DALLAS – Back in 1976, Braniff International Airways (BN) launched Alexander Calder’s ‘Flying Colors of the United States’ depicted on a Boeing 727-200 from the airline, to celebrate the United States Bicentennial.
For those who were not around at the time, it’s hard to envisage the fervor and excitement that surrounded the United States’ 200th birthday in 1976. Coming off the resignation and scandal of the Nixon Administration, the deeply unpopular Vietnam War, social strife, and an oil crisis followed by a deep recession, the nation was ready to celebrate its history and look forward to the future.
Fresh off the acclaim generated by the ‘Flying Colors of South America’ – a Douglas DC-8-62 that became an airborne work of art created by Alexander ‘Sandy’ Calder (1898-1976) to celebrate BN’s 25th anniversary of flying between the US and countries in South America.
Braniff needed no convincing to commission a Calder sequel that would be a soaring salute to the US Bicentennial. This time, the chosen canvas would be a Boeing 727-200 that mainly flew the domestic and Mexican network.
The Final Design
Calder painted four 1/25 scale models—all sharing a red, white, and blue abstract livery reflecting the colors of the United States’ flag. According to the Braniff Airways Foundation, besides the one that would eventually be selected: “Three other 727 models were painted in red and blue (with a white background of course). Named: Tick-Tack, Bulls-Eye (dubbed that for red and blue circles painted in a target scheme), and one named British Flag so named for the red and blue stripes that probably formed a Union Jack somewhere on the aircraft.”
To select the final design for the full-size aircraft from those submitted by Calder, Braniff empaneled a special committee chaired by Goldwin McLellan, President of the Business Committee for the Arts. The committee was composed of museum directors from prestigious institutions like Washington’s National Gallery of Art, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, New York’s Whitney Museum of Art, and The Detroit Institute of the Arts.
The winning proposal, nicknamed Sneaky Snake, was bathed in red and blue snake-like shapes, undulating waves, swirls, and abstract objects superimposed over a white fuselage and tail. Each side was illustrated differently, and only the artist’s signature appeared, just above the cockpit and L1 door.
Flowing blue snake shapes and swirls adorned the tops of the wings, and smaller red shapes were applied to the horizontal stabilizers. Even the plane’s belly was decorated with the abstract designs. Calder himself hand-painted a design representing the stars and stripes of the nation’s flag on the cowling of the Number 3 engine.
Braniff press materials made the most of the plane’s singular status. “There will be only one Bicentennial plane,” the company touted, “only one plane that will be known as The Flying Colors of the United States.”
The Flying Colors of the United States
For this honor, Braniff selected N408BN, a Boeing 727-291 that had originally been delivered to Frontier Airlines (FL) in 1968 and sold to Braniff in 1972, when FL had disposed of its Boeing 727 fleet.
On Sunday, November 16, 1975, The Flying Colors of the United States was first rolled out to Braniff employees during a special ceremony at Dallas Love Field, on the north ramp at the airline’s operations and maintenance base. In a star-spangled ceremony, Sneaky Snake performed two low passes over Runway 13L/31R. Onboard was a ‘best of the best’ pre-selected Braniff employee color guard.
The famous aircraft proved as temperamental as the artist. The Flying Colors 727 had a reputation as a hangar queen. Its Sneaky Snake nickname proved to be significant for two reasons: the livery and a trim issue that required Pilots to constantly re-adjust altitude and heading by hand to keep the plane flying straight.
The Flying Colors of The United States proudly plied the skies long after the last candle lit for the nation’s 200th birthday had been blown out. However, like its cousin N1805, N408BN was also repainted in Braniff’s ‘Ultra’ look. Just as the DC-8’s paint had faded, so had the 727’s. N408BN got its new paint job (in chocolate brown) at some point in 1979-1980.
After the demise of Braniff in May 1982, the aircraft was stored until Braniff II’s 1984 launch, and then was, of course, painted into the new carrier’s house livery. In 1985, N408BN was sold to the short-lived New Orleans-based Pride Air (NI). After that, it was re-registered and flown for short stints by a myriad of carriers in the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe. It eventually wound up in Opa-Locka, Florida, for parting out.
But, for its scrapping, this erstwhile aviation celebrity enjoyed one more star turn—going out with a bang! In 1995, it was sold to Columbia Pictures, which blew it up in one of the final scenes of the hit action film Bad Boys starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith.
Braniff’s ‘Flying Colors of the United States’ is for sure object of fascination among many aviation enthusiasts. Many of the children who grew up during the 1960s and 1970s remember not only this patriotic scheme but also Alexander Calder’s other work for Braniff.
Of the three aircraft commissioned by Braniff, only two were completed. The third livery, named ‘A Salute to Mexico’ intended to be applied on a second Boeing 727, was never painted. According to the Braniff Airways Foundation, the airline decided that, as Calder passed away in November 1976, the airplane would not be an original work of art.
Editor’s Note: Chris Sloan named his late son Calder Sloan, after the artist who designed these extraordinary flying masterpieces. Calder Sloan, who became known as ‘Mr. Awesome’, passed away suddenly in April 2014 shortly after his 7th birthday.
Today, the Calder name once again graces an airplane. Miami International Airport dedicated its 727 training aircraft to the memory of Calder Sloan. His self-drawn portrait and the name of our family foundation, Caleb and Calder Sloan’s Awesome Foundation, look resplendent on the cockpit and fuselage. We call this latest Calder 727 ‘Awesome Force One.’
Featured image: The former C-GYND, with Air Canada from 1980 to 1991, and later converted to a freighter for FedEx. Today, the ‘Awesome Force One’ serves as a ground in Miami International Airport. PHOTO CREDITS: CHRIS SLOAN