There were a number of other designation systems associated with airborne hardware.
Last updated: 1 February 2015
Balloons and Airships
Balloons and airships of the Air Force’s predecessors were not considered aircraft but rather as individual ships. No designation system was used and no serials were assigned although balloons and airships were classified by types and numbering within these types was used for identification.
A A Class
AC Advanced Training, C Class
D D Class (ex Navy)
E E Class
F F Class
J J Class (ex Navy)
M M Class (Kite balloons)
OA Observation, A Class
OB Observation, B Class
R Rigid Airship (not used)
RN Reconnaissance, Non-Rigid
RS Reconnaissance, Semi-Rigid
TA Training, A Class
TC Training, C Class
TE Training, E Class
TF Training, F Class
Table 1: Army balloon classifications
Until 1954 Navy airships were classified as Z (for Zeppelin) class ships and separate from aircraft.
The following classifications were used:
ZF Free balloon
ZH Search and rescue balloon
ZK Kite balloon
ZN Training balloon
ZP Patrol balloon
ZR Rigid airship
ZRCV Rigid airship/Aircaft carrier
ZRN Rigid airship/training
ZRS Rigid airship/Scout
ZS Scout balloon
ZT Training balloon
Table 2: Balloon/airship classifications
The rigid airships were also assigned names:
ZR‑1 USS Shenandoah
ZR‑2 Short R-38 crashed 24 August 1921, before delivery – not named
ZR‑3 USS Los Angeles
ZRS‑4 USS Akron
ZRS‑5 USS Macon
Table 3: Airship names
The USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) was based on the design of the German L-49, a World War I high altitude bomber which had been forced down intact in France in October, 1917. It was constructed during 1922 and 1923 with parts fabricated at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, and final assembly at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey.
The ZR-1 was 680’4”, 207.37 m long, with a diameter of 79’8”, 24.28 m. It carried six Packard 6-cylinder engines of which five were mounted in individual power cars attached to the hull, and one mounted at the rear of the control gondola. The sixth engine was removed in 1924. The max. speed was 60 mph, 97 km/h.
The first flight was on 4 September 1923 and the airship entered service on October 10, 1923. It crashed on 3 September 1925 at Noble County, OH
ZR-2 was bought from Britain where construction had been started on it as the R38 before cancellation. It was bought in October 1919, and flew for the first time on 23 June 1921 but crashed on 23 August 1921 at Hull, UK, before the US Navy could take delivery of it and did not officially receive its US designation, though it was painted in accordance of its planned Navy designation.
Built by Short and powered by 6 Sunbeam Cossack III engines, it had a length of 695’, 211.84 m, a diameter of 85’6”, 26.06 m, and a max. speed of 71 mph, 114 km/h. The name it would have received in US Navy service is not known and may never have been assigned.
The USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) was built in Germany by the Zeppelin Company as LZ-126.
On 12 October 1924 it flew from Friedrichshafen, Germany, across the Atlantic Ocean where it arrived at NAS Lakehurst on 15 October 1924. The ZR-3 remained in service until 1939 when it was withdrawn from use. It had a length of 658’, 200.56 m and a diameter of 90’6”, 27.58 m. It was powered by 5 Maybach engines and had a max. speed of 76 mph, 122 km/h.
The USS Akron (ZRS-4) and USS Macon (ZRS-5) were designed for long-range scouting in support of fleet operations. Often referred to as flying aircraft carriers, each ship carried F9C-2 Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes which could be launched and recovered in flight, greatly extending the range over which the Akron and Macon could scout the open ocean for enemy vessels.
Both were designed and built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, a joint venture and patent sharing arrangement between the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Corporation. The contract was awarded on 16 October 1928.
The USS Akron flew for the first time on 23 September 1931 and was lost in a storm on 4 April 1933 off New Jersey.
The USS Macon flew for the first time on 21 April 1933 and was lost on 12 February 1935 off California.
The ZRS-4 and -5 were identical and had a length of 785’, 239.27 m, diameter of 132’11”, 40.51 m and were fitted with 8 Maybach VL-2 engines. The max. speed was 60 mph, 97 km/h.
USS Akron (Source: US Navy)
From 1935 to 1942 the US Navy studied concepts of rigid airships to be used as an aircraft carrier and a training airship. They were to carry nine aircraft which were to be based on the Douglas BT-1, and would probably have received the ZRCV and ZRN designations.
Other balloons were serialled in the aircraft system and have subsequently discussed as undesignated aircraft.
From 1954 balloons were treated as aircraft and have been discussed with the appropriate aircraft designations.
From 1962 balloons/airships were classified as aircraft in the Z‑series. They have been discussed with the appropriate designations.
External stores, incl. armament used by the US Armed Forces is designated in a number of series consisting of three letters followed by a sequential number.
The first two letters indicate the type of equipment, the third letter is U = Unit.
The first two letters are:
BB Explosive items
BD Simulated bombs
BL Bombs and mines
BR Bomb racks and shackles
BS Munition stabalizing and retarding devices
CB End item cluster bombs
CC Actuator cartridges
CD Clustered munitions
CN Miscellaneous containers
DS Target detecting devices
FM Munitions fuses
FS Munitions fuse safety/arming devices
FZ Fuse related items
GA Aircraft guns
GB Guided bombs
GF Gun related items
GP Podded guns
GU Miscellaneous guns
KA Munitions clustering hardware
LA Aircraft installed launchers
LK Ammunition links
LM Ground based launchers
LU Illumination units
MA Miscellaneous armament items
MD Miscellaneous simulated munitions
MH Munitions handling equipment
MJ Munitions counter measures
ML Miscellaneous munitions
PA Munitions dispensing devices‑external
PD Leaflet dispensers
PW Internal dispensers
RD Dummy rockets
SA Gun‑Bomb‑Rocket sights
SU Stores suspension and release items
TM Miscellaneous tanks
TT Test items
WT Training warheads
Table 3: Equipment codes
‘Iron’ bombs are not included in this designation series, instead they are identified by a MK = mark, followed by a number. At times special versions of these bombs may have had external stores designations.
The AN/ALQ designation refers to externally stored electronic equipment.
Electronic equipment is designated by a three letter code in which the first letter indicates the mobility, the second letter its characteristics and the third letter its purpose. Each three letter code is followed by a sequential number.
The first letters are
D Piloteless carrier
S Surface ship
T Ground transportable
V Vehicle mounted
The second letters are
A Light/heat/radiation sensor
C Carrier (wire)
I Interphone, public address
N Sound (in air)
S Special types
The third letters are
D Direction Finder
P Photo/sound reproducing
Q Special types
W Remote control
Table 4: Electronic equipment
Photographic equipment is designated by a two letter code in which the first letter indicates the type of equipment and the second letter the purpose of the equipment. Each two letter code is followed by a sequential number.
The first letters are
A Picture Using Equipment
B Accessories, Attachments and Components for Picture Using Equipment
E Picture Processing Equipment
F Accessories, Attachments and Components for Picture Processing Equipment
L Accessories, Attachments and Components for Cameras
The second letters are
A Reconnaissance (used with “K” and “L” only)
B Strike Recording (used with “K” and “L” only)
C Aerial Mapping (used with “K” and “L” only)
D Scope Recording (used with “K” and “L” only)
E Still Picture (used with “K” and “L” only)
F Motion Picture (used with “K” and “L” only)
G General Purpose (used with “K” and “L” only)
H Processing Machine (used with “E” and “F” only)
J Developer (used with “E” and “F” only)
K Washer (used with “E” and “F” only)
L Dryer (used with “E” and “F” only)
M Miscellaneous (used with “B”, “F” and “L” only)
N Printer (used with “E” and “F” only)
P Projector (Still Picture) (used with “A” and “B” only)
Q Projector (Motion Picture) (used with “A” and “B” only)
R Viewing Device (used with “A” and “B” only)
S Set or System
Table 5: Photographic equipment
Drone control systems
In 2003 the letter D was introduced for flight control systems for unmanned aerial vehicles (in the Q series). Known designations are
MD-1A and B General Atomics
RD-2A and B Northrop Grumman
MD-3A and B Teledyne
Aeronautical support equipment has been indentified by a three letter code ending in U or K. Further details can be found at http://www.designation_systems.net.
Satellite launch vehicles have sometimes been designated as LV or SLV for Launch Vehicle and Space Launch Vehicle.
SLV-1 Vought Scout
SLV-2 Douglas Thor
SLV-3 Convair Atlas
SLV-4 Martin Titan II
SLV-5 Martin Titan III
Table 6: Space launch vehicles
Later the designation SB for Space Booster was introduced.
SB-1 General Dynamics Atlas E
SB-2 General Dynamics Atlas 2
SB-3 McDonnell Douglas Delta II
SB-4 Martin Marietta Titan II
SB-5 Martin Marietta Titan IV
SB-6 Martin Marietta Titan 34D
SSB-7 Boeing IUS
SSB-8 Lockheed Centaur
SSB-9 McDonnell Douglas PAM D-II
SSB-10 Martin Marietta Transtage
ASB-11 Orbital Sciences Pegasus
Table 7: Space Boosters
Examples of early satellite designations include KH, RH and VH whilst the letters P and S have also been used.
The KH designations have been used for military reconnaissance satellites. Although ‘Keyhole’ is often cited as the meaning of the acronym KH, it is suspected that the meaning of this military designation is different. This suspicion is supported by the use by the US Air Force of the letter K to designate aircraft cameras (such as KA-59 for a 1965 camera designed for medium altitude reconnaissance missions), whilst the meaning of the letter H may be found in the apparent designations RH and VH and the associated designations VS and VU. The two latter are for non-satellite detection systems for surface and sub-surface nuclear explosions. Since the letters S and U have been used in other designation system to indicate surface and sub-surface, H may mean satellite borne. Note that this assumption is not in anyway supported by references.
NS-7B Navstar (Source: Rockwell)
In app. 1985 a separate series of satellite designations was introduced in which the letter S was preceded by a mission indicator, being E = communications, L = surveillance, N = Navigation and W = weather.
WS-1 General Electric DMSP 5D-2
WS-2 DMSP 6 (cancelled)
LS-3 TRW DSP
ES-4 TRW DSCS II
ES-5 General Electric DSCS III
NS-7 Rockwell Navstar
ES-8 Lockheed Milstar
LS-9 Space Surveillance and Tracking System (cancelled)
LS-10 Space Based Radar Satellite System (cancelled)
S-11 not assigned to avoid confusion with XSS-11 satellite
S-12 not assigned to avoid confusion with XSS-12 satellite
S-13 not assigned
ES-14 Boeing Wideband Global Satcom
LS-15 Ball SBSS (?), Launch Detection/Space Surveillance Satellite
LS-16 Lockheed Martin SBIRS (?), Launch Detection/Space Surveillance Satellite
ES-17 Lockheed Martin AHEF
Table 8: Satellites
In app. 1999 the designation MS-1A was used for the Military Spaceplane System and Space Maneuver Vehicle as a development of the X-33, X-34, X-37, X-40 and X-41.