USAAC/USAAF/USAF Fighter Designations

Last revised March 19, 2020

There seems to be some confusion about the designations of American fighter planes. Here's a summary I put together which I hope will clear up some of that confusion. I hope that you have as much fun reading this as I had in writing it. Enjoy!!!

Up until 1920, there was no unified designation scheme for American combat aircraft. Before that time, aircraft had always served under their original manufacturer's designation (e. g. SPAD XIII, DH-4, S.E.5, etc). In 1920, it was decided that some sort of unified designation scheme was needed for American combat planes. In that year, the Army Air Service adopted an official designation scheme for all newly-procured aircraft. Henceforth, all Army aircraft were to be subdivided into 15 basic categories, seven of which were pursuit-type categories:

		PA			Pursuit, Air-Cooled
		PG			Pursuit, Ground Attack
		PN			Pursuit, Night
		PS			Pursuit, Special Alert
		PW			Pursuit, Water-Cooled
		R			Racer
		TP			Pursuit, Two-Seat

(Yes, that's right, R for Racer; the Army raced planes back in those days!). The category letters were followed by a chronological number. This number gave the sequence in which an aircraft in a given category was ordered into service. The chronological number was often (but not always) followed by a letter which designated minor modifications of that particular aircraft type in the order in which they were performed. For example, the Boeing PW-9C was the ninth basic type of pursuit aircraft powered by a water-cooled engine to be ordered by the Army Air Service. The letter "C" indicates the third modification of the basic PW-9 design.

As always, there were a few exceptions to this scheme. For example, the S. E. 5 scout of World War 1 fame which remained in USAAC service until 1926 retained its original designation.

In 1924, the Army scheme was changed again. At that time, it was decided that it made no sense to classify pursuit aircraft according to the type of engine which powered them, and the seven pursuit categories were reduced to four:

		F		Photographic reconnaissance
		FM		Fighter, Multiplace
		P		Pursuit
		PB		Pursuit, Biplace

However, the basic philosophy of the chronological numbering scheme remained the same, with aircraft being assigned numbers in the sequence in which they were ordered into service. Chronological numbers for all four categories of pursuit aircraft were started at one. For example, the Boeing P-12 was the twelfth pursuit design to be ordered by the Army after 1924. Pursuit aircraft already in service at the time of the change were redesignated; for example, the Curtiss PW-8 became the Curtiss P-1.

This basic scheme is summarized as follows:

(prefix)(type)-(chron. num.)(variant)-(production block)-(factory)

where "type" is a letter indicating basic category of aircraft (P for pursuit, B for bomber, C for transport, etc) and "chron. num" is thechronological number of the aircraft of that particular type. The "prefix" was not always used; it designated special features or roles (such as X for experimental). The "variant" was a letter in the sequence A, B, C,....which indicated the version of that particular aircraft in order of its entry into service.

The "production-block" number was introduced in 1942 to keep track of relatively minor modifications of aircraft not deemed to be sufficiently significant to merit a separate variant letter.

The "factory" code was an innovation also introduced at the beginning of World War 2 to keep track of the large numbers of aircraft manufacturers coming on line in support of the war effort. It was a two-letter code which indicated the plant where the aircraft was manufactured. Often, the same aircraft would be built by two or more different manufacturers.

For example, the first of the "bubble-canopy" Thunderbolts bore the designation P-47D-25-RE, which meant that it was the forty-seventh basic pursuit aircraft to be ordered by the Army, it was the fourth basic variant, and was manufactured in the 25-th production block coming off the line at the Republic Aircraft Corporation in Farmingdale, New York.

This designation scheme remained in force all throughout the Second World War. In 1948, the Army Air Forces were split off from the Army and became the Air Force. This evidently called for a new designation scheme. The four fighter categories were replaced by one, designated by F. The old F-for-reconnaissance designation was eliminated as a separate category. However, it was decided NOT to start the chronological numbering system over again from one. Fighter aircraft already in service at the time of the change had the P replaced by an F, but kept their original chronological number. For example, the North American P-51 became the F-51, the Lockheed P-80 became the F-80, etc. As newer aircraft were ordered into service by the Air Force, they were assigned succeeding chronological numbers in the order in which they entered service.

Here is a complete list of all pursuit aircraft in the P/F series:

Curtiss P-1 Hawk			Single seat biplane powered by 435 hp Curtiss 
					V-1150-1 liquid-cooled engine.   First of famed 
					Curtiss Hawk series of fighters

Curtiss P-2 Hawk			Version of P-1 with V-1150 engine replaced by
					500 hp Curtiss V-1400 (D-12

Curtiss P-3 Hawk			Adaptation of Curtiss P-1 to radial Pratt &
					Whitney R-1340-3 engine

Boeing XP-4				Modification of PW-9 to test Packard 1A-1500
					turbosupercharged engine

Curtiss P-5 Hawk			Version of Curtiss P-1 with turbosupercharged
					V-1150 435 hp engine. 

Curtiss P-6 Hawk			Modification of P-1 powered by Curtiss V-1570
					Conqueror engine of 600 hp

Boeing XP-7				PW-9D modified to test Curtiss V-1570 Conqueror

Boeing XP-8				Single-seat biplane fighter powered by Packard
					2A-1530 liquid-cooled engine

Boeing XP-9				Single-seat monoplane fighter with high-mounted
					wing and external bracing.

Curtiss XP-10				Single-seat high-altitude biplane fighter with
					gull-type upper wing

Curtiss P-11 Hawk			P-6 converted to use of the 600 hp H-1640 Chieftain
					12-cylinder air-cooled engine

Boeing P-12				Single-seat biplane fighter powered by Pratt and
					Whitney R-1340 radial engine.  Most successful of
					the "between-wars" fighters.  341 built.

Thomas-Morse XP-13 Viper		Single-seat biplane powered by Curtiss H-1640
					Chieftain engine

Curtiss XP-14				Proposed Curtiss-built version of Thomas-Morse 
					XP-13.  Never built.

Boeing XP-15				Conversion of F4B (Navy version of P-12) to 
					monoplane configuration.  Only one built.

Berliner-Joyce P-16			Two seat biplane fighter. 

Curtiss XP-17 Hawk			Version of Curtiss P-1 re-engined with Wright 
					V-1460 Tornado inline aircooled engine.  Only one built.

Curtiss XP-18				Proposed biplane fighter built around Wright 
					V-1560 12-cylinder inline air-cooled engine. 
					Never built

Curtiss XP-19				Proposed low-wing monoplane fighter built around
					Wright V-1560 12-cyliner inline air-cooled engine.
					Never built.

Curtiss YP-20 Hawk			Conversion of P-11 to use of 650 hp Wright R-1870
					Cyclone air-cooled radial.  Only one built.

Curtiss XP-21				Conversion of P-1 Hawk as testbed for P&W R-985 
					Wasp Junior radial engine.  Two built.  

Curtiss XP-22 Hawk			Conversion of P-6A to use Curtiss V-1570 inline
					engine.  Acted as prototype for P-6E.

Curtiss XP-23 Hawk			Last of the Hawk series of pursuit biplanes. 
					Only one built.  Abandoned due to advent of Boeing
					P-26 monoplane.

Lockheed XP-24				Two-seat, low-wing, cantilever monoplane with
					retractable undercarriage.  Based on Lockheed Altair
					civil transport.  Project abandoned when parent
					company (Detroit Aircraft) went belly-up.  Project
					became basis of Consolidated Y1P-25.

Consolidated Y1P-25			Revision of Lockheed YP-24 two-seat fighter with
					metal wings.  Powered by Curtiss V-1570 liquid-
					cooled engine.  Two built.  Served as prototype
					for P-30.

Boeing P-26				The famous "Peashooter".  Single-seat monoplane
					fighter powered by P & W R-1340 radial engine.
					136 built.  Some service at beginning of World War 2.

Consolidated YP-27			Proposed version of Y1P-25 with radial P & W 
					R-1340-21 engine.  Never built.

Consolidated YP-28			Proposed version of Y1P-25 with radial P & W 
					R-1340-19 engine.  Never built.

Boeing YP-29				All-metal low wing monoplane with enclosed cockpit.
					Only 2 built.

Consolidated P-30A			Two-seat low-wing monoplane fighter powered by 700 hp
					Curtiss V-1710-61 liquid-cooled engine with turbo-
					Supercharger.  54 delivered.  Later redesignated PB-2A

Curtiss XP-31 Swift			First monoplane Curtiss pursuit design.  
					All metal. Fully-enclosed cockpit.  Lost out to Boeing 
					P-26 for production orders.  Only one built.

Boeing XP-32				Developed version of P-29 with P & W R-1535 engine.
					Never got past the design stage.

Consolidated XP-33			Proposed adaptation of P-30 to take P & W 
					R-1830 radial engine.  Never built.

Wedell-Williams XP-34			Single-seat, low-winged, enclosed cockpit pursuit
					aircraft powered by P & W R-1535.  Project 
					cancelled before any prototypes could be completed.

Seversky P-35				Cantilever, low-wing monoplane with semi-retractable
					landing gear.  Beat out Curtiss P-36 in initial

Curtiss P-36 Hawk			Closed-cabin, all-metal monoplane fighter.  Air-cooled
					radial engine (Wright R-1820).  First American-
					designed fighter to enter large-scale production.
					210 built for Army, many more for export. 

Curtiss XP-37				Adaptation of P-36 airframe to Allison V-1710 in-
					line water-cooled engine.  Only one built.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning			The famous "Fork-Tailed Devil".  Two Allison liquid-
					cooled engines.  Twin booms, twin tail.  10,037 

Bell P-39 Airacobra			Single seat, low-winged monoplane powered by Allison
					V-1710 liquid-cooled engine mounted behind pilot and
					driving propellor via a shaft.  9558 built. 

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk			The famous Flying Tiger shark-teethed airplane.
					Started life as a straightforward conversion of
					P-36 to use of Allison V-1710 inline engine.  
					Fought on all fronts in World War 2.  Served with
					many allied air forces.  13,738 built.  Many
					different modifications.

Seversky XP-41				Adaptation of P-35 with fully-retractable landing
					gear and more powerful R-1830-19 engine with super-
					charger.  Only one built.

Curtiss XP-42 				Conversion of P-36 airframe to take new aerodynamic
					cowling around radial engine to improve performance.
					Lost out to P-40 in competition.  Only one built.

Republic P-43 Lancer			Adaptation of XP-41 with turbosupercharged R-1830-35
					engine.  272 built.

Republic P-44 Rocket			Adaptation of P-43 with R-2180 or R-2800 engine.
					Cancelled in favor of P-47.  Never proceeded past 
					the design state.

Bell XP-45				Designation for first production version of Bell
					Airacobra.  Designation later changed to P-39C.

Curtiss XP-46				Proposed follow-on to P-40, based on European
					advances in combat aircraft design.  Ten guns,
					automatic leading edge slots, fully-retractable
					undercarriage.  Further development abandoned in 
					favor of production of P-40D.  Only two built.

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt		The famous "Jug" fighter-bomber and escort fighter
					of World War 2.  15,660 built. 

Douglas XP-48				Proposal for single-engine ultra light-weight
					fighter.  Never got off the drawing board.
Lockheed XP-49				Improved version of P-38 with two 1540 hp 
					Continental XIV-1430-9/11 engines.  New nacelles, 
					new tail booms, pressurized cockpit..  Project 
					cancelled after only one example was built

Grumman XP-50				"De-navalized" version of XF5F-1 Skyrocket twin-
					engined, carrier-based monoplane fighter.
					Prototype crashed on test flight, and project was
					abandoned.  Only one built

North American P-51 Mustang		The incomparable Mustang!!!  What more need be said?
					Probably the best all-round fighter of World War 2.
					Total of 14,819 built.  

Bell XP-52				Mid-wing monoplane with engines, cockpit and
					armament in fuselage.  Tailplane mounted on twin
					booms attached to wings.  Continetal XIV-1430
					proposed as powerplant.  Order canceled in favor
					of XP-59.

Curtiss XP-53				Proposal for follow-on to P-40 with laminar flow
					wings and Continental V-1430 liquid-cooled engine.
					Two airframes built.  Project was cancelled when
					the engine failed to materialize.

Vultee XP-54 Swoose Goose		Unconventional high-altitude interceptor powered by
					Lycoming XH-2470 engine of 2300 hp.  Fuselage
					had engine in rear, driving a pusher prop  Project was
					cancelled after only two were built.
Curtiss XP-55 Ascender			Unorthodox canard aircraft with Allison V-1710
					in extreme rear of fuselage driving pusher prop.
					Swept-back wings.  Performance problems caused
					project to be abandoned.  Only 3 built.

Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet		Flying wing single-seat fighter with Pratt & Whitney
					R-2800 engine driving pusher contrarotating props.
					Only one built.

Tucker XP-57				Proposal for lightweight fighter based on 720 hp
					Miller engine.  Tucker company bellied-up before
					any detailed drawings could be completed.

Lockheed XP-58 Chain			Two-seat, long range escort fighter. Two Allison
	Lightning			V-3420 inline engines.  By the time that the XP-58
					finally emerged, there was no longer any need for
					a new long-range escort fighter, and the project was
					 cancelled after only one was built.

Bell P-59 Airacomet			Original P-59 proposal was for a more powerful
					variant of XP-52 pusher fighter.  This was covertly
					abandoned and used as a "cover" for the development
					of the first American jet powered aircraft, which
					was designated as P-59A.  Conventional mid-wing
					monoplane with two jet engines, one on either side
					of the fuselage, mounted under the wing roots.
					50 built.  Poor performance made it unsuitable for
					combat.  Used only as a fighter-trainer to gain
					experience with jet operations

Curtiss P-60				Abortive attempt to produce improved P-40.
					Several versions produced, powered by Packard Merlin
					and Allison V-1710 inlines , and by Pratt & Whitney
					R-2800 radial.  All had disappointing performances.
					Project finally cancelled.

Northrop P-61 Black Widow		Twin engine, twin boom night fighter powered by two
					Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines   Crew of three.  
					Total of 706 built.

Curtiss XP-62				Design for high-altitude interceptor based on 
					Wright R-3350 18-cylinder radial with supercharger
					driving contra-rotating propellors.  Project
					cancelled after only one was built.

Bell P-63 Kingcobra			Extensively-modified version of P-39 Airacobra with
					laminar flow wings, a new engine, a taller tail,
					and a four-blade propellor.  Intended as close-
					support aircraft.  Total of 3303 built, most of which
					were sent to the Russian front.

North American P-64			Designation applied to six NA-50 single seat 
					fighters ordered by Thailand and seized by US
					Government and used as fighter trainers.

Grumman XP-65				Proposed Army Air Forces version of Navy F7F Tigercat
					twin-engined carrier-based fighter
					Project cancelled before work could start.

Vultee P-66 Vanguard			Designation applied to private venture single-seat 
					low-winged fighters ordered by Sweden but embargoed
					before they could be delivered.  129 sent to China,
					15 transferred to USAAF as advanced fighter trainers.

McDonnel XP-67 Bat			Twin-engined, single-seat long-range fighter.
					Only one built.

Vultee XP-68 Tornado			Designation given to proposal to re-engine the
					XP-54 with Wright R-2160 Tornado powerplant.
					Project abandoned when Tornado engine was cancelled.

Republic XP-69				Proposal for long-range escort fighter based on
					Wright 42-cylinder (!!!) R-2160 engine.  Engine was
					mounted in fuselage behind pilot (a la P-39    
					Airacobra) driving a pair of contrarotating props 
					via a long extension shaft.  Envisaged as replacement
					for P-47.  Cancelled in favor of P-72 before 
					construction could begin.

Douglas P-70				Night-fighter conversion of A-20 attack bomber as
					stopgap measure until P-61 Black Widow was 
					available.  200 produced

Curtiss XP-71				Large, heavy two-seat long-range escort fighter.
					Never got off the drawing board.

Republic XP-72				Modification of P-47 to take the Pratt & Whitney
					R-4360 3450 hp radial engine.  Two built.  

Hughes P-73				Experimental twin-engine, twin boom high-altitude
					fighter made largely of wood.  Only one built.

P-74					For some obscure reason, the designation P-74 was
					never assigned to any aircraft. 

Fisher P-75 Eagle			Long-range escort fighter powered by 2600 hp Allison
					V-3420 engine mounted in mid-fuselage (a la P-39)
					driving contrarotating props.  Project was abandoned
					when it was found that P-51 and P-47 with underwing
					tanks were perfectly capable of fulfilling the bomber
					escort role.  Only 13 built.

Bell XP-76				Originally XP-39E, which was a conversion of P-39 to
					laminar flow wings with square-cut tips.  Ordered 
					into production as P-76, but later cancelled.

Bell XP-77				Ultra-light fighter constructed of non-strategic
					materials.  Disappointing performance.  Shortage
					of aluminum did not materialize, and project was
					cancelled.  Only two built.

North American XP-78			Conversion of basic P-51 airframe to use Packard
					Merlin V-1650 engine.  Later redesignated XP-51B.
					This change was to turn the Mustang from a relatively
					mediocre fighter into an outstanding success. 

Northrop XP-79B Flying Ram		Jet-powered, flying wing fighter aircraft.  Two
					Westinghouse 19B jets.  Pilot lay prone in a
					cockpit between the two engines.  Reinforced leading
					edge to make it possible to destroy enemy aircraft
					by slicing off their wings or fuselages by ramming
					them!!!  Also carried 4 0.50 cal machine guns.
					Lots of stability and control problems.  The sole
					prototype crashed and the project was canceled.

Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star		First fully-operational USAAF jet fighter

Convair XP-81				Long-range escort fighter powered by combination
					jet/turboprop engines.  Turboprop engine did not
					perform as expected.  Project was cancelled after 
					only two were built.

North American P-82			Two P-51H fuselages joined by a central rectangular
	Twin Mustang			wing section and a tailplane.  Six 0.50-cal machine
					guns in wing center section.  Two cockpits with
					dual controls.  270 built

Bell XP-83				Long-range jet fighter powered by two General
					Electric J-33 engines.  Disappointing performance
					caused cancellation of project.  Only 2 built.

Republic P-84/F-84			Single-seat, jet-powered fighter-bomber.  Versions
	Thunderjet/			B, C, D, E, and G Thunderjets were straight-winged  
	  Thunderstreak/		aircraft powered by Allison J-35 engine. 
	    Thunderflash		Thunderjet had extensive combat experience in Korea.
					F-84F Thunderstreak version had swept wing and more 
					powerful Wright J-65 engine.  2474 built.
					Equipped many NATO air forces.
					RF-84F Thunderstreak was recon version with wing
					root intakes replacing nose intakes.

McDonnell XP-85/XF-85			Single seat, swept-wing jet fighter designed to be
	Goblin				carried as parasite inside belly of B-36 bomber.
					Only two built.

North American P-86/F-86		The famous "MiG-killer" of the Korean War.  First
	    Sabre			swept-wing US jet fighter.  Fighter-bomber and
					interceptor versions also produced.  Served with
					just about every non-Communist air force.

Curtiss XP-87 Blackhawk			Four-engined, jet-powered, all-weather interceptor.
					 Lost out to Northrop F-89 Scorpion.  Only one built.
					This was the last airplane to be built by Curtiss. 

McDonnell XP-88/XF-88			Twin-engine, long-range escort fighter.  Designed to
	   Voodoo			overcome the limited range and short endurance
					characteristic of early jet fighters.  Two 3000 
					lb. st. Westinghouse XJ-34-WE-13 jets.  Only 2 built

Northrop F-89 Scorpion			Twin engine, two-seat all-weather fighter.  High-
					mounted tail gave the aircraft its name.  A, B, and
					C versions had 6 20-mm cannon, D and H versions
					had exclusively missile armament.  1050 built.

Lockheed XF-90				Twin-engine long-range penetration fighter.  Two
					Westinghouse XJ34-WE-15 engines of 3000 lb. st. each.
					Only 2 built.

Republic XF-91				Single-seat, swept-wing interceptor powered by 
	Thunderceptor			General Electric J-47 jet engine and four rocket
					engines.  Wings pivoted at the root and had 
					"inverse taper" (wider at the tips than at the 
					roots).  Not placed in series production due to 
					high cost and high sophistication.  Only two built.

Convair XF-92A				Single-seat delta-wing experimental fighter.  Acted
					as proof-of-concept for F-102.  Only one built.

North American YF-93A			Long-range swept-wing jet penetration fighter/
					interceptor.  Cancelled in favor of F-86D.
					Only two built.

Lockheed F-94 Starfire			Two-seat all-weather interceptor.
					Adaptation of Lockheed T-33 to fulfill requirement
					for interim all-weather fighter 
					F-94C was an extensively revised version with an all-
					rocket armament installed in the nose, replacing the 
					guns.  Total of 853 Starfires built.

North American YF-95A			All-weather version of Sabre with afterburning 
					engine.  Later redesignated F-86D.

Republic XF-96				Version of F-84 Thunderjet with swept-back wings.
					Later redesignated F-84F.

Lockheed YF-97A				Proposal for revised Starfire with J-48 engine and
					all-rocket armament.  Later redesignated F-94C.

Hughes F-98 Falcon			Initial designation of Hughes Falcon air-to-air
					missile.  Later redesignated GAR-98.

Boeing F-99 Bomarc			Initial designation of Bomarc surface-to-air 
					missile.  Later redesignated IM-99.

North American F-100			Swept-wing, single-seat fighter-bomber.  World's
	Super Sabre			first fighter capable of supersonic speed in level
					flight.  Total of 2292 built.

McDonnell F-101 Voodoo			Single-seat long range escort fighter and strike
					aircraft, two-seat interceptor, single-seat recon
					aircraft.  Basically a scaled up, more powerful XF-88.

Convair F-102 Delta Dagger		Single-seat, delta-winged all-weatherinterceptor. 
					All-missile armament.  875 of single-seat version
					built.   111 two-seat versions (TF-102A) built.

Republic XF-103				Ultra-futuristic plan for a interceptor/fighter
					capable of reaching Mach 4 speeds.  Powered by
					combined turbojet/ramjet engine.  Very small
					delta wing mounted at mid fuselage. 
					High cost of project, coupled with success
					of F-102, caused cancellation before any 
					prototypes could be completed.

Lockheed F-104 Starfighter		Single-seat Mach 2 fighter.  One General Electric
					J-79 with afterburner.  First produced as high-
					performance day-fighter.  Only served in limited
					numbers for brief time with USAF.  Outstanding
					success in export market when converted into 
					all-weather multirole attack fighter 

Republic F-105 Thunderchief		Mach-2 tactical fighter bomber -- The famous "Thud"
					of Vietnam.  824 built.

Convair F-106 Delta Dart		Enhanced version of F-102 with P & W J-75 engine and
					revised vertical tail.  All-missile armament.  277 
					single-seat (A) versions built.  63 two-seat (B)
					versions built

North American YF-107A			All-weather interceptor development of F-100
					Super Sabre.  Area-ruled fuselage.  Top-mounted
					intake to make room for radar in nose.  Lost out
					to Republic F-105 in tactical fighter competition.
					Production plans cancelled in 1957.

North American F-108 Rapier		Long-range Mach 3 interceptor to act as escort for
					B-70 Valkyrie bomber.  Large, delta-winged aircraft
					powered by two General Electric J-93 engines.
					Canceled due to high cost and advent of long-range
					missiles.  Never got past the mock-up stage.

F-109					Designation not assigned to any aircraft.

McDonnell F-110 Spectre			Air Force version of Navy F4H Phantom.  Later
					redesignated F-4.

General Dynamics F-111			Two-seat swing-wing fighter bomber
					Two Pratt & Whitney TF-30 turbofans. FB-111 was
					strategic bomber version.  Total of 563 built.

     [Note:  The series seems to end here.  But see commentary at end
             of article ]

Now for the Navy's designation scheme for its fighters. From the start, the US Navy had an entirely different designation scheme for its combat aircraft. Like the Army, the Navy originally had no consistent scheme for designating their aircraft, and they simply used the original manufacturers designation. However, in 1923, the Navy decided to adopt a consistent scheme for designating its aircraft, but the scheme they chose was quite different from that chosen by the Army Air Services in 1920. The Navy scheme is as follows:

(prefix)(function)(succession num)(mfg code) - (variant number)(suffix)

The function was designated by a letter or letters (F for fighter, TB for torpedo bomber, etc). The prefix designated special features or role (such as X for experimental) and was not always used. The mfg code was a single letter which specified the manufacturer of the aircraft (C for Curtiss, B for Boeing, U for Vought, F for Grumman, etc). The succession number indicated the chronological order in which the particular aircraft of the given type had been ordered from the manufacturer designated by the manufacturer code. The suffix was used to indicate a special modification of the basic aircraft to fulfill a role for which the original design had not been intended.

For example, the F4U-5N Corsair was the fourth basic fighter type to be ordered by the Navy from the Chance Vought Aircraft Corporation. The "5" designates the fifth modification of the basic Corsair aircraft to enter service. The N suffix designates a special modification for night-fighting applications.

The Navy designation scheme remained essentially unchanged until 1962. The new Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reportedly got hopelessly confused when his subordinates attempted to explain the Air Force and Navy combat aircraft designation schemes to him. He was shocked to find that the Air Force and Navy had different designations for basically the same aircraft (e. g. the FJ Fury and the F-86 Sabre). McNamara ordered that the Air Force and Navy immediately adopt common designation schemes for their aircraft. Henceforth, the Navy was to abandon its separate designation scheme, and both services were to adhere to a new unified designation system which was quite similar in form to the Air Force scheme already in effect. However, some new category letters had to be provided to include aircraft types which the Air Force did not have (e. g. P for Patrol). By 1962, Air Force chronological numbers for bombers had reached 70, and chronological numbers for both fighters and transport aircraft had exceeded a hundred, and it was decided to start the chronological numbering scheme over again from one for all aircraft categories.

The new scheme meant that all Navy aircraft had to be redesignated (for example the Lockheed P2V Neptune became the P-2, the Vought F8U Crusader became the F-8, etc). However, for some reason it was decided not to change the designations of Air Force aircraft already in service in 1962 (the F-100 Super Sabre remained F-100, the Boeing B-52 remained B-52, etc). Most of the earlier sequence numbers in the new F-series were taken up by redesignated Navy fighters. Once these numbers were used up, the succeeding chronological numbers were allocated to new Air Force and Navy aircraft in the sequence in which they were ordered into service.

Here is the new unified fighter designation scheme:

Designation Description
North American F-1 Fury Formerly FJ Fury, the navalized version of F-86 Sabre.
McDonnell F-2 Banshee Formerly F2H Banshee, Korean War-vintage two-engine carrier-based strike fighter.
McDonnell F-3 Demon Formerly F3H Demon, a late 1950's single-engine carrier-based strike fighter.
McDonnell F-4 Phantom II The famous Phantom. Formerly F4H Phantom/F-110 Spectre.. Most successful Western fighter since the F-86 Sabre. Two General-Electric J-79 jets with afterburner. Over 5000 built in both carrier-based and land-based versions.
Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter Fighter adaptation of twin-engine T-38 Talon jet trainer. Primarily used for export.
Douglas F-6 Skyray Formerly designated F4D, a single-engine carrier-based interceptor fighter. 419 built
Convair F-7 Sea-Dart Formerly XF2Y Sea Dart, an experimental twin-engine delta-winged fighter that landed on water skis. [ Note: This one is sort of a mystery. The Sea Dart was cancelled in 1957. Why bother to give it a new designation in 1962? ]
Vought F-8 Crusader Formerly designated F8U, a single engine, carrier-based day fighter/interceptor. "When you're out of Crusaders, you're out of fighters!"
Grumman F-9 Cougar Formerly designated F9F Cougar, a single-engine carrier-based fighter.
Douglas F-10 Skyknight Formerly designated F3D Skyknight, two-seat, carrier-based night-fighter of Korean War vintage. Two 3400 Westinghouse J-34-WE-36 turbojets in semi-external nacelles beneath the fuselage center section
Grumman F-11 Tiger Formerly designated F11F Tiger, single- engine, carrier-based day fighter.
Lockheed YF-12A Blackbird Conversion of "A-12" spyplane to interceptor configuration as possible replacement for F-106. 2 P & W J-58 turbojets of 32,500 lb. st. each. Only four built.
F-13 Designation not assigned to any aircraft, I suspect for superstitious reasons.
Grumman F-14 Tomcat Two-seat, twin-engine variable geometry carrier-based interceptor.
McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle Twin-engine all-weather interceptor/fighter. In service with USAF, air forces of Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia.
General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon Single-seat fighter, fighter-bomber. In service with USAF and several other air forces.
Northrop YF-17A Single-seat all-weather interceptor fighter. Two General Electric YJ-101 jets. Lost out In competition with F-16. Only 2 built. Used as basis for F/A-18 Hornet.
McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet Carrier-based multirole fighter and attack aircraft. Two General Electric F-404 turbofans. In service with Navy, Marine Corps, air forces of Canada, Spain, Australia, Finland, Switzerland.
F-19 Not allocated to any aircraft. At one time, It was at one time assumed that this designation was reserved for the long-rumored stealth fighter. But the stealth designation turned out to be F-117. It is now known that this designation was skipped at the request of Northrop so that its new fighter could be assigned the designation F-20
Northrop F-20 Tigershark Single-engine lightweight multirole designed for export. Project terminated in 1986 due to lack of customers.
Israel Aircraft Industries F21 Several Israel Aircraft Industries Kfir C-2 (Israel- built modification of French Mirage with J-79 engine) used briefly as aggressor aircraft by Navy "Top Gun" training units.
Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics F-22 Raptor Advanced tactical fighter prototype. Named as next generation advanced tactical fighter.
Northrop YF-23A Advanced tactical fighter prototype. Lost out to YF-22A for production orders.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. USAF version is F-35A, STOL version for US Marine Corps is F-35B, carrier-based version for US Navy is F-35C

Just *what* does the 117 in F-117 stand for? Is it in the pre-1962 Air Force fighter designation sequence? By 1962, the *known* Air force fighters had reached F-111. If F-117 is *really* in this sequence, this would imply that the Stealth fighter had been ordered into service prior to 1962, which seems quite improbable. If one accepts even this as plausible, one now is faced with the question of what happened to the missing numbers between F-111 and F-117 in the sequence. What, then, were F-112, F-113, F-114, F-115, and F-116? There has been some suggestion that these are designations for Soviet-built aircraft that were "acquired" by the Americans and taken out West to be test flown and evaluated in the Nevada ranges. They might, for example, be American designations for MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25, Su-7, etc. However, enemy aircraft captured during World War 2 were never assigned US designations when they were evaluated by American forces, so the assignment of USAF designations to purloined Soviet aircraft would therefore be a departure from past practice. In view of the above, it is at likely that F-117 is NOT in the pre-1962 USAF fighter sequence at all; I remember some Defense Department spokesman saying that the designation "117" was actually derived from the radio call sign used by the Stealth prototypes during their early tests out in the Nevada desert. We can only speculate until someone in the know is willing to talk.


  1. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers

  2. American Combat Planes, Ray Wagner

  3. Warplanes of the Second World War, William Green

  4. McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Since 1920, Rene Francillon
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