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British military aircraft designation systems

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British military aircraft designation systems

British military aircraft designations are used to refer to aircraft types and variants operated by the armed forces of the United Kingdom.

Since the end of the First World War, aircraft types in British military service have generally been known by a name (e.g. "Spitfire"), with individual variants recognised by mark numbers, in contrast to the systems such as that used in the United States, where an aircraft type is primarily identified by an alphanumeric designation.

The British military aircraft designations (e.g. "Spitfire Mark V" or "Hercules C3") should not be confused with the serial number used to identify individual aircraft (e.g. "XR220"), nor with U.S. aircraft designations (e.g. "C-5", "C-17", "MQ-9") or manufacturer's designations (e.g. "S-58", "Jaguar B", "WS-61", "AW139", "WAH-64", "Lynx Mk.21A").

No designation system was introduced during World War I that covered more than the products of a single manufacturer. The Admiralty frequently referred to designs by the serial of the first aircraft of that type to be accepted for service.

The military designation system

In this system, which has been used since the end of World War I, each aircraft designation consists of a name, (sometimes) a role prefix and a mark number.


The name ("type name") of an aircraft type would be agreed between the Air Ministry or Admiralty and the manufacturer/importer when the order was placed. Names generally followed one or a number of patterns:

  • American aircraft, whether purchased directly or sourced under Lend-Lease, were given American-themed names following established patterns, e.g. the Martin Baltimore, Consolidated Catalina. The American services, with the exception of the U.S. Navy, were not generally in the habit of giving aircraft names, and many British-chosen names would later be adopted; e.g. the North American P-51 Mustang began life as the North American Mustang Mk.I with the RAF. U.S. Navy names, conversely, were being inceasingly adopted by the Fleet Air Arm as 1942 and 1943 progressed, as in the case of the F4F Wildcat shedding its alternative Fleet Air Arm "Martlet" name in favour of the "Wildcat", the original American naval name.
  • Aircraft built for one role such as the Avro Anson or Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle but converted to other roles rarely changed their names. However significant changes in a design might result in a name change - the Avro Manchester was renamed Avro Lancaster, which was in turn renamed Avro Lincoln as the design was improved, however the Lincoln had more in common with the Manchester than the late models of Spitfire did with the early versions so it wasn't consistent.

The systems began to change in the immediate post-Second World War period with the V bombers and types such as the Supermarine Scimitar. The RAF's three post-war jet-engined, swept wing strategic bombers were given names beginning with "V" - Vickers Valiant, Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor (the V bombers).

Role prefixes

Role prefixes used at various times comprise:

Prefix Description Example
A Airborne (paratroop transport) Halifax A.VII
AEW Airborne early warning Sentry AEW.1
AH Army helicopter Lynx AH.7
AL Army liaison Islander AL.1
AOP Airborne observation post Auster AOP.9
AS Anti-submarine Gannet AS.1
ASR Air-sea rescue Sea Otter ASR.II
ASaC Airborne Surveillance and Control Sea King ASaC.7
B Bomber Vulcan B.2
B(I) Bomber interdictor Canberra B(I).8
B(K) Bomber/tanker Valiant B(K).1
B(PR) Bomber/Photo Reconnaissance Valiant B(PR).1
C Transport Hercules C.4
CC Communications BAe 125 CC.3
COD Courier - later Carrier - On-board Delivery Gannet COD.4
D Drone (pilotless aircraft) Shelduck D.1
DW Mine Exploding Wellington DW.1
E Electronics (particularly Electronic Warfare) Canberra E.15
ECM Electronic Counter-Measures Avenger ECM.6
F Fighter Typhoon F.2
FA Fighter/Attack Sea Harrier FA.2
FAW Fighter, All-Weather Javelin FAW.9
FB Fighter-Bomber Sea Fury FB.11
FG Fighter/Ground attack Phantom FG.1
FGA Fighter/Ground Attack Hunter FGA.9 - (superseded by FG)
FGR Fighter/Ground attack/Reconnaissance Phantom FGR.2
FR Fighter/Reconnaissance Hunter FR.10
FRS Fighter/Reconnaissance/Strike Sea Harrier FRS.1
GA Ground Attack Hunter GA.11
GR General Reconnaissance (superseded by MR) Lancaster GR.III
GR Ground attack/Reconnaissance Harrier GR.9
HAR Helicopter, Air Rescue Sea King HAR.3
HAS Helicopter, Anti-Submarine Sea King HAS.2
HC Helicopter, Cargo Chinook HC.2
HCC Helicopter, Communications Squirrel HCC.1
HF High-altitude fighter (Spitfire only) Spitfire HF.VII
HM Helicopter, maritime Merlin HM.1
HMA Helicopter, maritime attack Lynx HMA.8
HR Helicopter, Rescue Dragonfly HR.5
HT Helicopter, Training Griffin HT.1
HU Helicopter, Utility Sea King HU.4
K Tanker VC10 K.4
KC Tanker / Cargo TriStar KC.1
L Low-altitude fighter (Seafire only) Seafire L.III
LF Low-altitude fighter (Spitfire only) Spitfire LF.XVI
Met Meteorological reconnaissance (superseded by W) Hastings Met.1
MR Maritime Reconnaissance Nimrod MR.2
MRA Maritime Reconnaissance and Attack Nimrod MRA.4
NF Night Fighter Venom NF.2
PR Photographic Reconnaissance Canberra PR.9
R Reconnaissance Sentinel R.1
S Strike (nuclear capability)[3] Buccaneer S.2
SR Strategic Reconnaissance Victor SR.2
T Training Hawk T.1
TF Torpedo Fighter Beaufighter TF.X
TR Torpedo / Reconnaissance Sea Mosquito TR.33
TT Target tug Canberra TT.18
TX Training glider Cadet TX.3
U Drone (pilotless aircraft) - (superseded by D) Meteor U.3
W Weather research Hercules W.2

Mark numbers

Starting in the interwar period, variants of each operational type were usually indicated by a mark number, a Roman numeral added to the type name, usually preceded by "Mark", "Mk." or "Mk" (e.g. Fury Mk I). Mark numbers were allocated sequentially to each new variant, the new mark number signifying a 'major' change such as a new engine-type. Sometimes an alphabetic suffix was added to the mark number to indicate a minor change (e.g. Bulldog Mk IIA). Occasionally, this letter indicated a change in role, e.g. the Blenheim Mk I bomber was adapted to the Blenheim Mk IF long-range fighter.

During the Second World War, as aircraft ordered for one purpose became adapted to a multitude of roles, mark numbers became prefixed with letters to indicate the role of that variant. Aircraft of the same mark that were adapted for different purpose would then be differentiated by the prefix. For instance the Defiant Mk I was adapted to a night fighter, the Defiant NF Mk II, some of which were later converted to target tugs as the Defiant TT Mk II. Where there was a Sea- variant, this would have its own series of mark numbers (e.g. the Seafire Mk I was derived from the Spitfire Mk V).

Occasionally other 'minor' but nonetheless important changes might be denoted by series numbers, preceded by "Series", "Srs." or "Srs" (e.g. Mosquito B Mk IV Series I / B Mk IV Series II - the different series number denoting the introduction, after a few initial production aircraft, of extended engine nacelles to eliminate buffeting. This design change was made standard on all subsequent production Mosquitoes). The series number denoted a revision during the production run of a particular Mark. This again could then have an additional letter-suffix (e.g. the Halifax Mk II Series IA).

Export variants of British military aircraft are usually allocated mark numbers (sometimes without a role prefix) from a higher range of numbers, usually starting at Mark 50. A converse convention was adopted for the Canadian-designed de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk, where the sole British service variant was designated Chipmunk T.10.

Up until the end of 1942, the RAF always used Roman numerals for mark numbers. 1943-1948 was a transition period during which new aircraft entering service were given Arabic numerals for mark numbers but older aircraft retained their Roman numerals. From 1948 onwards, Arabic numerals were used exclusively. Thus, the Spitfire PR Mk XIX became the PR Mk 19 after 1948.[4] With this change, the Sea- variants were allocated their own range within one common series for all variants (e.g. the Hawker Fury Mk I was followed by the Sea Fury F.10, Sea Fury FB.11 etc.).

Format of designation

The system has been largely unchanged since 1948 with the addition of more prefixes as new roles have arisen.

For example, the first Lockheed Hercules variant in RAF service was the Hercules C.1 ("Cargo, Mark 1"). A single example was adapted for weather monitoring purposes and became the Hercules W.2. The stretched variant became the Hercules C.3. With aircraft with a long service life, as their function changes over time, the designation letters and sometimes the mark digit will change to reflect this.

The post-1948 mark numbers are variously presented in full[5] (e.g. Hercules C Mk 3) or abbreviated[6] (e.g. Hercules C3) forms, and either with[7][8] or without a full stop between the prefix and mark number. The use of the "Mark" or "Mk." has gradually been dropped.

Other designation systems used for UK military aircraft

Specification numbers

From 1920 to 1949, most aircraft had an associated Air Ministry specification number. Prototype aircraft would be produced under contract and would be referred to as by Manufacturer Name and Specification Number. If accepted they would get a service name. For example, the Fairey 6/22; this being the 6th specification issued in the year 1922 that was accepted as the Fairey Flycatcher. Later, a preceding letter was added to the Specification Number to identify the type of aircraft; e.g. the Bristol B.28/35, a bomber aircraft, the 28th specification of the year 1935, which would become the Bristol Blenheim.

Manufacturers designations

From about 1910, the largest single designer of aircraft for the British Army's Royal Flying Corps was the Royal Aircraft Factory. The Royal Aircraft Factory designated its types according to either the layout of the aircraft or its role - e.g. Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, the "S.E." prefix representing Scouting Experimental.

Some examples of manufacturers designations and the corresponding service designations are shown below:

Avro 549A = Aldershot II
Vickers VC10 Type 1180 = VC10 C1K
Westland WAH-64 Apache = Apache AH1

US designations

For some aircraft types (e.g. the C-17 which is currently known in RAF service as the "C-17 Globemaster III" ) the UK armed services have used the US designation rather than assigning their own designation.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Vickers names starting with W were of geodesic construction.
  2. ^ Brew, Boulton Paul Aircraft
  3. ^ Hawker Siddeley/BAe Harrier, Denis J. Calvert, 2012, Haynes Publishing, ISBN 978 0 85733 079 6
  4. ^ Morgan and Shacklady 2000, p. 593.
  5. ^ History Gallery 1950-1959 - RAF website, accessed December 6, 2010.
  6. ^ RAF Timeline 1950 -1959 - RAF website, accessed December 6, 2010.
  7. ^ Jane's Defence Weekly, 22 December 2010.
  8. ^ RAF Museum Aircraft Thesaurus - Hawker-Siddeley
  • UK & Canada Aircraft Designation Systems at
  • Vic Flintham: British military aircraft designations 1945 to date
  • Gordon Wansbrough-White: What's in a name? In: Aeroplane Monthly, 11/1994, pages 52–55.
  • Gordon Wansbrough-White: What's in a name? In: Aeroplane Monthly, 12/1994, pages 48–52.
  • Owen Thetford: Aircraft of the Royal Air Force since 1918 6th edition. Putnam & Co., London 1976, ISBN 0-370-10056-5.
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