The United States Army purchased its first heavier-than-air aircraft, a Wright Model A, in 1908. It was allocated the serial number 1. Further Army aircraft were assigned serial numbers in sequence of their purchase. Unfortunately, early records from these days are rather incomplete, and there are numerous gaps and conflicts. To add to the confusion, it often happened that at the time an aircraft was rebuilt, it was assigned a brand new serial number. Some aircraft from this period (for example the DH-4 "Liberty Plane") are known to have carried at least four serial numbers during their careers.
This serial number scheme continued until the end of US Fiscal Year (FY) 1921 (which was June 30, 1921). At that time, the numbers had reached 69592, plus a special block of 1919-1921 experimental procurements in the 94022/94112 range.
Starting in July of 1921 (the beginning of FY 1922) a new system was adopted based on procurement within each Fiscal Year. Each serial number now consisted of a base number corresponding to the last two digits of the FY in which money was used to manufacture the aircraft, and a sequence number indicating the sequential order in which the particular aircraft was ordered within that particular FY. For example, airplane 22-1 was the first aircraft ordered in FY 1922, 23-1 was the first example ordered in FY 1923, etc. This system is still in use today.
It is important to recognize that the serial number reflects the Fiscal Year in which the order for the aircraft is placed, NOT the year in which it is delivered. Nowadays, the difference between the time the order is placed and the time the aircraft is actually delivered can be as much as several years.
In September of 1947, the United States Army Air Force became the United States Air Force, but the earlier fiscal-year serial number system remained unchanged. However, according to USAF regulation 5304.9003 promulgated in that year, the sequence number was now required to have at least 3 digits. This means that fiscal year serials with individual sequence numbers less than 1000 are filled up with zeroes to bring them up to 3 digits in length. So 48-1 is written as 48-001 in official documentation. Sequence numbers greater than 9999 are written with 5 digits. In 1958, the minimum was raised to four digits, so that the 1958 aircraft series started at 58-0001.
Following the passage of the Lend-Lease Act in 1941, USAAF serial numbers were allocated to US-built aircraft intended for service with Allied air forces during the Second World War. This was done strictly for administrative purposes, even though these aircraft were never intended for USAAF service. Later, during the Cold War, aircraft supplied to US allies under the Mutual Aid Program or the Mutual Defense Assistance Program were assigned USAF serial numbers for record-keeping purposes, even though they never actually served with the USAF.
Not all the aircraft which served with the US Army Air Force
were issued USAAF serial numbers.
The best-known examples are those
aircraft acquired abroad by the US Army during the
Second World War. In most cases, they
operated under their foreign designations
and serials. For example, the Spitfires acquired in the UK under
"Reverse Lend-Lease" were operated under their British designations
and their British serial numbers.
Occasionally, USAF aircraft are extensively remanufactured to bring them up to modern standards or to fulfill completely new roles for which they were not originally designed. In many cases, these aircraft are re-serialed with new numbers relevant to their year of re-manufacture. However, this rule is not always followed--re the rather grotesque modifications inflicted on some C-135 aircraft which did not result in new serial numbers.
The US Navy and the US Marine Corps have an entirely different serial numbering scheme, based on numerically progressive numbers allocated by the Bureau of Aeronautics. Occasionally, aircraft are transferred from the Navy to the USAF. If the transfer is anticipated to be permanent, it is usually the case that the transferred aircraft are given USAF serial numbers. Most often, the USAF serials of these transferred Navy aircraft are inserted within the regular sequence of numbers, but sometimes these new USAF serials are constructed by retroactively adding additional numbers at the end of the sequence number block for the fiscal year in which they were originally ordered by the Navy. Aircraft that are only temporarily transferred to the USAF from the Navy usually retain their Navy serial numbers even though painted in USAF markings, but it sometimes happens that aircraft loaned by the Navy are assigned brand-new USAF serials. Unfortunately, the system is not always consistent.
In recent years, the assignment of USAF serial numbers has not always been in strict numerical order within the FY. Furthermore, an aircraft is sometimes listed in a given FY block when it was actually ordered in a different FY. This is most often done for reasons of special convenience. For example, the serials of the two "Air Force One" VC-137s (62-6000 and 72-7000) might indicate that they were ordered ten years apart, whereas the actual difference was only seven years. The Presidential VC-25s were ordered in FY 1986 under the serials 86-8800 and 86-8900, but these numbers were changed to 82-8000 and 92-9000 by special order to create a series following the two earlier VC-137Cs. When some civilian aircraft have been acquired by the USAF, either by purchase or by seizure, serial numbers have sometimes been assigned out of sequence, with their numbers deliberately chosen to match their former civilian registration numbers. Other times, serial number allocation is done for reasons of secrecy, to conceal the existence of classified aircraft from prying eyes. For example, the serial numbers of the F-117s were initially assigned in strict numerical order, but they were sprinkled among several different fiscal years. In other cases, the serial numbers (e.g. the serial numbers for the new F-22 Raptor fighters) were derived from the manufacturer's construction numbers rather than from the sequence in which they were ordered. Another odd example was the A-1 Skyraiders acquired from the Navy for use in Vietnam--they had USAF serial numbers constructed by taking the plane's Navy serial number (Bureau Number) and prefixing in front of it the fiscal year number in which the plane was ordered by the Navy. For example Navy A-1E Skyraider BuNo 132890 became 52-132890 on USAF rolls.
During the 1950s and 1960s, it was common practice to include missiles and unmanned aircraft in USAF serial number batches. Consequently, it is not always possible to determine the total number of aircraft ordered by the USAF simply by looking at serial number ranges.
Following the splitoff of the USAF from the US Army, the Army continued
to use the same serial number system for its aircraft, with
the serials for Army and Air Force aircraft being intermixed
within the same FY sequence. Beginning
in FY 1967, the Army began using serials beginning
at 15000 for each FY, so Army aircraft could usually be
distinguished from USAF aircraft by their high serial
numbers. In FY 1971, the Army went over to a new
serial series, which started at 20000 and had continued consecutively
since then. Within each FY, the US Army numbers are much higher
than the USAF numbers are ever likely to get, so there is not much
danger of any overlap.
By 1914, when the Army first began to acquire tractor-engined aircraft, the official serial number began to be painted in large block figures on both sides of the fuselage or on the rudder. These numbers were so large that they could be easily seen and recognized from a considerable distance. At the time of American entry into the First World War, the large numbers were retained on the fuselage and sometimes added to the top of the white rudder stripe. By early 1918, the letters S.C. (for "Signal Corps") were often added as a prefix to the displayed serial number. When the Army Air Service was created in May of 1918, the letters SC were replaced by A.S. (for "Air Service"). In July of 1926, the Army Air Service was renamed the Army Air Corps, and the serial number prefix became A.C. for "Air Corps".
By late 1924, the fuselage serial numbers began to get smaller in size, until they standardized on four-inch figures on each side of the fuselage. This remained so until 1932. In 1926, the words "U.S. Army" were added to the fuselage number, and in 1928 the manufacturer's name and the Army designation was added to the display. Between 1924 and 1929, it was also common practice to add the manufacturer's name and the Army designation to each side of the rudder, but this was not always done.
The three-line fuselage data block was reduced in size to one-inch characters in 1932 and placed on the left hand side of the fuselage near the cockpit. It is still displayed there in the present day.
Beginning in January of 1942, the serial number of most Army aircraft was painted in eight-inch numbers on the vertical tail (whenever possible). This number became known as the tail number, for obvious reasons. Since military aircraft were at that time not expected to last more than ten years, the first digit of the fiscal year number was omitted in the tail number as was the AC prefix and the hyphen. For example, Curtiss P-40B serial number 41-5205 had the tail number 15205 painted on its rudder and Curtiss P-40K serial number 42-11125 had the tail number 211125 painted on the rudder. Since the Army (later Air Force) used the last four digits of the tail number as a radio call sign, for short serial numbers (those less than 100), the tail number was expanded out to four digits by adding zeros in front of the sequence number. For example, 41-38 would have the tail number written as 1038.
Consequently, in most situations for a World War II-era aircraft where the tail number is visible, you can deduce the serial number simply by putting a dash after the first digit, prefixing a 4, and you automatically have the serial number.
In the 1950s, many airplanes left over from the World War II era were still in service, exceeding their expected service lives of less than 10 years. In order to avoid confusion with later aircraft given the same tail number, these older aircraft had the number zero and a dash added in front of the tail number to indicate that they were over 10 years old. It was hoped that this would avoid confusion caused by duplication of tail numbers between two aircraft built over ten years apart. However, this was not always done, and it was not always possible uniquely to identify an aircraft by a knowledge of its tail number. This practice was eventually discontinued when people started refering to the number 0 as being a letter O, standing for Obsolete.
For a while during the 1960s, it was common practice to expand the tail number to a minimum of 5 digits, and even sometimes to cut down the tail number to five digits by deliberately omitting the fiscal year digit and one or more of the first digits of the sequence number. This practice lead to a lot of confusion.
There were some cases in which a long serial number such as 64-14841 would be presented on the tail as 14841, with both fiscal year digits omitted. Once again, this practice led to a lot of confusion.
Camouflage began to reappear on USAF aircraft during the Vietnam War, and this led to a change in tail number presentation. The letters "AF" were added directly above the last two digits of the fiscal year, followed by the last three digits of the sequence number. The three-digit sequence number has a height of the AF and fiscal year letters combined and is sometimes called the "large" component of the tail number. For example, F-4E serial number 67-0288 had the tail number 67(small) 288 (large). This could of course lead to confusion, since aircraft 67-1288, 67-2288, etc would have exactly the same tail numbers as 67-0288 under this scheme. This would not ordinary cause a whole lot of difficulty unless of course some of these larger serial numbers also happened to be F-4Es (which they were not). Unfortunately, the system was not always consistent--for example F-4D serial number 66-0234 had a tail number that looks like this: 60(small) 234(large). It appears as if this number was obtained by omitting the first digit of the fiscal, and combining the remaining "6" with the "0234". Consequently, one often has to do a lot of educated guessing in order to derive the aircraft serial number from a knowledge of its tail number, and a knowledge of the aircraft type and sometimes even the version is required. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has noted different tail number presentations on recent USAF aircraft.
However, Air Mobility Command and USAF Europe aircraft still display the previous format for the tail number, with all digits being the same size and the first digit being the last digit of the Fiscal Year and the remaining 4 digits being the last 4 digits of the sequence number. There is no AF displayed, just the name of the command a couple of feet above it. AMC regulations state that the tail number must be the last five digits of the serial number. If the serial number does not have five significant characters at the end, the last digit of the fiscal year becomes the first character, and zeroes are used to fill up the space to make five digits. This would make 58-00001 apear as 80001. In those rare cases in which the Air Force purchased more than 10,000 aircraft in a single fiscal year (1964 was such a year), aircraft with serial numbers greater than 10,000 would have both digits of the fiscal year omitted--for example the tail number of 64-14840 is 14840, not 44840. An exception was the tail number of EC-130H serial number 73-1583, which had its tail number displayed as 731583, i.e., the full serial number without the hyphen. Again, I would like to hear from anyone who has seen different types of serial number displays on Air Mobility Command aircraft.
In the years immediately following World War 2, many USAAF/USAF aircraft used markings that would make it possible to identify low-flying aircraft from the ground. This was intended to discourage the unsafe practice of pilots of high-performance aircraft making low passes (colloquially known as "buzzing") over ground points. Consequently, these numbers came to be known as buzz numbers.
The system used two letters and three numbers, painted as large as practically feasible on each side of the fuselage and on the underside of the left wing. The two letter code identified the type and model of the aircraft, and the three digits consisted of the last three numbers of the serial number. For example, all fighters were identified by the letter P (later changed to F), and the second letter identified the fighter type. For example, the buzz number code for the F-86 Sabre was FU, for the F-100 Super Sabre it was FW. The buzz number for F-100A 53-1551 was FW-551, the buzz number for F-86D 53-1020 was FU-020.
On occasion, two planes of the same type and model would have the same last three digits in their serial numbers. When this happened, the two aircraft were distinguished by adding the suffix letter A to the buzz number of the later aircraft, preceded by a dash.
The system was in wide use throughout the 1950s, but was gradually phased out during the 1960s.
The last use of buzz numbers was in 1971.
The following is a list of serial numbers for US Army and USAF aircraft. It is incomplete, with numerous gaps--especially in later years. If I know the final disposition of a particular aircraft, or if the aircraft has some special historical significance, this information is listed here too.
Enjoy yourself browsing through these lists--there are lots of neat historical interludes provided here. These lists are by no means complete or error-free and I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has additions or corrections.
There are a lot of people who want to know about the operational history or ultimate disposition of a particular aircraft referred to in this database, but about which I have little or no information. If you have a specific question about the history of a particular USAAF/USAF aircraft, you might try the Air Force Historical Research Agency which is located at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. They have cards on virtually every aircraft ever owned or operated by the USAAC/USAAF/USAF, and they might be able to answer your question fairly quickly. Another source of information is the Individual Aircraft Record Card file located at the National Air and Space Museum Archives Division. They also may be able to help you. However, you are always welcome to e-mail me in any case and I will see if I can dig up something.
If you want to search this site for a serial number or for a particular aircraft type, go to Jeremy Kuris's search engine:
|1908-1921 Serial Numbers Last revised October 12, 2008|
|1922-1929 Serial Numbers Last revised October 28, 2007|
|1930-1937 Serial Numbers Last revised January 10, 2009|
|1938-1939 Serial Numbers Last revised February 17, 2008|
|1940 Serial Numbers Last revised January 5, 2009|
|1941 Serial Numbers 41-1 to 41-6721 Last revised January 5, 2009|
|1941 Serial Numbers 41-6722 to 41-13296 Last revised January 10, 2009|
|1941 Serial Numbers 41-13297 to 41-24339 Last revised January 3, 2009|
|1941 Serial Numbers 41-24340 to 41-30847 Last revised January 10, 2009|
|1941 Serial Numbers 41-30848 to 41-39600 Last revised January 6, 2009|
|1942 Serial Numbers 42-001 to 42-30031 Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1942 Serial Numbers 42-30032 to 42-39757 Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1942 Serial Numbers 42-39758 to 42-50026 Last revised January 6, 2009|
|1942 Serial Numbers 42-50027 to 42-57212 Last revised January 4, 2009|
|1942 Serial Numbers 42-57213 to 42-70685 Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1942 Serial Numbers 42-70686 to 42-91973 Last revised January 10, 2009|
|1942 Serial Numbers 42-91974 to 42-110188 Last revised January 10, 2009|
|1943 Serial Numbers 43-001 to 43-5104 Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1943 Serial Numbers 43-5109 to 43-52437 Last revised January 5, 2009|
|1944 Serial Numbers 44-001 to 44-30910 Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1944 Serial Numbers 44-30911 to 44-35357 Last revised January 8, 2009|
|1944 Serial Numbers 44-35358 to 44-40048 Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1944 Serial Numbers 44-40049 to 44-70254 Last revised November 3, 2008|
|1944 Serial Numbers 44-70255 to 44-83885 Last revised January 6, 2009|
|1944 Serial Numbers 44-83886 to 44-92098 Last revised January 10, 2009|
|1945 Serial Numbers Last revised December 13, 2008|
|1946 to 1948 Serial Numbers Last revised May 6, 2008|
|1949 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1950 Serial Numbers Last revised December 22, 2008|
|1951 Serial Numbers Last revised January 11, 2009|
|1952 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1953 Serial Numbers Last revised January 11, 2009|
|1954 Serial Numbers Last revised January 11, 2009|
|1955 Serial Numbers Last revised January 11, 2009|
|1956 Serial Numbers (56-001/956) Last revised January 11, 2009|
|1956 Serial Numbers (56-957/6956) Last revised January 10, 2009|
|1957 Serial Numbers Last revised January 11, 2009|
|1958 Serial Numbers Last revised January 11, 2009|
|1959 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1960 Serial Numbers Last revised November 30, 2008|
|1961 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1962 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1963 Serial Numbers Last revised December 19, 2008|
|1964 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1965 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1966 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1967 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1968 Serial Numbers Last revised January 8, 2009|
|1969 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1970 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1971 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1972 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1973 Serial Numbers Last revised January 8, 2009|
|1974 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1975 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1976 Serial Numbers Last revised November 23, 2008.|
|1977 Serial Numbers Last revised November 23, 2008|
|1978 Serial Numbers Last revised January 10, 2009|
|1979 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1980 Serial Numbers Last revised October 27, 2008|
|1981 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1982 Serial Numbers Last revised January 4, 2009|
|1983 Serial Numbers Last revised January 4, 2009|
|1984 Serial Numbers Last revised November 29, 2008|
|1985 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1986 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1987 Serial Numbers Last revised November 28, 2008|
|1988 Serial Numbers Last revised December 13, 2008|
|1989 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1990 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1991 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|1992 Serial Numbers Last revised July 21, 2008|
|1993 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|1994 Serial Numbers Last revised July 21, 2008|
|1995 Serial Numbers Last revised May 11, 2008|
|1996 Serial Numbers Last revised September 14, 2007|
|1997 Serial Numbers Last revised April 25, 2008|
|1998 Serial Numbers Last revised December 13, 2008|
|1999 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|2000 Serial Numbers Last revised May 11, 2008|
|2001 Serial Numbers Last revised May 11, 2008|
|2002 Serial Numbers Last revised October 12, 2007|
|2003 Serial Numbers Last revised April 18, 2008|
|2004 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|2005 Serial Numbers Last revised December 1, 2008|
|2006 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|2007 Serial Numbers Last revised January 9, 2009|
|2008 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|2009 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
|2010 Serial Numbers Last revised January 7, 2009|
Click here to look at the list of references for the serial numbers listed in this site.