One thing is certain: the US Air Force has some pretty cool unit emblems. There is the “flying tigersof the 23rd Fighter Group, the black Dragon of the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, and the samurai riding a lightning bolt of the 14th Fighter Squadron.
Each of these emblems is loaded with symbols that evoke the unit’s history and values, which is why one can’t help but think “who the hell invented that one” after looking at the 311th emblem. Fighter Squadron based at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
The emblem depicts an ammunition belt coiled on the ground like a serpent, with a green serpent’s head bearing its fangs at one end. It looks like the snake on the yellow Flag of Gadden, the one that says “Don’t step on me”, except with more bullets.
Although it is unknown who thought of this unique emblem, a unit history of the 311th reveals that it was first approved on October 9, 1943, and was redesigned on July 18, 1995. According to the unit’s history, the coiled serpent and its fangs “represent the mission of the 311th unit to strike quickly in the defense of the nation, with offensive and defensive weapons. Meanwhile, the bandolier “reflects the integral part that all assigned personnel have in the mission.”
The emblem’s blue background refers to the sky, and the two shades of blue “reflect the unit’s ability to perform at all times, in all weathers,” according to the unit’s history. The bandolier’s yellow refers to the sun, “and to the excellence required of Air Force personnel.”
The unit’s history does not mention it, but it is convenient that the emblem has a snake on it, since the 311th Fighter Squadron flies the F-16 jet fighter, commonly known as the Viper. More likely though, it’s a reference to the Sidewinder snake that lives in the American Southwest, moves in an S-curve, and serves as the unit’s nickname. Of course, “Sidewinder” is also the name of an air-to-air missile, so the nickname is rich in meaning.
The 311th is a training squadron, and last week it graduated last batch of seven Viper student pilots, who will now transition to operational flight units. The graduates are the most recent achievement of the squadron, which was first activated in 1942. Its pilots flew in the Pacific theater and through the Korean War before being renamed a training squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona in 1970. It has been inactivated and reactivated a few times since before finally being reactivated in its current form at Holloman in 2014.
The 311th is just one of many Air Force squadrons that have been reactivated, inactivated, reformed and redesignated over the branch’s nearly 75-year history, each with its own unique emblem. . Search “air force squadron emblems” on Google images and you’ll have a feast. There is the deactivated 609th Special Operations Squadron, which included the road runner of Looney Tunes aiming some kind of gun while standing on a bomb with an expression of complete serenity on his face. Then there is the disabled 95th Fighter Squadron, whose emblem featured a skeleton sporting a top hat, monocle, and bow tie. And we can’t forget the emblem of the 152nd Fighter Squadron, which features Sylvester from Looney Tunes painting tiger stripes on his bum while riding a rocket through the sky.
While some crests are more serious than others, the tradition of silly unit crests and mascots dates back at least as far as World War II, when airmen painted half naked women and cartoon characters on the nose of their murderous war machines. Some people have dove into analyzing what nose art on warbirds means, especially when the subjects are female. For example, anthropology professor Kent Wayland written in 2014 that when a World War II aircraft was characterized as female by its nose art, it implied a relationship between the typically male airmen and the aircraft.
“The more the plane becomes a related entity, the less important its role as a destroyer of bodies and buildings becomes,” Wayland wrote. “This reframing is clearest…in the case of the plane named after Paul Tibbets’ mother, the Enola Gay“, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb used in the war on Hiroshima, Japan.
“The history of the war itself in certain respects [becomes] the story of the relationship between the crews and their “wives,” Wayland continued. “Highlighting this relationship helps overcome the potential stigma of the violence of war, which recedes into the background.”
Whether or not aviators today establish a similar relationship with Sylvester the cat or a top hat-wearing skeleton is unclear, but the crest imagery definitely evokes camaraderie and levity, alleviating undoubtedly the charge of airborne warfare. I mean, who can look at a snake made of bullets like the one on the 311th emblem without smiling a little?
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