SIOUX CITY, Iowa – The blank space on the nose or tail of an aircraft beckons to be filled. For as long as there have been airplanes, aircrew and aircraft maintainers have felt compelled to paint stuff on them.
Historically nose art was created as a way to christen an aircraft and as a way to boost morale. Airmen from the Iowa National Guard recently unveiled their latest aircraft design as an homage to their unit's history.
The paint scheme includes a huge retro "bat" tail flash along with a 75th anniversary diamond as nose art, celebrating the unit's milestone anniversary in 2021. This is the first time the Air Wing has attempted a giant size tail flash on one of their KC-135 aircraft.
According to Chief Master Sgt. Eric Kelley, 185th equipment maintenance flight superintendent, his crew wanted to pick a jet that had recently gone through programmed depot maintenance.
Kelley said picking an aircraft that had just gone through PDM ensured a clean canvas on which to work. He added the timing would also ensure some longevity of the design.
"We will essentially be able to fly this aircraft for five years with this paint scheme on it before we have to send it back," Kelley said.
Getting the design from concept to reality was not as simple as putting brush to canvas. After getting the go-ahead from 185th Air Refueling Wing Commander Col. Mark Muckey, finishing the aircraft concept and design was up to 185th aircraft maintainers. The plan called for painting the rudder completely black, which meant the entire 25-foot tail section had to be removed. According to Kelley, the single color idea would also make weighing and balancing the rudder easier before reattaching it to the tail.
"It has to be balanced so when the aircraft flies through the air, they don't get what is called rudder flutter," Kelley said. "That's not a good thing on an airplane."
Once the tail was balanced and reattached, crew members from the Sioux City-based Air National Guard Paint Facility completed stenciling and painting.
The paint scheme includes a diamond near the nose of the aircraft representing the unit's 75th anniversary. The diamond is surrounded by silhouettes depicting each aircraft flown by the unit since its beginnings in 1946. The first aircraft flown by the unit is illustrated by a North American P-51 Mustang.
A thunderbolt is included with the diamond in deference to aircraft flown by the unit during the 1950s. Following the flying squadron's activation in 1951, many of the unit's first jet aircraft had the word "thunder" in their name. Aircraft like the Republic F-84 "Thunderjet" and "Thunderstreak" often included a yellow thunderbolt in aircraft paint schemes.
The bat tail flash on the KC-135 is a facsimile of what appeared on the unit's F-16 fighter aircraft during the 1990s. The bat moniker was originally adopted following the unit's yearlong deployment to Vietnam in 1968-69, while flying the North American F-100 Super Sabre. Many of the missions during their time at Phu Cat Air Base were flown during nighttime hours, thus earning the "Bat" call sign.
Even though the unit flew the F-100 during the Vietnam deployment, variations of bats didn't appear on 185th aircraft until the unit began flying the A-7 Corsair in 1977. The first bats on the A-7 were smaller and more subdued.
The larger 185th bat tail flash made its first appearance on the unit's F-16 fighter aircraft shortly after the 1991 conversion from the A-7. The iconic bat was originally created by 185th artist Staff Sgt. Frank Rosalez, before the elimination of the graphics Air Force Specialty Code.
Being located in western Iowa, many of the unit's past emblems also included Native American depictions. The bottom of the commemorative tail flash also includes a line drawing of a Native American chief. The concept was conceived by former 185th F-16 pilots Brig. Gen. Larry Christensen and retired Col. Scott Plambeck. The chief has the words "Sioux City" stenciled in the headdress, similar to what appeared on the F-16.
The motivation for Airmen to paint designs on airplanes, as a way of showing unit pride and ownership is the same now as it has been from the beginning. Kelley said people have been so motivated by this project that some had been working on their days off to get it completed. He added it was a lot of work but the project has already achieved its main purpose.
"People are enjoying it. It is something different," Kelly said. "None of this could even happen without the awesome Airmen that we have here at the 185th."