Why does camouflage decrease some airplanes' speed? I have noticed that some planes fly slower with camouflage than without it. For example, when the RAF applied camo on the P-51 Mustang, they noticed that it was 8 mph (About 12.87 km) slower than without it. This is why the Mustang usually had no camouflage on. My question is why did the camouflage make it go slower? Did/does this apply to other planes too?


2 Answers 2


Same reason gliders keep their wings waxed. It wasn't the camo per se, it was the dull matte field-applied paint finish that included all sorts of imperfections, and to a small degree, the weight of the paint vs natural finish. At a microscopic level, the surface of the matte finish was much rougher than a gloss or unpainted metal surface. The microscopically rougher surface would have a stronger ability to inhibit air molecules flowing right against the surface (skin friction). Add to that the surface imperfections introduced by the typical wartime spray-and-get-it-out-the-door process, vs smooth bare aluminum.

Think of the inhibiting effect on wind velocity close to the ground of a forested area vs a grassy plain, and shrink it down to the micro level. The effect is most pronounced where the flow is relatively smooth, or laminar against the surface, which is most areas there the cross section is getting fatter (leading edges of wings and control surfaces, the nose, etc).

The Mustang would suffer a bit more than others from this with flat paint because of its (somewhat) laminar wing that had a maximum thickness well aft, which means it would have more surface area that is sensitive to skin friction, than a non-laminar wing aircraft like a Spitfire or Typhoon. So if the Mustang was penalized 5kt with flat paint, a Spitfire might have only been penalized 3kt because it had less surface area that was (relatively) laminar in the first place.

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    $\begingroup$ In the early days of military aviation, there were several accidents caused by air force squadrons painting their own designs and logos on "their" aircraft, with unexpected consequences for the aerodynamics. As a result, in the UK decorating aircraft wings and control surfaces was prohibited, though other decorations were allowed as morale-boosting activities. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Mar 25, 2020 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ @alephzero -- I have never heard that before. I would love to see more details incorporated into either an answer to this question or perhaps into a self-answer to a question of your own asking. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ Almost sounds like a less extreme case of frost on the wings. $\endgroup$
    – Jeff B
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 1:38

It's primarily all about matte vs glossy finish. Normally a camo paint scheme would not be finished in a glossy finish as this might flash in the sunlight. A matte finish is rougher and thus has more air resistance than a glossy finish. The roughness is on a scale that is much larger than microscopic, but not obvious to the naked eye.

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    $\begingroup$ I don’t know if it’s the same with the paints used on aircraft, but on vehicles, the small-scale roughness of matte paint is often visible to the eye close up, and certainly perceptible by touch. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2020 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ Future edit: modify according to above comment that roughness of a matte finish is visible to the naked eye on close examination. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 1:14

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