Pre-War High Visibility Yellow Wings!
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US Naval Aviation dates back to 1910, when the US Navy designated Captain W.I. Chambers as the officer in charge of all aviation matters for the USN. This piece will focus on markings from 1922 on, essentially starting at the period that aircraft carriers first joined the fleet. Although CV-1 Langley was recommissioned as a carrier in March of 1922, the first airplane did not take off from her deck until October of that year.

At that time Navy Aircraft were overall silver-doped fabric, with chrome yellow wing tops on the upper wing and aft horizontal stabilizer. While the chrome yellow was not officially ordered until May of 1925, it had been an unoffical standard that had been adopted starting in 1920 as an aid to locating aircraft that had made fored landings in water. Markings consisted of a National white star with a red circle in its center contained within a blue circle on the top of the upper wings and botom of the lower wings and the aircraft's Bureau Number on the fuselage sides.

The Star was to be no larger than five feet in diameter, with the actual size determined by the length of the distance between the leading edge of the wing and the leading edge of the ailerons on the wing. It's position spanwise was defined by the chord of the wing; if an aircraft's wing had a 3 foot chord (The distance between the leading and trailing edges) the disc would be painted three feet from the outer edge of each wing.

The Bureau

Early silver paint formulas had problems adhering to the metals that they were supposed to protect from corrosion; consequently the Navy specified a substitute light gray paint. This gray was similar in tone to the silver paint but could vary in shade from light to very pale. Not all aircraft would receive this gray paint on their metal surfaces, but those that saw service on ships were much more likely.

By 1934 formulas had improved enough such that silver paint was again called for on metal surfaces, and newly constructed aircraft started appearing from the factory in all-over silver. Aircraft that would have undergone overhaul at this time would also repaint their gray surfaces to silver. Monoplanes would have definately been overall silver with no gray substitute. The below chart seeks to show which aircraft would have been silver and gray versus all-over silver.

Aircraft Silver/Grey paint Chart -Incomplete
Company Model Type Prime Years Primary Colors Notes
Boeing FB-5 Fighter 1927-1929
Boeing F2B Fighter 1928-Early 1930 Silver Dope & Gray
Boeing F3B Fighter 1929-1931
Boeing F4B-1 Fighter 1929-??
Boeing F4B-2 Fighter 1931-??
Boeing F4B-3 Fighter 1932-??
Boeing F4B-4 Fighter
Brewster F2A Fighter

F11C-2/BFC-2 silver/gray early, silver/silver late

The yellow wings and tails saw some changes during the 30's; a minor point is that the yellow was extended onto the undersides from the leading edge of the wings to a point six inches aft of the leading edge. Forward or rear facing chevrons were painted on the top wing as well to identify which section the aircraft belonged to as well as to provide an easy method for wingmen to line up against their section leader as well as sections to line up with each other for large formation flights. The yellow on the top of the horizontal stabilizer was also often replaced with a different color when squadrons began to color code the tails of their aircraft.

Pilots needed a way to recognize and differentiate other aircraft and efforts were made to mark individual aircraft in a way that its squadron and place within that squadron could be determined visually. Before this was officially standardized in 1931 these methods had included different tail colors and colored bands on the tail. The experimentation started at a squadron level around 1925; by 1928 the horizontal and vertical tails began to become an unofficial squadron identifier and by early 1929 the fuselage bands were used to identify sections within a squadron, with the section colors unofficially standardized throughout most of the fleet.

Squadron Tail Colors Circa 1935
CV-1 Langley
VF-1B Red
VS-4B Red
CV-2 Lexington
VF-2B Yellow
VF-5B Blue
VS-3B Yellow
VB-1B Yellow
CV-3 Saratoga
VF-6B White
VS-2B White
VB-2B Red
VT-2B Red
CV-4 Ranger
VF-3B Green
VB-3B Green
VB-5B Green
VS-1B Green

Squadrons were not originally numbered or designated by the aircraft carrier or station they were attached to, but serially, based on the order of their establishment. This section under revision

    Markings were:
  • A national insignia that was made up of a red disc inside a white, five-pointed star that was itself in a circular blue field that was the same diameter as the star's dimentions. These were to be painted near the wingtips on the upper and lower surface of the wings, or in the case of biplanes on the upper surface of the upper wing and lower surface of the lower wing.
  • Rudder stripes that consisted of the colors of the Flag of the United States. Blue was to be nearest to the hinge, with white following, and red the aft-most color.
  • Identification markings on the fuselage midway between the wings and horizontal stabilizer on the rear of the aircraft in 12-inch, black letters. These numbers consisted of the aircraft building letter and number; this was independant of the new Navy designation system that listed the mission, manufacturer, and type in one string.

December 1923 Revision

The identification markings were changed to a system that would identify the squadron, mission, and aircraft. This system created a unique series of letters and numbers for each airplane. The first was a number that designated squadron; following this was a hyphen and then a letter designating the mission; last was the number of the aircraft within the squadron. So the second fighter squadron's 9th aircraft would have 2-F-9 on its side, and the first observation squadron's 1st aircraft would have 1-O-1. This system was to remain in place up to an in some parts beyond the start of the Second World War. Squadrons at this time were nominally 18 airplanes, divided into six groups, or sections, of three aircraft each. A table of squadron identifier tables is below:

F Fighter
G Fleet
O Observation
P Patrol
S Scouting
T Torpedo

1924 Revisions

In June of 1924 it was ordered that "US NAVY" be painted on the fuselage behind the identification numbers in letters at least 8" in height and larger if possible. In December the "E" and gunnery pennant was authorized for display on both sides of the fuselage. The Gunnery pennant was to be painted between the leading and training edge of the main wing and the "E" aft of the trailing edge.

1929 Revision

In April of this year it was directed that the propeller tips would be painted three colors in bands of four inches each. The outermost was insignia red, followed by bright yellow in the middle, and insignia blue taking the inside. In some cases the insignia blue was extended inward to the diameter of the cowling to lessen glare off of the metal propeller blades.

1931 Revision

The next revision took place in June of 1931, when 20" vertical bands on the fuselage of Section Leader aircraft were ordered. The color of each band was to denote the section of the squadron, and was to be repeated around the engine cowling. The number 2 plane of each section was to have this same color around the upper half of the cowling, and the number 3 plane was to have the same color on the bottom half of the cowling. The colors and section are listed in the table below:

Section Color
1 Royal Red
2 White
3 True Blue
4 Black
5 Willow Green
6 Lemon Yellow

Along with this revision, wing chevrons on the top wing were officially required. They had been unofficially carried by at least some squadrons, and photographic evidence of them on some of CV-3 Saratoga squadrons goes back to at least Fleet problem IX in early 1929. These chevrons were an aid for formation flying amongst other things. In some cases the wing shape made forward pointing chevrons impractical and rearward facing ones were used. With low-wing monoplanes starting to join the fleet about this time the order had the chevrons represented as diagnol lines on the wings.

At the same time, it was now permissible for squadrons on an aircraft carrier to paint the empenage of their aircraft in colors from a selected list if two squadrons were operating the same type of aircraft. For example, in January of 1932 VF-1B and VF-6B from CV-3 Saratoga were both operating Boeing F4Bs, with VF-1B operating in a bombing role. VF-6B had white tails whereas VF-1B had their aircraft tails painted red.

1937 Revision

In 1937 the Navy decided to standardize markings across the fleet. Each aircraft carrier was assigned a color that their aircraft would paint on their horizontal and vertical stabilizers. These colors were:

  • CV-1 Langley - Converted to AV-3 before orders took effect
  • CV-2 Lexington - Lemon Yellow
  • CV-3 Saratoga - White
  • CV-4 Ranger - Willow Green
  • CV-5 Yorktown - Insignia Red
  • CV-6 Enterprise - True Blue
  • CV-7 Wasp - Black

The below image illustrates the appearance of a CV-3 Saratoga squadron at this time with the identifying tail, squadron, and section markings;

VS-3 Section Markings, 1936-41

1940 Revision

In December of 1940 it was ordered that the aircraft flown by a carrier's air group commander have a 14 inch diagonal line painted around the fuselage in the same color as that assigned to the ship.

1941 Revision

The February, 1941 revision eleminated most of the pre-war color worn by the aircraft of the United States Navy. Experiments in 1940 with camouflage lead to the elimination of the chrome yellow wings and silver paint and dope. Colored tails, command bands, chevrons, and CAG stripes were also discontinued. An era had ended; only training aircraft would fly with the yellow wings.


  • U.S. Naval Aircraft Marking -Navy Historical Center
  • Chronology of Significant Events in Naval Aviation -Navy Historical Center
  • Pre-WWII Color Chart
  • USAF/USN colorlist

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