Explain the naming convention of US fighter planes

How are US fighter planes named? They are made by different manufacturers and yet they are all F-?, F-??, and F-???. Who decides what to call them?

Some help:


IIRC, it has to do with what the plane is for (Fighter, Attacker, Bomber, Cargo-er, Helicoptor, etc.) and what order they come to consideration as use for the armed forces. Not sure exactly at what point this happens, one of the other Dopers will no doubt know this better than me.

Anyhow, the practice started a ways back, before WWII, when Fighters were called “Persuit Planes” You have planes that always had the P- designation (P-26, P-36, P-40, etc.) and planes that switched along the way (P-51/F-51, P-80/F-80) and planes that used a totally different system before and got integrated into the new system later (US Navy and Marine Corps aircraft) There were also a couple of newer Air Force planes that got their numbers changed when the Navy’s planes got integrated (thus, the McDonnel Douglas F-110 Spectre became the F-4 Phantom II)

Basically, the current F- numbering system starts in 1962 when the USAF and US Navy systems got integrated together. The upcoming F/A-22 Raptor would be the 22nd fighter plane presented to the military under this system (though a number of the planes using this system, such as the YF-17 or the YF-23 were never put into production)

To make things more interesting, at one time Navy and Marine Corps aircraft had the manufacturer’s name appended in letter form and their nicknames followed a pattern singular to that manufacturer: Planes made by Grumman had a “cat” nickname; Hellcat, Bearcat, Tigercat, Tiger and most recently, Tomcat. These planes had Grumman’s letter designation appended to the type and used the letter “u” and nicknames beginning with “c”: F8U Corsair being the best-known. Others were Cutlass and Crusader.

McDonnell produced planes with “supernatural” names: Phantom, Banshee, Voodoo. Republic used “thunder” names, like Thunderchief, Thunderjet. North American made the Sabre and the Supersabre. Douglas used “sky” names: Skyhawk, Skyraider, Skytrain. Lockheed’s planes began with "Star’. Bell, Northrop, Consolidated, (later Convair) all had their own systems as well.

The obvious exceptions to the the F=Fighter rule are the F1-11 and the F117. The Stealth Fighter is definitlely not a fighter aircraft

One obvious exception to this rule is the F-117, which is not only well outside the expected number sequence but is really a light bomber rather than a fighter (no guns, for one thing). I seem to recall having seen a justification for the odd designation somewhere, but cannot remember what it is. Can anyone tackle this?

Heh. Simulpost, more or less.

Some corrections:

The Gruman designator was F, so the Bearcat was F8F.
Grumman fighters were given “cat” names, not “C” names, as the F11F Tiger and F-14 Tomcat demonstrate.

The Company that may hold the record for amalgamations and name changes (but usually incorporating the Vought company) had the U suffix, and gave its planes swashbuckling names so that the Corsair was the F4U (and when it was built under license by Goodyear, it was FG (since the Navy never assigned a number until the second model), while the F7U was the Cutlass and the F8U was the Crusader.

General Motors also got spillover contracts, usually for Grumman aircraft, so the F4F Wildcat was known as the FM Wildcat when GM built it and the TBF (Torpedo Bomber by Grumman) Avenger was known as the TBM when GM built it.

Afraid I’m a bit confused by the second to last sentence there. Vought made the F4U Corsair (U is the Vought suffix) while Grumman made the F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, and F8F Hellcat (Tigercat was the F7F, which never went into production)

Heh, simulpost, neat.

tom: At the time of the WW2 Corsairs, it was called Chance-Vought. It ended its military airplanemaking run as LTV, with the A-7 (Corsair-II) that served into the 90s.

On the high-F’s: As mentioned, there were two “series” of model numbering running more or less side by side, one that followed on the numbering sequence of WW2 and another that followed on a newer sequence established in the 50s, that created one single sequence for all services. due to long lead-ins for development and large initial capital investments, you may have a situation in which an “earlier” model comes out about the same time as a “later” model… and if the "earlier"model is any good, it’ll stick around in production. In the 1960s you had F-4s and 5s flying over 'Nam besides F-100s and 105s. In the 1990s you had C130s and C141s share runway space with C5s and C17s.

In the case of the FB111 and the F117 these were oddball designs that did not realy quite fill in – so the Great Minds decided to stick them at the end of the “Century Series”.
IIRC: With the one-eleven it was apparently a sales job/snow job because it would get approved only if they pitched it as a fighter (As it happened, in the 60’s the “Century Series” was mostly interceptors – F101, 102, 104, 106 – so the Pig was first stated as a long-range fighter/interceptor). Eventually they figured it was a better fast strike bomber and added a “B” to the code. With the “Stealth Fighter”, it was a misdirection trick that stuck permanence – everyone was expecting the first deployable Stealth to be a fighter in the F-low-20s, but not onlywas it really a light bomber but ALSO they gave it a “century series” number, so as to make things confusing for as long as possible.

The F-111 got its F letter because it was initially proposed as a fighter/bomber in the tradition of the F-84 and F-105, planes were intended to be both fighters and attack aircraft. (That the F-105 was really out of its element in a dogfight does not change how it was envisioned when the designation was assigned.)

The F-117 got its designation from some internal test flight code. Since it was super secret, it did not have a number assigned and when it was finally about to be revealed to the public (and Congress) they simply slapped that number on it event though the numbering system had been reset to low digits years earlier.

(It also appears that the Air Force really does not like to use the A (attack) code, calling just about any plane they get beside the Warthog with an F role code, even when the primary mission is ground targets. Note that the F-15C is intended as an attack plane, not an air superiority fighter, but the Air Force declines to use the F/A designator in the manner of the Navy/Marine F/A-18 Hornet.)

The old navy designation system had the odd quirk of assigning different designations to the same aircraft type if it was built under license by a different manufacturer. Vought made the F4U Corsair but the Goodyear variant was called the F2G. The F9F was odd in that it was originally called the Panther but the name was changed to Cougar when it was given swept wings.

They sure did. They didn’t see service in WWII but 364 Tigercats w ere built and saw service with the Marines after the war. There are a lot of gap babies that weren’t ready for active service in WWII but were soon made obsolete by jets. The F8F bearcat is known more for racing than military use.

and the JSF = Joint Strike Fighter (mere workhorse compared to the F-22 Raptor).

I would just like to interject that the F7F and F8F are among the most beautiful prop planes ever built.


Actually, the Goodyear-licensed version of the Chance-Vought F4U was the FG.

The F2G had a re-designed rear fuselage and a totally new engine and I am fairly sure that there was never an F4U equivalent.

JSF isn’t a designation for any plane used by the military. It was the name the Air Force gave for the design concept it wanted the companies to build a plane around. The plane that came about because of the JSF program is the F-35 (and it’s competitor was the X-34)

Yes, you’re right… the F-35. However the competitor wasn’t the X-34–it was Boeing’s X-32. The X-34 is NASA’s reusable launch vehicle.

Ahh, that would go far to explain why the X-34 didn’t win the competition :smack:

Let’s not forget the SR-71 Blackbird…Strategic Reconnaisance.