The Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" has been going strong for 25 years. Visitors to the website can learn "Top 100 Shark Facts," including "When the USS Indianapolis was attacked by a shark during World War II, 900 sailors were stranded in the Philippine Sea near Guam for 4 days," and "Sharks move like airplanes. They create forward movement with their tails (like propellers) and water moves over their fins like wings."
We knew there was an aviation connection!
Actually, the shark has been embraced by aviators the world over, and has been used as airplane nose art for decades. Click on our photo gallery to learn more. Here, Frank, the 15th Army Air Forces' group mascot, considers a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bearing a massive sharkmouth. Some of the first multi-engine bombers to use the sharkmouth motif belonged to the 15th Air Force in Italy.
The sharkmouth motif dates back to World War I, when it was common to both German and Allied airplanes. "The sheer flamboyance of this uniquely aggressive insignia," writes Richard Ward in his 1970 book Sharkmouth, "has attracted the disapproval of the pompous and the dull-minded."
"The first aircraft on which a mouth insignia was regularly painted," writes Ward, "was the magnificently streamlined Roland C.II Walfisch of the First World War. Strictly speaking it was a 'whalemouth'—a narrow black slit, which was later divided into separate lips by a white gash." One of the earliest known examples of a sharkmouth (the LFG Roland C.II shown above), also sports painted curtains on the side windows.
On military aircraft, the design went dormant during the years between the world wars. But it gained popularity in World War II, especially among pilots and crews of the Luftwaffe. Two early examples can be found on a Messerschmitt Bf 109C of 2/JG 71, and a Junkers Ju 87B-1 of 2/St.G 77, both in 1939.
The Gotha Go 242 sported the sharkmouth on the Western Front in 1915.
(Thanks to reader Noel Puzey, correction made 8/7/13.)
Shift to the Allies
The Messerschmitt Bf 110s were next to wear the sharkmouth design in great numbers, although it was an unfortunate choice, writes Ward, "as the Bf 110 was more often a victim than a predator." But at this point the design jumped over to the Allies: As a result of clashes between the Bf 110s and Gladiators of No. 112 Squadron over Greece and Crete, writes Ward, No. 112 Squadron eventually marked its Curtiss Tomahawks with the sharkmouth, a design well suited to the contours of the P-40.
When photographs of the No. 112 Squadron's sharkmouth-emblazoned P-40s appeared in the Illustrated London News, members of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) saw the images and were smitten. The unit popularized the shark's mouth when they painted the motif on their P-40s (above, a P-40 on display at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center). "It was an instantaneous hit with our group," recalls pilot Dick Rossi (read his story here)," and within days all our planes were adorned with it. It fit the P-40 perfectly."
No. 112 Squadron retained the sharkmouth motif until the unit was disbanded in Italy in 1946. "It reformed at R.A.F. Fassburg in Germany on 12th May, 1951," writes Ward, "equipped with de Havilland Vampire FB.5 aircraft. Sometime in late February or early March the sharkmouth reappeared on a Vampire, and from that time onward was carried by the successive equipment of No. 112 Squadron," including the Canadair Sabre Mk. 4, and Hawker Hunter F4, until the squadron was disbanded on May 31, 1957.
After WW II
After World War II, the sharkmouth next appeared on 51st Fighter Interceptor aircraft toward the end of the Korean War. The design remained in use in Japan and Okinawa. Here, a scowling sharkmouth adorns a North American F-86D-40-NA Sabre of the 530th Air Defense Group in 1955.
The UH-1C pictured was part of the 174th Assault Helicopter Company. The Company's website notes that when gunships arrived in Vietnam in 1966, "The only distinguishing marks were the white 'triangular fin' painted on the vertical stabilizer at the end of the tail boom." Early in 1966, the unit received permission from the Flying Tigers to adapt their sharkmouth paint scheme to the unit's helicopters. From June 1966 until the unit stood down at the end of 1971, every helicopter in the unit bore the motif.
The shark has even found its way onto AGM-86 Tomahawk air launched cruise missiles (ALCM).
The shark still flies. A-10s of the 23rd Fighter Group after a training mission, Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, 2005.