Selfridge salutes creators of ‘nose art’ for its planes

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Harrison Township – The 127th Air Wing at Selfridge Air Force Base dipped into the past Tuesday as part of a future celebration of the Macomb County facility’s role in U.S. military aviation and its 100th anniversary.

Three local artists who designed “nose art” for the Centennial A-10 Warthog and KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft were all present and recognized at a base ceremony and gifted with scholarship prizes from Macomb Community College.

Brig. Gen. John D. Slocum, commander of the 127th Wing, prefaced the awards and unveiling of the artwork with some history on how nose cone art – painting nicknames, slogans and artwork on the nose of aircraft – was a long-held tradition in military avionics.

“(Airmen) were told, ‘You can't paint anything on the aircraft,’ ” said Slocum. “They responded: ‘Oh yeah? Watch this.’”

What followed over wartime and decades before and after, were sometimes whimsical depictions of common enemies, cartoonish figures and even often-risqué pin-up beauties.

“It was a little bit of rebelliousness,” said Slocum. “... It was aviation graffiti.”

Tuesday’s winners stuck with patriotic themes. Rachel Barton, 34, a part-time reservist from Belleville, took first place and a $1,000 scholarship for her creation. Second-place winner was Scott Whiteside, 15, a 10th grade student at Warren Mott High School and a third-place award went to Marianne Pupka, 56, a Macomb County Community College student from Shelby Township.

“This is a real honor,” said Barton, cradling her 18-month old daughter, Cordelia, in a sling. “I’ve been in the Air National Guard for nine years.”

Her nose art included an American eagle spreading its wings in front of a silhouette of the state of Michigan framed with the words: “Selfridge Celebrating 1917-2017.”

Barton’s nose art was unveiled on an A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter jet and a Stratotanker, a midair refueler aircraft that can hold 200,000 pounds of fuel (about 38,000 gallons) for assisting aircraft in flight on long-range missions.

Whiteside won a $600 scholarship for his artwork of the familiar head of red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam over a lightning bolt and a red pitchfork (the nickname of the 127th is the Red Devils).

Pupka received a $400 scholarship for her design, with the words “Selfridge National Guard Base,” “First 100 Years!” and “I Will Defend” over an American flag and the state of Michigan.

Selfridge plans a 100th anniversary celebration, which will feature the winning nose art on display to the public, at its air show and open house Aug. 19-20.

Selfridge – named after Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge, who was killed while flying on a demonstration flight with aviation pioneer Orville Wright in 1908 – is one of the oldest and most complex military air bases in the nation. It has 3,000 civilian and 3,000 reservists and National Guard from every branch of military service.

During World War II, maintenance personnel of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, an all-African American unit, trained at the base and helped lead the way toward ending racial segregation in the military.

During the Cold War era, Nike missiles were stationed at the base to guard the industrial might of Metro Detroit.

Within hours of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 127th Wing began flying Air Sovereignty Alert missions over the Great Lakes region. It maintained that 24-hour mission until 2008, when the 127th transitioned to its current flying missions with the KC-135 and A-10.

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