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F3F

US Navy Aircraft Identification Colors Before World War II

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

VF-2B
VF-5B
VF-3B
VB-1B

USS Saratoga

VB-2B
VF-6B
VS-2B
VT-2B

USS Ranger

VF-3B
VS-1B
VB-3B
VB-5B

USS Langley

VS-14
VS-15M

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

USS Langley
USS Saratoga
USS Ranger
USS Lexington
USS Yorktown
USS Enterprise

After 1937

USS Yorktown
USS Saratoga
USS Ranger
USS Lexington
USS Enterprise
USS Wasp

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.

Return to the Main Color Reference Menu