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Until 1962, the United States Navy, the United States Marine Corps and the United States Coast Guard used a system to designate their aircraft that included information about a craft's role and its manufacturer. For a listing of all such designations see List of military aircraft of the United States (naval).

The system

The system conveyed its information in the form:

(Mission)(Design Number)(Manufacturer)-(Subtype)(Minor Modification)

For example, F4U-1A referred to the first minor modification (A) to the first major subtype (1) of Chance-Vought's (U) fourth (4) fighter (F) design.

For the first few years after the system was introduced, the manufacturer's letter and the mission letter were sometimes reversed. If it was the manufacturer's first design for that particular mission, there was no number before the manufacturer letter.


The mission of the aircraft was designated by a one or two letter code. This code would also indicate whether the craft was a glider (L), helicopter (H) or lighter-than-air (Z). Duplicated codes were not in use at the same time.

Design number

In cases where an aircraft was its manufacturer's first design for a particular mission, the 1 would not be written. Thus the Consolidated Catalina patrol aircraft was the PBY, not PB1Y, and the McDonnell Phantom was FH, not F1H.


The codes used to denote manufacturers were not unique to a single company as they were reassigned, usually when the company had either ceased operations or had not produced an aircraft for the Navy for a considerable period of time. Additionally, aircraft built under license received a separate design number than the aircraft produced by the designing company. For example, Goodyear produced Vought's F4U as the FG and Grumman's TBF torpedo bomber was produced by General Motors as the TBM. Foreign aircraft generally did not receive a designation under this system unless they were to be built under license in the United States, or were built in Canada for use in the U.S.

Special modifications

Letters were occasionally appended after the design number, in the same place held for minor modifications to the subtype. Adding 'N' to the Grumman F6F-5 designated the radar equipped nightfighter version of that model: F6F-5N. There was no standarization with these codes.

End of the system

In 1962, the Department of Defense unified its aircraft designation systems along the lines of the Air Force's system. Many Navy aircraft then in service were redesignated. For many planes, the mission letters and design numbers were retained, as the AD Skyraider became the A-1 and the F4H Phantom II became the F-4. Some aircraft design numbers were not retained, like the North American Vigilante, which was redesignated from A3J to A-5.

Similar systems

A very similar system, the short system, was adopted by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service in the late 1920s that differed only in the use of the 1 for the first assigned type, and having letters assigned to match Japanese aircraft and manufacturers.

Aircraft Type Codes[1]
Code Type Example Period
A Attack AD 1946–1962
A Ambulance AE 1943–1962
B Bomber BG 1931–1946
BD Bomber - Drone BDR 1944
BF Bomber - Fighter BF2C 1934–1937
BT Bomber - Torpedo BTD 1942–1945
DS Drone - Antisubmarine DSN 1959–1962
F Fighter F2A 1922–1962
G Aerial Refueling Tanker GV-1 1958–1962
G Glider RG (USCG) 1946–1962
G Transport, Single Engined GK 1939–1941
H Hospital HE 1929–1942
H Air-Sea Rescue never assigned 1946–1962
HC Helicopter - Crane HCH 1952–1955
HJ Helicopter - Utility HJP 1944–1949
HN Helicopter - Training HNS 1944–1948
HO Helicopter - Observation HO4S 1944–1962
HR Helicopter - Transport HRB 1944–1962
HS Helicopter - anti-Submarine HSS 1951–1962
HT Helicopter - Training HTK 1948–1962
HU Helicopter - Utility HUP 1950–1962
J Utility JB 1928–1955
JR Utility transport JRM 1935–1955
KD Drone KDA 1945–1962
LB Glider Bomb (unmanned) LBD 1941–1945
LN Glider - Trainer LNE 1941–1945
LR Glider - Transport LRW 1941–1945
M Marine Expeditionary EM 1922–1923
N Trainer[2] N3N 1922–1946
O Observation O2U 1922–1962
OS Observation Scout OS2U 1935–1945
P Patrol PV 1922–1962
PT Patrol Torpedo never assigned 1922
PB Patrol Bomber PBY 1935–1962
PTB Patrol Torpedo Bomber PTBH 1937–1938
P Pursuit WP 1922–1923
R Racer R2C 1922–1928
R Transport R4D 1931–1962
RO Rotocycle RON 1954–1959
S Scout SC 1922–1946
S anti-Submarine S2F 1946–1962
SB Scout Bomber (dive bomber) SBD 1934–1946
SN Scout Trainer[3] SNJ 1939–1946
SO Scout Observation SOC 1934–1946
T Torpedo DT 1922–1935
T Transport TA 1927–1930
T Trainer T2J 1946–1962
TB Torpedo Bomber TBD 1935–1946
TD Target Drone TDC 1942–1946
TS Torpedo Scout TSF 1943–1946
U Utility UF 1955–1962
W airborne early Warning WF 1952–1962
ZP Patrol Airship ZPG 1947–1962
ZR Rigid Airship ZR 1922–1935
ZS Scout Airship ZS2G 1954–1962
ZT Training Airship ZTG 1947–1962
ZW airborne early Warning Airship ZWG 1952–1962
Aircraft Manufacturer Codes[1]
Code Name Example Period
A Allied XLRA 1943
A Atlantic/General Aviation[4] XFA-1 1927–1932
A Brewster F2A 1935–1943
A Noorduyn JA-1 1946
B Bee line BR-1 1922
B Boeing F2B 1923–1962
B Beechcraft GB 1937–1962
B Budd RB 1942–1944
BS Blackburn (UK) BST 1922
C Curtiss and Curtiss-Wright R4C 1922–1962
C Culver TDC 1941–1946
C Cessna JRC 1943–1951
C de Havilland Canada UC 1955–1962
CH Caspar(Germany) CST 1922
D Douglas[5] R2D 1922–1962
D McDonnell FD 1942–1946
D Radioplane TDD 1943-1948
D Frankfort TD3D 1945-1946
DH de Havilland (UK) XDC-60 1927–1931
DW Dayton-Wright SDW 1923
E Bellanca XRE 1931–1937
E Cessna OE 1951–1962
E Detroit TE 1928
E Edo OSE 1943–1962
E Elias EM 1922–1924
E Hiller YROE 1948–1962
E Piper AE-1 1941–1945
E Pratt-Read/Gould LNE 1942–1945
F Grumman SF 1931–1962
F Fairchild-Canada SBF 1942–1945
F Fokker (Netherlands) FT 1922
G A.G.A. (originally Pitcairn) XLRG 1941–1942
G Eberhart XF2G 1927–1928
G Gallaudet not used 1922–1923
G Globe KDG 1946–1959
G Goodyear F2G 1942–1962
G Great Lakes BG 1929–1935
H Hall-Aluminum PH 1928–1937
HP Handley Page(UK) HPS 1922–1923
H Howard GH 1941–1944
H Huff-Daland HO 1922–1927
H McDonnell F3H 1946–1962
H Snead LRH 1942
H Stearman-Hammond JH 1937–1939
J Berliner-Joyce[4] OJ 1929–1935
J General Aviation[4] PJ 1935–1937
J North American[4] SNJ 1937–1962
JL Junkers-Larson JL 1922
K Fairchild/Kreider-Reisner XR2K 1935,
K Kaiser-Fleetwings XBTK 1948–1950
K Kaman HTK/HOK/HUK 1950–1962
K Keystone PK 1927–1930
K Kinner XRK 1935–1936
K J. V. Martin KF 1922–1924
K Nash-Kelvinator JRK 1942
L Bell XFL 1939–1962
L Columbia XJL 1944–1946
L Langley XNL 1940
L Loening OL 1923–1933
L L.W.F. not used 1922
M Martin JRM 1922–1962
M General Motors (Eastern) TBM 1942–1945
M McCulloch HUM 1951–1952
N Gyrodyne Company DSN 1960
N Naval Aircraft Factory N3N 1922–1962
O Lockheed R2O 1931–1942
O Piper UO 1955–1962
O Viking OO 1923–1941
P Piasecki/P.V./Vertol HUP 1946–1962
P Piper LNP 1941–1945
P Pitcairn OP 1931–1932
P Spartan NP 1940–1941
PL Parnall(UK) PL? 1922
Q Bristol[6] XLRQ 1941–1943
Q Fairchild J2Q 1928–1962
Q Hall-Aluminum unkn. designation 1926
Q Stinson XR3Q 1934–1936
R Aeronca LNR 1942–1946
R American Aviation unk. designation 1942
R Brunswick drone, unk. designation 1942–1943
R Ford JR/RR 1927–1932
R Interstate TDR 1942–1945
R Maxson NR 1939–1940
R Radioplane KD2R 1940–1952
R Ryan FR 1948–1962
RO Meridionali Romeo (Italy) unk. designation 1933
S Aeromarine AS 1922
S Schweizer LNS 1941
S Sikorsky JRS 1928–1962
S Sperry Drone, unk. designation 1950
S Stearman N2S 1934–1945
S Stout ST 1922
S Supermarine ST reserved, not used 1943
T New Standard NT 1930–1934
T Northrop F2T 1933-1937 &
T Taylorcraft LBT 1942–1946
T Temco KDT 1955–1962
T Thomas-Morse R-5 maybe not used 1922
T Timm N2T 1941–1943
U Chance-Vought F4U 1922–1962
V Canadian Vickers PBV 1941–1945
V Lockheed P2V 1942–1962
V Vultee SNV 1943–1945
VK Vickers Viking unk. designation 1923
W Canadian Car & Foundry SBW 1942–1945
W Waco XJW 1934–1945
W Willys-Overland unk. designation 1948–1962
W Wright NW 1922–1926
X Cox-Klemin XS 1922–1924
Y Consolidated PBY 1926–1954
Y Stinson OY 1942–1950
Y Convair F2Y 1954–1962
Z Wilford/Pennsylvania XOZ 1933–1934


  1. 1.0 1.1 Swanborough, Gordon and Peter Bowers, US Navy Aircraft Since 1911, Putnam, 1990, ISBN 0-85177-838-0
  2. analogous to USAAC Primary Trainer
  3. analogous to USAAF Advanced Trainer
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Atlantic, Berliner-Joyce, General Aviation and North American Aviation shared a lineage as a result of mergers and renamings, hence the reuse of the designation letter "J"
  5. The US Navy RD-2 and the USCG RD-2 designations referred to two substanntially different versions of the Douglas Dolphin
  6. Unrelated to British company of similar name.

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