A stealthy aircraft can be nearly invisible to enemy radar if it’s designed in the right shape, using materials that absorb or deflect the incoming energy. Making an aircraft less obvious to the human eye, however, can be as plain as paint.
In selecting the color and pattern for visual stealth, a designer’s first question is the enemy’s point of view. In a typical mission, is the aircraft most likely to be seen by a gunner on the ground, or by an enemy pilot or satellite at altitude?
Painting the undercarriage helps the airplane blend with the sky as seen from below. That may mean choosing "Air Superiority Blue" or "Light Gull Gray" for a fighter at dogfight level, or a flat carbon black for a reconnaissance plane near the edge of space.
Prying eyes positioned above an aircraft may see it silhouetted against the sand of the desert, like this pair of Israeli F-16s flying against the backdrop of the ancient fortification of Masada. Whether it's flying over vegetation, snow, ice, or bodies of water, painting the upper fuselage and wings helps hide the aircraft.
Camouflage patterns were once the work of artists and painters, but experimental patterns now include geometric blocks generated by computer. Besides helping to conceal the aircraft as a whole, creative patterns can break up its visual profile to obscure its type, its actual size, or its distance.
See the gallery below for more examples of aircraft paint schemes that were designed to deceive.
This SPAD VII, in the World War I Aviation exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, makes a valiant effort to blend into the woodlands surrounding the Allied airfield at Verdun, France, despite its huge bull’s-eye roundel.