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

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 An iron cross with explicit proportions superseded it in July 1916, whose initial form was also painted on a white field, although this would be reduced to a 5 cm border around the cross in October of the same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] 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]

Low-visibility insignia[edit]

An A-10 Thunderbolt II with low-visibility USAF insignia on fuselage.

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 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]