Military aircraft insignia

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Royal Saudi Air Force roundel on an EE Lightning fighter

Military aircraft insignia are insignia applied to military aircraft to identify the nation or branch of military service to which the aircraft belongs. Many insignia are in the form of a circular roundel or modified roundel; other shapes such as stars, crosses, squares or triangles are also used.

Insignia are often displayed on the sides of the fuselage, the upper and lower surfaces of the wings, as well as on the fin or rudder of an aircraft, although considerable variation can be found amongst different air arms, and within specific air arms over time.


First World War French Nieuport 10 showing large wing roundels.


The first use of national insignia on military aircraft was before the First World War by the French Aéronautique Militaire which mandated the application of roundels in 1912.[1] The chosen design was the French national cockade, which consisted of a blue-white-red emblem, going outwards from center to rim, mirroring the colours of the flag of France. In addition, the rudders of the aircraft were painted the same colours in vertical stripes, with the blue vertical stripe of the tricolors forwardmost. Similar national cockades were designed and adopted for use as aircraft roundels by the air forces of other countries, including the U.S. Army Air Service.[1]


A profile of Ernst Udet's Albatros D.Va showing the standard form for German crosses as they appeared in 1916-1917 with white borders
Fokker Dr.I with April 1918 style crosses, with a wide white border against darker surfaces

Of all the early operators of military aircraft, Germany was unusual in not using "round" roundels, but after evaluating several possible markings, including a black, red and white checkerboard, and a similarly coloured roundel, and black stripes, a black "iron" cross on a square white field was chosen as it was already in use on various flags, and to reflect Germany's heritage as the Holy Roman Empire. The German army's mobilization led to orders in September 1914 to paint cross insignia over a white field on the wings and tails of all aircraft. The fuselage was also usually marked with a cross on each side but this was optional. The form and location of the initial cross was largely up to the painter, which led to considerable variation, and even the white being omitted. An iron cross with explicit proportions superseded it in July 1916, whose initial form was also painted on a white field, although this would be reduced to a 5cm border around the cross in October of the same year. In March 1918, a straight black cross with narrow white borders on all sides of the cross was ordered, but proportions were not set until April, resulting in many of those repainted in the field having non-standard proportions. This was then replaced by a narrower cross in May that extended the full chord of wings, with the white border restricted to the sides of the cross's bars. In June, it ceased to be used full chord, with the bars all being the same length. The white on any of these could be omitted when used on a white background, such as was used sometimes for the rudder, and was sometimes omitted on night bombers.

With the dissolution of the Luftstreitkräfte in 1919, military insignia would disappear until the rise of the Nazi party, which imposed new rules on aircraft in 1937, starting with the use of the German red/white/black flag on the tails of all aircraft, with the port side showing a Nazi flag. When the Luftwaffe's re-establishment was made official, these markings were used by military aircraft, while the 1918 crosses were reintroduced. When camouflage was introduced prior to invading Poland, the flags were dispensed with, replacing them with a black and white swastika on both sides. During the Second World War, the crosses would be further simplified, leaving only the borders in a contrasting colour. Much like the French roundel, variations would be used on countries allied with Germany, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire (combined it with red-white-red stripes on the wings until 1916), Bulgaria, Croatia (stylized as a leaf), Hungary (reversed colors) and Slovakia (blue cross with a red dot in the middle).

After the Second World War was over, West Germany reverted to using a variation of the 1916 iron cross while East Germany used a diamond marking based on their flag, with the coat of arms from the flag. Reunification of Germany resulted in the iron cross replacing the East German marking.

United Kingdom and British Commonwealth nations[edit]

Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a with British markings standardized during the First World War.

The British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) abandoned their original painted Union Flags because, from a distance, they looked too much like the Eisernes Kreuz (Iron Cross) used on German aircraft. The Royal Naval Air Service used either a plain red ring (with the clear-doped linen covering forming the light coloured centre), or a red-rimmed white circle on their wings for a short period — almost exactly resembling those in simultaneous use by the neutral predecessors of today's Royal Danish Air Force — before both British air arms adopted a roundel resembling the French one, but with the colours reversed, (red-white-blue from centre to rim), before the two separate air arms joined to form the Royal Air Force on April 1, 1918.

Avro Lancaster displaying Second World War Royal Air Force insignia on wings, fuselage and fins

This basic design with variations in proportions and shades has existed in one form or another to this very day.[1][2]

Noorduyn Harvard Mk.4 with RCAF roundel which was based on the RAF roundel used previously on Canadian military aircraft.

From WW1 onwards, a variant of the British red-white-blue roundel with the white omitted has been used on camouflaged aircraft, which between the wars meant night bombers. During the Second World War, the colours were toned down and the proportions adjusted to reduce the brightness of the roundel, with the white being reduced to a thin line, or eliminated. In the Asia-Pacific region the red inner circle of roundels was painted white or light blue, so they would not be confused with the Hinomaru markings on Japanese aircraft (still used by the Japan Self-Defense Forces to this day), much as the United States roundel omitted the red for the same reason.

After the Second World War, the RAF roundel design was modified by Commonwealth air forces, with the central red disc replaced with a red maple leaf (Royal Canadian Air Force), red kangaroo (Royal Australian Air Force), red kiwi (Royal New Zealand Air Force), and an orange Springbok (South African Air Force), with the South African version of the RAF roundel existing until 1958.

United States[edit]

U.S. Army Signal Corps Curtiss JN-3 biplanes with red star insignia, 1915
Nieuport 28 fighter in American markings.
Restored Douglas SBD Dauntless in the markings used from 1919 until 1942. The tail stripes were only used on US Navy and USMC aircraft.

The military aviation insignia of both the United States and Russia have had interesting "crossovers" early in the 20th century. The initial US Army Signal Corps aviation insignia used during the Pancho Villa punitive expedition just before American involvement in World War I began, used on the vertical tail and wings was a red five-pointed star similar to that of the later Soviet Union, without a red or white outline border. A tricolor roundel, similar to that used by Imperial Russia, but using proportions close to the era's British RFC roundel's colors, was introduced by the US Army Air Service in February 1918 for commonality with the other allies, all of whom used such roundels, and as Russia had already dropped out of the war. Even with American aircraft using vertically-striped British and French style tricolor fin flashes on the rudders during World War I, the British and French markings were painted with the blue vertical stripe forwardmost at the hinge line or leading edge, with red at the rudder's trailing edge — American aircraft reversed the red and blue vertical fin flash stripes' locations during the World War I years to avoid confusion. In addition, allegedly like the Union Jack for the British RFC earlier in the war, the May 1917-adopted red circle-centered white star in a dark blue circular field for all United States military aircraft was said to potentially resemble the German Luftstreitkräfte's Eisernes Kreuz at a distance, making its use in western Europe a possible hazard. Contemporary with the U.S. Army Signal Corps' red star, the US Navy was using an anchor symbol on the rudders of its seaplanes.

As of 19 May 1917 all branches of the military, outside of the Western Front of Europe were to use a white star with a central red circle all in a blue circular field, painted in the official flag colors.[1] Following the Armistice that ended World War I, in August 1919 the colors were adjusted to the current standards and the proportions were adjusted slightly so that the centre red circle was reduced slightly from being 1/3 of the diameter of the blue circular field, to being bound by the edges of an imaginary pentagram connecting the inner points of the star. During the First World War and into the early post-war period, US Marine Corps aircraft often had the Imperial Russian-style WW I tricolor roundel with an anchor painted on the sides of the fuselage.

In the months after Pearl Harbor it was realized that the central red circle could be construed as being a Japanese Hinomaru from a distance or in poor visibility, and in May 1942 the central red circle was eliminated permanently. On aircraft in service they were painted over with white. During November 1942, US forces participated in the Torch landings and for this a chrome yellow ring (of almost random thickness) was temporarily added to the outside of the roundel to reduce incidents of Americans shooting down unfamiliar British aircraft, which could themselves be distinguished by a similar chrome yellow outline on the RAF's "Type C.1" fuselage roundels of the time.

None of these solutions was entirely satisfactory as friendly fire incidents continued and so the US Government initiated a study and discovered that the red wasn't the issue since color couldn't be determined from a distance anyway—but the shape could be. After trying out several variations including an oblong roundel with two stars, they arrived at using white bars flanking the sides of the existing roundel, all with a red outline, which became official in June 1943. This still wasn't entirely satisfactory and the red outline was replaced with a blue outline whose color exactly matched the round blue field that held the star in September 1943. On US Navy aircraft painted overall in gloss midnight blue starting in 1944-45, the blue color of the roundels was virtually identical to the background blue color, so the blue portion was eventually dispensed with and only the white portion of the roundel was painted on the aircraft.

The U.S. Coast Guard uses the national roundel as a fin flash instead of on the fuselage.

In January 1947 red bars were added within the existing white bars on both USN and USAAF aircraft — both replacing the old center red circle, and restoring the official presence of a red-colored device in the insignia, much as with the red stripes of the American flag — and in September of the same year, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) became an independent service and was renamed the United States Air Force (USAF), during the timeframe of the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 by the U.S. Congress that established the independent USAF service. In 1955 the USN would repaint all its aircraft from midnight blue to light grey over white and would use exactly the same roundel as the USAF again. Since then there have been some minor variations, mostly having to do with lo-visibility versions of the star and bars roundel. Air superiority F-15's eliminated the blue outline in the 1970s, and later some aircraft replaced the blue with black or a countershaded grey, or used a stencil to create an outlined "low-visibility" version.

Partly due to the 1964 adoption of the "racing stripe" insignia on all of its aircraft, the United States Coast Guard, unique among the U.S. military organizations in the 21st century, places the same insignia used by the main Department of Defense aviation forces on the vertical fin of its fixed-wing aircraft, as a form of fin flash.

Low-visibility insignia[edit]

An A-10 Thunderbolt II with low-visibility USAF insignia on fuselage.
A preserved Focke-Wulf Fw 190F with "low-visibility" Balkenkreuz national markings

As early as 1942-43, and again in recent decades, "low-visibility" insignia have increasingly been used on camouflaged aircraft. These have subdued, low-contrast colours (often shades of grey or black) and frequently take the form of stenciled outlines. Previously, low visibility markings were used to increase ambiguity as to whose aircraft it was, and to avoid compromising the camouflage, all while still complying with international norms governing recognition markings.

The World War II German Luftwaffe often used such "low-visibility" versions of their national Balkenkreuz insignia from the mid-war period through to V-E Day, omitting the central black "core" cross and only using the "flanks" of the cross instead, in either black or white versions.

Fin flashes[edit]

Main article: Fin flash
Low-visibility Royal Air Force fin flash on the fin of an Avro Vulcan

In addition to the insignia displayed on the wings and fuselage, a fin flash may also be displayed on the fin.[3] A fin flash often takes the form of vertical or slanted stripes in the same colours as the main insignia. Alternatively, a national flag may be used on the fin.

Current insignia of national air forces[edit]

Government insignia[edit]

Former insignia of national air forces[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d Kershaw, Andrew: The First War Planes, Friend Or Foe, National Aircraft Markings, pages 41–44. BCP Publishing, 1971.
  2. ^ "The Royal Air Force Roundel". Royal Air Force History. Royal Air Force. Retrieved 2009-04-27. 
  3. ^ Nelson, Phil (2009-02-07). "Dictionary of Vexillology". Retrieved 2009-04-27. 
  • Robertson, Bruce (1967). Aircraft Markings of the World 1912–1967. Letchworth, England: Harleyford Publications. 

External links[edit]