A-7E 158021 of VA-195, seen at NAS Lemoore in 1978, is representative of the colorful markings carried in the late 60s and 70s.
In the late and early '80s, the brass decided to tone down the color quite a bit. Studies had indicated that the grey/white/color paint made the aircraft easy to see at long distances, a decided disadvantage in aerial combat. The first move was to overall gull grey, with toned down unit markings. Then, the advent of TPS (Tactical Paint Scheme) ushered in a new era in NAVAIR - dull grey.
TPS consisted of 2 or 3 shades of matte grey, applied in specific patterns to each individual aircraft type. The camoflage was very effective in cutting down the aircraft's visual signatures. In practice, the greys were very hard to maintain, and due to the dull finish, stained very easily. Unit markings were mandated to be painted in one of the 3 TPS greys, whichever contrasted with the base color under the squadron markings. While the camo worked tactically, it resulted in aircraft that pretty much looked like refugees from a junkyard.
By contrast, here is an A-7E from VA-205, seen in 1988. The mottled appearance of the TPS camoflage is just normal wear and tear, but see how badly it shows up? Much more effective as a camoflage, but not exactly pleasing to the eye - or the camera.
Fortunately, a few years after the advent of TPS, complaints from the squadrons about the dull nature of the aircraft led to the Navy allowing one aircraft per squadron to receive some limited colored markings. This aircraft was typically called the 'CAG Bird' - referring to the aircraft as one marked in tribute to the Commander of the Air Wing.
As the 90s ended and the 00s came upon us, the Navy relaxed the policy even further, and more colorful CAG birds surfaced. Since the threat of air to air combat has been greatly minimized, the Esprit de Corps experienced with a colored up CAG bird far outweighs any tactical risk.
This relaxation has been a wonderful change for those of us who follow military aviation, particularly if we photograph the aircraft. Though grey is still the norm, seeing a colored up aircraft now and then puts a thrill into aviation enthusiasts.
Here are some recent 'CAG' birds and other examples of colorful markings fielded by US Navy and Marine squadrons. There are others, and I'll post some more from time to time.
The Strike Directorate based at NAS Pax River has this F-18F, BuNo 165875, undergoing tests of alternative fuels. The aircraft has been unofficially dubbed 'The Green Hornet'.
Though not a CAG bird, this VAW-126 E-2C Hawkeye carries eye catching black and blue Seahawk markings. Seen launching from the USS Truman is AC-603, BuNo 165648.
The Stingers of VFA-113 have had some spectacular CAG birds over the years. This one is rather mundane, but still qualifies as a colored up CAG bird. BuNo 164668 is a late build F-18C, and was flying off the USS Ronald Reagan.
This EA-6B Prowler of VAQ-139 is seen launching off the USS Reagan. NK-500 was BuNo 163527. The Cougars are based at NAS Whidbey Island while not on cruise.
The patriotic Prowler belongs to VAQ-141, flying off the USS Eisenhower at the time. The flag markings leave no doubt as to who owns BuNo 163521.
Test and Development unit VX-23 used this F-18C, 163476, during flight deck certification tests on the USS George H W Bush.
The rotor heads are also into the CAG thing. SH-60B 163294 belongs to HS-2, and is seen approaching the USS Lincoln.
Photo Credits - top two A-7 photos - yours truly. All others are official US Navy images.