Plane embarrassment: when militaries use the wrong jet for publicity


Aircraft recognition is a skill most people will never need in their lives. However, in some cases, this skill becomes extremely important and means the difference between winning the hearts and minds of the populace or a horrible embarrassment. 

Time and time again, graphic designers who work for the military have made mistakes and errors that have unintentionally celebrated potential adversaries. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting examples. 

Russian jets for the US Air Force 

For some reason, Russian-made fourth-generation fighter jets – the MiG-29, the Sukhoi Su-27, and their numerous derivatives – are misused the most often.  

One of the most notorious cases of misuse came in 2020 when the re-election campaign for US President Donald Trump posted this picture across its media. 

Above the call to support US troops, the silhouettes of several soldiers are visibly brandishing Russian-made equipment including the Kalashnikov pattern assault rifle. In the sky above are three MiG-29 fighter jets. 

The designers of the poster used a stock image without realizing that it depicts Russian soldiers and jets. A scandal ensued, and even the creator of the original image joked about how well the incident fit the political landscape of 2020. 

However, it’s not just political marketeers who confuse aircraft. Designers working for the military are sometimes just as susceptible. 

In 2021, the United States Southern Command congratulated the US Air Force on its birthday by placing a poster across social media. But the poster contained iconic silhouettes of three Soviet- or Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets.  

Truth be told, the USAF operated Su-27s on numerous occasions in order to evaluate the aircraft used by potential adversaries. However, those cases were likely not the reason that the Southern Command featured the jet in its poster. Soon after, the tweet was deleted. 

Chinese Raptors 

The US is not the only country where such mishaps happen. China is another country that is regarded as glorifying its military in posters. One poster in 2017 featured an interesting arrangement. 

It showed a pair of Chengdu J-10 jets seemingly taking off from an aircraft carrier – a feat this model of aircraft is not capable of. Along with them, a MiG-35 was taking off, too. Not only is this aircraft not carrier-borne, but it also has never been exported from Russia (and has never reached mass production). Two US-made assault ships sailing in the background complete the picture.  

Soon after publication, the Chinese defense ministry apologized for the mistake and the picture was scrubbed from its website. 

Another case where the Chinese officials did not apologize happened in 2021. 

A billboard was erected promoting the People’s Liberation Army Air Force which featured three USAF fighter jets: two F-15s and one F-22. Furthermore, a pilot with an Italian flag on his sleeve gave a thumbs-up, seemingly while soaring above the clouds with an open canopy. The pilot is in fact European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori

It seems that the designers tried to cover the Italian flag with the Chinese one. But for some reason the flag was misplaced, appearing on the pilot’s chest instead. 

Russian subtilities  

The tendency for Russian designers to feature seemingly random black-and-white photos (some including Bonnie and Clyde, for example) in posters commemorating WWII has been acknowledged for a while. However, some of them are more extreme.  In one such example, a cockpit of a German Junkers Ju-88 bomber was portrayed, along with the inscription “They fought for the motherland!” 

In more cases than one, Russians have displayed an American jet as their own. In 2018, a poster of a nationalist political party ‘Rodina’ (at the time led by Dmitry Rogozin) displayed an F-15 fighter jet in desert camouflage along with the inscription “The motherland is always right.” 

And in 2022 another billboard, eliciting support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, featured the F/A-18. 

However, the most embarrassing mishap happened a few months later. Following the death of a Russian pilot, a commemorative plaque was installed in the school of the pilot’s hometown. The plaque featured a Su-27 fighter jet – likely similar to the one the pilot used to fly. However, the jet bore the marks of the Ukrainian Air Force. 

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