Tail codes are the markings usually on the vertical stabilizer of U.S. military aircraft that help to identify the aircraft's unit and/or base assignment and occasionally other information that is not unique. This is not the same as the serial number, bureau number, or aircraft registration which provide unique aircraft identification.
U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force uses multiple codes that relate to the aircraft. Since 1993, all USAF components, including Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard (ANG), utilize this system. Two large letters identify the home base, or in some organizations, an historic legacy, such as "FF" ("First Fighter") for the 1st Fighter Wing or "WP" ("Wolf Pack") for the 8th Fighter Wing. Air National Guard units usually use the two-letter state abbreviation as a tail code, though there are exceptions, such as the 110th Airlift Wing using "BC" ("Battle Creek") instead of the "MI" used for other Michigan Air National Guard units. Individual aircraft are further identified by three smaller numerals that are the last three digits of the airframe's serial number, usually preceded by two smaller digits that indicate the fiscal year that the aircraft was ordered.
All aircraft of all types assigned to a unit, or in the case of ANG units, the entire state, use a common code. In some instances, such as Air Force installations in Alaska (AK) and Hawaii (HH), all aircraft of all components share a common code. Typically, units of different commands co-located at the same base use different codes. For example, the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, uses "WM" while the 442nd Fighter Wing of the Air Force Reserve at the same base uses "KC" ("Kansas City").
Air Mobility Command markings
Air Mobility Command (AMC) aircraft do not use two-letter identification codes, but instead have the name of the base written inside the tail flash. AMC aircraft also use a different standard to identify the aircraft serial number. They use a 5-digit number in which all 5 digits are the same size. In most cases, the first digit represents the last digit of the fiscal year (FY) and the remaining digits identify the 4-digit sequence number. In cases where more than 10,000 aircraft were ordered in a single year (1964, for example), the complete 5-digit sequence number - without FY identification - is used.
The U. S. Navy's aircraft visual identification system uses tail codes and modex to visually identify aspects of the aircraft's purpose and organization. Carrier Air Wing (CVW) tail codes denote to which fleet the Air Wing belongs; A for Atlantic Fleet and N for Pacific Fleet. All squadrons which deploy as part of that air wing, regardless of which type of fixed or rotary wing aircraft they fly or where they are based, display that CVW's tail code as follows:
Electronic Attack Squadrons (VAQ) of Electronic Attack Wing Pacific which are not assigned to a CVW but instead deploy to fixed land bases in support of joint tasking ("Expeditionary" VAQ Squadrons) use tail code NL.
Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRS) for fixed wing carrier based aircraft use the CVW style tail code. Naval Air Force Pacific Fleet carrier based fixed wing aircraft FRSs use tail code NJ and Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet carrier based fixed wing aircraft FRSs display tail code AD. The FRSs for carrier based helicopters do not follow this rule.
The US Navy Reserve's Tactical Support Wing (formerly Reserve Carrier Air Wing 20) uses tail code AF. NW was the tail code for Helicopter Wing Reserve which has been disestablished, but the two reserve helicopter squadrons which still exist continue to use that code even though the wing no longer exists.
Helicopter FRSs and helicopter squadrons not assigned to Carrier Air Wings (except for reserve squadrons); and all land based fixed wing squadrons, including land based aircraft FRSs and reserve squadrons, use two letter codes unique to each squadron. These codes are squadron specific and do not identify either the wing to which the squadron belongs nor the air station at which it is based.
Training Command aircraft, used for training prospective Naval Aviators and Naval Flight Officers use a single-letter tail code which identifies the aircraft's training wing.
- TW-1 NAS Meridian, MS: A
- TW-2 NAS Kingsville, TX: B
- TW-4 NAS Corpus Christi, TX: G
- TW-5 NAS Whiting Field, FL: E
- TW-6 NAS Pensacola, FL: F
Search and Rescue Helicopters and light transport aircraft which are assigned to Naval Air Stations or Naval Air Facilities use a two place code consisting of a number SEVEN or EIGHT followed by a letter unique to each Naval Air Station/Facility.
U.S. Marine Corps
The U.S. Marine Corps and U. S. Navy share the same system. USMC squadrons use two letter codes unique to each squadron. The codes are squadron specific and do not identify either the Marine Air Group (MAG) nor the Marine Air Wing (MAW) to which the squadron belongs nor the air station at which it is based. The exception is those squadrons assigned to a Navy Carrier Air Wing which use the Carrier Air Wing's tail code.
Light transport aircraft assigned to Marine Corps Air Stations use a two place tail code consisting of a number FIVE followed by a letter unique to each Marine Corps Air Station
- Buzz number
- United States military aircraft serials
- United States Marine Corps Aviation
- Full List of U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps Aircraft Tail Codes
- Tail Code - The Complete History of USAF Tactical Aircraft Tail Code Markings by Patrick Martin, Published 1994
- Hook Code - United States Navy and Marine Corps Aviation Tail Code Markings 1963-1994 by Patrick Martin, Published 1994