Flying Colours – The Vivid History of Warplane Insignia

It would be hard not to miss the blue, white and red insignia on this First World War British SE5a, but of course that's the idea behind aircraft markings.

It would be hard NOT to miss the blue, white and red insignia on this First World War British SE5a… but of course that’s the idea behind aircraft markings. (Image courtesy WikiCommons)

“The colourful crosses, roundels and stars that adorned early warplanes were more than just decorations.”

THE ARMIES THAT MARCHED OFF TO WAR in 1914 had long since shed the flashy garb and colourful banners of the 19th century battlefield, opting instead for much less conspicuous khaki, olive drab and field grey uniforms. Yet high overhead, a much different trend was unfolding: The pioneers of the emerging domain of areal warfare were eschewing camouflage and decking out their new-fangled flying machines with all manner of bright symbols and insignia. Of course, the colourful crosses, roundels and stars that adorned these early warplanes, which were actually inspired by the medieval art of heraldry, were more than just decorations. They helped pilots (and gunners on the ground) quickly separate friend from foe in the thick of combat. As the war continued, air services from all nations adopted distinct insignia to identify their planes from enemy machines. It’s been a tradition that’s continued right up to our own era of GPS, combat identification panels and IFF squawk boxes. Here’s how different countries’ air forces have marked their aircraft over the years.

The U.S. military was forced to remove the red dot from the centre of its aircraft insignia after going to war with Japan. It was feared the marking looked too similar to the enemy's insignia.

The U.S. military chose to remove the red dot from the centre of its aircraft markings after going to war with Japan. It was feared the symbol looked too similar to the enemy’s insignia. (Image courtesy WikiCommons)

Stars and Stripes

America’s first warplane markings.

Strangely, America’s original warplanes were painted with a symbol that was virtually identical to one later used by one of the United States’ most intractable enemies: the Soviet Union. Up until 1916, the U.S. Army’s Aviation Section, which at the time was part of the Signal Corps, tagged the tail fins of its fleet of 23 aircraft with bright red stars. Obviously, this had nothing to do with Marxism — the icon was chosen simply for its visibility.


This U.S. warplane marking was almost identical to Imperial Russia's.

This marking was almost identical to Imperial Russia’s.

In 1917, the planes of the newly established American Expeditionary Force Air Service arrived in France decked out with roundels made up of two concentric rings: red and blue, with a white centre. The symbol was a variation of the markings already in use on French and British warplanes and was virtually the same as the insignia of the Imperial Russian air force.


From 1919 to 1942, U.S. aircraft carried this insignia.

From 1919 to 1942, U.S. aircraft carried this insignia.

By 1919, all American warplanes had adopted new a new set of markings characterized by a white star in on a blue disc with a bright red dot in the centre. Aircraft tail flaps during this period were often painted with distinctive horizontal red and white stripes reminiscent of the U.S. flag – an all too flashy colour scheme that was quickly discarded at the outset of America’s entry into the Second World War. All branches of the American military continued to use the star insignia on their aircraft until 1942, when the distinguishing centre spot was discarded. It was feared that In the thick of air combat, any flash of red might falsely identify American planes as Japanese.

U.S. markings looked like this from 1942 to 1943.

U.S. markings looked like this from 1942 to 1943.

This was the standard U.S. aircraft marking in 1942. A thin yellow outline was briefly added to the blue circle on warplanes operating in Europe and North Africa; the RAF already had a similar golden ring around its well-known blue, white and red roundel so as to make the markings stand out more. It was hoped that sharing the colour pattern with the British might help prevent friendly fire.


An American Wildcat from Operation Torch. Note the yellow band around the roundel.


The new U.S. roundel began with a red outline which was later transformed to blue.

In 1943, the U.S. ditched the yellow outline and introduced solid white bars to either side of the insignia. At first, the new brand featured a thin red outline, but by the end of the year, the outer edge was repainted blue. U.S. warplanes would retain this marking until 1947.

The Post War U.S. insignia in colour and low visibility.

After the war, a distinctive horizontal red stripe was added to the white bars. This new symbol was used on all U.S. military aircraft well into the 1980s, at which point monochrome “low-visibility” variations were adopted. They remain in use to this day.


The RAF had a confusing array of roundels for its aircraft during the Second World War.

The RAF had a confusing array of roundels for its aircraft during the Second World War. (Image courtesy WikiCommons)

The Flying Bulls Eye

British and commonwealth aircraft since the First World War have typically sported variations of the famous blue, white and red roundel. The idea was initially borrowed from the French, who in 1914 adorned their early warplanes with large tri-colour “cockades” inspired by the symbol of the 1789 French Revolution. Prior to that, British aircraft featured the Union Jack on the wings. That symbol was soon dropped as friendly gunners commonly mistook the markings for a German cross and opened fire.

The tri-colour cockade badge of Revolutionary France was the inspiration of WW1 aircraft insignia.


The French air force began using variations of this insignia for its military aircraft as early since 1912.


The Royal Flying Corps (as well as Britain’s naval air service) added this roundel to all its aircraft in 1915. These markings remained largely unchanged until the late 1930s.


352px-RAF_Type_A1_Roundel.svgOn the eve of the Second World War, the RAF introduced a thick yellow outline to its standard tri-colour roundel, known as the Type A. It was hoped that this added flash of colour would help the insignia stand out against the mostly brown and green paint schemes found on frontline aircraft of the time.


352px-RAF_Type_B_Roundel.svgIn 1938, the RAF also adopted a “low-visibility” blue and red tag that became standard for the tops of aircraft wings. It would be used until the end of the Second World War.


352px-RAF_Type_A1_Roundel_Variant.svgIn 1940, the yellow-ringed roundel for aircraft fuselages was modified further — the gold outline was reduced in thickness.


352px-RAF_Type_C1_Roundel.svgBy 1942, this Type C roundel was fielded. It featured an enlarged red circle, more blue and much thinner white and yellow rings. This insignia would remain on British warplane fuselages in the European theatre for the remainder of the war.


352px-RAF_Type_C1_Roundel_SEAC.svgIn 1942, all British and commonwealth planes operating in the Pacific dispensed with the red spot in their markings altogether (like the Americans) so as to avoid any chance of Allied aircraft being mistaken for Japanese.


600px-RAF_roundel.svgIn 1947, RAF and Fleet Air Arm aircraft adopted this brighter Type D roundel, which featured a brilliant blue, white and red pattern with no yellow outline.


600px-RAF_Lowvis_Army_roundel.svgThe Type D was replaced in the 1970s with a low-visibility pattern similar to that used on World War Two aircraft. It appeared on all surfaces.


Following the Second World War, Britain’s Commonwealth partners modified their warplane insignia with domestic variations.

The Commonwealth

In the Post War era, Britain’s commonwealth allies, which had largely used RAF-style roundels, added their own national variations to the markings. In Canada, the red centre dot was replaced with a maple leaf. In Australia, a red kangaroo was added. South Africa introduced an orange springbok (a type of gazelle) and New Zealand used a kiwi bird at the centre of the blue and white circle. Roundels are still one of the most common types of aircraft insignia in the world with well over 50 different air forces using some variation of the design.



A German BF-110.

A German BF-110 and it’s distinctive cross insignia. (Image courtesy WikiCommons.)


The warplanes of Imperial Germany carried the iconic black Tatzenkreuz or “footed cross”, as did other members of the Central Powers like Austria Hungary and Bulgaria. In fact, the symbols were virtually identical. In order to make the logo stand out on darker or camouflaged wings and fuselages, the crosses often appeared with a white outline or were positioned on a white field.

The Ottoman Empire’s aircraft sported a black square with white outline; after 1918, it was changed to red. Later in the war, the German air service’s insignia became a much simplified black cross, usually with white outline.


An Ottoman Albatross fighter.

An Ottoman Albatross fighter.



During the Second Word War, the Luftwaffe continued using a version of the black and white trimmed cross symbol, but added a swastika tail flash to all of its military aircraft. This same insignia also appeared on German army vehicles. Allies of the Nazis also used variations of the famous cross icon, including Croatia, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

Finland’s air force adopted the swastika before Germany’s Nazi party.


Both Finland and Latvia used swastikas to adorn their warplanes — the former using a light blue, non-angled version of the notorious hooked cross and the later an angled red variant. In both cases, the use of the symbol pre-dated the rise of Nazis. Not surprisingly, by the end of the Second World War, both nations had abandoned the symbol for other insignia.

An Aichi D3A "Val" dive bomber with Japanese markings.

An Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber with Japanese markings.(Image courtesy WikiCommons)

Solid Roundels

Japan famously adorned its aircraft with the iconic red disc known as a hinomaru or “circle of the sun”. It’s a theme that has featured prominently in a number of other countries’ air forces as well. In the years following the First World War, the Netherlands’ warplanes featured a dark orange circle, Spain favoured an all black design while Revolutionary Libya went with solid green.

A Soviet-era MiG-25.

The Cold War

The Soviet Union’s Red Star was the inspiration to many of Moscow’s communist allies.

The allies of the United States.


All aircraft insignia courtesy WikiCommons.


2 comments for “Flying Colours – The Vivid History of Warplane Insignia

  1. john
    14 March, 2016 at 5:00 am

    Can anyone ID this patch? It’s Dark Blue, Red and White, felt on felt construction. I presume that it’s WW1 era.

Leave a Reply