Naval Aircraft Designations - 1946-1962
There have been several systems to designate U.S. naval aircraft. Naval aircraft model designation history is very complex. For those land-lubbers accustomed to the Joint system in effect since 1962, it is nearly impossible to understand. Unlike Army and Air Force designation systems, which were organized around mission designations, the Navy designation systems were organized around both mission and manufacturer, introducing complexity unfathomable to non-nautical minds.
In order to fully understand the designations, it is important to know the factors that played a role in developing the different missions that aircraft have been called upon to perform. Technological changes affecting aircraft capabilities have resulted in corresponding changes in the operational capabilities and techniques employed by the aircraft.
From 1911 up to 1914, naval aircraft were identified by a single letter indicating the general type and manufacturer, followed by a number to indicate the individual plane of that type-manufacturer. This system had been established in 1911 by Captain Washington I. Chambers, Director of Naval Aviation. Under this system:
Prior to World War I, the Navy tried various schemes for designating aircraft. However, the most common system covered the period 1923 to 1962 and consisted of four major elements:
- Aircraft Type/Class
- Manufacturer Type Sequence
In the beginning there were just two classes: heavier-than-air (fixed wing) identified by the letter V and lighter-than-air identified by the letter Z. The letter H for heavier-than-air (rotary wing) was added with the introduction of the helicopter in the 1940s. Late in 1945 the letter K was added for pilotless aircraft, making four distinct types. In March 1946 the Type/Class designation was separated into two distinct headings of Type and Class. The letter V was omitted in the model designation, but H, K, and Z were used where applicable. The letter X was added as a prefix designating an experimental model.
In designating the first model of a class produced by a given manufacturer, the first number (1) is omitted in the Manufacturer Type Sequence position, but is shown in the Modification Sequence position. Thus, in the VJ class, the first utility aircraft produced by Grumman Aircraft Corporation was the JF-1. When a major modification was instituted for the JF-1 without changing the character of the model, that modification changed the designation to JF-2. The second modification changed the designation to JF-3. The second utility aircraft built by Grumman was designated the J2F-1 and successive modifications to this aircraft became J2F-2, J2F-3, etc. It must be remembered that the aircraft Modification Sequence Number is always one digit higher than the actual modification number.
A "model" is a basic alpha-numeric designation within a weapon system series, such as a ship hull series, an equipment or system series, an airframe series, or a vehicle series. For example, the F-5A and the F-5F are different models within the same F-5 system series. Model designator systems generally consist of alpha-numeric strings, with each character in the sequence being a more specific subset of the class defined by the previous character. Thus, model 5 is a subset of the F class. Air Force mission designator system designations are assigned chronologically, which makes it immediately evident whether an aircraft is of recent or elderly vintage. For those lubbers accustomed to this system, the Navy's former designation system can be unfathomable. A lubber might imagine that the F4F is a followon to the F4D, but in fact the two aircraft are completely unrelated, the first being a jet fighter made by Douglas in the 1950s, and the later being a propeller-driven fighter built by Grumman during World War II [which started life as a biplane in 1935].
The basic designation could be expanded to show additional characteristics, as demonstrated below:
Suffix letters came into a more general use during the period of rapid expansion immediately prior to US entry into World War II. Unfortunately, the use of suffix letters was not strictly defined and the same letter was frequently used to denote several different characteristics causing considerable confusion.
On 11 March 1946, a major revision was issued to the Class Designation of Naval Aircraft. Aviation Circular Letter Number 43-46 divided naval aircraft into four types and assigned a letter designation. The This order provided that "no changes...be made in the model designation of aircraft already produced or in production, except that the mission letter of all BT class aircraft shall be changed to A." Thus, the SB2C and TBF/TBM aircraft remained in use until they were removed from the inventory, while the BT2D and BTM aircraft were redesignated as AD and AM. These aircraft were assigned to the new attack squadrons established in the latter part of 1946.
By the time the system was abandoned, it was necessary to know the aircraft in question rather than relying on the suffix letter to tell the specific characteristics being identified. The Navy system had worked well enough for forty years, however, Congress decreed in 1962 that there should only be one system to designate military aircraft in the United States. The new system was based on the Air Force system and the aircraft manufacturer was no longer identified.
While there were relatively few changes to Air Force aircraft designations, the Navy made a complete change. Aircraft models all started with the numeral 1, except for those aircraft on hand which were used by both services, in which case the existing Air Force designation applied. Thus, the FJ-3 became the F-1C, while the SNB-5P became the RC-45J.
It must be emphasized that the placement of the dash is critical to distinguish aircraft under the new system from those under the previous Navy system. For example, the F4B-4 was a Boeing biplane fighter of the mid 30's, while the F-4B is an early version of the Phantom II.
The new system consisted of a Status Prefix Symbol (letter), a Basic Mission Symbol (letter), a Design Number (numeral), a Modified Mission Symbol (letter), a Series letter, and a Type Symbol (letter). A Design Number was assigned for each basic mission or type. New design numbers were assigned when an existing aircraft was redesigned to an extent that it no longer reflected the original configuration or capability. A Series Letter was assigned to each series change of a specific basic design. To avoid confusion, the letters "I" and "O" were not used as series letters. The Series letter was always in consecutive order, starting with "A".
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