Celebrating the USAF's 68th birthday in flying colors

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Christopher Botzum
  • 111th Attack Wing Public Affairs
The U.S. Air Force, an adolescent compared to the other service branches, turns 68 years young, Sept. 18, 2015 as a result of the National Security Act of 1947.

Originally founded in 1907 as the Aeronautical Division, Signal Corp, a burgeoning arm of the Army, purchased their first heavier than air aircraft, Wright Model A in 1910, boasting a maximum speed of 42 mph pushed by a thunderous 35 horse power motor. Ever since, feverous technological leaps have blasted aviation forward, yet not all things needed to drastically change.

As the U.S. airpower machine matured and progressed over the years, so did the stars and bars blazoned on the wings and fuselages of its aircraft.

The first symbols, or roundel, on U.S. aircraft were reportedly red or blue 5-point stars on Curtis JN-2, known as Jennys, flown by the 1st Aero Squadron in 1916 during a hunt in New Mexico for Poncho Villa, a general in the Mexican Revolution. Surprisingly enough, the red stars on the tails mirrored the familiar emblems used on later Russian aircraft.

Tail flashes, large tri-color striping on the rudders, and a circles around the insignia were added as the U.S. entered World War I--matching Allied Force's markings. A red circle was added to the star to better define, at a distance, the difference between U.S. and the cross identifying German aircraft. Later, red circle became smaller. 

The roundel remained the same until 1941, however the three large stripes on the rudder were largely done away with by 1926, to mimic the stripes of the U.S. flag.

Through the 1930's numerous aircraft, known as yellow-wings, proliferated the skies. The vivid paint scheme was believed to aid in search and rescue efforts for downed aircraft and Airmen. Found to be inconsistence with military concealment practices, many airframes were converted to a less vivid overall paint theme. 

American aircraft, now colorfully adorned, rapidly advanced in design through World War II. Bi-level wing structures were transformed to sleeker single-wing configurations -referred to as the "golden age" of aviation.

To reduce the likelihood of friendly fire, the red dot in the center of our emblem was removed on the aircraft was covered over with white paint. It was believed that the marking could've be construed as the Japanese Hinomaru [rising sun], which was  prominently recognizable on enemy aircraft immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, December of 1941. Revising the branding was soon found not to help in incidents of friendly fire. The actual colors used were found to be far less a factor than the shape and position of the identifier at distance.

In 1942, a yellow ring of varying thickness was added to the aircraft emblems for airframes flying in Northern Africa during Operation Torch. These were later removed from the aircraft.

In early 1943, the insignias were removed from the upper right wing and lower left wing in another effort to reduce the occurrence of friendly fire. White bars were added to either side, surrounded by a red edging to better define the roundel. Later that same year, the red boarder would be replaced with all blue, settling back again with a narrow red band around the blue.

A variety of airframe paint touches, such as dual white rings encircling the fuselage indicating the squadron leader, emerged and then disappeared throughout World War II.

Post-war changes saw the re-emergence of the flag-like tail flash with the group commander's approval, as well as the addition of the centered red line within the lateral bars. Tail flash variation across the U.S. can still be seen today.
Little variations to the roundel have occurred since 1947. With the exception of low visibility, or subdued, versions closely resembling the airframes overall color or stenciled in plain black.

The roundel on the sides and wings of U.S. aircraft, whatever its future modification and regardless of which branch of the military it's assigned to, is an ever-present global moniker of air superiority, innovation and independence. Whether the mission is training, combatting enemy forces in the air or ground or coming to the aid of far-off countries, fly those colors proud.

Happy birthday, Air Force.