Today, we are used to seeing military aircraft painted in low-observable grays or camouflage. But that wasn’t the case 50 years ago. Why were so many Cold War era bombers painted white?

In the days before the intercontinental ballistic missile, long-range bombers provided the only means to deliver nuclear weapons against Cold War adversaries. But dropping nukes, even from high altitude, was a perilous affair. Not only did it put the crew in danger from the shock and radiation of the blast itself, the blindingly bright flash of light from the detonation posed dangers of its own. The flash produces an extraordinary amount of thermal radiation (heat) in the form of visible, infrared and ultraviolet light, enough to blind pilots, damage aircraft and fry delicate electronics. This led aircraft designers to adopt what was known as anti-flash white paint. They hoped that enough of the thermal radiation would be reflected by the brilliant white paint to protect both the crews and the vital electronics of the aircraft.

Rockwell B-1A Lancer in its prototype anti-flash white paint scheme (US Air Force)

At first, bombers were painted entirely white. While a white plane is difficult to spot from the ground, it stands out plainly against the ground when viewed from above. Subsequent paint schemes limited the white paint to the underside of the aircraft, with camouflage or neutral colors above. Today, advances in low-visibility paint and radar-absorbing materials have left the anti-flash white as a relic of the Cold War, though it still appears on some Cold War-era bombers that remain in service.

Avro Vulcans in 1954 (British Ministry of Defence)
Blackburn Buccaneer of the Royal Navy (TSRL via Wikimedia Commons)

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Tupolev Tu-160 (Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia Commons)
US Navy E-6B Mercury, a command and control aircraft that is capable of launching ground-based ICBMs (US Navy)
North American XB-70 (US Air Force)

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Tupolev Tu-22M (NATO reporting name Backfire) with anti-flash white on the underside of the fuselage (Dmitry Tereknov via Wikimedia Commons)
Prototype B-1A Lancer with camouflage top and anti-flash underside (US Air Force)
B-52s, with anti-flash paint under the fuselage and wings, at the former Loring Air Force Base in northeastern Maine. Loring AFB was one of the Strategic Air Command’s largest bomber bases during the Cold War, and was the closest point to Europe in the continental US. Loring was closed in 1991. (US Air Force)

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