlay has a pinup on one of his pauldrons in a retro style (she's the celebrity who goes in and out of rehab in the bottom text of the UNN broadcasts).
  • SLAI Steel Lancer Arena International is positively drowning in nose art choices. There are hundreds of paint and image decorations available for purchase and use on any SV. Among them are a number of national flags, various cheeky comments, and the ever-popular shark smile.

Web Comics

Western Animation
  • Star Wars: Clone Wars: the ARC troopers paint a Rancor on their ship.
  • Tony Trihull, the Lemon battleship from Cars 2, has a shark face painted onto his hull.
  • Storm Hawks: Junko's missiles have these in the first episode, it's notable because he makes them fire when they jam by ''screaming at them'' and their faces actually change into a typical Oh Crap expression before firing.
  • Starship Troopers: Invasion: Aside from having their nicknames stenciled on their chestplates, several of the Troopers have custom artwork to help them stand out. Shock Jock has a white cross on his armor, while Trig has a crosshairs on her helmet.

Real Life
  • The practice dates all the way back to the first major use of airplanes in battle: World War I. Pilots painted designs on their airplanes both to personalize them and to make them easier to identify on the battlefield (as much to avoid shooting friendly planes as to avoid being shot at by friendly ground forces.)
    • Probably the most famous example from that war, of course, would be Manfred von Richthofen, AKA The Red Baron, with his Fokker Triplane's red full-body paintjob.
      • Red was the unit colour of Manfred von Richthofen's old Uhlan cavalry regiment. His brother, Lothar, was a Hussar before joining the Luftwaffe, and he painted his plane yellow, the Hussar unit colour.
  • During World War II, The American Volunteer Group, also known as The Flying Tigers, were famous for the shark-nose paint jobs on their Curtis P-40 Warhawks. Of course, while they are famous for using the shark-nose paint scheme, they were not the first squadron to do so, having drawn inspiration from photos of British planes in Africa.
    • The nose of P-40 with its distinctive radiator housing just cried for a shark mouth. That scheme was popular everywhere amongst the P-40 units.
    • The Flying Tigers' winged tiger insignia was designed by Walt Disney Studios: At one point Disney had five artists assigned full time to the creation of insignia for any allied ship or unit that requested one. Ironically, they didn't do much nose art for individual airplanes. Not racy enough, apparently.
    • Similarly, the 332d Fighter Group was famous in Europe for painting the tails of their planes red, earning them the nickname "Red Tailed Angels" by the Bomber pilots they escorted. Nowadays they are famous, of course, for being the first black fighter pilots in US military history, the Tuskegee Airmen, who are said (though disproved in 2007) to have never let a bomber under their protection be shot down by an enemy plane.
    • Likewise, a 9th AF P-47 unit, the 358th Fighter Group, became known as "The Orange Tails" for this reason.
    • Not to forget 8th Air Force 352nd Fighter Group, the "Blue-Nosed Birds of Bodney".
    • 15th Air Force 325th Fighter Group, the "Checkertail Clan", whose P-47 and P-51 aircraft entire empennage was painted with yellow and black checkerboard pattern.
    • The Germans were big fans of this too. Messerschmitt BF 109s typically featured yellow noses, the paint scheme originally being adopted to avoid being shot at by their own troops while attacking ground targets. Supposedly, the Germans lost more fighters to friendly fire from ground troops during the invasion of Poland than they did from the Polish military.
      • Erich Hartmann, history's highest-scoring fighter ace, had a stylized flower, a black tulip, on the nose of his Bf109. Soviet pilots quickly learn to recognize the design. Hartmann would swap airplanes with his wingmen so that he could engage unsuspecting enemies in an unmarked aircraft while the wingman could safely gain experience in an airplane the enemy avoided. However, he eventually got rid of the tulip altogether because Soviet pilots refused to engage any aircraft in formation with the black tulip.
  • The distinctive Invasion Stripes insignia was painted on fighters, reconnaissance planes, transports, and twin-engined bombers belonging to the Allied nations during and after the Battle of Normandy, in order to prevent friendly-fire incidents amongst the thousands of aircraft operating over Western Europe. The practice ended a few months later because the paint jobs also made it much easier for German pilots to spot the planes on the ground.
    • Likewise the distinctive paint job of the FW-190Ds of Jagdverband 44, which were tasked with providing protection for Me-262 jet fighters during take-off and landing. As such they operated only in the close vicinity of their airfield and avoiding friendly fire from AA guns was more important than being difficult to see.
    • There's a whole history of military aircraft being painted with special markings to prevent confusion with the enemy. When it first entered service, the Hawker Typhoon sported "invasion stripes" on its underside (long before D-Day) to prevent it being mistaken for a German aircraft. In the PTO, Allied aircraft quickly lost any red in their national markings to prevent confusion with Japanese aeroplanes; the RAAF took this to an extreme as the years passed, first painting the leading edges of the wings of their aircraft white (also used by US P-47 Thunderbolts in Europe to distinguish them from Fw-190s) and then painting the entire tail white.
      • The Japanese painted the leading edges of the wings of their fighters yellow as a recognition aid.
  • In 1944, the U.S. Army Air Force began using old battle worn bombers as Assembly Ships, (Sometimes called "Judas Goats") to assist squadrons in assembling into formations for bombing missions over Germany. These were painted in bright garish colors, to make them easier to spot by the crews of the bomber groups. These elderly B 24s, and B 17s were only used to form up on, and did not continue to the targets. Some examples can be seen [1] and [2]
  • During The Vietnam War, it wasn't unusual to see shark faces painted on Huey Cobra helicopter gunships.
  • Up till quite recently, most prototypes of new fighter aircraft were painted in bright colours not too dissimilar from those that might be found on the title mecha of a Humongous Mecha series. Example here. Of course, a prototype would have none of the practical concerns of a production aircraft destined for the battlefield, and indeed, being highly visible would be considered a plus given that the whole purpose of a prototype is to demonstrate whether or not it works.
  • Aircraft belonging to the United States Air National Guard typically feature a tail flash with their state's flag, and aircraft in active duty wings will often have color-coded tail flashes to distinguish jets from separate squadrons within the wing.
  • A US Navy tradition is for one or two aircraft per squadron to be brightly painted with the squadron's colors and emblazoned with its emblems, while the rest are the usual haze-gray low-visiblity paint scheme. These aircraft typically "belong" to the squadron's commanding officer or executive officer, who being more senior fly less often and are not as likely to see direct combat. This allows the squadron to show off its traditions and pride while remaining maximally combat effective. The planes are still fully functional and deadly, however.
  • It is fairly common for military aircraft to receive flashier paintjobs for airshows, in order to make them more entertaining for the crowds.
  • Milestone anniversaries are popular occasions to break out the paint for military aircraft. Squadrons from across the world will paint one (or all) of their aircraft to honor the anniversary of the founding of their nation, their branch of service, or even their specific unit. Anniversaries celebrating when certain aircraft were first introduced are also common, as are anniversaries of certain battles. Some examples:
    • During the United States' bicentennial, a number of squadrons celebrated with a custom paint scheme for one (or all) of their aircraft. The Florida Air National Guard's 159th Fighter Squadron used this paint scheme. Other aircraft were painted in schemes resembling those used by the Thunderbirds, such as this F-14 and this F-15.
    • In honor of the centennial of Naval Aviation, the United States Navy has adorned various jets with World War II-era paint jobs.
    • During the 50th anniversary of D-Day (the invasion of Normandy), a number of NATO squadrons painted invasion stripes on their aircraft. Here's an F-16 from Belgium, and a few U.S. Navy A-6 Intruders painted up.
  • NATO squadrons have an annual tradition known as the "Tiger Meet," which involves any squadrons that thematically involve tigers or other kinds of big cats (either in their name, or their unit patch/coat of arms). In addition to being a joint military exercise, Tiger Meets also involve a Nose Art painting contest, in which the squadrons compete to make the coolest tiger (or big-cat) themed paint job they can. These schemes run the gamut of types, from nose art or tail fin flashes to full-body paint jobs.
    • Since they are only Honorary Members of the NATO Tiger Association, American and Canadian tiger-themed squadrons have their own Tiger Meet of the Americas for the purpose of hosting the event on their side of the pond. Like with the European-based Tiger Meet, paint job competitions are a central event.
  • Averted during World War II for some American planes which were never painted at all. The plane was sent out of the factory in bare aluminum alloy without paint (except for the national insignia[note ). The reasons were that it was cheaper and quicker to skip the paint job; and the plane, being somewhat lighter without paint, was also slightly faster (and used slightly less fuel). This was continued for several decades with certain planes.
  • Ancient Greek triemes painted eyes at the bow, near the ram.
  • The carved dragon figureheads on Viking longships probably qualify.
  • Sword hilts and sheaths were a favorite place to put decoration, not least because someone who could afford a sword could afford to make it look cool. Early Medieval swords often had the name of the owner or the name of the smith engraved in them.
  • In general this is a human practice from the dawn of time. Because, you know, humans need to celebrate their favorite sport.
  • Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), a regional discount airline in the United States, decided to show its sense of humor by having a big smile painted on the nose of all of its planes, accompanied by the advertising slogan "Catch Our Smile." When PSA was bought out by US-Air, former PSA mechanics would paint smiles on the new US-Air planes as a joke.
  • Nose art backfired for a much-disliked pilot in the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, who insisted his hangar crew rename his plane after his girlfriend. He was not nice about and it and did not ask - he ordered. The irritated crew painted the name "Phyllis" on the nose of his plane as ordered. The pilot pronounced himself satisfied. After a discreet interval, the letters "SY-" were painted in front of the name. The pilot did not notice. Everyone else on the carrier did.
    • Fleet Air Arm nose art could be very witty, such as the two Firefly fighters, "Evelyn Tentions" and "Lucy Quipment". Evil Intentions and Loose Equipment)
  • German U-boats would have decal painted on their conning tower. Among the most well-known was the "Laughing Sawfish" of U-96.
  • The Four Sisters of the Fourth Anti-Tank Helicopter Squad. A JSDF attack helicopter unit decorated their aircraft with colorful images of Moe female characters, and drew quite a bit of public attention over it, before being told by the Minsitry of Defense to cut it out and remove the artwork.
  • There is a story (probably apocryphal, but you never know) of a group of American pilots in the Pacific theater of WWII, who one day decided that before going into combat they would all paint the propellers and noses of their planes bright yellow. Then the next time, before going into combat they painted their noses and propellers bright blue. Then the next time, they painted them bright red. And so on. Their thinking was that the Japanese would see the different colors and think it was a different squadron of fighters every time, giving the impression that the Americans had endless waves of fighters.


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