The French designation system for the Armée de l'Air was very archaic and complex, with almost as many exceptions as there were rules. In basic terms, French aircraft were named after their manufacturer and a model or series number. For most aircraft manufacturers, an abbreviation was used, similar to the German or Soviet designation system followed by a sequential series number. So, at first glance, the LeO 45 is the forty-fifth series of aircraft designed for the Armée de l'Air from Lioré; et Olivier. Things begin to get complicated when we see that some aircraft used a period separator instead of a space. Such is the case of the MB.150 fighter from Bloch. Furthermore, some manufacturers were not abbreviated but rather designated as is. An example is the Amiot 140. To add to the confusion, aircraft from the same manufacturer could be abbreviated or not. Thus, another Bloch design, the 174, is known as the Bloch 174 as well as the MB.174 both being acceptable designations.
Designation of variants was also rather confusing. Variants were usually designated by a numerical suffix to the original series, starting with 0 (which could on occasion be used for the prototype). The LeO 451 is therefore the first major production variant of the LeO 45 series. On series with three digits, the last digit was sequentially increment as new variants were added, thus the MB.150 was followed by the MB.151 initial production variant and then the MB.152 with upgraded engine. However, if more than ten variants were produced, the designation would change to the variant number added as a suffix to the original series number, separated by a period. Thus, the eleventh variant of the Potez 63 was known as the Potez 63.11. Also, despite the fact that the series number was sequential, it was not unknown to find the same number assigned to different aircraft from different manufacturers.
Imported aircraft used a slightly different system, with the aircraft being designated by the name and the model assigned within the company. Thus, the Curtiss Model 75 aircraft, known as the P-36 Hawk in the USAAF, was designated Hawk 75 with the Armée de l'Air. Variants were given a letter suffix so that, for example, Hawks with retractable landing gear were designated Hawk 75-A and those with fixed landing gear designated Hawk 75-O. Finally, it is more puzzling to know that after the French nationalization of the aircraft industry in 1936, certain aircraft of the same manufacturer were designated with different national aircraft factories which were grouped geographically in Societies Nationales de Constructions Aeronautiques. Thus, factories that were previously owned by the same company but in different regions were given different SNCA designations. Fortunately, during World War II, most aircraft were known by their original company names, and not their nationalized ones.
|DH||de Havilland (UK)|
|LeO||Lioré et Olivier|
|NAA||North American (US)|
The Armée de l'Air did not have any naming system for their aircraft during World War II, the few aircraft with names were generally those purchased abroad. After the war, the French slowly began introducing the practice of naming their aircraft while at the same time dropping numerical and manufacturing designations, likely since Dassault had become the major aerospace company by the 1960s. Modern French aircraft therefore use a naming system similar to the British but with a letter suffix replacing the mark number. As is typically the case with French aircraft, some names are not consistent, for example, the Mirage F1 fighter or the C-160 transport, which do not follow the normal naming conventions of other designs.
This suffix is both sequential and functional depending on type. The letters A-E are typically sequential and follow the conventional order of an initial single-seater variant followed by a two-seater. However, the convenience of the letter C for chasseur (fighter) means that this is typically the first production single-seat variant, as is the case with the Mirage 2000C or Rafale C, and the letter A is reserved for prototype or pre-production aircraft. In contrast, the letter B is usually the first two-seat variant although the Mirage 2000D is an exception because the B was a prototype. The letter E has been generally used for a multi-role variant (Mirage IIIE and Mirage F1E) although this is likely a coincidence of those aircrafts' development process and does not appear to apply when an aircraft is designed for multi-role from the start, as is the case with the Mirage 2000 or the Rafale.
Letters after E are entirely functional rather than sequential. These can be combined with a sequential letter as is the case with the Mirage F1CR, which is the reconnaissance variant of the basic F1C design. The French typically add an extra letter (or two-letter) suffix for export variants even when they are basically unchanged from their original verisons like the Mirage 2000BR (Brazil). Often the export suffix overlaps with a function suffix, so that the Mirage 2000M is actually the export version for Egypt rather than a navalized variant. Significant upgrades and mid-life extension programs often warrant a different type of suffix as is the case with the Mirage 2000-5 but this appears to be a unique case which suggests that manufacturers' designations are usually adotped unchanged by the Armée de l'Air.
|A||-||Single-seat (usually prototype / pre-production)|
|P||Pénétration||ASMP missile-capable (Mirage IV)|
|P||Photo-reconnaissance||Photo-reconnaissance (Etendard IV)|
|NG||Nouvelle Génération||New generation (upgrade)|