Whether it’s Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” or Maverick from “Top Gun,” some of the most famous pilots wear eye-grabbing, custom-painted helmets. But for the past 35 years or so, Air Force pilots have been banned from wearing their 55/P helmets in any color save the drab gray they came out of the factory in. That is, until the ban was lifted in 2019, which ushered in a tiny cottage industry cranking out personalized decals for aviator helmets.
“We all grew up watching ‘Top Gun,’ it was part of the reason we wanted to be fighter pilots,” said Maj. Brad “Scooby” Hunt, a former F-16 fighter pilot who now trains up-and-coming fighter jocks in the Air Force Reserves. “They all had these cool intricate helmets, but we were not allowed to do that, so nobody did.”
Even if they could, few pilots knew how. Hunt discovered that for himself after the ban was lifted. He and his buddies at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas had a hard time finding a business to make helmet wraps for them. Helmet wraps are sheets of vinyl with graphic designs on them that pilots stick onto the gray plastic parts of their helmets. Since nobody else could make them, Hunt bought some vinyl from a car shop and spent a four-day weekend figuring out how to do it himself. He emerged with a bright blue vinyl wrap that he slapped on his helmet and flexed on the flight line.
“I started taxiing around with this bright blue helmet on and people asked me to do theirs,” he recalled.
At first, it was just aviators at Sheppard who requested their own helmet wraps. Hunt worked with them to create the graphic of their choice, printed it out on vinyl, applied it to the helmet himself, then posted shots of his work to Instagram. But when one squadron flying F-15 fighter jets out of Kadena Air Base, Japan requested wraps, Hunt realized he would have to make a tutorial and a kit for the Kadena fliers to do it themselves.
“I knew how complicated and technical it was, so I said as long as they could work with me to come up with a way for them to do it themselves, I would work it out for them,” Hunt said.
It took a few weeks, but eventually, he and the F-15 drivers figured it out. The process starts with sticking the vinyl base color to the gray shell. Once that’s done, the graphics themselves, such as the callsign, skull-and-crossbones, or aircraft silhouette, are slapped on top of the base layer. It’s a painstaking process to trim away the excess vinyl, but it definitely pays off.
“Dude that turned out so good!” wrote one commenter on Instagram reacting to a wrap depicting T-38 and T-6 training planes flying against a bold blue sky in the style of a retro airline poster. “Siiick” is also a common reaction among commenters responding to the wraps.
Nailing the tutorial and putting together an apply-it-yourself kit for the Kadena pilots “opened the floodgates” for Hunt and his new business, Nugget Wraps. Soon, he had requests for wraps from U.S. and foreign aviators around the world flying nearly every military aircraft you can think of. He has had requests from foreign military aviators in Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia, just to name a few, he said. Hunt has shipped wraps to almost every continent, and he hopes the Air Force’s ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules, which runs supply flights for scientists in Antarctica, can bring one of his wraps to the ice so that he can finally check that box. Nugget Wraps sent out 1,500 to 2,000 helmet wraps last year, and the last time Hunt checked, he had a two-month waitlist for new customers.
“I get requests almost every day,” he said. “I got a message from someone in the Chilean Air Force just six hours ago.”
Part of the reason for the long waitlist is because Hunt is training for a new job flying for American Airlines. Still, he enjoys working on the wraps when he can find time. Though he does not have a formal art background, the pilot took a few art classes in high school and has always enjoyed working his creative side. He essentially taught himself how to do graphic design, and the more he learns, the better he can execute a fellow aviator’s vision, he said.
“The types of helmets I’m doing, they’re almost like people’s own personal murals,” he said. “I don’t turn to specific artists for inspiration, but I try to listen to what people want and ask ‘if this were my helmet, what would I want it to look like?’”
Part of the appeal of the helmet wraps is that they help aviators stand out from the crowd. In that same vein, Hunt said that he’s proud of unique details he adds to some of the wraps, such as glow-in-the-dark vinyl, or Matrix-like vertical lines of green numbers, or a wrap that perfectly imitates the classic helmet worn by Maverick into battle with Russian MiGs.
“I don’t know if I really have favorite helmets,” the pilot said. “Every once in a while I’ll do something unique in a helmet that stands out and that’s my favorite aspect of the helmet.”
Still, considering the long waitlist and his own lack of free time, he wouldn’t mind other people getting into the helmet wrap business, he said. Some Air Force bases like Randolph, Holloman, Seymour Johnson and Lakenheath work with local shops to crank out wraps for the squadrons there, but otherwise the cottage industry of bespoke helmet wrap design is still a tiny one.
“I don’t feel like I need to be the only one doing this,” Hunt said. “I’m only able to do so many helmets at one time, so I would want people to have some options.”
Going forward, helmets may not be the only thing you see Hunt’s artistic fingerprint on. The pilot and a few of his friends hope to sell hats, t-shirts and other merchandise that might appeal to both pilots and casual aviation fans at an airshow. It’s all in the spirit of “AV8RO,” a shorthand Hunt puts on all his personal helmets which stands for “aviate bro.” The saying combines his passion for aviation with the chill vibes of Hunt’s childhood spent in California’s central valley in the 1990s, where everybody said ‘bro.’”
“I just want people to enjoy flying, so whatever adds to their enjoyment of flying,” he said. “For me, when I taxi around and people see my helmet, they know it’s me, even with my visor on and my mask down. They know exactly who’s in that airplane, and there’s an emotional connection to that airplane now.”
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