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Flying tributes: KC-135 nose art modern masterpieces

After the nose art ban was lifted sometime around 1998, and within two weeks of joining the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Colonel Hess began the search for an artist to brighten up the unit’s fleet of KC-135s. ( U. S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Galindo)

After the nose art ban was lifted sometime around 1998, and within two weeks of joining the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Colonel Hess began the search for an artist to brighten up the unit’s fleet of KC-135s. ( U. S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Galindo)

After the nose art ban was lifted sometime around 1998, and within two weeks of joining the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Colonel Hess began the search for an artist to brighten up the unit’s fleet of KC-135s. ( U. S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Galindo)

After the nose art ban was lifted sometime around 1998, and within two weeks of joining the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Colonel Hess began the search for an artist to brighten up the unit’s fleet of KC-135s. ( U. S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Galindo)

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- Unless you're looking from an engineering perspective, a $40 million aircraft is rarely viewed as a work of art. However, the nose art on the KC-135s deployed here from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 171st Air Refueling Wing may be modern masterpieces. 

Nose art on the refueling aircraft was common prior to the 1990's; however, the craft all but disappeared during Operation Desert Storm. 

"Some of the old artwork could have been viewed as offensive," said Lt. Col. Tom Hess, 90th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron maintenance commander. "Especially in the countries we were deploying to during the first Gulf War." 

The nose art ban was lifted sometime around 1998, and within two weeks of joining the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Colonel Hess began the search for an artist to brighten up the unit's fleet of KC-135s. 

"I ran an ad in the base paper and even contacted a local art school and had a few takers, but it didn't work out," said Colonel Hess.
Then the sister-in-law of a member of the wing's legal office, Donna Pitaro, offered to paint one of the aircraft free of charge. 

"After seeing the first one, I knew we found our artist," said Colonel Hess. "The detail ... everything was fantastic." 

When it comes time for the one of the unit's tankers to be painted, Colonel Hess leaves the creative design to the aircraft's crew chief with a few caveats. 

"(The design) has to adhere to the basic guidelines of the regulation, has to be gender neutral, connect with the unit's mission or the local community and limit the use of trademarked items," said Colonel Hess. "I encourage them to come up with something original ... not necessarily a flag or an eagle." 

In addition to adhering to guidelines, Colonel Hess has one additional requirement. 

"My fee is that the art has to have the SAC fist somewhere in it to honor the legacy of the aircraft," he said. "I like to keep a little bit of that history attached to the aircraft." 

While the ideas come from the crew chiefs, the finished product is delivered through the hands of Ms. Pitaro. 

"We draw a rough sketch and give her an idea of what we'd like it to look like," said the colonel. "She takes that and delivers exactly what we want." 

"I feel very honored to be part of it," said Ms. Pitaro. "It's like I'm giving back to them for all the hard work they do. It's something that brings a lot of pride. It's my patriotic gift." 

The large, colorful nose art has become a popular attraction at air shows over the years and been a source of great pride for the unit. 

"It's really had an impact on the morale of the maintenance guys. They are very protective of it," said Colonel Hess. "The aircrews love it too. Our folks often associate the aircraft more with the nose art than the aircraft's tail number." 

While the members of the 171st are grateful for the dedicated work of Ms. Pitaro, it's the artist who feels fortunate. 

"I'm the lucky one," said Ms. Pitaro. "There are a lot of talented artists who'd love to see their art work displayed all over the world."