PlaneSpottingWorld welcomes all new members! Please gives your ideas at the Terminal.

1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system

From PlaneSpottingWorld, for aviation fans everywhere

On the 18 September 1962, the United States Department of Defense introduced a unified designation system for the aircraft of the United States armed forces. Prior to this date, each service used their own nomenclature system. The 1962 system was based on the one used by the US Air Force between 1948 and 1962. Since it was introduced the 1962 system has been modified and updated; in 1997 a revised form of the system was released [1]. Almost all aircraft operated by the USAF, USN (including the USCG and USMC) and the US Army are assigned a designation under this system. Experimental aircraft operated by manufacturers or NASA are also often assigned numbers in the X-series.

The System

The designation system produces an MDS (or Mission-Design-Series) designation of the form:

(Status Prefix)(Modified Mission)(Basic Mission)(Vehicle Type) - (Design Number)(Series Letter)

Of these components, only the Design Number, Series Letter and Basic Mission are Mandatory. In the case of 'special' vehicles a Vehicle Type symbol must also be included. The options and usage of each designation elements will be discussed below.

Vehicle Type

The Vehicle Type element is used to designate the type of aerospace craft. Aircraft not in one of the following categories (most fixed-wing aircraft) are not required to carry a type designator. The type categories are:

Interestingly, a UAV Control Segment is not an aircraft, it is the ground control equipment used to command a UAV. Only in recent years has an aircraft been designated as a Spaceplane, the proposed MS-1A.

Status Prefix

These prefixes are attached to aircraft not conducting normal operations, such as research, testing and development. The prefixes are:

  • G - Permanently Grounded
  • J - Special Test, Temporary
  • N - Special Test, Permanent
  • X - Experimental
  • Y - Prototype
  • Z - Planning

A temporary special test means the aircraft is intended to return to normal service after the tests are completed, while permanent special test aircraft are not. The Planning code is no longer used but was meant to designate aircraft 'on the drawing board'. For example, using this system an airframe such as the F-13 could have initially been designated as ZF-13 during the design phase, possibly XF-13 if experimental testing was required before building a prototype, the YF-13; the final production model would simply be designated F-13 (with the first production variant being the F-13A). Continuing the example, some F-13 during their service life may have been used for testing modifications or researching new designs and designated JF-13 or NF-13; finally after (many) years of service, the airframe would be permanently grounded due to safety or economic reasons as GF-13.

Basic Mission

All aircraft (special and normal) are to be assigned a basic mission code. In some cases, the basic mission code is replaced by one of the modified mission codes when it is more suitable (eg. MH-53 Pave Low III). The defined codes are:

Of these code series, the no normal aircraft have been assigned a K or R code in a manner conforming to the system. The rise of the multi-role fighter in the decades since the system was introduced have created some confusion about the difference between attack and fighter aircraft. According to this designation system, an attack aircraft is only capable of ground attack missions (eg. the A-6 Intruder and A-10 Thunderbolt II), while a fighter need only possess minor air-to-air combat capabilities (eg. the F-111 'Aardvark').

Modified Mission

Aircraft which are modified after manufacture or even built for a different mission to the standard airframe of a particular design are assigned a modified mission code. They are:

  • A - Ground Attack
  • C - Transport
  • D - Drone Director
  • E - Special Electronic Mission
  • F - Fighter
  • H - Search and Rescue, MEDEVAC
  • K - Tanker
  • L - Equipped for Cold Weather Operations
  • M - Multimission
  • O - Observation
  • P - Maritime Patrol
  • Q - Unmanned Drone
  • R - Reconnaissance
  • S - Antisubmarine Warfare
  • T - Trainer
  • U - Utility
  • V - Staff Transport
  • W - Weather Reconnaissance

The Multimission and Utility missions could be considered the same thing, however they are applied to multipurpose aircraft conducting certain categories of mission. M-aircraft conduct combat or special operations while U-aircraft conduct combat support missions, such as transport (e.g. UH-60) and electronic warfare (e.g. UC-12).

Design Number

According to the designation system, aircraft of a particular vehicle type or basic mission (for manned, fixed-wing, powered aircraft) were to be numbered consecutively. Numbers were not to be assigned to avoid confusion with other letter sequences or to conform with manufacturers' model numbers. Recently this rule has been ignored, and aircraft have received a design number equal to the model number (e.g. KC-767A [1]) or have kept the design number when they are transferred from one series to another (e.g. the X-35 became the F-35).

Series Letter

Different versions of the same basic aircraft type are to be delineated using a single letter suffix beginning with 'A' and increasing sequentially (skipping 'I' and 'O' to avoid confusion with the numbers '1' and '0'). It is not clear how much modification is required to merit a new series letter, e.g. the F-16C production run has varied extensively over time. The modification of an aircraft to carry out a new mission does not necessarily require a new suffix (eg. F-111Cs modified for reconnaissance are designated RF-111C), but often a new letter is assigned (eg. the UH-60As modified for Search and Rescue missions are designated HH-60G).

Non-systematic aircraft designations

Since the 1962 system was introduced there have been a number of non-systematic aircraft designations and skipping of design numbers.

Non-systematic or Aberrant designations

The most common changes are to use a number from another series, or some other choice, rather than the next available number (117, 767, 71). Another is to change the order of the letters or use new acronym based letters (e.g. SR) rather than existing ones. It should be noted that since the D.o.D. has final authority over its own rules, even non-systematic designations are both correct and official. In other words, even though it uses the system as its guidline for naming aircraft, it can approve whatever it chooses, and whatever is approved is "correct".

Further details on the reasons for these designations can be found at Andreas Parsch's non-standard designation page.

  • De Havilland RC-7B -designation conflicted with unrelated C-7 Caribou, redesignated EO-5C in August 2004.[2]
  • Lockheed Martin CC-130J Hercules
    • Used a modified mission prefix for cargo, on aircraft that already is for cargo.
  • Boeing (McDonnell-Douglas) F/A-18 Hornet, also the transient F/A-16 and F/A-22
    • F/A is used as a way of writing AF. However, it could potentially mean it belongs to both series. Its multiple uses makes a de facto non-standard 'standard'.
  • Lockheed Martin F-35
    • The letter code is expected, but it used its X- series number, rather than the next available F- series number.
  • General Dynamics FB-111 Aardvark
    • BF-111, or using a much lower number in the bomber series would have been more systematic.
  • Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk
    • This seems to use the pre-1962 fighter number series, with a few numbers skipped as well.
  • Boeing AL-1
    • Normally primary mission designations are one letter and A- is normally for attack not airborne.
  • Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
    • Was originally to have been RS-71, as part of the reconnaissance letter series. Used the bomber number series, but a confusing letter combination.
  • Lockheed TR-1
    • Seems to use its own two letter basic mission. Later redesignated U-2R after the end of the Cold War.
  • Boeing KC-767
    • Skipped hundreds C- series numbers to use the Company number, but the letters are expected.
  • McDonnell-Douglas (Later Boeing) AV-8 Harrier
    • This is not technically wrong, because it is correct for the basic mission to go before the vehicle type. However, instead of being part of the V- series, its part of the A- number series (there was a previous XV-8). However, reversing it would also be wrong since a V- is a vehicle type, not a basic mission letter. V is a modified mission letter, but it is for staff transport- VA would mean a fixed-wing attack aircraft used for staff transport. Using the V- series is debatable since the aircraft's attack role is a basic mission not a modifed mission.

Skipped design numbers

The design number '13' has been skipped in many mission and vehicle series for superstitious reasons. Some numbers were skipped when a number was requested and/or assigned to a project but the aircraft was never built. More information on the reasons behind the apparent skipping of design numbers can be found at Andreas Parsch's "Missing" USAF/DOD Aircraft Designations page.

The following design numbers in the 1962 system have been skipped:

Mission or Vehicle Series Missing numbers Next available number
A 8, 11 13 or 14
B 3
C 16, 30, 34, 36, 39 42
D (Ground) 3
E 7 11
F 19, 24-34 24 or 36*
G 16
H 42, 49, 69 73
K n/a (K series was cancelled)
L 2
O 6
P 1, 6 9
Q 12
R 2
S (ASW) 1 4
S (Spaceplane) Possibly 2
T 4, 5, 50 52
U 12, 14, 15 29
V 14, 17, 19, 21 24
X 23, 39, 52 54
Z 4
  • 24 or 36 depends on future aircraft designations of DoD.

External links

Other Designation Systems

See also


de:Bezeichnungssystem für Luftfahrzeuge der US-Streitkräfte