The history of military aircraft insignia

Once the flying machine was a practical proposition, its military use became obvious, and was, in fact, a continuation of the use that had been made of the balloon. Centuries before the Wright brothers' success, fictional accounts of war in the air were very popular, some written strictly for adventure, some as dire warnings. The 1899 Hague Convention outlawed all methods of dropping explosives from aerial devices (at that time only balloons, of course). This had been signed by all the major powers. Although balloons had been used to drop explosives, their inability to move freely through the air made them somewhat inappropriate. They did, however, work well as an observation platform, which is how many military minds saw the first aeroplanes. From the very beginning of powered flight, governments and individuals controlled by governments were developing aircraft for this use. They therefore needed to be marked as government property. Flying a flag was the obvious solution, but this proved to be ineffective and even dangerous. The painting of a representation of a flag was the natural alternative.

The first known use of markings to identify the nationality of aircraft was at the 1910 Bombing Competition in Vienna. Each competing machine carried its national colours as wing tip stripes. We know that Russia, France, Italy, Romania, Poland and Bohemia took part in this competition, Poland and Bohemia carrying the red and white band of Austria. Prior to this, during the American Civil War, the baskets of the Union balloons were painted with the stars and stripes to distinguish them from the few Confederate balloons. 

By the outbreak of the First World War, many countries had already used aircraft for military purposes, usually for reconnaissance but occasionally for dropping bombs. Italy, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Turkey, Serbia, Greece, Romania, Mexico, U.S.A. and even China had made some use of aircraft in military conflicts between 1911 and 1914.

By an order dated 26 July 1912, France became the first country to specify the precise shape, size and colour of military markings for aircraft with a roundel form of the French flag.

France 1912

France produced the first roundel for military aircraft in 1912

This form had been used by some military units as far back as the Napoleonic wars. Romania appeared to be the second country to adopt a roundel format.

Romania 1913-1915

Romania quickly followed suit with a roundel of their own

The First World War accelerated military aircraft development, and saw the first combat between aircraft. This necessitated a coherent form of national identification, not just for opposing aircraft but also for ground troops, who would wish to know whether overflying machines were friend or foe. By the end of the war the system was well recognised, but there were problems. Many Allied airmen disliked the painting of what looked like a target on the side of their aircraft. All military aviators were uncomfortable with the idea of sitting exactly between two wing markings, again making the man obvious target. The white parts of insignia negated the principles of camouflage, and at the very end of the war these were eliminated for night use.

United Kingdom 1937-1942

Many countries such as the UK disposed of white from their roundel during the war

During the Second World War white areas were again reduced or eliminated, and in the Pacific area red markings were painted out owing to possible confusion with Japanese markings. Neutral countries which felt the need to underline their position used much bolder versions of their insignia.

United Kingdom 1942-1945

The UK dropped red from the roundel to avoid confusion with the Japanese roundel

With the dramatic increase in the speed of aircraft since the 1970s, national markings have become almost totally irrelevant. In combat situations many nations now use toned-down black or grey versions of their national insignia. Although these modifications were first seen in the 1920s the modern version was to confuse advanced missiles which would target bright areas on aircraft as well as being more visible on current radar equipment. In some guerrilla wars in southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s national markings were dispensed with altogether.

So we have come almost full circle again as in the slower-paced Third World national markings have a very important part to play, if only because possession of an air force is a required status symbol in many smaller countries. Many of these countries have used aircraft provided by, maintained by, and flown by mercenaries from one of the major powers. For political reasons the national marking of the country involved has been used rather than the country of ownership of the aircraft or the nationality of the pilot.

Dates may be approximate as operational use often lags far behind official instruction.