When did the color orange enter flight test? As early as the Bell X-1, pictured here, aircraft were painted orange to enhance visibility. Later, in 1959, a study was conducted that suggested the utility of orange markings on aircraft. In 1968, the Society of Flight Test Engineers adopted a logo with "flight test orange" as its color.

The Bell X-1 hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Institute. Photo credit: Ad Meskens [Attribution, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are, however, few references that explain the following:

  1. When orange flight test equipment (wires, parts, LRUs, etc.) first appeared. For example, I transcribed a 1977 article from the SFTE's Flight Test News that sets 1949, anecdotally, as the time/event that caused Douglas to use orange wire. But it also references a Mil Spec. (Does anyone know more about the Mil Spec referred to?

  2. When orange flight suits first appeared?

  3. When aircraft (in general) adopted orange paint schemes for flight test aircraft, as seen here? enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ related $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ The Spec in question would have been Fed Std 595 which refers to this color as "12197." The color in aeronautics is sometimes specified as TT-P-59 and was changed in some places in 1949 to be referred to as "Aviation Surface Orange." I've so far only been able to find the spec sheet for TTP-59E. I'm trying to dig up the n/r version of this document which might shed some light on its origins. After all, the government can't buy things until it makes a spec for them and vice-versa. $\endgroup$
    – user28387
    Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ @PhotoScientist I too have heard of this spec, but I too have not found a copy. However, my understanding it that specifies colors and their makeup but not their application. Does it say, "use orange wire"? Or does it say "use this shade or orange when orange is needed for aviation?" $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ Here's an 50's era jet in NASA service but the color looks to be more red than orange. nasa.gov/centers/armstrong/history/where_are_they_now/… $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks quiet flyer $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 15:12

3 Answers 3


They were originally used to allow ground spotters to better spot the aircraft from the ground for optical tracking during flight test. Another use of painting wingtips, tailplanes and tailfins bright colors was to allow observers a better means to determine the aircraft’s orientation and attitude in flight.

Finally if it all went so wrong so fast, hi viz colors made it easier for SAR crews to locate the wreckage....and the remains of the pilot.....quickly.

I know the Navy and the USMC were using orange flight suits as early as the Korean War, not for their test pilots, but for fleet air crews to make it easier for SAR aircraft to locate then in the event of a ditching or bailout over open water.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There nothing wrong with your edits. I guess I just like the grimmer reality of mine. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ This is true for the aircraft, but they found the color did not work well. However, it does not answer "when" or whether the X-1 was the first. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ +1. A side note about ditching in the ocean: A common anecdote among scuba divers is about the "yum, yum, yellow" referring to the bright yellow, orange and red used in maritime stuff to attract the attention of sharks. That's the reason most scuba vests are dark $\endgroup$
    – jean
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 20:22

Authoritative answers may no longer be possible. Even the best-informed collection of experts on this, the Flight Test Safety Committee, only a few years ago reported in an article "A Brief History of Flight Test Orange" that (Q. 1)

The origin of this color tradition is largely unknown

and that (Q. 2)

bright orange flight suits are also a common sight, but the emergence of this fashion statement is also of unknown origin.

Also for Q.1, that newsletter's next article, "Where did the (Orange) Wire Come From?", mentions a

Mil Spec requiring all flight test wiring, brackets, etc., to be orange

without quoting a number. But that article might be just another transcription of your 1977 one.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Thanks. I wrote those articles. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ How embarrassing! It never occurred to me to compare stackexchange names with the newsletter's real-world names. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 15 at 22:29

When aircraft (in general) adopted orange paint schemes for flight test aircraft, as seen here?

Never. Orange was used for a few aircraft only (X-1 is the most famous example), so it was never "generally adopted". In fact I have a hard time finding any other orange aircraft.

This happened right after the X-1:

X-2: white
X-3: white
X-4: white
X-5: white

An image search for "flight test aircraft" shows a sea of white and unpainted metal, with only a couple of orange ones in between.


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