Flying Backwards: How Planes Display The American Flag

Mar 30, 2018

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Have you ever noticed the American flag painted on the side of the airplane as you were boarding? Perhaps it stopped you in your tracks and made you think, “Why is the flag backwards?” Maybe you’ve noticed the same thing on military uniforms and vehicles. That’s not by accident.

Federal regulations state that when a flag is on a vehicle, the star field must be positioned toward the front of the vessel, so that it’s as if the flag is flying along the side of it. The same goes for military uniforms and government cars. The flag faces the observer’s right and gives the effect of the flag flying in the breeze as the person in uniform, car or airplane moves forward.

According to the Department of Defense, “The regulation states that when authorized for application to the proper uniform the American flag patch is to be worn, right or left shoulder, so that ‘the star field faces forward, or to the flag’s own right. When worn in this manner, the flag is facing to the observer’s right, and gives the effect of the flag flying in the breeze as the wearer moves forward. The appropriate replica for the right shoulder sleeve is identified as the ‘reverse side flag.’”

Other countries follow the same protocol for displaying its flag. Italian politician Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, was outraged on social media when she saw the flag painted apparently backwards on an Airbus A340 VIP jet of the Italian Air Force. “Don’t you think the tricolor is backwards? For 200 million they could at least get our flag right!” she carped, referring to the rumored cost of the airplane. The proper order of the flag’s three colors is in fact green, white and red from left to right, just as it appears in her avatar. But she was wrong about the plane.

The Italian Air Force responded to Il Messaggero, a Rome-based daily paper: “By aeronautical convention, you consider the front of the plane to be equivalent to a flag pole from which the flag is flying. So on one side of the fuselage you’ll see the flag with its usual orientation, while on the other side it is reversed.”

One commenter on Quora pointed out that during the early days of aviation, it was proposed that aircraft should attach a small flag to the tail for national identification. “This would have caused excessive drag, so flags were painted on instead, but still designed to look as though they were being blown backwards by the forward movement of the aircraft,” the reader said.

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