U.S. NAVAL AIRCRAFT
IntroductionIn March 1922, following a reorganization of naval aviation into the Bureau of Aeronautics, a new aircraft designation system was adopted. Two classes of aircraft were recognized. Aeroplanes were identified by the letter "V' and airships, lighter-than-air (LTA), were identified by "Z". The V and Z were used for administrative purposes and didn't appear in actual aircraft designations with the exception of some LTA where Z appears in the rigid airship designation. The more common use of V and Z is in the squadron designation where for example, VP and ZP designate patrol squadrons of heavier than air and LTA aircraft.
Naval aircraft are identified by an alpha numeric sequence that in the basic form details aircraft manufacturer, type and model. These designations consists of a minimum of three parts and a maximum of six parts. Three sample aircraft designations are broken into the six parts of the designation in the following sample table. The six parts of the aircraft designation are more fully elaborated in the text below.Sample Table
The definitions of the six parts of the designation
1. Type or Class (Required)
One or two letters are used to identify the basic purpose of the aircraft. Originally, only single letters were used but the need for amplification of aircraft function led to the use of up to two letters in March 1934. In one case three letters are used to identify the basic purpose of the aircraft.
The letter/s assigned during the period 1922-1962 follow with the general dates of use and examples of an aircraft of each type.
Ambulance (1943-1946) (Piper AE-1 Cub)
Attack (1946-1962) (Douglas AD-1 Skyraider)
2. Manufacturer Code (Required)
The manufacturer of the aircraft is indicated by a one alpha character
code. Since the Navy purchases aircraft from
many manufactures the same letter may be used to
specify multiple suppliers.
The Manufacturer Codes used from 1922-1962 are shown below.
Companies in parenthesis are affiliated or purchased the original company.
The dates of Navy affiliation may vary.
3. Aircraft Configuration Sequence (Required)The Aircraft Configuration Sequence, a one numeric character indicates the version of the aircraft starting with the number “1". The Navy identified the first experimental version, e.g., XSB2C-1, and the first production version, e.g., SB2C-1, with the same numeric even though there may be major changes between the two aircraft. Subsequent versions of the aircraft would have a different numeric, e.g., SB2C-2, SB2C-3, etc.
4. Manufacturer Type Sequence (Optional, but required for second and subsequent aircraft produced by a manufacturer)The manufacturer type sequence, a numeric character, identifies the procurement sequence of different models of a similar type purchased from the same manufacturer. In example, the first fighter the USN purchased from Grumman was the FF-1 (the number “1" is implied), the second fighter purchased from Grumman was the F2F-1, the third was the F3F-1, the fourth was the F4F-1 Wildcat. The numbering applies to the type of class of aircraft. The first Utility Transport (Class JR) that the USN purchased from Grumman was the JRF-1 Goose (the number “1" is implied) and the second Utility Transport was the JR2F-1 Albatross.
5. Status or Class Prefix (Optional)The status or class prefix first introduced in 1927 indicates an experimental or prototype aircraft. Up through World War II, the only letter used was “X” indicating an experimental aircraft. Example, XSB2C-1.
6. Special Purpose Suffix (Optional)The Special Purpose Suffix is a one- or two-alpha character code to indicate a special configuration of the basic aircraft. The one exception to this rule, the North American PBJ-1 Mitchell is the Navy version of the Army Air Force B-25. The Special Purpose Suffix for the PBJ-1 was the same letter as the USAAF’s Series Letter: PBJ-1C is the B-25C and the PBJ-1 continues to follow the Army suffix through the J model.
Amphibious version (PBY-5A)
Armament on normally unarmed aircraft (J2F-2A)
Arrester gear on non-carrier aircraft (SOC-3A)
Built for or obtained from Army Air Force (SBD-3A)
Land-based version of carrier aircraft (F4F-3A)
Miscellaneous modification (JRF-1A)
Non-folding wings and no carrier provisions (SB2C-1A)
Target Towing and photography (JRF-1A)
British lend-lease version (F4U-4B)
Special armament version (PB4Y-2B)
British-American standardized version (PBM-3C)
Carrier operating version of a non-carrier aircraft (SNJ-2C)
Cannon armament (SB2C-1C)
Equipped with two .50 cal machine guns (TBF-1C)
Equipped with trimetrogen camera (TBF-1CP)
Drop tank configuration (FG-1D)
Special search radar (TBF-1D)
Electronic version (FG-1E)
Special electronic version (SB2C-4E)
Re-engined version (F6F-3F)
VIP Transport (R5D-1F)
Converted for use a flagship (PB2Y-3F)
U.S. Coast Guard aircraft (JRF-5G)
Air-sea rescue version (TBM-5G)
Ambulance or medical evacuation (SNB-2H)
Air-sea rescue version (PB2Y-5H)
Cold weather equipment (TBF-1J)
Target towing version (tbM-3J)
Target drone version
Search light version (TBM-1L)
Night operating version (all weather) (F6F-5N)
Photographic version (SBD-2P)
Countermeasure version (TBM-3Q)
Transport version (PBM-3R)
Antisubmarine version (P5M-2S)
Training version (R4D-5T)
Utility version (PBM-3U)
Early warning (TBM-3W)
Special search version (PB-1W)
Administrative version (R4D-5Z)
Sources:Swanborough, Gordon and Bowers, Peter M., United States Navy Aircraft Since 1911 : Annapolis MD, Naval Institute Press, 1976.
Swanborough, Gordon and Bowers, Peter M., United States Military Aircraft Since 1908, 2nd Edition; London, Putnam, 1971.
Grossnick, Roy A.: Naval Aviation 1910-1995 Washington D.C.; Naval Historical Center, 1997
Trimble, William F., Wings for the Navy: A History of the Naval Aircraft Factory, 1917-1956; Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1990.
Larkins, William T., U. S. Navy Aircraft 1921-1941; U. S. Marine Corps Aircraft 1914-1959; New York, NY, Orion Books, 1988.