An aircraft canopy is a transparent enclosure over the cockpit of aircraft. An aircraft canopy provides a controlled and sometimes pressurized environment for the aircraft’s occupants and allows for a greater field of view over a traditional flight deck. A canopy’s shape is a compromise designed to minimize aerodynamic drag while maximizing visibility for pilots and other crewmembers.
In the 1970s, US aviation artist Keith Ferris invented a false canopy to paint on the underside of military aircraft, directly underneath the front of the plane, the purpose of which was to confuse an enemy so they do not know in what direction the aircraft is headed. This ruse was inspired by animals and fishes that have similar markings on the head and tail, so they can confuse other creatures. Pilots remain skeptical of this feature, asserting that if the enemy is close enough to see the marking, they are too close to be fooled by it.
In the heat of aerial battle, simple visual cues can throw off pilots and make dramatic split-second differences. Any camouflage helps, but fighters need to be sleek and maneuverable so design solutions likewise have to be physically unobtrusive.
Working within this limitation, one particularly clever strategy for throwing off enemy planes involves painting a false canopy on the underside of an aircraft. Essentially: the transparent cockpit enclosure on the top of a plane is visually mimicked on its underside — a confused enemy pilot might thus mistake the bottom of a craft for its top in the heat of combat. Like many camouflaging strategies, this design approach borrows from precedents found in nature.
It is a type of automimicry found, for instance, in fish and other animals. Unlike conventional camouflage, however, that blends with surrounding environments, automimicry involves self-imitation. In the case of creatures, similar markings on the head and tail can confuse a potential predator about the speed and direction of their target — like a fish with a pair of fake eyes toward its rear.
Likewise, with aircraft, a fake canopy painted on the bottom can create confusion around the craft’s attitude and potential maneuvers.
This specific form of camouflage was patented in 1980 by Keith Harris, a 50-year veteran of the Air Force Art Program in the United States.
The strategy has since come to be used by air forces in Canada, South Africa and other countries around the world, sometimes in combination with countershading strategies.
Fighter jets with 'canopies' painted on the underside to confuse enemy aircraft during dogfights.
— Grant Turnbull (@turnbulljourno) February 14, 2018
Employing an extension of the same idea, some fighters also feature a diamond painted on their backs. As with the famously counter-intuitive dazzle camouflage approach, the goal here is not complete disguise but momentary confusion — these diamonds can make it difficult to ascertain the shape, orientation, and direction of a craft. This strategy is sometimes coupled with the false canopy to create maximum disorientation.