Thursday, June 22, 2023

Aircraft camouflage in history and today


The US Air Force has published a study of aircraft camouflage from World War II to the present day.  It's titled "Olive Drab, Haze Blue and Jet Black: the Problem of Aircraft Camouflage prior and to and during WWII".

In an introductory article, Brian Duddy sets the scene.

Throughout the war, there was a continual debate over the overall value of camouflage finishes versus leaving the aircraft in natural metal or unpainted, which offered a bit more extra speed due to either polishing of the surfaces or reduction in weight. There is a speed penalty imposed by rough painted surfaces that increases aircraft drag contrasted against smooth polished metal.

Within the USAAF, there was never a consensus about which property was more important— concealment or speed - so instead they settled the issue by directing that manufacturers cease camouflaging most combat aircraft as of 1943. This instruction applied to most combat aircraft, except some tactical fleets, such as transports or gliders. In light of the progress of Allied forces it also made sense operationally – air superiority over the battlefield was now changing over from Axis to Allied air forces; German progress in radar surveillance and detection made visual concealment less vital, especially in the case of large fleets of hundreds of strategic bombers daily hitting the Third Reich. Additionally, Allied bases in the U.K. and on The Continent were less threatened by surprise air attack because of our own radar coverage. The AAF summarized the situation in April 1943, “Due to the early warning and vectoring capabilities of radar, camouflage is losing its importance when weighed against the cost in speed and weight.” Some local commanders in the Pacific still felt camouflage was necessary for use in some geographic areas.

Reducing the aircraft weight and increasing performance was now offered a better tactical advantage to fighters and bombers. The piston-driven fighter aircraft particularly needed all the speed they could get to deal with the threat from the German jets. There was also the secondary benefit of reduced cost and production time, which facilitated quicker replacement of lost airframes.

Ironically, in spite of all the years of studies and experimentation, at the end of the conflict in 1945, camouflage finishes had almost entirely disappeared from USAAF and then USAF aircraft through the 1950s. By then, radar detection had almost totally eclipsed visual means. Camouflage finishes only made a significant reappearance after operations in Southeast Asia in the 1960s brought back the need to conceal aircraft against the jungle terrain in that particular theater.

There's more at the link, and much more in the full study.  Highly recommended to aviation and military history buffs.



MrLiberty said...

Then you have Baron von Richtoven in WW1, who knew that he and his pilots were the best and so boldly painted his aircraft so everyone would know who and where they were. I guess its all about perspective and attitude.

1chota said...

WWII USAAF aircraft camoflage
send me an email address and I will send some B-26 pics.

HMS Defiant said...

I enjoyed the WWII ASW aircraft cammo of simply putting lights on the leading edges of the wings to match the background lighting.

Peter said...

@HMS Defiant: Yes, we discussed the "Yehudi Lights" in an earlier edition of Weekend Wings.

Anonymous said...

My father was the navigator on the first B-17 delivered to Europe without any paint on it. It was aptly named the "Silver Dollar" for obvious reasons. He was one of the lucky airmen who survived their 35 missions. He never mentioned whether the unpainted scheme was controversial but I will bet the crews had their own opinions.

TRX said...

Both the US and Britain experimented with "dazzle" camouflage on aircraft at the beginning of WWII. Unlike similar camouflage on ships, the tests didn't show any advantage for it on aircraft.

HMS Defiant said...

Aprapos the Silver Dollar, I was the PM for the Navy's non-specwar patrol boats. Any number of their OIC or crews would ask me what the accepted cammo scheme was for them and my reply always kind of irritated them. "You guys are there to be seen as a visible deterrent which is hardly helped by trying to hide who/what you are. There is no cammo paint scheme for these boats."