A stealthy aircraft can be nearly invisible to enemy radar if it’s designed in the right shape, using materials that absorb or deflect the incoming energy. Making an aircraft less obvious to the human eye, however, can be as plain as paint.
In selecting the color and pattern for visual stealth, a designer’s first question is the enemy’s point of view. In a typical mission, is the aircraft most likely to be seen by a gunner on the ground, or by an enemy pilot or satellite at altitude?
Painting the undercarriage helps the airplane blend with the sky as seen from below. That may mean choosing "Air Superiority Blue" or "Light Gull Gray" for a fighter at dogfight level, or a flat carbon black for a reconnaissance plane near the edge of space.
Prying eyes positioned above an aircraft may see it silhouetted against the sand of the desert, like this pair of Israeli F-16s flying against the backdrop of the ancient fortification of Masada. Whether it's flying over vegetation, snow, ice, or bodies of water, painting the upper fuselage and wings helps hide the aircraft.
Camouflage patterns were once the work of artists and painters, but experimental patterns now include geometric blocks generated by computer. Besides helping to conceal the aircraft as a whole, creative patterns can break up its visual profile to obscure its type, its actual size, or its distance.
See the gallery below for more examples of aircraft paint schemes that were designed to deceive.
This SPAD VII, in the World War I Aviation exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, makes a valiant effort to blend into the woodlands surrounding the Allied airfield at Verdun, France, despite its huge bull’s-eye roundel.
A-10 Thunderbolt II
On an overcast day, send out an A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft in Federal Standard 595 Color FS 36493, known as Light Gull Gray.
When skies are fair, consider an F-15A in the shade of azure called Air Superiority Blue, which begins fading into the yonder even before it leaves the ramp.
A lumbering bomber like this Y1B-17 was vulnerable to agile pursuit planes overhead. The patchwork pattern was useful when flying over a farmland like this one near Langley Field in Virginia.
Curtiss P-40E Warhawk
An island nation like the United Kingdom has both landscapes and seascapes. This Curtiss P-40E Warhawk is painted in a “temperate day” scheme to enable it to transition from scrubby dirt farms to the drab aquamarine of the English Channel.
Pedestrians on the apron of the Army Air Force Proving Ground at Eglin Field, Florida, in 1943 may have been bewildered by a test paint called “Confusion,” but when this P-51A Mustang was at altitude, the paint’s haphazard zigs and zags chopped up its profile.
German V-2 (A4) Rocket
Once airborne, German V-2 (A4) rockets had enough speed to slip by most defenses. At ground level, though, paint work on this training battery in Poland in 1943 disguised them from Allied reconnaissance aircraft.
SH-60F Sea Hawk
Digital camouflage, or digicam, is not just for fixed-wing aircraft. The tail of this SH-60F Sea Hawk, approaching the USS Eisenhower in the Gulf of Oman after anti-submarine patrol, consists of computer-generated geometric blocks to distort its shape.