The A-10 doesn't need nose art to look mean. A 30-millimeter cannon does that job well enough. But the Warthog is a rare example of a warplane that has kept the tradition going. Motifs of tiger-shark teeth, vipers and, yes, warthogs feature prominently.
Most popular in World War II, nose art fell out of fashion during the Cold War as top brass imposed stricter rules on what could, and could not, feature on the aircraft under their command. It was a radical shift from the 1940s, when a wide variety of pulp art, fangs, and pin-up girls proliferated on fighters and bombers.
Afterwards, "what was once a great morale booster for many in and out of uniform during the war could now only be found fading away on the sides of aircraft in boneyards around the country," aviation journalist Nicholas Veronico wrote in Boneyard Nose Art: U.S. Military Aircraft Markings and Artwork.
A shift toward low-observable paint schemes also reduced the practice, and most military aircraft today come in standard tactical grey with few creative furnishings, although there was a brief revival during the Persian Gulf War.
But nose art has stayed fresh on certain aircraft, particularly bombers, cargo planes, and the low and slow-flying A-10 Warthog. The US Air Force intends to retire the Warthog in 2022, which means these designs will sadly leave the military with them.
Warthogs and tiger-shark teeth are almost inseparable in A-10 imagery. But this design (above) is actually reserved for one unit, the 23rd Fighter Group. Nicknamed the "Flying Tigers," the 23rd's teeth are a reference back to its heritage flying P-40 Warhawks in WWII.
Remember those old photographs of Warhawks with shark teeth? Whose pilots faced almost impossible odds fighting Japanese Zeros over China? Yeah, that's them. For the modern-day 23rd Fighter Group, the teeth are a pretty big deal.
So if you see a modern-day Warthog with these teeth, it's a 23rd Fighter Group Warthog, with one exception being the 76th Fighter Squadron, which split off from the 23rd and joined a reserve unit. (They fly with teeth, too.) And these are the only units in the Air Force authorized to have the design.
Today, the 23rd only flies Warthogs. So without a suitable replacement, the shark teeth might become history. We're pretty confident in surmising that the Air Force's planned substitute for the A-10, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will never have teeth, as that would require painting over its stealthy coatings.
Ah, but wait. The exception to the rule are the A-10's with teeth and tusks, part of the 442nd Fighter Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.
These Warthogs received their teeth last year at the urging of Senior Airman Spencer Stringer, a technician, and his supervisor Master Sgt. Geary Rose, according to an official Air Force news item. The shape and design is slightly different from the Flying Tigers, and the tusks add to the distinction, keeping the 23rd's design exclusive.
"I don't care if the plane goes to the bone yard next week," Stringer said. "If it sits there for the next 30 years it'll have teeth."
Rose added: "It's something I've always wanted to do. If you Google A-10s all you see are ones with teeth. An A-10 has to have teeth."
A plenty good reason, in our view.
The first A-10s that deployed to the Middle East to fight the Islamic State in 2014 belonged to the 163rd Fighter Squadron, or "Blacksnakes," which is part of the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard.
Fittingly, the Blacksnakes' Warthogs feature a serpentine design.
The 163rd was not originally an A-10 squadron . The unit dates back to WWII and only received its Warthogs in 2010. The unit also suffered a mishap when one of its A-10s blew an engine while refueling over Iraq.
The Warthog made an emergency landing at Al Asad Air Base — which itself was under sporadic Islamic State attack — near Ramadi. It took five days to repair the plane, which was fast for a blown-up engine job. Air Force technicians initially estimated weeks.
"You can always count on Air Force maintainers … to work miracles like this," Tony Carr, a retired Air Force officer, told War Is Boring at the time. "But the A-10 is one of the easier aircraft to get back in the air after shelling out an engine."
Count on the 188th Fighter Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard to take a concept at face value. Known as the "Flying Razorbacks," a reference to the Arkansas Razorbacks, the 188th features flying pigs on their flying pigs.
The A-10 is an ugly plane, but its ugliness reflects its purpose as a dedicated close air support machine that does what it's supposed to do, and does it well. For instance, the 188th fired 65,000 exploding 30-millimeter shells at the Taliban during its last deployment to Afghanistan. No other plane can do that.
In other words, the Warthog is jolie laide, or "beautiful ugly" as the French phrase puts it. Of course it looks ridiculous. Now dare laugh at it.