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United States
Army/Air Force 1924-1962

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1926: The name of the Air Service is changed to the U.S. Army Air Corps.

1942: The U.S. Army Air Corps is re-organized as the U.S. Army Air Forces.

1947: A new U.S. Air Force is formed as a separate service from the U.S. Army.


Basic Classification: In 1924, the U.S. Army Air Service (as it was then known) introduced a new classification system.  Each aircraft that the USAAS contracted for was given a letter type that denoted the aircraft's mission and a number denoting the model number within that mission type.  For example, the B-17 was the 17th bomber that the U.S. Army contracted for.  A few mission types used a two letter mission type--for example AT for Advanced Trainer.  Minor modifications to an aircraft type would generate a sub-type denoted by a letter.  For example, the B-17E had a larger vertical stabilizer than the B-17D.

Problems: With each mission having its own letter designation and model sequence, things could get a little confusing when an aircraft designed for one mission was modified for another.  The B-17, in addition to its bombing role, was also used in photo reconnaissance and as a "drone bomb".  In these roles, this aircraft went by the designations F-9 and BQ-7.  A change in engine also generated a new model number.  An experimental B-17 with Allison V-1710 engines was designated the B-38.  Four designations for basically the same aircraft.

The Solution-Prefixes: Initially, the use of prefixes was fairly limited.  The letter X denoted experimental, typically the prototype--for example the XB-17.  If the prototype was successful, the Army would procure a limited number of service test aircraft to see how the aircraft held up in the field.  The letter Y denoted a service test aircraft--for example the YB-17.

In 1947, with the creation of an independent Air Force, the classification scheme was simplified by expanding the use of prefixes.  The original aircraft designation would remain and a prefix would be added to denote a special mission.  For example, the B-29 was re-designed the KB-29 when it as redesigned as a tanker and the RB-29 when used in the reconnaissance role.

Designation Mission Years used
A Attack 1926 - 1947
A Amphibian 1948 -
AT Advanced Trainer 1925 - 1947
B Bombardment 1926 - 
BC Basic Combat (Trainer) 1937 - 1939
BQ Bomb Drone 1942 - 1945
BT Basic Trainer 1930 - 1947
C Cargo and Transport 1925 - 
F Photographic Reconnaissance 1930 - 1947
F Fighter 1948 - 
H Helicopter 1948 - 
L Liaison 1942 - 1962
M Missile 1955 - 1963
O Observation 1924 - 1942
OA Observation Amphibian 1924 - 1947
P Pursuit (Fighter) 1925 - 1947
PQ Aerial Target Drone 1942 - 1947
PT Primary Trainer 1925 - 1947
R Rotary Wing (Helicopter) 1941 - 1947
T Trainer 1948 - 
TG Trainer Glider 1941 - 1947
X Experimental 1947 -
Prefix Mission  
D Drone Director 1948 -
E Electronic 1948 - 
K Tanker 1948 - 
M Medical 1951 - 1962 
N Special Test 1956 - 
Q Target Drone 1948 - 
R Reconnaissance 1948 -
S Search & Rescue 1948 - 1962
V VIP Transport 1945 - 
W Weather Reconnaissance 1948 - 
X Experimental 1925 - 
Y Service Test 1928 -

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page updated 04 July 2003



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Kenneth W Shanaberger 2000 - 2010