Adding a unique touch to an aircraft, by painting a name, a painting of a young woman, a cartoon character, an emblem of national flair, a tally of missions or a caricature of the enemy on the nose, can be a contentious topic. Ground and flight crews are generally in favour this artwork but military authorities are often cautious as to what images are used and, in some cases, have banned the use of artwork altogether.
Concern over content can be related to the regions in which these aircraft operate. In the case of southern Afghanistan, a very conservative and very religious region, artwork that may appear to be inspirational or motivational to western military aircrews could be offensive to the very people the Canadian Forces were trying to protect and mentor.
Yet a balance appears to have been struck with six examples of artwork painted on the front battery cover of CH-146 Griffon helicopters, a medium-sized utility helicopter able to lift a dozen troops. While serving with the Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing, the Griffon was armed with the Dillon Aero M134D 7.62mm Minigun, six-barreled automatic Gatling gun that enhanced the Griffon’s capability to suppress ground threats during escort missions.
Not surprising, the use of the Dillon Minigun in a combat role inspired much of the CH-146 Griffon nose art.
Ace of Spades, painted during Tactical Helicopter Roto [rotation] 0 in early 2009, was the first Griffon nose art. “It was developed and painted onto aircraft 414 after becoming a 'double ace' from a steady series of bird strikes, but unfortunately it was felt that it was inappropriate and it had a relatively short-lived life,” said Master Corporal Gord Bennett, who painted this first artwork.
Following this first attempt at nose art, additional work was not authorized, although within 18 months this order had changed.
Bat Outta Hel depicted a large black bat with piercing red eyes swooping in with machine guns. “Bat Outta Hel” may have been inspired by the cover of Meat Loaf’s 1977 album “Bat Out of Hell”.
The bat may also have been chosen to represent the use of the Griffon in night operations in Afghanistan or as a historical homage to the red bat on 440 Transport Squadron’s badge, which was a fighter-bomber squadron during the Second World War, an all-weather fighter squadron during the 1950s and a composite squadron flying fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in the late 1960s.
‘Hell’ spelled as ‘Hel’ may represent the military abbreviation for helicopter. Unfortunately this artwork was lost when the aircraft was returned to Canada to be refurbished.
To the Finish was painted on aircraft 414, the same aircraft that sported the short-lived “Ace of Spades” a year earlier. “To the Finish” is a full colour painting of Popeye, the fictional cartoon character, with a black tactical Canadian flag tattoo on his right forearm and a black tactical RCAF roundel tattoo on his left.
Popeye has been featured on other military aircraft and is popular due to his muscular ready to fight features. The words “To the Finish”, painted in blue, are taken from Popeye’s saying “I fights to the finish because I eats me spinach”. Fighting to the finish can also be used to reflect on how the RCAF, like the rest of the Canadian Forces, is ready and capable of fighting to the finish.
Falcon with a spear and Canada flag was painted on aircraft 492 features a maroon falcon striking down attacking an unseen foe while clenching a black spear with a Canadian flag.
The gyrfalcon is the symbol on the badge of 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, based at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier, Que., but under command of 1 Wing Kingston, Ont. The squadron is equipped with CH-146 Griffons and supports 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group.
Gun Slinger features a full-colour gun fighter figure that is reminiscent of the American West of the 1870s and Hollywood cowboy movies from the 1950s to the early 1970s. “Gun Slinger” was painted on aircraft 465 and refers to the Dillon Aero M143D six-barrel Gatling Guns. This painted figure captured in great detail the dress, stance and look of a seasoned gunfighter as he stares down his opponent prior to drawing his two six-shooter revolvers.
Dragon with machine guns was painted on aircraft 425. The green dragon, spitting red flames, is in an attacking pose while gripping two machine guns. There is a red Canadian maple leaf in the background.
This mythical and much-feared creature holds what appears to be two Second World War-era Browning machine guns.
The dragon symbol is probably drawn from the Taliban reference that the intense firepower brought down by the 7.62mm Dillion Aero M143D Miniguns are the “Dragons’ Breath of Allah”.
Editor’s note: Of the six designs painted on the noses of Griffons in Afghanistan, two have been destroyed – Ace of Spades and Bat Outta Hel. The panels with the four remaining art works have been removed from the helicopters and, thanks to WO Storey and Operation Keepsake, have been saved and are part of the historical legacy of the Royal Canadian Air Force in Afghanistan.
WO Storey would like to give a special thanks to Corporal Steve Forth and the nose art artists, Master Corporal Bennett, who painted Ace of Spades, and Cpl Richard Aucoin, who painted the other five.
By WO Ed Storey