A designation consists of a letter (or set of letters) indicating the type and mission of the aircraft, and a sequence number indicating a specific aircraft within a category, separated by a hyphen. The number may be followed by a series letter to indicate a variant of an aircraft. Most aircraft are also given a proper name, but this is not part of the formal designation.
Mission codes used in the USAAF system included the following:
A = Attack AG = Assault glider AT = Advanced trainer B = Bomber BC = Basic combat BG = Bomb glider BQ = Guided bomb BT = Basic trainer C = Cargo transport CG = Cargo glider CQ = Target control F = Photographic reconnaissance FG = Fuel-carrying glider FM = Multiplace fighter G = Gyroplane GB = Glide bomb GT = Glide torpedo JB = Jet-propelled bomb L = Liaison O = Observation OA = Observation amphibian OQ = Target P = Pursuit PB = Biplace pursuit PG = Powered glider PQ = Manned target PT = Primary trainer R = Rotorcraft TG = Training gliderThese codes were sometimes modified by one of the following prefixes, indicating a special status or modification:
C = Cargo transport F = Photographic reconnaissance K = Ferret R = Restricted operations T = Trainer U = Utility V = Staff/VIP transport X = Experimental Y = Service test Z = ObsoleteThe first version of a type had no series letter; the second was suffixed with "A", the third with "B", and so on. To avoid confusion with the numbers "1" and "0", the letters "I" and "O" were usually skipped. For example, the B-29A is the second version of the 29th bomber aircraft identified by the USAAF.
The USAF system (1948) was similar to the USAAF system; it retained the three-part code, although the series letters now started with "A" for the first version rather than the second. The mission codes were rationalized somewhat. For example, "F" for "Fighter" replaced "P" for "Pursuit" (the existing P-series aircraft were redesignated, and new aircraft receiving F-series numbers continuing the old P-series). Similarly, "H" for "Helicopter" replaced "R" for "Rotorcraft", and "R" for "Reconnaissance" replaced "F" for "Photographic". The "L" for "Liaison" code was replaced by "O" for "Observation", and most of the two-letter codes were combined into one (e.g. a single "T" series replaced the old "AT", "BT", and "PT").
Before the adoption of the Tri-Service system in 1962, the US Navy had its own system of aircraft designations, completely different from that used by the USAAF and USAF. This system consisted of up to five parts:
(1) One or two letters to indicate the function. These included:
A = Attack BF = Fighter-bomber F = Fighter HC = Transport helicopter HO = Observation helicopter HU = Utility helicopter J = Utility N = Trainer O = Observation P = Patrol PB = Patrol bomber R = Transport SB = Scout bomber T = Trainer TB = Torpedo bomber W = Early warning(2) A sequence number, to distinguish between aircraft of the same function built by the same manufacturer. The number was left out if it was 1.
(3) A letter to indicate the manufacturer. Because the US Navy used aircraft from considerably more than 26 different manufacturers, most of the letters of the alphabet were shared between several companies. The same company also frequently used more than one letter at various times. If the same aircraft was built by more than one firm, the designation was changed to reflect the individual manufacturers. For example, the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair was also built by Goodyear, whose Corsairs were designated FG. Some of the most important manufacturers were:
A = Brewster, Noorduyn B = Beech, Boeing, Vertol C = Cessna, Curtiss, de Havilland Canada D = Douglas, McDonnell E = Cessna, Piper F = Fairchild, Grumman G = Goodyear H = McDonnell J = North American K = Fairchild, Kaman L = Bell M = Bell, Martin, General Motors O = Lockheed, Piper P = Piasecki Q = Fairchild S = Sikorsky, Stearman T = Northrop U = Chance-Vought V = Lockheed, Vultee W = Wright Y = Consolidated, Convair(4) After a dash, a number to indicate a subtype.
(5) Optionally, a letter to indicate a minor variation on a subtype.
For example, the F4U was the fourth fighter designed by Chance-Vought for the US Navy. The F4U-1A was a modified version of the first subtype of the F4U.
When Robert McNamara became Secretary of Defense under Pres. Kennedy, he found the differences between these systems so confusing that he ordered the Air Force, Navy, and Army to devise a simpler naming convention common to all three services. Thus was born the Tri-Service system of 1962. For the most part, this system is the same as the Air Force convention.
The Tri-Service System underwent further changes, although it still retained the basic scheme of the older systems. The most important changes were that the system now included Navy aircraft as well as USAF and Army, and that most of the numeric sequences were restarted from 1, since some were now well past 100 and were becoming unwieldy.
Starting from the central dash and moving *left*, the letter codes now consist of up to four letters (although only the "basic mission" code is mandatory, and I've never seen a real designation with more than three letters).
(1) Vehicle type (optional; indicates something other than a conventional fixed-wing aircraft):
G = Glider H = Helicopter V = VTOL or STOL Z = Lighter than air (Z for Zeppelin)(2) Basic mission:
A = Attack B = Bomber C = Cargo transport E = Special electronics F = Fighter O = Observation P = Maritime patrol R = Reconnaissance S = Anti-submarine warfare T = Trainer U = Utility X = Research(3) Modified mission (optional; indicates that a type originally designed for the mission indicated by its "basic mission" code has been modified for a different mission); includes the A, C, E, F, O, P, R, S, T, and U mission codes, plus:
D = Drone control H = Search and rescue K = Tanker (K for Kerosene) L = Cold weather M = Multi-mission Q = Drone V = VIP or staff transport W = Weather observation(4) Status (optional; indicates any unusual status):
G = Permanently grounded J = Temporary special test N = Permanent special test X = Experimental Y = Prototype Z = PlanningThe sequence numbers are based on the vehicle type (if present) or the basic mission. For example, all helicopters (vehicle type "H") are numbered in a single sequence regardless of the basic mission code. In contrast, conventional aircraft (with no vehicle type code) follow separate sequences for attack aircraft, bombers, fighter, transports, and so on. There are a few exceptions here. For example, the AV-8 Harrier seems to have taken the number 8 slot in the "A" series rather than in the "V" sequence. For some reason, the "T" (trainer) sequence, last seen in the Cessna T-47 in 1984, was restarted with the Beech T-1 Jayhawk in 1990. Further adding to the confusion is the fact that two recent trainer programs were given the designations T-48 and T-49.
Other examples also exist illustrating how the system has not been followed perfectly. Some exceptions include:
As indicated above, the numbering of aircraft was restarted at 1 when the services switched to the new system. While Air Force aircraft in service at the time retained their original designations (e.g. the F-111 and B-52), all Navy aircraft then in service were renumbered to conform to the new system:
Beech SNB Expediter = C-45 * Bell HTL/HUL Sioux = H-13 * Convair F2Y Sea Dart = F-7 Convair P4Y Privateer = P-4 Convair R4Y Samaritan = C-131 * De Havilland Canada UC Otter = U-1 * Douglas AD Skyraider = A-1 Douglas A3D Skywarrior = A-3 Douglas A4D Skyhawk = A-4 Douglas F3D Skyknight = F-10 Douglas F4D Skyray = F-6 Douglas JD Invader = B-26 * Douglas R4D Skytrain = C-47/117 * Douglas R5D Skymaster = C-54 * Douglas R6D Liftmaster = C-118 * Fairchild R4Q Boxcar = C-119 * Grumman A2F Intruder = A-6 Grumman F9F Panther/Cougar = F-9 Grumman F11F Tiger = F-11 Grumman S2F Tracker = S-2 Grumman TF Trader = C-1 Grumman UF Albatross = U-16 * Grumman WF Tracer = E-1 Grumman W2F Hawkeye = E-2 Kaman HOK/HTK/HUK Huskie = H-43 * Kaman HU2K Seasprite = H-2 Lockheed GV/R8V Hercules = C-130 * Lockheed P2V Neptune = P-2 Lockheed P3V Orion = P-3 Lockheed R7V/WV Constellation = C-121 * Lockheed TV Shooting Star = T-33 * Lockheed T2V Seastar = T-1 Lockheed UV Jetstar = C-140 * Martin P5M Marlin = P-5 Martin RM = C-3 McDonnell F2D/F2H Banshee = F-2 McDonnell F3H Demon = F-3 McDonnell F4H Phantom II = F-4 North American AJ Savage = A-2 North American A3J Vigilante = A-5 North American FJ Fury = F-1 North American T2J Buckeye = T-2 North American T3J Sabreliner = T-39 * Piasecki HUP Retriever = H-25 * Piper UO Aztec = U-11 Sikorsky HO4S/HRS Chickasaw = H-19 * Sikorsky HR2S Mojave = H-37 * Sikorsky HSS Sea King = H-3 * Sikorsky HUS Seabat/Seahorse = H-34 * Sikorsky HU2S Seaguard = H-52 Vertol HRB Sea Knight = H-46 Vought F8U Crusader = F-8 (* Designation already used by USAF)
Although the new system is much simpler and easier to understand, it hasn't always been applied faithfully.
For example, why was the F-117 stealth fighter numbered under
the older convention even though it was developed almost 20 years after switching to the new system? Why does it
have an "F" designation when it isn't really a fighter? Why were the F-13 and F-19 designations skipped?
Regardless, I hope this discussion alleviates your confusion about the diferent designation schemes used by the US
- answer by Jeff Scott, 4 February 2001
I want to know what parameters indicate the generation of an aircraft, both military and civilian. For example, the F-14 is considered a fourth generation fighter. Can you sort aircraft by their generations?
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