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U. S. Army Aircraft Designations 1939-1945

by Randy Wilson
Copyright 1997 by Randy Wilson

This document was originally written as an informal guide for AAHM docents. It has not been otherwise published in print, as of this date.

P-40s Aleutians.jpg (17499 bytes)
Credits

If you have struggled through my earlier explanation of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft designation system, I have some good news for you - the Army’s is simpler! In most cases, a one or two letter type code followed by a number is all you need to know to designate most Army Air Corps and Army Air Force aircraft in World War II. The bad news is that they had a habit of tacking on some extra information to the front and back of the designation, to completely define each plane’s purpose and manufacturer.

Combat aircraft typically started with A (Attack), B (Bomber) or P (Pursuit, i.e. fighter). Large cargo and troop carrying planes started with C (Cargo/Transport), while smaller ones started with UC (Utility Transport). Observation planes started with O, although many of these later became redesignated L (Liaison). Finally, the thousands of training aircraft were called PT (Primary Trainers), BT (Basic Trainers) and AT (Advanced Trainers). If you can remember these basics, you will be off to a good start.

Following the aircraft type code came a number, indicating how many of that type had been designed or ordered by the USAAC. Thus, the B-17 was the 17th bomber, the P-40 was the 40th fighter (pursuit) and C-47 the 47th transport designated or actually ordered. Some numbers were assigned to designs which were never built, and the sequence of numbers does not always indicate which came first.

So, in general, we talk of L-5s, BT-13s, AT-6s, C-46s, B-24s, etc. when we want to designate a specific design or family of aircraft produced by one manufacturer. When we start to designate sub-types within a design, that is when it gets a bit more detailed, as we will explain in the following. Finally, many U.S. Army aircraft had a popular name, such as Mustang for the P-51, Flying Fortress for the B-17 and Texan for the AT-6. These names were often dreamed up by the manufacturers, but as the war went on, most designs acquired a popular name. Some of these are listed in a separate article.

Now into the meat of the system, for those who enjoy tables and other clerical punishments.

The Basic Components of the Army's Designation System

Here are four examples of USAAC aircraft, to see how each letter or number is used to form the plane’s designation. The first two include information about when and where the aircraft was built.

The Basic Components of the Army's Designation System
Example
Designation
Special Status or
Purpose prefix
Type or
Class Aircraft
Model Number Series Letter Block Number Manufacturer
B-17F-10-VE   B -17 F -10 -VE
AT-6D-25-NT   AT -6 D -25 -NT
SOA-10 S OA -10      
XP-70 X P -70      

The last two or three components were not commonly used when discussing the aircraft type, but all were included on the plane’s data plate, to fully identify the aircraft. Sometimes the block number is not included but the manufacturer code is, i.e. B-29A-BN or C-47B-DK.

The following tables list the letter codes used for each component type.

Aircraft Types or Classes

The following types were the most common assigned to aircraft immediately before or during World War II.

The More Common Classes or Types

Those marked with an asterisk(*) were not as common.

Most Common Classes/Types
Letter Aircraft Class or Type
A Attack and Light Bomber
AT Advanced Trainer
B Bomber
BT Basic Trainer
C Cargo and Transport
F* Photographic Reconnaissance
L Liaison
O Observation
OA* Amphibian (can operate from land or water)
P Fighter (Pursuit)
PT Primary Trainer
R* Helicopter (Rotary Wing)
UC Utility Transport

Glider Classes

The following types were applied to gliders (non-powered aircraft) only and not all types saw actual production or use.

Glider Classes
Letters Glider Class/Type
AG Assault Glider
BG Bomb Glider
CG Cargo and Troop Glider
FG Fuel Glider
PG Powered Glider
TG Training Glider

Special Target & Guided Bomb Classes

These are special types given to targets and early guided bombs and control aircraft.

Special Target & Guided Bomb Classes
Letters Bomb Class/Type
BQ Controllable Bomb, Ground Launched
CQ Target Control
OQ Aerial Target, Non-man carrying (i.e. no pilot space)
PQ Aerial Target, Man carrying (i.e. could be piloted)

Obsolete Classes

The following types may be encountered in tables and discussions of World War II aircraft, although by 1941, most were obsolete and not used anymore.

Obsolete Classes
Letter(s) Class/Type
A Aerial Target, Power Driven
BC Basic Combat
FM Fighter, Multiplace
G Autogiro, Rotarywing
HB Heavy Bomber
LB Light Bomber
PB Pursuit, Biplace (i.e. 2-seat fighter)

Model Number

The model number was sequential with each type, i.e. from B-1, P-1, C-1, etc. as each new designation was given, even if the aircraft was never produced. Early in the war, a change of the type or make of engine in a design would cause a new number designation, as when a B-17 was fitted with Allison engines to become the XB-38. Later on, such changes were typically indicated by a new series letter (see below).

Series Letter

Usually, the first pre-production batch of a design did not have a series suffix letter, i.e. B-26, P-38, and the first full production version bore the series letter A, although there are a number of exceptions. Subsequent modifications to the design, including different "dash" models of engines, would usually result in the next series letter, i.e. B, C, D, etc. being added to the designation.

Thus a P-51D was the fourth in the P-51 series to be designed or produced. The letters I and O were not used, and some series were never produced and thus skipped.

Special Status or Purpose Codes

These codes could be added onto the front of a normal designation, to indicate modifications or use for a new or special purpose. Examples include CB-24, a B-24 modified to carry cargo (but not a C-87), TB-25, a B-25 used for training or WB-29, a B-29 used as a weather recon aircraft.

Special Status or Purpose Codes
Letter Status or Purpose
C Cargo, other type used to carry cargo or troops
E Exempt, no other prefix applicable
F Photo, other type used for photo recon
K Ferret, believed to be early electronic warfare planes
R Restricted, not for use in combat
S Air-Sea search and rescue
T Training, modified for training use
V Administrative, Staff or V.I.P. transport
W Weather service use
X Experimental

Block Numbers and Manufacturer’s Codes

Although not used in casual discussions, these two elements of an aircraft’s designation actually defined when and where an aircraft was built and by whom. The block numbers started with 1 and were usually assigned in multiples of five, i.e. 5, 10, 15, etc. to allow modifications to be indicated by intervening numbers. As changes were made in the design on the production line, a new block number would be assigned.

The manufacturer’s code told not only what company built the aircraft, but in which plant it was assembled. Again, this was to help deal with minor differences and changes within the system, especially when trying to join spare parts to the correct airplane.

The following is a rather lengthy list of codes as of the end of the war.

Manufacturer Codes
Code Manufacturer Location
AD Aero Design & Engineering Co. Bethany, Okla.
AE Aeronca Aircraft Corp. Middletown, Ohio
AG Air Glider Inc. Akron, Ohio
AH American Helicopter Co., Inc. Manhattan Beach, Calif.
AV Avro Canada Montreal, Canada
BA Bell Aircraft Corp. Atlanta, Ga.
BB Babcock Aircraft Deland, Fla.
BC Bell Aerosystems Co. Buffalo, N.Y.
BE Bell Aircraft Corp. Buffalo, N.Y.
BF Bell Aircraft Corp. Fort Worth, Tex.
BH Beech Aircraft Corp. Wichita, Kans.
BL Bellanca Aircraft New Castle, Del.
BN Boeing Airplane Co. Renton, Wash.
BO Boeing Airplane Co. Seattle, Wash.
BR Briegleb Sailplane Beverley Hills, Calif.
BS Bowlus Sailplane San Francisco, Calif.
BU Budd Manufacturing Philadelphia, Pa.
BV Boeing Co., Vertol Division Morton, Pa.
BW Boeing Airplane Co. Wichita, Kans.
CA Chase Aircraft Co., Inc. West Trenton, N.J.
CC Canadian Commercial Corp. Toronto, Canada
CE Cessna Aircraft Co. Wichita, Kans.
CF Convair (Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corp.) Fort Worth, Tex.
CH Christopher Aircraft St. Louis, Mo.
CK Curtiss-Wright Corp. Louisville, Ky.
CL Culver Aircraft Wichita, Kans.
CM Commonwealth Aircraft Kansas City, Mo.
CN Chase Aircraft Company, Inc. Willow Run, Mich.
CO Convair (Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corp.) San Diego, Calif.
CR Cornelius Aircraft Dayton, Ohio
CS Curtiss-Wright Corp. St. Louis, Mo.
CU Curtiss-Wright Corp. Buffalo, N.Y.
CV Chance Vought, Vought. Dallas, Tex.
DA Doak Aircraft Company Inc. Torrance, Calif.
DC Douglas Aircraft Co. Chicago, III.
DE Douglas Aircraft Co. El Segundo, Calif.
DH De Havilland Aircraft Toronto, Canada
DJ SNCA Sud-Ouest Marignane, France
DK Douglas Aircraft Co. Oklahoma City, Okla.
DL Douglas Aircraft Co. Long Beach, Calif.
DM Doman Helicopter, Inc. Danbury, Conn.
DO Douglas Aircraft Co. Santa Monica, Calif.
DT Douglas Aircraft Co. Tulsa, Okla.
FA Fairchild Aircraft Division Hagerstown, Md.
FB Fairchild Aircraft Division Burlington, N.C.
FE Fleet Aviation Ltd. Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada
FL Fleetwings, Inc. Bristol, Pa.
FO Ford Motor Co. Willow Run, Mich.
FR Frankfort Sailplane Joliet, Ill.
FS Firestone Los Angeles, Calif.
FT Fletcher Aviation Corp. Pasadena, Calif.
GA G & A Aircraft Co. Willow Grove, Pa.
GC General Motors (Fisher) Cleveland, Ohio
GE General Aircraft Astoria, Long Island, N.Y.
GF Globe Aircraft Fort Worth, Tex.
GK General Motors Kansas City, Kans.
GM General Motors (Fisher) Detroit, Mich.
GN Gibson Refrigerator Greenville, Mich.
GO Goodyear Aircraft Co. Akron, Ohio
GR Grumman Aircraft Corp. Bethpage, Long Island, N.Y.
GT Grand Central Aircraft Eng. Co. Tucson, Arizona
GY Gyrodyne Co., of America Inc. St. James, Long Island, N.Y.
HE Helio Aircraft Corp. Norwood, Mass.
HI Higgins Aircraft, Inc. New Orleans, La.
HI Hiller Helicopter Corp. Palo Alto, Calif.
HO Howard Aircraft Corp. Chicago, Ill.
HP Handey Page Aircraft Ltd. Radlett, Herts, U.K.
HS Hawker Siddeley Aviation Kingston, Surrey, U.K.
HU Hughes Aircraft Co. Culver City & San Diego Calif.
IN Interstate A. & Eng. El Segundo, Calif.
KA Kaman Helicopter Corp. Windsor Locks, Conn.
KE Kellet Autogyro Corp. Philadelphia, Pa.
KM Kaiser Manufacturing Corp. Willow Run, Mich.
LK Laister-Kauffman Aircraft Co. St. Louis, Mo.
LM Lockheed Aircraft Corp. Marietta, Ga.
LO Lockheed Aircraft Corp. Burbank, Calif.
MA Martin Co., The Glenn L. Baltimore, Md.
MC McDonnell Aircraft Corp. St. Louis, Mo.
MD Martin Co. Baltimore, Md.
MF Martin Co. Orlando, Fla.
MH McCulloch Motors Corp. Los Angeles, Calif.
MM McDonnell Aircraft Corp. Memphis, Tenn.
MO Martin Co., The Glenn L. Omaha, Nebr.
NA North American Aviation, Inc. Inglewood, Calif.
NC North American Aviation, Inc. Kansas City, Kans.
ND Noorduyn Aviation Co., Limited Montreal, Canada
NF North American Aviation, Inc. Fresno, Calif.
NH North American Aviation, Inc. Columbus, Ohio
NI North American Aviation, Inc. Downey, Calif.
NK Nash-Kelvinator Corp. Detroit, Mich.
NO Northrop Aircraft, Inc. Hawthorne, Calif.
NT North American Aviation, Inc. Dallas, Tex.
NW Northwestern Aeronautical Corp. St. Paul, Minn.
OM On Mark Engineering Co. Van Nuys, Calif.
PA Piper Aircraft Corp. Lock Haven, Pa.
PH Piasecki Helicopter Corp. Morton, Pa.
PI Piper Aircraft Corp. Lockhaven, Pa.
PI Piasecki Aircraft Corp. Philadelphia, Pa.
PL Platt-LePage Aircraft Co. Eddystone, Pa.
PR Pratt, Read & Co. Deep River, Conn.
RA Republic Aviation Evansville, Ind.
RD Read-York, Inc. Kenosha, Wisc.
RE Republic Aviation Corp. Farmingdale, Long Island, N.Y.
RI Ridgefield Mfg. Co. Ridgeville, N.J.
RO Robertson Aircraft St. Louis, Mo.
RP The Radioplane Co. Van Nuys, Calif.
RY Ryan Aeronautical Co. San Diego, Calif.
SA Stroukoff Aircraft Corp. West Trenton, N.J.
SE Seibel Helicopter Co. Wichita, Kans.
SI Sikorsky Aircraft Division Stratford, Conn.
SL St. Louis Aircraft St. Louis, Mo.
SP Spartan Aircraft Tulsa, Okla.
SW Schweizer Aircraft Elmira, N.Y.
TA Taylorcraft Aviation Alliance, Ohio
TE Temco Aircraft Corp. Dallas, Tex.
TG Texas Engineering & Manufacturing Co. Greenville, Tex.
TI Timm Aircraft Van Nuys, Calif.
TP Texas Engineering & Manufacturing Co. Grand Prairie, Tex.
UH United Helicopter Corp. Palto Alto, Calif.
UN Universal Molded Products Bristol, Va.
VE Vega Aircraft Corp. Burbank, Calif.
VI Canadian Vickers, Limited Montreal, Canada
VL Vertol Aircraft Corp. Morton, Pa.
VN Vultee Aircraft Corp. Nashvillee, Tenn.
VO Chance Vought Aircraft Dallas, Tex.
VU Vultee Aircraft Corp. Downey, Calif.
VW Vultee Aircraft Corp. Wayne, Mich.
WA Ward Furniture Co. Fort Smith, Ark.
WI Wichita Engineering Wichita Falls, Tex.
WO Waco Aircraft Co. Troy, Ohio

Popular Names

A list of U.S. aircraft popular names, both Army and Navy, and their British equivalents is included as a separate article.

Non-Standard Aircraft Designations

Just when you though this was somewhat straight forward, we find out our (the Confederate Air Force's) B-24 is really a LB-30, and an AT-19 painted in British Royal Navy markings is called a V-77! In a few cases, a design or variant was produced for a foreign country but not used by the U.S. These odd balls were often designed by their manufacturer’s company project number, sometimes mixed with official type codes.

The best known examples were our LB-30, an early version of the B-24 Liberator built for the British, the 30th design in Consolidated’s "Land Bomber" series, and the P-400 and P-322, export versions of the P-39 and P-38 fighters respectively, which were taken over and used by the USAAC, carrying company project numbers added to the P for pursuit. The V-77 was Stinson’s (a division of Consolidated Vultee) project code for the British version of the AT-19/UC-81.

There are a few other examples, but they are not too common.

Sources and Further Reading

The standard reference for USAAC aircraft designations is James C. Fahey’s U.S. Army Aircraft (Heavier-Than-Air) 1908-1946, first published in 1946. An excellent single source on the aircraft and their designations is United States Military Aircraft Since 1909 by Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, published by Putnam and others.

Kenneth Munson’s American Aircraft of World War 2 in colour is another book with useful tables and appendices on aircraft names and designations.


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All material not specifically credited is Copyright by Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.
E-mail to Randy Wilson: avhistory@rwebs.net