While the way in which the United States Air Force (previously the Army Air Corps) designates aircraft is now the most familiar, with a continuous numbering of type (e.g. the F-104 fighter or the B-52 bomber), before 1962 the United States Navy used to have a rather different system, which was much like that also employed by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN, Nihon Teikoku Kaigun, ).
Both navies used designations to indicate the manufacturer of the aircraft, as well as the type. Thus, each aircraft was given a letter, indicating the type, a number, indicating the number of planes of that type, and a second letter, indicating the manufacturer.
A curious difference between the two navies was that the Japanese Navy counted the absolute number of planes of the type, while the U.S. Navy counted the number of planes of the type of each manufacturer. Thus the Japanese A6M was the 6th carrier based fighter (A) used by the Japanese Navy, and it was manufactured by Mitsubishi (M). On the other hand, the American F4F was the 4th fighter (F) manufactured for the Navy by Grumman (F); and the American F4H was the 4th fighter (F) manufactured for the navy by
|A, attack||Aichi, A|
|Brewster, A||A, carrier based fighter|
F3A = F4U Corsair
A6M Reisen, "Zero," "Zeke"
A7M, Reppu, "Sam"
|Boeing, B||B, carrier based attack|
SNB = TC-45
B6N Tenzen, "Jill"
B7A Ryusei, "Grace"
|Curtiss, C||C, land based long recon|
SC Seahawk, floatplane
SO3C Seamew, floatplane
C6N Saiun, "Myrt"
|Douglas, D||D, carrier based bomber|
AD (BT2D) Skyraider = A-1
XA2D Skyshark, turboprop
A3D Skywarrior, jet = A-3
A4D Skyhawk, jet = A-4
F3D Skyknight, jet = F-10
F4D Skyray, jet = F-6
R4D = C-47 = DC-3
D4Y Suisei, "Judy"
|E, recon seaplane|
E15K Shuin, "Norm"
|Grumman, F||F, observation seaplane|
F7F Tigercat, 2 prop
F9F-1-5 Panther, jet
F9F-6-8 Cougar, jet = F-9
F11F (F9F-9) Tiger = F-11
J2F Duck, float biplane
AF (TB3F) Guardian
A2F Intruder, jet = A-6
S2F Tracker, jet = S-2
WF Tracer = E-1
W2F Hawkeye = E-2
|Goodyear, G||G, land based attack|
|FG = F4U Corsair||G3M, "Nell"|
G5N Shinan "Liz" = DC-4
G8N Renzan, "Rita"
|McDonnell, H||H, recon/patrol flying boat|
|FH Phantom, jet|
F2H Banshee, jet = F-2
F3H Demon = F-3
F4H Phantom II, jet = F-4
|North American, J||J, land based fighter|
|FJ Fury, jet = F-86 = F-1|
AJ Savage, 2 jet = A-2
A3J Vigilante, jet = A-5
|J1N Gekko, "Irving"|
J2M Raiden, "Jack"
J8M Shusei = Me 163
|Kamen, K||K, trainer|
|HUK, helicopter = UH-43|
HU2K Seasprite, helicopter = UH-2
|Bell, L||L, transport|
|HTL, helicopter = TH-13|
HUL, helicopter = UH-13
|L2D "Tabby" = DC-3|
|Martin/Eastern (GM), M||M, special|
|T4M float biplane|
PBM Mariner, flying boat
P5M Marlin, flying boat
YP6M Seamaster, jet flying boat
TBM Avenger = TBF
|N, trainer||Nakajima, N|
|N, floatplane fighter|
|N1K Kyofu, "Rex"|
N1K-J Shiden (Kai), "George"
|Piasecki, P||P, land based bomber|
|HUP, helicopter = UH-25||P1Y Ginga, "Frances"|
|Fairchild, Q||Q, land based patrol|
|R4Q Flying Boxcar||Q1W Tokai, "Lorna" = Ju 88|
|R, transport, heavy|
|Ryan, R||R, land based short recon|
|FR Fireball, prop & jet|
|Stearman/Sikorsky, S||S, night fighter|
HUS Seahorse, helicopter = LH-34
HSS Sea King, helicopter = SH-3
HO4S, helicopter = UH-19
|XB2T, flying wing = B-35|
|O2U Corsair, float biplane|
OS2U Kingfisher, floatplane
F4U-7 = AU Corsair
F6U Pirate, jet
F7U (A2U) Cutlass
F8U Crusader, jet = F-8
P2V Neptune = P-2
P3V Orion, turboprop = P-3
R7V (WV) Constellation
GV Hercules = C-130
|W, search||Kyushu/Watanabe, W|
|Canadian Car and Foundry, W|
|SBW Helldiver = SB2C|
|Y, prototype||Yokosuka, Y|
|PBY Catalina, seaplane|
PB4Y Privateer = B-24
XP5Y, flying boat
R3Y Tradewind, flying boat
XF2Y Sea Dart, jet skis = F-102
The planes just mentioned are all famous. The A6M was the standard Japanese fighter for most of World War II. Japanese planes were also identified by the year in which they became operational. The A6M became operational in 1940, which was 2600 of the Japanese Era, making the plane the "type Zero" . So the plane became known to both friend and foe as the "Zero." The F4F, the Wildcat, was the best U.S. Navy fighter of the first couple of years of the War, replacing the Brewster Buffalo (F2A), and later replaced by the Gumman Hellcat (F6F) and the Vought Corsair (F4U). The Hellcat was actually designed to beat the Zero, after a Zero was captured intact in the Aleutians in 1942 and could be examined closely and flown. The Corsair remained active in the Korean War. The F4H Phantom II was from a very different era of aviation, becoming one of the superior, workhorse jet fighters of the Vietnam War.
The table at left contains operational planes of World War II and later, and some others that have come to my attention. Japanese planes are listed under their type, American planes under their manufacturer, in conformity with their numbering. The use of the letters for the type, for American planes, and for the manufacturers, for the Japanese planes, are also given at the appropriate point in the alphabet. Thus, if looking for American fighters, one must look under each manufacturer; and if looking for Japanese planes built by Mitsubishi, one must look under each type. Bold type is used for particularly historic planes.
Additional letters and numbers may be found added to each basic designation. Thus, the American dive bomber that sank the Japanese aircraft carriers at the battle of Midway, the SBD Dauntless, was the 1st (no number) "scout" (i.e. reconnaissance) "bomber" built by Douglas. Numbers would be added to both American and Japanese designations to indicate the model number, e.g. "A6M2" for the second model of the Zero, "F4F-3" for the third model of the Wildcat. The American model numbers are separated by a hyphen. Models built for different uses were given hyphenated suffixes by the Japanese Navy, e.g. the "A6M2-N" was a floatplane (N) version of the Zero.
The whimsical names given to the Japanese aircraft (e.g. "Alf" or "Kate") were all American code desigations. They were never used by the Japanese. The Zero also had a code designation, "Zeke," but "Zero" tended to be used in common parlance.
With some minor changes ("A" for "attack" was introduced in 1949 to replace the separate bomber and torpedo categories), the U.S. Navy continued to use its system into the 1960's. However, by then the Defense Department did not like separate aircraft procurement for both the Navy and the Air Force. To save money, the idea was to order aircraft that could be used by both services. To go along with this, a new numbering system was started, on the Air Force pattern, but starting again from "1" for each type. Existing Navy planes were given numbers in the new system, effective 1 September 1962. Thus, the FJ Fury became the F-1, F4H Phantom II became the F-4, the A4D Skyhawk became the A-4, etc. As in these cases, some attempt was made to match the original numbers. Different models of each type are now indicated with suffixed letters, i.e. the F4H-2 would be the F-4B.
The theory of common procurement actually didn't always work out. The first candidate for use by both Navy and Air Force was the F-111 (still with the old Air Force number), a variable wing fighter bomber by General Dynamics. This turned out to be a poor fighter and was rather too heavy to operate well off of aircraft carriers. It was successful, however, as a medium bomber for the Air Force, affectionately called the "Aardvark." F-111's were the planes that President Reagan sent to bomb Libya. Subsequently, the different physical needs of the Navy led to a preference for different planes. Thus, the Navy picked the F-14 Tomcat (Grumman), while the Air Force got the F-15 Eagle (McDonnell Douglas).
The Japanese system, of course, ended with the Imperial Japanese Navy, which was abolished after World War II.
Finally, another noteworthy feature of the Japanese system was a separate set of designations for land based aircraft. The Japanese Navy had its own ideas about air support for ships at sea and for independent land based air operations against naval targets. It also allowed, evidently, that land and carrier based operations might call for different characteristics. Thus, the land based "attack" bombers, like the G4M "Betty," were twin engine medium bombers, such as could not operate off of aircraft carriers. Bettys from Rabaul became familiar in the air over Guadalcanal. Similarly, squadrons of the G3M "Nell," based at Saigon, sank the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales in the first days of the Pacific War. The Navy even had four engine bombers designed, but none made it into production. The United States Navy, on the other hand, relied on Army Air Corps land based bombers in World War II. Thus, the Army twin engine, medium bomber, the B-25, devastated Japanese convoys on the Battle of the Bismark Sea. The U.S. Navy did not have such planes.
U.S. Army Air Corps, Air Force, and Navy-Airforce Aircraft Designations
U.S. Battle Cruisers & Aircraft Carrier Names
The Battleship Kongô
The Treaty Cruisers
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Philosophy of History, Military History
Philosophy of History
|U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Air Force|
|B-4||Keystone||biplane, 2 engine|
|B-17||Boeing||4 engine, "Flying Fortress"|
|B-18||Douglas||2 engine = DC-2|
|B-24||Consolidated||4 engine, "Liberator"|
|B-25||North American||2 engine, "Mitchell"|
|B-26||Martin||2 engine, "Marauder," hard to fly "Widow Maker"|
4 engine, "Superfortress," becomes medium strategic bomber #1
|B-32||Convair||4 engine, "Dominator"|
|Northrop||prop engine flying wing|
|Convair||6 engine + 4 jets,|
heavy strategic bomber #1
|B-45||North American||4 jets, "Tornado"|
6 jets, "Stratojet";
medium strategic #2
|YB-49||Northrop||jet engine flying wing; the death|
of Capt. Edwards in a crash of
this plane provided the eponym
for Edwards Air Force Base
|B-50||Boeing||A = B-29D;|
medium strategic #1
|Boeing||8 jets, "Stratofortress";|
heavy strategic #2
|XB-54||Boeing||A = YB-50C|
|B-57||Martin||= English Electra Canberra|
|B-58||Convair||4 jets, "Hustler";|
medium strategic #3
|YB-60||Convair||jet powered B-36|
|B-61||Martin||"Matador" guided missle|
|B-66||Douglas||2 jets, "Destroyer" = A3D "Skywarrior" (A-3)|
6 jets, supersonic, "Valkyrie"
|P-38||Lockheed||2 engine, "Lightning"|
|XP-56||Northrop||flying wing, "Dumbo"|
|P-59||Bell||2 jets, "Airacomet," first US jet|
|P-61||Northrop||2 engine, "Black Widow"|
|P-70||Douglas||2 engine = A-20 "Havoc"|
|XP-79||Northrop||"Flying Ram" jet|
|F-80||Lockheed||jet, "Shooting Start"|
|F-82||North American||2 engine, "Twin Mustang"|
|XF-85||McDonnell||tiny parasite fighter for B-36|
|F-86||North American||jet, "Sabre"|
|F-89||Northrop||2 jets, "Scorpion"|
|XF-91||Republic||inverse taper wings, first supersonic fighter in level flight, "Thunderceptor"|
|F-100||North American||jet, "Super Sabre"|
|F-101||McDonnell||2 jets, "Voodoo"|
|F-102||Convair||jet, "Delta Dagger"|
|F-106||Convair||jet, "Delta Dart"|
|XF-107||North American||upgraded F-100|
|XF-108||North American||Mach 3 interceptor, "Rapier"|
|YF-109||McDonnell||becomes F-101B, otherwise not used|
|F-110||McDonnell||= F4H "Phantom II" (F-4)|
|F-111||General Dynamics||2 jets variable wing, "Aardvark," mainly used as bomber|
|YF-112||allegedly used for captured MiGs|
|YF-113||used for captured MiG-23s and MiG-17s|
|YF-114||used for captured MiG-17s|
|YF-121||rumoured Black Project|
|U.S. Air Force & Navy Joint Numbering|
|heavy strategic #3, cancelled by Carter, revived by Reagan, "Lancer"|
|B-2||Northrop||Stealth; heavy strategic #4, flying wing, "Spirit"|
|F-1||North American||= FJ Fury = F-86 Sabre|
|F-2||McDonnell||= F2H "Banshee"|
|F-3||McDonnell||= F3H "Demon"|
|F-4||McDonnell||= F4H "Phantom II," F-110|
|F-6||Douglas||= F4D "Skyray"|
|F-7||Vought||= F7U "Cutlass"|
|F-10||Douglas||= F3D "Skyknight"|
|F-11||Grumman||= F11F "Tiger I"|
|YF-12||Lockheed||"Blackbird," = SR-71|
|F-14||Grumman||"Tomcat," 2 engine naval, see Top Gun|
|F-15||McDonnell Douglas||"Eagle," 2 engine Air Force|
|F-16||General Dynamics||"Fighting Falcon," single engine|
|YF-17||Northrop||rival to F-16, precursor to F-18|
|F-21||Israel Aircraft Industries||"Kfir"|
|Advanced Tactial Fighter, "Raptor"|
|ATF, "Black Widow"|
|F-35||Lockheed-Martin||X-35, "Lightning II"|
|A-1||Douglas||= BT2D = AD, "Skyraider," WWII vintage|
|A-2||North American||= AJ "Savage"|
|A-3||Douglas||= A3D "Skywarrior" = B-66|
|A-4||Douglas||= A4D "Skyhawk"|
|A-5||North American||= A3J "Vigilante"|
|A-6||Grumman||= A2F "Intruder"|
|A-10||Fairchild Republic||"Thunderbolt II"|
|A-11||Lockheed||prototype SR-71 "Blackbird"|
|A-12||McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics||"Avenger II"|
|A-26||Douglas||"Invader," WWII vintage|
|S-2||Grumman||= S2F "Tracker"|
|E-1||Grumman||= WlF "Tracer"|
|E-2||Grumman||= W2F "Hawkeye"|
|E-3||Boeing||"Sentry" = 707|
|P-2||Lockheed||= P2V "Neptune"|
|P-3||Lockheed||= P3V "Orion"|
|Experimental X Series|
|X-1||Bell Aircraft||broke the sound barrier|
|X-2||Bell Aircraft||achieved Mach 2 & Mach 3, "Starbuster"|
|X-3||Douglas||supersonic, titanium, "Stiletto"|
|X-4||Northrop||no horizontal tail, elevons, "Bantam"|
|X-7||Lockheed||ramjet, "Flying Stove Pipe"|
|X-8||Aerojet||missile platform, "Aerobee"|
|X-9||Bell||testbed for the nuclear-armed GAM-63, "Shrike"|
|X-10||North American||advanced missiles|
|X-11||Convair||testbed for Atlas missiles|
|X-12||Convair||testbed for the Atlas missiles|
|X-13||Ryan Aeronautical||jet for vertically takeoff, flight, and landing, "Vertijet"|
|X-14||Bell||vertical takeoff, flight, and landing|
|X-15||North American||hypersonic rocket, many altitude & speed records, see The Right Stuff (book, not movie)|
|X-16||Bell||high altitude reconnaissance, never flew|
|X-17||Lockheed||high mach reentry|
|X-19||Curtiss-Wright||verticle take-off transport plane, C-143|
|X-20||Boeing||rusable spaceplane, new flew, "Dyna-Soar"|
|X-21||Northrop Corporation||laminar flow wings|
|X-23||Martin Marietta||reentry effects, "Prime," not used|
|X-24||Martin Marietta||lifting body, "Pilot"|
|X-25||Bensen||autogyro, Bensen B-8|
|X-26||Schweizer||motor glider, Frigate|
|X-27||Lockheed||fighter prototype, never flew|
|X-28||Periera||sailboat, "Sea Skimmer"|
|X-30||Rockwell||spaceplane prototype, never built|
|X-33||Lockheed Martin||reusable spaceplane, "Venture Star"|
|X-34||Orbital Sciences||reusable unmanned spaceplane, never flew|
|X-35||Lockheed Martin||test fighter, becomes F-35|
|X-36||McDonnell Douglas||tailless fighter|
|X-38||NASA||crew return vehicle with lifting body, not used|
|X-40||Boeing||space maneuver vehicle|
|X-41||classified, reentry vehicle|
|X-43||NASA||scramjet hypersonic drone|
|X-44||Lockheed Martin||multi-axis no-tail aircraft, MANTA|
|X-45||Boeing||unmanned combat air vehicle|
|X-46||Boeing||X-45 marine version|
|X-47||Grumman||naval unmanned combat air vehicle, "Pegasus"|
|X-49||Piasecki||fast helicopter, "Speedhawk"|
|X-50||Boeing||helicopter rotor can act as fixed wing|
|X-51||Pratt & Whitney, Boeing||scramjet engines, "Waverider"|
|X-52||number not used|
|X-53||Boeing||active aeroelastic wing|
The style of the later joint service designations follows that of earlier Army Air Corps and Air Force practice. Thus, we begin with the type ("F" = fighter, etc.), followed by a hyphen, followed by a number in absolute sequence for the type (unlike earlier Naval practice), followed by a letter for the model (beginning with "A" and going through the alphabet), sometimes followed by a number for a subtype. This style is sometimes confused with the earlier Naval system, which then may be misrepresented. Thus, the A4D Skyhawk becomes the A-4, but "A4D" does not use a hyphen (except before numbers used for different models, e.g. "A4D-1"), and the "D" stands for the maker, Douglas, not the model. Thus, we sometimes see the F4U Vought Corsair cited as the "F-4U," when no such designation ever existed, and the Corsair did not receive a number in the new joint numbering system. The true F-4 was the great F4H Phantom II ("H" for McDonnell); but the Phantom had never been the "F-4H."
This is not an exhaustive list but includes planes that have come to my attention, seem historically important, or are featured on other lists that I have come across, whether in books or at Wikipedia. Several numbers are missing, either because they weren't used or involved projects that were aborted, ephemeral, or just have not come to my attention. I have recently added the entire "X" series of experimental aircraft, starting with the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier. The X-15 was breaking altitude records in the '60's, with its flights often featured on the news at the time. Its program is featured in The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979), along with the story of the Mercury astronauts.
This list is supplemented with some pictures of my own 1/72 models, laid out next to each other on a dining room table. This does not make for the highest quality illustration (since these pictures were done in 1999, before I had a proper digital camera), but it does make some size comparison possible. That is especially helpful with the bombers. The model of the X-15 came with its own dedicated B-52, since it was carried under the wing of a B-52 before being released for its flight. I show it lying detached.
The first plane built of a type would be given an experimental "X" prefix, e.g. the XB-70. If the plane was not approved for production, but was to be used for more tests, one or more subsequent planes would also have "X" prefixes. If the plane was tentatively approved for production, a plane might be built with a prototype "Y" prefix, e.g. the YB-35 or YB-49 Flying Wings. Even with prototypes, the production of the planes might still be cancelled, as it was with these.
The B-36, B-52, and B-70 are very large airplanes. But so are the B-1 and the B-2. And the B-2 turned out to be, when it was first rolled out for public view, a flying wing. This extraordinary design, "all lift and no drag," was pioneered by Northrop before World War II. During the War, bomber, fighter, and experimental (X-4) flying wings were developed. The B-35 seemed to be a successful aircraft. However, such an aircraft has stability problems, i.e. the pilot must continuously be correcting the tendency of the plane to yaw and pitch. Conventional aircraft, with tail and rudder, will correct themselves into straight and level flight (they "weathervane" into Coordinated Flight). Thus, although the B-35 and its jet version, the B-49, had impressive, indeed extraordinary, speed and range, the Air Force was leary of their stability, and the crash of a B-49 on 5 June 1948 seemed to confirm the danger. So the program was cancelled, though there were also accusations of political influence by the supporters of the B-36. The death of Captain Glenn Edwards in the plane led to the renaming of the Muroc test center as Edwards Air Force Base. The Right Stuff, again, details the early days at Muroc, especially the goings on at the bar and motel, the "Happy Bottom Riding Club," run by legendary aviatrix Pancho Barnes. When Edwards expanded its operation, Barnes lost her land, and the old buildings were demolished. I understand that the foundations, however, were still visible for many years. When I used to visit Edwards as a child, I expect that my uncle Dan Hendrix might have showed me the site; but nobody outside the business knew much about Barnes back then, and I doubt that Dan thought Barnes was a fitting subject for small children. Later, after Wolfe's book came out, I asked him about her, and heard his own stories, including meeting Barnes in Chuck Yeager's office (where she would put her muddy and s----y boots, fresh from her stables, up on his desk).
It turned out that another virtue of the flying wing design was the simplicity of the form, which made it easier to eliminate a radar signature. It also became possible to have computers do the small adjustments -- "fly by wire" -- to compensate for the yaw and pitch tendencies. Thus, to the pilot, the plane would be as stable as any conventional aircraft. All of this made the B-2 both desirable and possible. Indeed, it is now common to build airplanes that are aerodynamically unstable and use the computers to compensate.
The problem of radar had originally sunk the planned successor of the venerable B-52, the B-70. A stunning, high altitude (Mach 3), supersonic bomber, appropriately named the "Valkyrie," the B-70 became obsolete as soon as the Russians shot down Francis Gary Powers' U-2 with a ground to air missile. Speed and high altitude were suddenly no defense for an aircraft, and the 2 B-70's built were simply used as experimental aircraft. The B-1 was designed around the idea of low altitude flight, getting under radar, concealed by the topography. This allowed little margin for error, and eventually one of the prototype planes crashed (as did one of the B-70's) -- I had actually met the test pilot, Doug Benefield, who was killed in the B-1A crash. The B-2 relies on invisible high altitude flight. Its engine intakes and exhausts, which give strong radar returns, are on the top of the wing.
The B-36 is now a very strange looking airplane, with its six large "pusher" propellers on the back of the wings. It can still be seen in flight in the Jimmy Stewart movie, Strategic Air Command (1955), and it did have one virtue over the B-49: The body of the aircraft was so large that it was the only plane for a while that could carry hydrogen bombs.
Soon the bombs were smaller and jet aircraft were replacing all the prop aircraft. The B-52 succeeded the B-36. Fifty years later, B-52's are still operational, and they are the only modern bomber that ever went up alone in a long campaign against a modern air defense system, over North Vietnam. Although several were shot down, and at the time, as I remember, people talked like they were just sitting ducks, the attritition was actually much, much less than that of bombers over Germany in World War II; and eventually the North Vietnamese defenses were beaten down. The camouflage of the planes was impressive, flat black underneath and dark browns and greens on top. They certainly looked powerful and deadly, as I saw some myself in 1972 on the runways at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. The B-2, meant also to operate at night, is similarly done up in flat black. Now the B-52's are absurdly old, and the B-1 has tended to become its operational replacement, as originally intended, in campaigns like that over Afghanistan.
When a unified numbering system was introduced for Air Force and Naval aircraft, many preexisting Naval planes received new numbers. Sometimes this results in confusion, especially when people forget that the old Naval numbering system even existed, much less understand how it worked. An attempt was made to preserve actual numbers where this was practical. Thus, the famous and remarkable F4H Phantom II, which already had an Air Force designation as the F-110, became simply the F-4. The A4D Skyhawk became the A-4. We see this mostly with Vietnam era aircraft. One of the most extraordinary examples is the AD Skyraider, which became the A-1. This was a plane that was already operational late in World War II. It was designed to replace both the SB2C Helldiver divebomber and the TBF Avenger torpedo bomber -- the "A" designation, for "attack" was invented for it. It was flown by a single pilot, unlike the two man crews of the divebombers and the three man crews of the torpedo bombers. With its powerful engine, it ended up looking like a vary large, lumbering fighter plane. The Skyraider subsequently served in Korea, but it was still operational in Vietnam and still much respected for its characteristics. For instance, it could stay in the air for ten hours and provide close air support for helicopters. As the planes actually wore out from old age, the Air Force even wanted Douglas to built more; but it was not economical to do so.
The Lockheed "Blackbird" is one of the most extraordinary aircraft ever built. Designed for the CIA and ultimately designated the "SR-71," as a "strategic reconnaissance" aircraft, the plane had other designations, as for a while it was thought that it might work as a figher (YF-12) or something else. As a fighter, however, it would have flown faster than its own bullets or missles. It flew so high and so fast, indeed, that the records it set still stand, and the suspicion is that it could even fly higher and faster than was ever admitted. It also was one of the first airplanes with "stealth" characteristics (and one of the first with "fly by wire" computers to correct aerodynamic instabilities). After a U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union, we never have heard whether the SR-71 was subsequently able to avoid Soviet missles and so continued such reconnaissance overflights. The plane was expensive to operate and was finally retired in 1998. Although officially its job can now be done by satellites, suspicion remains that it would not have been retired unless there was a practical substitute, i.e. a secret aircraft with similar or better characteristics. If there is no substitute, then, it is hard to believe, aviation science has not gone any further in this respect than Kelly Johnson achieved in the 1960's.
The possibility of secret aircraft is one of the most intriguing aspects of arms development. For all the speculation, there is one example that is real and undeniable. The Lockheed F-117 "Nighthawk" stealth fighter, another product of Kelly Johnson's "Skunk Works," was an airplane, not only whose very existence had been kept secret, but whose designation, as the F-117, was unheard of in public. Even when there was a general expectation that such a plane existed, its designation, as far as I was aware, had never been mentioned in public. Indeed, there were speculative plastic models of the plane that gave it a number in the low digits, as the F-19, of the new fighter series ("F-19," as it happens, was never used). Now we know that the plane first flew in 1981 and was operational by 1983. Its existence (and number) was revealed only in 1988. The testing of the plane, mostly at night, had gone on at Groom Lake in Nevada. This is the test facility popularly known as "Area 51" and is the focus of a now immense body of speculation and fantasy. Sightings of the secret F-117 by civilians, from a ridgeline that is now closed to the public, may have fueled the belief that the Air Force was testing aircraft at Groom Lake that were either captured extraterrestrial vehicles or were planes that had been designed on the basis of extraterrestrial technology -- acquired either from captured or crashed space ships or directly from extraterrestrial sources. We saw a great deal of this in the television series The X-Files and in movies like Independence Day.
The F-117's were all retired by 2008, with explanations such as that the technology is now superior on newer fighters, like the F-22. Things are still going on, of course, out at Groom Lake; there are planes in the X Series whose nature is classified; and we are still free to wonder if there are Black Projects like the F-117, where there is not even a designation that is public knowledge. I have mentioned the speculation that the SR-71 was replaced with such an aircraft. Although many are frustrated and suspect that no good comes of secret projects, I rather hope that there is much more in development than anyone is aware of. When the Israelis took out a possible Syrian nuclear facility on September 6, 2007 with an airstrike, the Syrians, although having recently purchased a Russian air-defense system, were not aware of the strike until it was over. With the problem of Iran developing nuclear weapons, I hope that either Israel or the United States (no one else is likely to do it) would be able to effect a similar tour de force with some secret technology.
Naval Aircraft Designations of Japan and the United States
Philosophy of History, Military History
Philosophy of History