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War Paint

James Battig, a fabrication work leader with the 55th Maintenance Squadron, delicately places the first of many nose art pieces onto an RC-135S Cobra Ball while parked in dock 4 of the Bennie Davis Maintenance Facility on Sept. 2, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.  The Cobra Ball had the first higher headquarters approved art, a serpent tightly coiled around a black sphere.  (U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

James Battig, a fabrication work leader with the 55th Maintenance Squadron, delicately places the first of many nose art pieces onto an RC-135S Cobra Ball while parked in dock 4 of the Bennie Davis Maintenance Facility on Sept. 2, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. The Cobra Ball had the first higher headquarters approved art, a serpent tightly coiled around a black sphere. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Digital rendering from a sketch of a Pegasus stems from the aircraft’s geographical lineage where it moved from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, to Offutt in 1992. The Pegasus is a symbol of flying muscle and power and this is the second approved piece of nose art.   (U.S. Air Force photo Illustration by Josh Plueger/Released)

Digital rendering from a sketch of a Pegasus stems from the aircraft’s geographical lineage where it moved from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, to Offutt in 1992. The Pegasus is a symbol of flying muscle and power and this is the second approved piece of nose art. (U.S. Air Force photo Illustration by Josh Plueger/Released)

Angela Duncan, a sheet metal production controller with the 55th Maintenance Squadron, delicately removes excess vinyl from a newly printed nose art piece on Sept. 21, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.  Duncan takes existing art and formats it for the purpose of print production and applications to the aircraft.  (U.S. Air Force photo Illustration by Josh Plueger/Released)

Angela Duncan, a sheet metal production controller with the 55th Maintenance Squadron, delicately removes excess vinyl from a newly printed nose art piece on Sept. 21, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Duncan takes existing art and formats it for the purpose of print production and applications to the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo Illustration by Josh Plueger/Released)

The carefully placed decal of a serpent coiled around a black sphere is slowly unveiled after application under the cockpit of an RC-135S Cobra Ball on Sept. 2, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.  The design was created for the Cobra Ball by Duke Hemenway, graphic designer and illustrator from the Mississippi Gulf Coast area. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

The carefully placed decal of a serpent coiled around a black sphere is slowly unveiled after application under the cockpit of an RC-135S Cobra Ball on Sept. 2, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. The design was created for the Cobra Ball by Duke Hemenway, graphic designer and illustrator from the Mississippi Gulf Coast area. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

James Battig, a fabrication work leader with the 55th Maintenance Squadron, carefully reveals the inaugural piece of nose art that on an RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft on Sept. 2, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.  Members of the 55th Maintenance squadron are responsible for commissioning the art pieces that will grace the noses of the RC fleet.  (U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

James Battig, a fabrication work leader with the 55th Maintenance Squadron, carefully reveals the inaugural piece of nose art that on an RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft on Sept. 2, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Members of the 55th Maintenance squadron are responsible for commissioning the art pieces that will grace the noses of the RC fleet. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Airmen with the 55th Maintenance Squadron marshal an RC-135V/W Rivet Joint adorned with the Pegasus nose art down the flight line, Oct. 6, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.  Commissioned art work will soon become a part of the runway landscape as the RC inventory get custom nose art.  (U.S. Air Force photo Illustration by Josh Plueger/Released)

Airmen with the 55th Maintenance Squadron marshal an RC-135V/W Rivet Joint adorned with the Pegasus nose art down the flight line, Oct. 6, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Commissioned art work will soon become a part of the runway landscape as the RC inventory get custom nose art. (U.S. Air Force photo Illustration by Josh Plueger/Released)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Painted enamel teeth stretch menacingly across a canvas of riveted steel, animating the inanimate. Shark-mouthed aircraft taunt enemies with snarling grins. Mobile galleries patrol the skies.  Whether a functional designator, reminder of home or a symbol of intimidation, air crew artists have been tagging the fuselage of aircraft since its earliest application as a weapon of war.

Marked on all sides, aircraft affiliation was readily identified by both military and civilians in war-torn areas around the globe. Function evolved into expression as maintainers began to customize their planes with nose art. A type of folk art was born from the stresses of war.

Paint gave the aircraft personality. Mission-complete icons, squadron insignia, memorials, comical and sinister imagery embellished the sides of aircraft. Its decorations represented the collective sum of the unit's personality and accomplishments. The same illustrations that gave the plane a name and a personality were also believed to bring luck and good fortune.

"Nose art brings character to each airplane," said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Rick Brown, Assistant Lead Production Superintendent for the 83rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit. "Each nose art has some kind of history or story and meaning behind it. Nose art is important because it instills pride in the maintainers that keep the aircraft flying. It shows those who see it the obvious pride that we have for these 50 plus years old aircraft. Also, the aircraft becomes more recognized as it travels the world."

From conception to application, nose art has predominantly been the sole responsibility of aircraft maintainers. As the popularity of nose art peaked in World War II, professional illustrators were hired to paint the sides of aircraft. The usage has regressed since its peak during World War II but has been in a steady resurgence since Operation Desert Storm.

U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Chad Heithoff has been an integral part in nose art returning to the Offutt fleet of aircraft.

"The dedicated crew chief for each aircraft submits their idea in accordance with Air Force Instruction guidance," Heithoff said. "It then goes on to the wing commander for his or her approval prior to final approval at the major command."

After approval, the nose art is printed on vinyl by select members of the sheet metal shop, and carefully applied to the prepped surface of the aircraft. The digital approach offers no shortcuts, as it rivals the brush process - often taking upwards of 30 hours to complete a project from sketch pad to prepress printing.

Two inaugural airframes have been selected for aircrew customization. The iconic RC-135S Cobra Ball with its trademark matte-black starboard wing, along with a trainer plane, tail number 4133. The two planes flew in tandem out of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, prior to being permanently reassigned to Offutt in 1992.

A serpent tightly coiled around a black sphere has been commissioned and approved for the Cobra Ball. The trainer plane, given the moniker "North Star," has a celestial based design that pays homage to its past with a Pegasus, as well as stars indicating the aircraft's dual home bases.

"We wanted to bring back a piece of our Air Force heritage that has been gone for over two decades," Heithoff said. "Nose art is a way to display the pride many of us have maintaining or flying these aircraft."

The revival of nose art is a collaborative campaign. Artists and illustrators from around the country have been given the opportunity to have their art grace the skies above. Internally, Public Affairs and private illustrators have and will be providing future nose art pieces as Brown and Heithoff go through approval formalities.

The German philosopher Friedrich Schiller said, "Art is the daughter of freedom." With this freedom of expression, the Fightin' Fifty-Fifth's inventory of aircraft will soon be an airborne gallery with a global audience. Bonds between crew and aircraft are strengthened through a custom decal, their collaborative mission or mantra visually summarized just under the cockpit glass.