Shiny military aircraft from the 50's question

I’ve seen pictures and documentaries showing military aircraft from the 50’s & early 60’s. Most of the fighter-type planes are extremely shiny as if the surfaces are polished steel or chrome.

What was the deal with this? It certainly can’t help hide the aircraft from enemy eyes, can it?

It is just the aluminum used to make the body of the aircraft, unpainted. Most modern military aircraft are a yellow or brown when unpainted, since they are made using a lot of composite materials.

In WWII bombers were painted medium grey on the undersides and olive green on the upper surfaces. It was found that there was a significant speed increase when the heavy paint was left off. With their contrails making a “pointer” right to the aircraft, it didn’t make a lot of sense to camouflage them (they’d be picked up on radar in any case); and the speed increase was desireable. So they stopped painting the bombers later in the war. (You’ll also note that USAAF fighters were also left unpainted.)

There was a Luftwaffe saying to the effect of, 'If they are brown, they are British. If they are silver, they are American. If you can’t see them at all, they are German!". (To show the supposed skill of the German fighter pilots at manuevering into superior attack positions)

That should have been “American bombers…” The British Lancasters and Halifaxes were painted black underneath (since they flew night bombing missions) and green and brown on top. Mosquitoes were also pained brown and green, but I’m uncertain about their undersides. I think they were light blue, like the British fighters. IIRC, German fighters were pale blue underneath and up their sides (often with mottled green added), with green and dark green on top.

In the Pacific Theatre, American aircraft were painted pale grey underneath and blue on top. At some point, USN aircraft were painted a darker shade of blue overall, but I don’t remember if that was during or after the war.

So, between the Korean & Vietnam wars, would these planes have not been painted out of necessity?

I believe the skin of the planes was made of anodized aluminum, which does not need to be painted. I don’t think we went to painting all of our aircraft until the late 70’s/early 80’s (including all those KC-135s and whatnot), when that pastel greyish paint came out. (Which helps lower the infrared signature of plane.)

If the footage you saw was of new models being tested, then yes, most of the early jets were unpainted. This continued for a few years with operational units as well. Jets were the new supertechnology, and didn’t need anything as pedestrain as camouflage: the only thing that could bring them down was other jets.

But as with the advent of the SAM, jets were once again vulnerable to ground fire. Camouflage came back - look at Air Force F-105s and F-4s over in Vietnam. Light gray on the bottom, dark green and brown on the top. Even the F-100 Super Sabre, which started out unpainted ended up with camouflage when it went into action.

As aircraft missions became more specialized, so did the paint. F-15s have sported various mutations of gray their entire lives, since they are air superiority fighters only. The F-15E, designed as a night attack bomber is painted very dark grey. F-111s carried green/brown camouflage for most of their career.

In the early 90s the Air Force went to a gray paint scheme for almost every aircraft. We joked that it was “air superiority” gray (we were flying C-141s, big lumbering transports). Almost every airplane got this treatment - KC-10s, C-5s, C-17s, even A-10s. About the only thing left untouched were trainers and VIP aircraft.

An alternative reading springs to mind: this saying would have dated from late in the war, when the Luftwaffe was considerably reduced from the position of unassailable superiority it enjoyed in the pre- Battle of Britain period. Based on my understanding of the level of moral within the Luftwaffe at this time, and the German sense of humour generally, I suspect that the meaning of “If you can’t see them at all, they are German!” was that despite the propaganda on the news, it was an open secret that the Luftwaffe was doing very little to protect the Fatherland from the Allied air-raids.

That makes more sense then the version I heard, so I’ll with that instead. :wink:

I thought A-10s were, and remain, dark green…?

No, they went gray along with the rest of the Air Force.

Go here for a photo from the 2002 airshow in Chicago. It shows an A-10 from Pope AFB, NC (near the city of Fayetteville, thus the FT on the tail).

This page has pictures of both the old and the new paint jobs.

Didn’t the switch from aluminum to titanium skin on fighters affect any of this?

AFAIK the SR-71 is the only aircraft to use titanium for large portions of it’s skin. The metal is extremely difficult to work with, and is only needed in areas that are exposed to very high temperatures. On the SR-71 this meant large portions of it’s skin because of the extreme speeds that it maintains. More conventional aircraft use titanium in extremely limited quantities; usually the turbine section of the engine and maybe the nozzles on the afterburners.

Are all aircraft surfaces anodized, or just those intended to be used without paint?

Also, does American Airlines save a non-negligible amount of weight and cost by using (mostly) unpainted planes? Or is it just for show?

Re: American Airlines. The unpainted airplanes are a tradition, but they do save on weight. The savings are small on each flight, but with over 2,000 flights per day the savings add up. Keeping the same (non)paint job saves money on repainting when the CEO gets a fancy for a new look. Look at United’s old versus their new paint job. Also US Airways old (unpainted) versus their new scheme. And Delta has three separate paint schemes (liveries, for you Brits!) flying around out there. Add in the cost of removing old paint and the environmental controls required, and I’m surprised that more airlines don’t go with polished aluminum.

I think it looks great, but I might be biased! :wink:

BTW, both United’s and USAir’s new paint job’s came while Stephen Wolf was either CEO or Chairman of the Board. It seems that he has a penchant for blue and gray liveries.

And I specifically did not provide a link to any Stephen Wolf info because I looked back and realized that I’ve provided eight (8!) links in this thread already. Considering how often people actually click on links, at least two of them MUST have been clicked by now. :wink:

My Grandfather flew a B-24 bomber in North Africa during WW2. They painted them a very light shade of pink. No joke…

JXJohns that would very closely match the color of the sand and dust blowing around the area.

With everything else that was tried during WWII, painting airplanes pink is nothing!

Didn’t Doper David Simmons fly a B-24 in WWII?