1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system

The Tri-Service aircraft designation system is a unified system introduced in 1962 by the United States Department of Defense for designating all U.S. military aircraft. Prior to then, the U.S. armed services used separate nomenclature systems.

Under the tri-service designation system, officially introduced on 18 September 1962, almost all aircraft receive a unified designation, whether they are operated by the United States Air Force (USAF), United States Navy (USN), United States Marine Corps (USMC), United States Army, or United States Coast Guard (USCG). Experimental aircraft operated by manufacturers or by NASA are also often assigned designations from the X-series of the tri-service system.[1]

The 1962 system was based on the one used by the USAF between 1948 and 1962, which was in turn based on the Type, Model, Series USAAS/USAAC/USAAF system used from 1924 to 1948. The 1962 system has been modified and updated since introduction.[2]

F-4B VMFA-513 1964
Before the introduction of the tri-service designation system, the F-4 Phantom II was designated F4H by the U.S. Navy, and F-110 Spectre by the U.S. Air Force

Designation system

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

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

Of these components, only the Basic Mission, Design Number and Series Letter are mandatory. In the case of special vehicles a Vehicle Type symbol must also be included. The U.S. Air Force characterizes this designation system as "MDS", while the Navy, and Marine Corps refer to it as Type/Model/Series (T/M/S).[3]

Status prefix

These optional 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-13s 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.

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:

The multi-mission 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., MC-12). The vast majority of U.S. Coast Guard air assets include the H-code (e.g., HH-60 Jayhawk or HC-130 Hercules).

Basic mission

All aircraft 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 (e.g., M in MH-53J Pave Low III). The defined codes are:

The rise of the multirole fighter in the decades since the system was introduced has created some confusion about the difference between attack and fighter aircraft. According to the current designation system, an attack aircraft (A) is designed primarily for air-to-surface missions (also known as "attack missions"),[4] while a fighter category F incorporates not only aircraft designed primarily for air-to-air warfare, but also multipurpose aircraft[5] designed also for attack missions. The Air Force has even assigned the F designation to attack-only aircraft,[6] such as the F-111 Aardvark and F-117 Nighthawk.

The only A designated aircraft currently in the U.S. Air Force is the A-10 Thunderbolt II. The last front line A designated in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps was the A-6 Intruder, with the only strictly A designated fixed-wing aircraft remaining is the A-29 Super Tucano leased under the Imminent Fury program.[7]

Of these code series, no normal aircraft have been assigned a K or R basic mission code in a manner conforming to the system.

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:

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.

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 (e.g., F-111Cs modified for reconnaissance are designated RF-111C), but often a new letter is assigned (e.g., 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 several instances 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. Non-systematic designations are both official and correct, since the DOD has final authority to approve such designations.

Designation conflicted with unrelated C-7 Caribou, redesignated EO-5C in August 2004.[8]
Originally, the Navy planned to have two variants of the Hornet: the F-18 fighter and A-18 light attack aircraft. During development, "F/A-18" was used as a shorthand to refer to both variants. When the Navy decided to develop a single aircraft able to perform both missions, the "F/A" appellation stuck. AF-18 or FA-18 would be conformant.
The F designation is expected, but the series number 35 comes from its X-35 designation, rather than the next available F- series number (24).
BF-111, or using a much lower number in the bomber series would have been more systematic but 111 was retained for commonality with the F-111 from the pre-1962 system.
Designated as part of series continuing from the pre-1962 system and latterly used to identify foreign aircraft acquired by the government,[9] e.g., YF-113 was a MiG-23.[10]
The SR-71 designator is a continuation of the pre-1962 bomber series, which ended with the XB-70 Valkyrie. During the later period of its testing, the B-70 was proposed for the reconnaissance/strike role, with an RS-70 designation. The USAF decided instead to pursue an RS-71 version of the Lockheed A-12. Then-USAF Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay preferred the SR (Strategic Reconnaissance) designation and wanted the reconnaissance aircraft to be named SR-71. Before the Blackbird was to be announced by President Johnson on 29 February 1964, LeMay lobbied to modify Johnson's speech to read SR-71 instead of RS-71. The media transcript given to the press at the time still had the earlier RS-71 designation in places, creating the myth that the president had misread the aircraft's designation.[11]
Uses its own modified mission letter (T for Tactical) with basic mission letter (R for Reconnaissance). Later redesignated U-2R after the end of the Cold War in 1991.[12]
Proposed tanker based on the Airbus A330 for the KC-X program. This designation skipped 42-44.
Skipped hundreds of C- series numbers to use Boeing's model number. Has conformant basic mission and modified mission letters. Only used for aircraft sold to foreign air forces. The U.S. Air Force ordered the Boeing 767-based tanker KC-46.[13]

Skipped design numbers

The design number "13" has been skipped in many mission and vehicle series for its association with superstition. Some numbers were skipped when a number was requested and/or assigned to a project but the aircraft was never built.[14]

The following table lists design numbers in the 1962 system which have been skipped.

Mission or Vehicle Series Missing numbers Next available number
A 8#, 11, 15-28 30
B 3-20 22
C 16, 30, 34, 36, 39, 42–44 47
D (Ground) 5
E 7 12
F 19, 24–34 36
G 17
H 7
L 2
O 7
P 1, 6 10
Q 13 28
R 2
S (ASW) 1 4
S (Spaceplane) 2
T (1962 sequence) 3
T (1990 sequence) 2, 4*, 5* 8
V 14, 17, 19, 21 25
Z 5
*: The T-4 and T-5 designations were skipped in favor of T-6 by Raytheon to honor the WW2-era North American T-6 Texan.[14]
#: A-8 was technically skipped, but the AV-8 Harrier received the number.

Manufacturer's code

From 1939, a 2-letter manufacturer's code was added to designations to easily identify the manufacturer and the production plant.[15] For example, F-15E-50-MC, the "MC" being the code for the McDonnell Douglas plant at St. Louis, Missouri.

Block number

In 1941 block numbers were added to designations to show minor equipment variations between production blocks.[16] The block number appears in the designation between the model suffix and manufacturers code (for example F-100D-85-NH).[16] Initially they incremented in numerical order -1, -2, -3 but this was changed to -1, -5, -10, -15 in increments of five.[16] The gaps in the block numbers could be used for post-delivery modifications, for example a F-100D-85-NH could be modified in the field to F-100D-86-NH.[16] Not all types have used block numbers.

See also


  1. ^ a b c "DoD 4120.15-L, 'Model Designation of Military Aerospace Vehicles'" (Portable Document Format). US Department of Defense. 12 May 2004. Retrieved 2007-01-15.
  2. ^ Designating and Naming Defense Military Aerospace Vehicles, U.S. DoD, 14 March 2005.
  3. ^ http://www.navair.navy.mil/napra/
  4. ^ Designating and Naming Defense Military Aerospace Vehicles (PDF). United States Department of the Air Force. 14 April 2005. Retrieved 29 January 2011. Attack: Aircraft designed to find, attack, and destroy land or sea targets.
  5. ^ 16-401(I), pp. 17, "F - Fighter Aircraft designed to intercept and destroy other aircraft or missiles. Includes multipurpose aircraft also designed for ground support missions such as interdiction and close air support."
  6. ^ Zarzecki, Thomas W. (2002). Arms diffusion: the spread of military innovations in the international system. New York [u.a.]: Routledge. p. 186. ISBN 0-415-93514-8.
  7. ^ http://www.navytimes.com/article/20090313/NEWS/903130325/Navy-eyes-Super-Tucano-for-SpecOps-work
  8. ^ De Havilland RC-7B, designation-systems.net.
  9. ^ Patricia Trenner, "A Short (Very Short) History of the F-19". Air & Space Magazine, 1 January 2008.
  10. ^ MiG-23. FAS
  11. ^ Non-Standard DOD Aircraft Designations. designation-systems.net
  12. ^ Jenkins, Dennis R. Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady, pp. 60–61. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 1998. ISBN 1-58007-009-4.
  13. ^ "USAF selects Boeing for KC-X contract". Flight International
  14. ^ a b Parsch, Andreas. "Missing" USAF/DOD Aircraft Designations. designation-systems.net
  15. ^ Andrade 1979, p. 8
  16. ^ a b c d Andrade 1979, p. 9
  • Andrade, John (1979). U.S. Military Aircraft Designations and Serials since 1909. Midland Counties Publications. ISBN 0-904597-22-9.

External links

1924 United States Army Air Service aircraft designation system

In 1924 problems with the previous designation system led to a general revamping of the designation system used by the United States Army Air Service. This system was to remain in effect with the U.S. Army Air Corps, the U.S. Army Air Forces and the independent U.S. Air Force, as well as those aircraft remaining in the U.S. Army after 1947. With some minor changes it became the basis of the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system.

1963 United States Tri-Service missile and drone designation system

On June 27, 1963, the U.S. Department of Defense established a designation system for guided missiles and drones jointly used by all the United States armed services. It superseded the separate designation systems the Air Force and Navy had for designating US guided missiles and drones, but also a short-lived interim USAF system for guided missiles and rockets.

Century Series

The Century Series is a popular name for a group of US fighter aircraft representing models designated between F-100 and F-106 which went into full production. They included the first successful supersonic aircraft designs in the United States Air Force's service, which remained in active service well into the 1970s and 1980s with the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. Three later variants, the QF-100, QF-102 and QF-106, also continued in service, primarily as aerial target drones, until the late 1990s.


F-19 is the designation for a hypothetical US fighter aircraft that has never been officially acknowledged, and has engendered much speculation that it might refer to a type of aircraft whose existence is still classified.

Grumman F-11 Tiger

The Grumman F11F/F-11 Tiger is a supersonic, single-seat carrier-based United States Navy fighter aircraft in operation during the 1950s and 1960s. Originally designated the F11F Tiger in April 1955 under the pre-1962 Navy designation system, it was redesignated as F-11 Tiger under the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system.

The F11F/F-11 was used by the Blue Angels flight team from 1957–1969. Grumman Aircraft Corporation made 200 Tigers, with the last aircraft being delivered to the U.S. Navy on 23 January 1959.


Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 12 (HSC-12) Golden Falcons is a United States Navy helicopter squadron formerly designated HS-2, based at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, in Japan. They are attached to Carrier Air Wing Five with the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.In early 2009, HS-2 Golden Falcons transitioned to the MH-60S Seahawk and were re-designated HSC-12.


Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Four (HSC-4) (previously Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Four (HS-4)), also known as the Black Knights, is a multi-role combat helicopter squadron of the United States Navy based at Naval Air Station North Island which operates Sikorsky MH-60S Seahawk helicopters deployed aboard aircraft carriers. The squadron was originally established as HS-4 on 30 June 1952 at U.S. Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Imperial Beach with the Sikorsky HO3S-1 and was redesignated HSC-4 on March 29, 2012. It is currently assigned to Carrier Air Wing Two (CVW-2) which deploys aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70).


Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron FIVE (HSC-5) (previously Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron FIVE (HS-5)), also known as the Nightdippers, is a helicopter squadron of the United States Navy based at Naval Station Norfolk operating the Sikorsky MH-60S Seahawk. The Nightdippers are a part of Carrier Air Wing Seven and deploy aboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) to provide anti-surface warfare, search and rescue, vertical replenishment, Combat Search and Rescue and Naval Special Warfare Support capabilities to the carrier strike group.


Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron SIX (HSC-6), is a helicopter squadron of the United States Navy. It was established as Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron SIX (HS-6) on 1 June 1956. Its nickname is Indians. On 8 July 2011 it was redesignated Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron SIX (HSC-6). It is based at Naval Air Station North Island, is part of Carrier Air Wing 17 and deploys aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).


Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Nine (HSC-9) "Tridents" is a United States Navy helicopter squadron based at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia. HSC-9 is attached to Carrier Air Wing Eight and deploys aboard USS Harry S. Truman. HSC-9 was redesignated from HS-3 on 1 June 2009.

Italian Armed Forces aircraft designation system

The Italian Armed Forces aircraft designation system is a unified designation system introduced by the Italian Armed Forces in 2009 for all Italian military aircraft. The system is based on the United States Armed Forces 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system.

Joint Primary Aircraft Training System

The Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) was an aircraft procurement program of the United States in the 1990s by the United States Air Force and United States Navy, a merger of 1980s era training aircraft programs. The winner was declared in 1995 and entered service a few years later as the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II. The program was partly a result of the cancelled Fairchild T-46 of the 1980s.

In 1995, the selection of Beech Aircraft Corporation of Wichita, Kansas, to develop and deliver the JPATS was made. The aircraft would be manufactured by Raytheon, Beechraft's parent company, starting in the late 1990s and into the early 21st century. The companies that initially responded and competed were Vought, Northrop, Grumman, Rockwell, Beechcraft, Lockheed, and Cessna. However, by the time the selection was over, Northrop, Grumman, and Vought were all part of the same larger company. Over 700 JPATS are intended to be bought over time.

List of accidents and incidents involving the Douglas DC-6

The Douglas DC-6 is a piston-powered airliner and transport aircraft built by the Douglas Aircraft Company from 1946 to 1958. Originally intended as a military transport near the end of World War II, it was reworked after the war to compete with the Lockheed Constellation in the long-range commercial transport market. More than 700 were built and many still fly today in cargo, military and wildfire control roles.

The DC-6 was known as the C-118 Liftmaster in United States Air Force service and as the R6D Liftmaster in United States Navy service prior to 18 September 1962, after which all U.S. Navy variants were also designated as the C-118 under the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system.

Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk

The Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk is a twin-engined jet aircraft used by the United States Air Force for advanced pilot training. T-1A students go on to fly airlift and tanker aircraft. The T-400 is a similar version for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.

Sikorsky H-60

The Sikorsky H-60 is a family of military helicopters built by Sikorsky Aircraft.

All models use a modified mission symbol in addition to the 'H' vehicle type designator under the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system (meaning, there is no aircraft named an "H-60" per se). The mission prefix (e.g. U, M, V) only has tangential meaning to the suffix series letter (A/B/C etc.), as most modified mission types encompass multiple series letters. Sikorsky also sells this helicopter as the S-70, but it was initially developed as the UH-60 to specific United States Army project requirements.

Variants include:

Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, a medium-lift utility helicopter introduced in 1979.

Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk, a multi-mission maritime helicopter used by the United States Navy.

Sikorsky SH-60F Oceanhawk, a variant for antisubmarine warfare.

Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawk, a variant for troop transport and vertical replenishment, but can also perform search and rescue.

Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk, a United States Air Force variant for combat search and rescue.

Sikorsky HH-60H Rescue Hawk, maritime special operations, search and rescue model for the U.S. Navy.

Sikorsky MH-60T Jayhawk, a variant used by the United States Coast Guard for maritime patrol, interdiction, and search and rescue (upgraded from extant HH-60J Jayhawk aircraft beginning in 2007).

Sikorsky VH-60N White Hawk, a variant used by the United States Marine Corps as Presidential and VIP transport helicopter including Marine One.

Mitsubishi H-60, manufactured in Japan by Mitsubishi under license from Sikorsky

Teen Series

The Teen Series is a popular name for a group of US combat aircraft. The name stems from a series of US supersonic jet fighters built for the United States Air Force and the United States Navy during the late 20th century. The designations system was the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system, which reset the F-# sequence. The term typically includes the F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and F/A-18 Hornet.Unsuccessful experimental and prototype fighters assigned numbers in the teen range (13–19) are generally not considered part of the series. Thus it does not include the Northrop YF-17, which later evolved into the F/A-18. The designations F-13 and F-19 were not assigned.


VT-27 is a primary training squadron of the United States Navy. One of just five Navy primary training squadrons, VT-27 is one of two located on the Texas Coastal Bend.


The VT-28 "Rangers" is a U.S. Navy primary flight training squadron based at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas.


The VT-9 Tigers is one of four U.S. Navy strike jet training squadrons and one of two based at Naval Air Station Meridian in Mississippi (The other two being based at Naval Air Station Kingsville in Texas).


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