Imagine you have to protect yourself from an incoming nuclear explosion. How would you defend yourself? Maybe wearing fireproof clothes or sheltering in the bunker. How about relying on paint? If you think that was quite a ridiculous idea to even consider, then you have to hear why the United States and Britain came up with the idea of defending their aircraft, not with some special coating or anti-radiation technology but by painting it with a special color called anti-flash white.

When it comes to surviving a nuclear blast, paint is probably the last type of defense you’d consider. However, with the advent of nuclear weapons – which were continuously growing in power – there was a real risk that the release plane would not be able to outrun the blast. As one of the key design requirements of an aircraft is being lightweight, they couldn’t exactly cover the bombers in a few feet of reinforced concrete and lead shielding. Instead, they had to use any means possible to improve an aircraft’s survival.

The Science of Aircraft Survivability

Believe it or not, an airplane’s capability to survive blasts could be dictated by its color. To understand why we have to know how nuclear explosions affect them. The blast releases immense amounts of energy, and the blast wave could cause devastating effects to anyone and anything within its range. The thermal radiation travels at approximately the speed of light, and it could instantly affect objects at much greater distances. For instance, a 1 megaton bomb could easily cause third-degree burns at around 5 miles away, second-degree at about 6 miles, and then first-degree to someone at about seven miles away.

While engineers could only do so much to protect an aircraft from the physical shockwave that a nuclear blast could cause, they wanted to do something to shield it against the intense thermal radiation. Their idea was to paint their Nuclear bomb-equipped planes in a specific white paint.

Vulcan bombers from RAF Waddington flying in formation in 1957. (RAF, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The House in the Middle

The scheme named “anti-flash white” was designed to give planes and crews hopefully a better chance of surviving in case of blasts. The idea came from the 1953 study called “The House in the Middle.”

On May 8, 1953, an experiment was conducted on the Nevada Test Site to investigate the effects of the Encore nuclear bomb, part of Operation Upshot-Knothole. The goal of the study was to see how different objects would respond to a nuclear blast at varying distances from ground zero. One of the test objects was trees that had to be relocated by the United States Forest Service to the site since the test location was in a desert. These 145 Ponderosa trees were cemented into holes in the ground, positioned at around 6,500 feet from the blast.

In the House in the Middle study, three houses were placed on the blast range, each of which under different conditions. House A was in poor condition with exposed surfaces. House B was in similar condition, but pieces of trash were added to the yard. House C was freshly painted and had no rubbish around.

A B-50 Superfortress dropped a 27 kiloton bomb that detonated at a height of 2,423 feet. House A was immediately set on fire, and the whole thing burned down. Both the house and the trash caught fire in House B, while House C, on the other hand, did not catch fire.

This experiment was filmed and turned into a documentary by the Federal Civil Defense Administration to make citizens understand how their home’s condition and color could protect them. However, this study did not take into consideration the effects of radiation on the health of the people, so the documentary was soon deemed obsolete.

People already know that white paint reflects heat almost by intuition. In the United States, the most popular color on automobiles is white with consumers saying that this color keeps the car cooler in summer.  They aren’t wrong about that either. Touch the roof of a black car in July and then touch a white one, the difference will be immediately obvious.

Anti-Flash White Supremacy

On the other hand, the differences made by white paint were noticed that soon after, bombers being used by all nuclear powers were painted in anti-flash white. Not only that, but it also doubled as a camouflage when the aircraft was viewed from below. But because the color made the plane stand out if viewed from above, the Soviets had their upper surfaces painted gray to resolve the problem. This was also because the Russians knew that fire control radars on US aircraft had a Look Down capability that meant the most likely vector of attack by a US aircraft or missile would be above and behind them.

Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-22M3 at Ryazan Dyagilevo. (Alex Beltyukov, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons)

The anti-flash white scheme lasted for quite a while until the manner of delivery of nuclear weapons changed, and the roles of aircraft in doing so slowly faded. The need for stealth coatings was given more importance than simply reflecting thermal radiation, so newer nuclear bombers have coatings that would minimize, if not hide, their radar signature.