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On most A-10s I have seen, the area under the cockpit is darker than the rest of the plane. Is there a reason for this?

enter image description here

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Does it have anything to do with the cylindrical device extending down on a vane also painted the same color? I'll throw in a WAG that the cylindrical device is a camera or other sensing device, and that the color has to do with aiding whatever that device does? –  Terry Mar 6 at 4:39
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@Terry, no, they're not related. That's a Pave Penny laser spot tracker, which allows the use of precision guided munitions. –  egid Mar 6 at 7:40

4 Answers 4

up vote 179 down vote accepted

It's a false cockpit, a type of camouflage patented in 1980 by Keith Ferris, a US artist and camouflage designer. From some angles, it makes it difficult to determine the orientation of the aircraft. The Canadians were the first to apply it; pictured is a CF-18 Hornet with one:

Canadian CF-18 Hornet, inverted, with false canopy.

Notice how at a glance, it takes a second to realize the Hornet is inverted and pulling towards the ground. During dogfights this can be enough to make opposing pilots think the aircraft is going a different direction. It might not seem like much in a photo, or if you're watching an aircraft fly past at an air show or airport. In the stress of combat while pulling extra Gs it's more than enough to confuse or delay a reaction.

For the air to ground mission, this is particularly important. If an A-10 encountered antiaircraft fire or an enemy aircraft it would have to rely on its own agility to escape or gain the upper hand. Other nations have adopted this technique — I've seen French and Russian types, and possibly Gripens of some air force. As far as I know, the A-10 is the only US aircraft regularly camouflaged in this way.

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didn't even have to read it, that picture said it all, thanks :) Very cool –  falstro Mar 6 at 8:02
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Interesting. I'm surprised that USAF and USN haven't adopted this more generally. –  Bob Jarvis Mar 6 at 12:27
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The USN also implemented it on their F/A-18s for a while. AFAIK it wasn't adopted in part for cost reasons, it's cheaper to just spray the entire aircraft in a single colour... Ferris advocated a lot more, including spraying the aircraft in geometric patterns in many shades to break up its outline. Worked well, but was too cumbersome and expensive for large scale adoption. The Canadians have far fewer aircraft, so total cost of adoption is quite a bit lower than it'd be for the US. –  jwenting Mar 7 at 8:28
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You would think the cost of paint would be far less than even the slightest risk of losing a plane and a trained pilot. –  Pepijn Mar 7 at 14:57
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@davey There were plenty of dogfights in the 1991 Gulf War, according to Wikipedia; there were also air-to-air kills in the Kosovo conflict. –  David Richerby Mar 10 at 23:27

Also used by the South African Air Force on its Gripen fighter aircraft and, before that, its Cheetah (upgraded Mirage) fighter aircraft.

The intention is to create momentary uncertainty as to which direction an aircraft may turn, both for air-to-air encounters against other aircraft and when doing low-level manoeuvring in the ground-attack role.

An image of a South African Air Force Gripen C, showing the false cockpit on the bottom: SAAF Gripen C
By Brent Best

And an image of a South African Air Force Cheetah C showing the same:

SAAF Cheetah C
By Christo Crous

Note the diamond-shape on the bottom of the Cheetah C. A similar pattern is painted on the top surface of the SA Air Force's Gripens. This reportedly helps create more uncertainty when seen in brief glimpses during combat, similar to the way dazzle camouflage on ships in WWI worked.

This is an illustration, taken from a flight sim, of what the effect looks like on a Cheetah C with a mostly 'clean' configuration (no drop tanks or bombs): SAAF Cheetah C (simulated)

South African Air Force fighter aircraft have used the false cockpit and diamond-shape camouflage ideas since the last 1980s, after proving the concepts through testing.

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looks like metal fatigue, dirt, grime, and age actually improve the effect –  flyingfisch Mar 7 at 13:31
    
It can make a difference, which helps because in combat aircraft don't remain pristine for long. –  Darren Olivier Mar 7 at 13:44
    
Ah, I was apparently thinking of SAAF Gripens, then! I'm not sure what's up with the dark diamond on top surfaces, but it does seem to add to the illusion. –  egid Mar 7 at 22:53
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The Hungarian Air Force has since adopted it on their Gripens and Saab painted one on the underside of its Gripen NG demo aircraft, so it may yet be used by the Swedish Air Force too. Rumour has it that they were impressed by how well it worked for SAAF Gripens during Exercise Lion Effort 2012 in Sweden, where the SAAF pilots achieved high kill ratios in close-in air-to-air combat. The purpose of the diamond is to cause just that extra bit of confusion for the opposing pilot, as it creates conflicting shapes. It was painted on both top and bottom on the Cheetahs, only the top on the Gripens. –  Darren Olivier Mar 8 at 9:52

Wikipedia cites the biological concept of automimicry, or intraspecific mimicry, where a species develops a part of the body which appears similar to another part, e.g. a tail appearing like a head, so that predators become confused as to the orientation or direction of movement of their prey.

As per egid's answer, this technological form of automimicry ideally helps to degrade an enemy's capability to successfully attack an A-10C (or similarly painted aircraft or vehicle).

See also the similar concept of dazzle camouflage or razzle dazzle used on combat and merchant naval ships during World War I.

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Dazzle Camouflage is super-cool, eg blog.iso50.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/… –  Max Williams Mar 7 at 13:21

There was an article on this in Aerospace magazine way back in the late 1980s (I still have a photocopy somewhere).

They called it Visual Stealth. The article included the long history, including using lights to illuminate the darker regions of aircraft when viewed from the ground.

One picture I saw clearly showed a 'tail shadow' painted on the bottom of an F16. False cockpits were common, as were painting the tops and bottoms different colors. Ground Strike aircraft would commonly have yellows and brown camouflage, white in the winter (Germany). The Navy was using blues and grays, with the tail squadron markings rather dull.

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The Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine website also had a short feature on visual stealth in 2013 called How To Hide an Airplane. I imagine it's probably less detailed than a trade publication, but they have some pretty awesome pictures including this one -- There are two aircraft in that shot. –  voretaq7 Mar 6 at 19:03
    
@voretaq7 huh, I remember seeing that article but I must have never actually read it –  flyingfisch Mar 6 at 23:50
    
Painting top and bottom different was done because aircraft would then stand out less when normal way up. Mostly of interest for low flying aircraft, which is why it's mostly gone now, as the proliferation of MANPADS has caused operations to move a lot higher than they were at the time (when longer range SAMs and AAA were the major threat). –  jwenting Mar 7 at 8:30
    
"Visual stealth"? Isn't this just camouflage? :) –  egid Mar 10 at 0:41

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