What Are Aircraft Zaps?

A US Navy jet that got zapped for landing on the wrong carrier.

What is a Zap or Zapping an Aircraft?

It’s not unusual for a military aircraft to return to home station following a trip to another base and find that it has been “zapped.”  These “zaps” are often found by mechanics whilst inspecting the aircraft. Some are placed out in the open, while others are hidden away only to be discovered during a heavy inspection visit. These zaps are slogans, badges, stickers, and other items that air forces or squadrons place on each other's aircraft as a form of friendly rivalry and humor. The use of zaps and other such pranks helps maintain morale and embodies the sense of humor that is well-known among aircraft squadrons.

Example of a USAF zap sticker

The US Navy takes zapping to a whole new level when an airplane lands on the wrong aircraft carrier as evidenced in the following picture.

A US Navy aircraft that got zapped for landing on the wrong aircraft carrier.

Historically, rivalry between units of the armed forces has always existed, with squadrons constantly trying to outdo each other, playing tricks and finding ways to outsmart their peers to prove that they are the best. This competition has spurred each unit to strive for greater performance.

Many squadrons create their own custom stickers, known as zaps, which they liberally spread around other units. These zaps are often found in obscure locations such as undercarriage bays and doors, and sometimes even include graffiti added by ground or flight crew. Military buses on Air Force bases often have tons of zaps on the overhead above the driver and entrance door.

A USAF zap sticker that was placed inside an RAF Tornado

The use of zaps is not limited to just aircraft squadrons. It can be found in various other military units as well. For instance, in the British Army, each unit has its own cap badge, and some units have their own unique zaps. It is also seen in the Navy, where ships display their own logos and names, and in the Marine Corps, where units have their own slogans and insignias.

The origins of zaps can be traced back to World War II when allied squadrons started placing their own insignia on captured enemy aircraft. This practice soon evolved into a tradition of placing stickers or badges on friendly aircraft as a form of friendly rivalry.

The use of zaps has several benefits, including building camaraderie and esprit de corps within the unit. It creates a sense of identity and pride in the unit and boosts morale, which is crucial in high-stress environments. Moreover, it promotes healthy competition among units, encouraging them to perform to the best of their abilities.

A RNZAF member zapping a USAF F-15 on a visit to New Zealand

Zaps are not limited to friendly rivalries; they can also be used as a means of conveying a message or showing solidarity. For instance, during the Gulf War, American pilots placed yellow ribbons on their aircraft as a show of support for the troops on the ground. In another instance, British pilots placed a zap on their aircraft with the message ‘Don’t panic Saddam, we’re coming’ during the First Gulf War.

However, there have been instances where zaps have caused controversy. For example, in 2017, a Royal Navy helicopter crew was reprimanded for placing a sticker of a naked woman on their aircraft. Similarly, in 2019, an RAF squadron was criticized for placing a zap depicting a missile with the words ‘Love from Tehran’ on their aircraft during a deployment to the Middle East.

In conclusion, zaps and similar antics have been a part of military culture for a long time. They serve as a means of promoting camaraderie and healthy competition between units, as well as a way of conveying messages or showing solidarity. However, they can also be controversial and must be used with discretion. Despite this, the use of zaps will likely continue to be a part of military culture for years to come.

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