MIAMI — Today in Aviation marks the 45th anniversary of the launch of Alexander Calder’s Flying Colors of the United States livery by Braniff, depicted on a Boeing 727-200 from the airline, to celebrate the 4th of July.

Back in 1976, as the United States was turning into its 200th year as an independent republic, there were countless celebrations and local observances nationwide to commemorate the major event, and in the U.S. aviation, the wave of patriotism and nostalgia was also present.

Braniff The Flying Colors of the United States by Alexander Calder 

Back in 1972, George Stanley Gordon from Gordon and Shortt advertising agency approached Modern Master Artist Alexander Calder about using full-sized aircraft as his canvas.

Gordon assured that it would be the world’s largest flying artwork, and caught the interest of the artist, who readily accept the idea.

After proposing the concept to Braniff—Gordon believed that the airline’s space-aged avant-garde inspired art and fashion would be the perfect customer for his concept—the airline commissioned Calder to paint three aircraft, and Gordon’s agency obtained the advertising account for the airline.

Master artist Alexander Calder (left) and advertising executive George Stanley Gordon (right) with Calder painted Douglas DC-8 1/25 scale model in 1973. (Credits: Braniff Flying Colors Collection)

In 1975, after the successful launch of the Flying Colors of South America depicted in a Douglas DC-8 airliner, Braniff selected a Boeing 727-200 –the backbone of its domestic fleet– to carry the scheme of the Flying Colors of the United States as a salute from the artist to the 200th anniversary of the nation.

The “Flying Colors of South America” was widely advertised, as seen in this 1973 brochure. (Credits: Chris Sloan)

The aircraft selected was a Boeing 727-200 registered as N408BN (MSN 19993 • LN 549). Originally delivered to Frontier Airlines in 1968 as N7278F, it was sold to Braniff International in 1972.

Alexander Calder took the jetliner and performed an abstract painting of the Old Glory in red, blue and white as it waves in the skies. In keeping with the importance and relevance as a true artwork of the artist, Braniff opted to not to put its titles on the airliner, and only applied the signature of Calder at the front of the aircraft.

Braniff reproduced a Calder hand-painted design representing the stripes and stars of the "Old Glory." This lithography was presented to leading travel agencies as a souvenir to highlight the 200th years of Independence. (Credits: Chris Sloan)
Braniff reproduced a Calder hand-painted design representing the stripes and stars of the “Old Glory.” This lithograph was presented to leading travel agencies as a souvenir to highlight the 200th years of Independence. (Credits: Chris Sloan)

According to, a website dedicated to the history of the airline, ship 408 used to be as temperamental as the artist who painted it.

Pilots and engineers gave it the nickname Sneaky Snake for two reasons: first, Calder, shortly before his death in 1976, painted a snake on the number one engine nacelle cover.

It originally was introduced with just a red ribbon design on this nacelle, and second, the aircraft used to have a “trim problem” that caused pilots to have its altitude and heading constantly adjusted by hand.


After Braniff’s demise in 1982, the aircraft remained grounded in Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport for two years, when it was briefly operated by Braniff II and later sold to a leasing firm.

Braniff’s Ship 408 did not have only a distinguishable scheme and story but also had an interesting career flying with half a dozen different operators in the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe (Pride Air, Arrow Air, World Airways, Air Atlanta, Cayman Airways, and Torosair in Turkey).

The life of this 727 ended up in a spectacular way as was its scheme and career.

In 1993, during the filming of Bad Boys, the aircraft was used as part of the movie set in Opa-Locka with another iconic building—the Blimp Hangar.

Both were destroyed in an explosion during the final filming sequence.


Braniff’s Flying Colors of the United States is for sure object of fascination among many aviation enthusiasts.

Many of the children who grew during the 1960s and 1970s remember not only this patriotic scheme but also Alexander Calder’s other work for Braniff.

Of these three aircraft commissioned, only two were completed. The Spirit of Mexico, intended to be applied in a second Boeing 727, was never painted.

Editor’s Note: Chris Sloan, Airways Managing Editor/Sr. Partner, named his late son Calder Sloan, after the artist who designed this extraordinary flying masterpiece. Calder Sloan, who became known as Mr. Awesome, passed away suddenly in April 2014 shortly after his 7th birthday.

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