Aircraft Designations, United Kingdom

 

Royal Air Force / Fleet Air Arm (post-1932)

Since 1932, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) have followed a designation system which was based on names assigned by their manufacturer. It was the only system used by the major combatants in which there was no alphanumeric system but rather, aircraft were directly known by their official names. At the beginning of the war, RAF aircraft were known by their name followed by a mark number written in roman numerals. Therefore, the first version of the famous Spitfire would be designated Spitfire Mk. I. However, the system was flawed in that many structural changes applied to aircraft were left out and as a result, Spitfires could feature clipped wings or bubble canopies and would still be referred to by the same mark number. Armament changes nevertheless did merit a new designation, this was applied as a lower-case letter appended to the mark number. For example, the Spitfire Mk. Ia included a slightly different armament set than that of the Mk. I. It should be noted that the mark prefix was officially abbreviated without a period. However, it is used on this site to maintain visual consistency with the later functional designations.

As the war progressed, many aircraft began to be utilized for different roles and it therefore became necessary to apply functional designations for these different variants. Below is a list of these functions, many of which were added as the war progressed and in the post-war era. They were included as a prefix to the mark number so, for example, the Beaufighter TF.Mk. X was the strike fighter version of the Beaufighter. It was not uncommon for the "Mk." prefix to be omitted so that this same variant could be known simply as the TF.X. After 1944, many aircraft were well into the teens or above in the number of marks and therefore, the clunky roman numerals after XX were replaced by Arabic numerals following the function prefix. For example, the twenty-first mark of the Spitfire was not known as the Mk. XXI but rather as the Spitfire F.21. All British aircraft designed after the war have used Arabic numerals and function prefixes although old aircraft are almost always still referred to by their old roman numeral designations. It is also worth mentioning that marks are never repeated between different function variants of a same aircraft model. For example, the Hercules C.1 aircraft was followed in the transport role by the C.3 because a weather aircraft variant, the W.2 had the second mark already assigned.

The naming system for British aircraft followed a specific system based on branch of service (RAF or FAA) and function. Alliteration of aircraft name and manufacturer was very often applied, this practice had been obligatory between 1918-1921 and made voluntary afterwards. The FAA frequently assigned the "Sea" prefix to aircraft which had been designed initially for land-based operations. Thus, the naval variant of the Gladiator was known as the Sea Gladiator.


Naming system (RAF)

Fighters Speed, Activity, Aggressiveness
Day Bombers Animals (except felines)
Night Bombers Inland town of the Empire, or towns associated with the RAF
Army Co-Operation Classical names
General Purpose British historical names
Transport General towns and seaports of the British Empire
Flying Boats Coastal towns and seaports of the British Empire
Trainers Tuition, or places of education


Naming system (FAA)

Fighters Mythological names
Fighter Reconnaissance Seabirds
Torpedo Bombers Oceans, Seas and Estuaries
Spotter Reconnaissance Marine Animals


Function

AOP Airborne Observation Post
AEW Airborne Early Warning
AH Army Helicopter
AL Army Liasion
AS Anti-submarine
B Bomber
B(I) Bomber Interdictor
B(K) Bomber Tanker
B(PR) Bomber Photo Reconnaissance
C Transport
CC Transport and Communications
COD Courier (later Carrier) Onboard Delivery
D Drone or Pilot-less Aircraft
E Electronic Surveillance
ECM Electronic Counter-measures
F Fighter
FAW Fighter All-weather
FB Fighter-bomber
FG Fighter Ground Attack
FGA Fighter Ground Attack
FGR Fighter Ground Attack Reconnaissance
FR Fighter Reconnaissance
FRS Fighter Reconnaissance Strike
GA Ground Attack
GR Ground Attack Reconnaissance
HAR Helicopter Air Rescue
HAS Helicopter Anti-submarine
HC Helicopter Cargo
HF High Fighter
HR Helicopter Rescue
HT Helicopter Training
HU Helicopter Utility
K Tanker
LF Low Fighter
MR Maritime Reconnaissance
NF Night Fighter
RP Photographic Reconnaissance
R Reconnaissance
S Strike
SR Strategic Reconnaissance
T Training
TF Torpedo Fighter
TT Target Towing
TX Training Glider
U Drone or Pilot-less Aircraft (superseded by D)
W Weather