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.
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.
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