About that Shark mouth on the 151 Jet…

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing / History Office

A shark mouth is now painted on the nose of a 123rd Fighter Squadron F-15C Eagle fighter, serial number 86-0151, at Portland Air National Guard Base, Oregon.  The nose art honors a former 151 crew chief, Master Sergeant Marty Nance, who passed away in 2018.   See the distinctive nose art in this 142nd Wing Facebook post and video story by TSgt Steph Sawyer.

Sharks in nature, with their mouths full of sharp teeth, have evoked a primal fear in human beings since time immemorial.  Predator fish like Great white sharks have seven rows with as many as 300 large, serrated teeth ready to tear the flesh of any living thing.  Although statistically speaking for members of the general public the odds of being attacked and killed by a shark are quite low, no one relishes the thought of being eaten alive by a wild animal, of being shredded into bite-size chunks and swallowed up by a ferocious sea creature.

Shark mouths have been painted on military aircraft since the First World War, to intimidate a foe and also to show some fighting spirit.  German Roland C.II reconnaissance planes may have been the first to carry a shark mouth-like design, observed in pictures from around 1916.  The shape of many aircraft is conducive to the wear of such a fearsome marking.  Sopwith Dolphin fighters of the Royal Air Force (RAF) also bore a shark mouth late in the war.  Another late-war example was painted on the nose of US Army ace pilot Ralph O’Neill’s Nieuport fighter in the 147th Aero Squadron.

In the second World War, the distinct marking made a huge comeback, apparently first with Luftwaffe Me-110 fighters of II./ZG-76.  This in turn seems to have inspired one of their opponents, RAF 112 Squadron, to paint their Curtiss Tomahawk fighters (P-40 type, in US service) with shark mouths in North Africa in 1941.  Magazines of the period soon carried images of these aircraft which wore the shark mouth design exceptionally well.

Pilots of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) “Flying Tigers” in faraway China saw the news photos of the No. 112 Squadron Tomahawks and were inspired to adopt the shark mouth for all the group’s P-40B fighters in late 1941.  The widespread publicity the Flying Tigers received provided further inspiration to many other pilots, units and countries. 

Of note, in July, 1942 as the US Army Air Forces 23rd Fighter Group was formed in China from some of the men and machines of the disbanded AVG, and continued to use the shark mouth on its P-40 fighter planes as well as the Flying Tigers name.  The group eventually came under the command of Fourteenth Air Force, and this numbered air force collectively became known as the Flying Tigers. 

In late 1944, the 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, formerly designated as the 123rd Observation Squadron, Oregon’s first aviation unit, joined 14th Air Force in China and thus became one of the Flying Tigers.  Though there is no evidence that any of the unit’s Lockheed F-5E Photo Lightning aircraft ever wore a shark mouth.

Among other Oregon connections to the Flying Tigers was one of the crew chiefs assigned to the 142nd in the 1950’s, Master Sergeant Fred Boero, who was assigned to the 23rd Fighter Group “Flying Tigers” during the war.  He was stationed at Hengyang Airfield in China.

With the early WWII publicity of this distinctive nose art, shark mouths soon  found their way onto a wide variety of aircraft, Allied and Axis.  The shark mouth was used as a squadron marking for a given unit, like the P-39/P-400 Airacobra fighters of the USAAF’s 67th Fighter Squadron on Guadalcanal and the Mk. VIII Spitfires of No. 457 “Grey Nurse” Squadron (RAAF).  Some naval aviators got into it, for a time anyway, with big chompers on Fighting Twenty-Seven (VF-27) F6F Hellcat fighters in 1944.  Shark mouths were featured as individual aircraft markings on innumerable examples of aircraft in all branches of the service, in many countries, from light liaison aircraft to fighters, medium bombers, transports on up to and including heavy bombers.

Meanwhile, back on the other side of the globe, the 371st Fighter Group, which became Oregon’s 142nd Fighter Group after World War II, was in combat in Northwest Europe.  At least one of the group’s P-47 Thunderbolt fighters sported a kind of shark mouth on the engine cowling in the summer of 1944.  It was on a P-47 “Razorback” belonging to the group’s 405th Fighter Squadron named “Damned Yankee,” P-47D-16-RE serial number 42-76099.  (See image with this story)

During the Korean War, F-51D Mustang fighters of the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing wore a shark mouth design.  Several pilots from Oregon’s 123rd Fighter Squadron served active duty combat tours in Korea and flew with the unit in these shark mouthed aircraft. (See image with this story)

Since the Korean War, a number of USAF aircraft such as the F-105 Thunderchief, F-4 Phantom II, A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 have worn shark mouths.  For many years, aircraft assigned to the 23rd Wing in its various designations have worn and continue to bear the shark mouth in honor of their World War II roots in the Flying Tigers. 

During the Vietnam War, various USAF aircraft at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base wore shark mouths, including F-4E, F-105G, EB-66, EC-121 and C-130.  F-4Es across Southeast Asia wore shark mouths, and this continued well after the war until the F-4E was retired from frontline service in the Pacific in the 1980s.  Some Army helicopters in the war wore the marking, as did the Navy’s Fighting One-Eleven (VF-111) squadron.  There was even a B-52D Stratofortress of the 43rd Strategic Wing that was given a shark mouth in 1968, perhaps the largest combat aircraft to ever wear one. 

There have been some USAF F-15 Eagle shark mouths as well.  An F-15A, serial number 71-0282, wore a shark mouth circa 1977.  An F-15E Strike Eagle of the 391st Fighter Squadron 87-0173 wore one in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001-2002.  And circa 2015, F-15C 79-0046 of the Oregon ANG’s 114th Fighter Squadron began wearing a shark mouth.

Still, it’s good to see an example of some traditional nose art on a Portland F-15.  The shark mouth really stands out nicely in honor of MSgt Marty Nance, who apparently liked all things shark and used the shark mouth motif in various creative projects he was involved with.  It’s a fitting tribute to a professional who worked for community, state and nation for over 30 years, as carried on the right side below 151’s canopy: “In Memory of MSgt M. Nance – Gone But Not Forgotten.”