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F3F

US Navy Aircraft Identification Colors Before World War II

Copyright © 2016 TacAir Publications, all rights reserved.

In the 1930s and into 1940, the US Navy employed a color marking scheme to enable pilots and ground observers to quickly identify any given aircraft. This involved a combination of colors and letters & numbers. For a look at the standard airframe colors used prior to WWII, refer to the Quarter Master 3-1 color tables.

Up until 1935, squadrons applied their own colors to the tails of their aircraft as a quick visual reference of squadron identification for any given ship. In October 1934 for example, the tail colors were as follows:

USS Lexington

Squadron Sqn ID Color
VF-2B Lemon Yellow
VF-5B True Blue
VS-3B Lemon Yellow
VB-1B Lemon Yellow

USS Saratoga

Squadron Sqn ID Color
VB-2B White
VF-6B White
VS-2B Lemon Yellow
VT-2B Insignia Red

USS Ranger

Squadron Sqn ID Color
VF-3B Willow Green
VS-1B Willow Green
VB-3B Willow Green
VB-5B Willow Green

USS Langley

Squadron Sqn ID Color
VS-14M Insignia Red
VS-15M True Blue

With the growing number of fleet carriers and associated number of squadrons, a directive was issued in 1935 to standardize tail colors to the aircraft carrier that the aircraft was assigned to:

1935-1937:

Carrier Sqn ID Color
USS Langley Insignia Red
USS Saratoga White
USS Ranger Willow Green
USS Lexington Lemon Yellow
USS Yorktown True Blue
USS Enterprise Black

After 1937:

Carrier Sqn ID Color
USS Yorktown Insignia Red
USS Saratoga White
USS Ranger Willow Green
USS Lexington Lemon Yellow
USS Enterprise True Blue
USS Wasp Black

Each squadron was divided into six sections, each section having three aircraft apiece. Each section was assigned its own color. That color was in the fuselage band, the cowl colors and the upper wing chevron. The entire cowl and fuselage bands are in color for the respective section leaders. The top half of the cowl received the color for the second aircraft in the section, and only the bottom half in color for the third aircraft. Note that while all three members of the section had the over-wing chevron, only the section leaders had the fuselage band.

On the side of each aircraft was number-letter-number code which indicated the squadron, type of squadron, and assignment in that squadron, respectively. For example, 4-F-1 was the squadron commanders aircraft for Fighting Four (VF-4). A 6-S-4 would indicate the second section leader for Scouting Six (VS-6).

Aircraft belonging to the squadron commander or section leaders (aircraft 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, and 16) had a colored fuselage band. The number-letter-number identifier would be centered on that color stripe.

The types of squadrons that were in service with the US Navy before WW2 included:

  • VB - Bombing
  • VF - Fighting
  • VH - Ambulance
  • VJ - General Utility
  • VN - Training
  • VO - Observation
  • VP - Patrol
  • VR - Transport
  • VS - Scouting
  • VT - Torpedo
  • VX - Experimental

Here is a complete squadron breakdown:

Aircraft Number Section Number Section Position Color Cowl Example
1 1 1 Insignia Red Entire 4-F-1
2 1 2 Insignia Red Top 4-F-2
3 1 3 Insignia Red Bottom 4-F-3
4 2 1 White Entire 4-F-4
5 2 2 White Top 4-F-5
6 2 3 White Bottom 4-F-6
7 3 1 True Blue Entire 4-F-7
8 3 2 True Blue Top 4-F-8
9 3 3 True Blue Bottom 4-F-9
10 4 1 Black Entire 4-F-10
11 4 2 Black Top 4-F-11
12 4 3 Black Bottom 4-F-12
13 5 1 Willow Green Entire 4-F-13
14 5 2 Willow Green Top 4-F-14
15 5 3 Willow Green Bottom 4-F-15
16 6 1 Lemon Yellow Entire 4-F-16
17 6 2 Lemon Yellow Top 4-F-17
18 6 3 Lemon Yellow Bottom 4-F-18

In the late 1930s, squadron numbers were changed as squadrons were moved between aircraft carriers, so you'll need to do some homework as to which unit shield belongs to which squadron at any given time.

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