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Disney Parks can be an overwhelming experience of sights and sounds — even for the most seasoned Guest. With so much to see and do, it’s easy to miss the unique touches and backstories that are part of the history and magic of Disney. But it is also possible to find the history and magic of Disney outside the Parks — sometimes when you least expect it. 

Nearly every year since 2000, I have made the journey to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for AirVenture, the annual convention and fly-in of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). It is the place to rub elbows with aviation enthusiasts from around the globe and gawk at over 10,000 vintage, homebuilt, aerobatic, warbird, and ultralight planes. But why would someone find Disney at an event known as the World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration®?

Let’s start with the 1942 Howard 250, an executive aircraft created from a military Lockheed C-60A Lodestar patrol and bomber aircraft. It is a fixed-wing, multi-engine airplane with 17 seats. In 2014, this vintage warbird was on display at AirVenture, and of course, it was the nose art on the fuselage that depicted both Mickey and Minnie that caught my eye.  

Nose art on airplanes is a typically military tradition but not one that necessarily originated in the United States. Some of the first examples of fuselage art were recorded in Italy around 1913, followed by nose art created by German pilots in World War I. But it was during World War II that the practice of nose art embellishment flourished and evolved into an art form. It is considered the golden age of military nose art. 

Aircraft art inscription was a vital morale booster for the American troops during World War II. It provided identification and solidarity, and it also made their airplanes unique from all others in their unit and base. From a practical standpoint, nose art helped with the identification of a friend or foe aircraft. Aircraft art took the form of pin-up girls, movie starlets, patriotic symbols, animals, and cartoon characters.  At a time when servicemen lived day to day, protecting the United States, aviation art reminded them of the comforts of home.

Also at AirVenture in 2014 was the B-25J Mitchell, Panchito, from the collection of the Delaware Aviation Museum. Assigned to the 396th Bomb Squadron during World War II, Captain Don Seiler was responsible for naming the plane “Panchito.” In fact, Panchito Pistolas was, during World War II, and still is, the mascot of Mexico’s 201st Fighter Squadron — Escuadrón 201. As the mascot, Panchito is featured on the unit’s insignia, flashing a smile and toting handguns.

So, how did the name Disney become synonymous with military art? The answer to that question is much broader than limiting it to the aviation nose art created by talented civilians and servicemen. During World War II, when the entire county mobilized its priorities and resources to the war effort, Walt Disney contracted with the United States military. From 1942 to 1945, Disney Studios produced educational and propaganda films, morale-building ephemera, and customized military unit insignia designs. If you want to read more about it, check out the book Disney During World War II: How the Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War, by John Baxter. 

Disney magic is everywhere! Sometimes in the most unexpected places.  IMHO, finding an unexpected connection to the Disney story is as thrilling as finding a hidden Mickey—especially when you’re not searching for one. 

To learn more about Kathy Wicks and read some of her other posts, visit her author page.  

(All photos from the personal collection of Kathy Wicks.)

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