US Navy Aircraft Designations of the Second World War

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Introduction and Explanation
Aircraft class designations
Aircraft manufacturers
Aircraft currently on the site

Introduction and Explanation

The US Navy used one of the more confusing systems of aircraft designations to be seen during the Second World War. This system contained three main elements and a number of optional elements.

The three main elements were the aircraft class designation, a sequence number specific to a particular aircraft manufacturer and a manufacturer code. This would often be followed by a dash number, reflecting a major sub-type of the aircraft.

The roots of the system in use during the Second World War can be traced back to 1920. In that year a system was introduced in which each type of aircraft was given a two letter code - the first letter to distinguish between lighter-than-air (Z) and heavier-than-air types(V), followed by a second letter to describe the mission responsibility of the aircraft. A fighter aircraft designation would thus start with VF.

This system was modified on 2 January 1934 to allow for multi-purpose aircraft. A third letter could be added to the type designation for the secondary mission duty of an aircraft (thus an aircraft type with the designation VPB would be a heavier than air patrol aircraft with secondary bombing duties.

The list of aircraft class designations in use during at the start of the Second World War was established on 1 July 1939, and contained eleven two letter codes and six three letter codes. During the war at least ten more designations were added to the list. In July 1944 the list was changed against, this time to include a number of sub-codes in brackets.

Next in line was the sequence number specific to a particular manufacture. This was only used for the second and later aircraft of a particular type produced by a particular company (ie the Grumman FF was the first naval fighter produced by that company, the F2F was the second). This is the most confusing part of the system, and things would have been a lot clearer if the sequence numbers had been tied to the aircraft class, not the manufacturer.

The third main part of the code was the manufacturer code, a one letter code, some of which are obvious, others less so.

This produced the distinctive letter-number-letter sequence of US navy aircraft.

Most major aircraft also gained a series of sub-types, distinguished by dash numbers, reaching as high as the F4U-7 for the Corsair. Just to confuse the picture even further, on occasions an aircraft was given a new designation. In this case both the sequence number and dash-number would alter, so the F4U-6 Corsair became the AU-1 when it was redesignated as an attack aircraft. On some occasions a different dash number indicated a very different aircraft, as with the PB4Y-2 Privateer, which was significantly different to the PB4Y-1 Liberator.

There was also a number of prefixes used, the most common of which was X for experimental. This has the capacity to distort alphabetical lists of aircraft types, especially when a particular aircraft never made it past that stage.

This system could produce some apparently illogical results. It is not at all uncommon for an aircraft with a high sequence number to be followed into service by one with a lower number from a different manufacturer (thus the Grumman F6F Hellcat was followed into service by the Chance Vought F4U Corsair). Later in the war when some types of aircraft were being constructed by more than one company virtually identical aircraft could have very different designations (thus the Grumman F4F Wildcat was also produced by Eastern Aircraft as the FM-1). The confusion this system could cause was recognised when the US Navy began to give its aircraft official names.

Aircraft class designations

In practice the V prefix is rarely given. Here we will list the one or two letter class designations as they are normally used.

1939 Codes

B - Bombing
F - Fighting
M - Miscellaneous
O - Observation
P - Patrol
S - Scouting
T- Torpedo
N - Training
R - Transport (Multi-engined)
G - Transport (Single-engined)
J - Utility
OS - Observation-Scouting
PB - Patrol-Bombing
SB - Scouting-Bombing
SO - Scouting-Observation
TB - Torpedo-Bombing
JR - Utility-Transport

Wartime Additions

A - Ambulance
BT - Bombing-Torpedo
SN - Scout-Training
L - Gliders
LN - Training Gliders
LR - Transport Gliders
H - Helicopters
HO - Observation-Helicopters
D - Drones
TD - Torpedo Drones

July 1944

F - Fighters
SB - Scout Bombers
B - Torpedo Bombers
O/S - observation scout
PB - Patrol Bombers
R - Transport
J - Utility
SN - Training
N - Training
K - Drones
KN - Drones (target training)
L - Gliders
LN - Gliders (training)
LR - Gliders (transport)

Subcodes
(M) - Medium or 2 engines (used with F and J)
(HL) - Heavy or 4 engine landplanes (used with PB and R)
(ML) - Medium or 2 engine landplanes
(HS) - Heavy or 4 engine seaplanes
(MS) - Medium or 2 engine seaplanes

Aircraft manufacturers (from official Glossary of U.S. Naval Abbreviations)

A - Allied Aviation Corporation
A - Brewster Aeronautical Corporation
A - Noorduyn Aviation Ltd.
B - Beech Aircraft Company
B - Boeing Aircraft Company
B - Budd Manufacturing Company
C - Cessna Aircraft Corporation
C - Culver Aircraft Corporation
C - Curtiss-Wright Corporation
D - Douglas Aircraft Company
D - McDonnell Aircraft Corporation
D - Radioplane Company
E - Bellanca Aircraft Corporation
E - Edo Aircraft Corporation
E - Piper Aircraft Corporation
F - Columbia Aircraft Corporation
F - Fairchild Aircraft Ltd (Canada)
F - Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation
G - Globe Corporation (Aircraft Division)
G - Goodyear Aircraft Corporation
G - Great Lakes Engineering Corporation
H - Hall-Aluminium Aircraft Corporation
H - Howard Aircraft Corporation
H - Stearman-Hammond Aircraft Corporation
J - North American Aviation Corporation
K - Fairchild Aviation Corporation
K - Kaiser Cargo Inc, Fleetwings Division
K - Kinner Airplane and Motor Corporation
K - Nash-Kelvinator Company
L - Bell Aircraft Corporation
L - Columbia Aircraft Corporation
L - Langley Aviation Corporation
M - General Motors Corporation, Eastern Aircraft Division
M - Glenn L. Martin Co.
N - Naval Aircraft Factory
O - Lockheed
P - Piper Aircraft corporation (Gliders)
P - P-V Engineering Forum, Inc (Helicopters)
P - Spartan Aircraft Co.
Q - Bristol Aeronautical Corporation (Gliders)
Q - Fairchild Aircraft Division, Fairchild Corporation
Q - Ranger-Lark Division, Fairchild Corporation
Q - Stinson Aircraft Corporation (later part of Consolidated-Vultee)
R - Aeronca Aircraft Corporation
R - American Aviation Corporation (Gliders)
R - Brunswick-Balke-Callender
R - Interstate Aircraft and Engineering Corporation
R - Maxson-Brewster (W.L. Maxson Corporation)
R - Ryan Aeronautical Company
S - Boeing Aircraft Company/ Stearman
S - Schweizer Aircraft Co.
S - Sikorsky Aircraft (United Aircraft Corporation)
S - Vought-Sikorsky (United Aircraft Corporation)
T - Northrop Aircraft Inc (El Segundo Division, Douglas Aircraft)
T - Taylorcraft Aviation Corporation
T - Timm Aircraft Corporation
U - Chance Vought Aircraft (United Aircraft Corporation)
U - Vought-Sikorsky (United Aircraft Corporation)
V - Canadian Vickers
V - Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation (ConVAir)
V - Vega Aircraft Corporation, later Lockheed Aircraft Corporation
V - Vickers, Inc.
V - Vultee
W - Canadian Car and Foundary
W - Waco Aircraft Comapny
W - Willys-Overland
Y - Consolidated Aircraft Corporation
Y - Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation

Aircraft currently on the site (by class)

B - Bomber

Douglas BD-1 and BD-2 (Havoc)
Northrop BT-1

BF - Bomber-Fighter

Curtiss BFC
Curtiss BF2C

F - Fighter

Bell XFL-1 Airabonita
Brewster F2A Buffalo
Chance Vought F4U Corsair
Curtiss F4C
Curtiss F6C Hawk
Curtiss F7C Seahawk
Curtiss F8C Helldiver
Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk
Curtiss XF10C-1/ XS3C
Curtiss F11C Goshawk
Curtiss F12C/ XS4C/ XSBC (Model 73)
Curtiss XF13C
Curtiss XF14C
Curtiss XF15C
Eastern Aircraft Division FM-1 Wildcat
Eastern Aircraft Division FM-2 Wildcat
Goodyear FG Corsair
Goodyear F2G "Super Corsair"
Grumman F4F Wildcat
Grumman F6F Hellcat
Northrop FT
Northrop F2T (Black Widow)

H - Ambulance (early)

Loening XHL-1

J - Utility

Douglas JD Invader
Martin JM Marauder

O - Observation

Curtiss OC
Curtiss O2C Helldiver
Douglas OD
Loening OL
Loening O2L

P - Patrol

Consolidated XPY-1 Admiral
Consolidated P2Y
Lockheed PV-1
Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon
Martin XP2M
Martin P3M

PB - Patrol Bomber

Boeing PB-1W (Fortress)
Consolidated PBY Catalina
Consolidated PB4Y-1 Liberator
Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer
Lockheed PBO-1 (Hudson)

R - Transport

Consolidated RY Liberator
Douglas R2D-1
Douglas R3D (DC-5)
Douglas R4D (DC-3/ C-47)
Douglas R4D-8 (Super DC-3)
Douglas R5D (DC-4)

S - Scouting

Curtiss XS2C-1 (YA-10)
Curtiss XS3C/ XF10C-1
Curtiss XS4C/ XSBC / F12C (Model 73)

SB - Scout Bomber

Curtiss XSBC/ F12C/ XS4C (Model 73)
Curtiss SBC Helldiver
Curtiss SB2C Helldiver
Douglas SBD Dauntless

TB - Torpedo Bomber

Chance-Vought XTBU-1 Sea Wolf
Consolidated TBY-2 Sea Wolf
Douglas TBD Devastator
Eastern TBM Avenger
Grumman TBF Avenger

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (29 May 2008), US Navy Aircraft Designations of the Second World War , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_US_Navy_aircraft_designations_WWII.html

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