What IS that RCAF bird called?

News Article / July 12, 2019

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By Joanna Calder

That huge Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) aircraft carrying equipment and troops… Is it a C-17? Is it a C-177? Or is it a CC-177?

And that fighter jet over there… Is it an F-18, a CF-18 or a CF-188?

Occasionally confusion crops up about the alpha-numerical designation of RCAF aircraft. In many cases, the uncertainty arises because the manufacturer’s designation and the Canadian military designations are similar…. but different.

Here’s how it works.

Each RCAF aircraft fleet has a unique alpha-numerical designation consisting of two letters and three numbers.

According to the Department of National Defence’s Technical Airworthiness Manual (TAM), which provides the direction on aircraft naming in Part 2, Chapter 2 “Aircraft Registration and Marking”, “an aircraft type designation shall consist of a prefix letter “C”, a second letter indicating the primary role of the aircraft and a three-digit numeric.

“The first two letters [such as] CC-177 represent the naming convention used to identify the aircraft in our registry, CC [for instance] standing for Canadian Cargo,” explains Major Lyle Fair, who works in the RCAF’s Directorate of Air Readiness and Plans.  In addition to the first “C” indicating the aircraft is a Canadian aircraft, the second letter indicates the type of aircraft and its role.

The role designators listed in the TAM are:

C – Transport (i.e., Cargo)

E – Electronic support (no aircraft in the inventory currently carry this designation)

F – Fighter

H – Helicopter

P – Patrol

T – Trainer

U – Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)

So an aircraft designation that starts with CP means that it is a Canadian patrol aircraft, an aircraft that starts with CT is a Canadian trainer, CF means the aircraft is a Canadian fighter, and so on.

Sometimes you may see an additional letter added to the end of the alpha-numerical designation; the TAM indicates that this “letter shall designate a model type, if required”.

For instance, a CF-188A Hornet is a single-seat model and a CF-188B Hornet is a dual-seat model. A CP-140 Aurora that has gone through the currently ongoing modernization program is now a CP-140M. Similarly, there are two models of Hercules currently in service with the RCAF – the H-model legacy fleet and the new J-model fleet. Thus, you will often see the older fleet referred to as either CC-130s or CC-130Hs, and the newer fleet as CC-130Js.

And the air-to-air refueller version of the CC-150 Polaris is a CC-150T (for tanker).

Because all aircraft need to have three numbers following the initial two letters, the manufacturer’s numerical designation is also often “Canadianized”. So Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III became a CC-177 Globemaster III when Canada took delivery of the aircraft. Likewise, an F-18 Hornet became a CF-188 Hornet (yes, it really is a CF-188, although you will often see CF-18 in common usage).Popular aircraft names

As well as the alpha-numerical designation, all aircraft have a popular name: Hornet, Sea King, Polaris, Aurora and more.

According to the TAM, a “popular name means a description designation by which the aircraft will be known within the [Department of National Defence]. It is the responsibility of the Project Management Office, in conjunction with 1 Canadian Air Division, to name a newly acquired aircraft fleet.”

The TAM also lists a number of considerations for determining the popular name of an aircraft, including but not limited to, the following:

  • If acquisition aircraft already have a suitable official and commonly used name, that name will be retained.
  • The name selected must impart a Canadian connotation.
  • For the purpose of brevity, the name shall consist of only one word and be selected to conform to the characteristics of the aircraft and its basic mission, rather than the source of the manufacture.
  • The name should appeal to the imagination without sacrificing dignity and should suggest confidence in the capabilities of the aircraft.
  • The name must not … duplicate those … in use for other types of equipment.
  •  Previously associated names may be utilized if suitable (i.e., Musketeer – Musketeer II and Harvard – Harvard II).
  • All aircraft series within a basic mission and type will retain the one name assigned thereto (for instance, CC-130 Hercules).

Registration numbers

In addition, each individual RCAF aircraft has a specific number that is also its registration number. The registration number combines the three-digit fleet number with a unique three-digit number identifying that particular airframe.

“The last three [numbers] are specific to the aircraft itself and are painted on the nose,” continues Major Fair. The registration number “is also the serial number of the aircraft as indicated on the certificate of airworthiness; it is painted on the tail and better known as the tail number,” he adds.

Thus, the registration or tail numbers of Globemasters are 177701, 177702 and so on, with 177701 being the first aircraft delivered to Canada and 177705 being the most recent. The H-model Hercules have tail numbers such as 130301, 130302 and so on.

However, when the new J-model Hercules came into the RCAF’s inventory, the last three numbers were drawn from the 600 series rather than the 300 series because the aircraft was so advanced in comparison to the H models that it was considered to be essentially a new aircraft. Thus, J-model Hercules are numbered 130601, 130602 and so on.

And before a sharp-eyed reader points it out, the TAM acknowledges that some older, legacy aircraft, such as CH-124 Sea Kings and CC-138 Twin Otters, have five-digit registration or tail numbers. Thus, an example of a Sea King tail number is 12428 and an example of a Twin Otter tail number is 13802.

On fixed-wing aircraft, the five- or six-digit registration number is placed on the vertical stabilizer, below the Canadian flag symbol. On rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters) number is placed on the vertical stabilizer or aft section of the aircraft, if possible, below the Canadian flag symbol.

And a word about hyphens

There’s one more point about aircraft names. Sometimes you might see the five-character alpha-numerical designation (CC-130, CT-114, etc.) written with a hyphen and sometimes without. The official designation is without the hyphen, which is the way the designations are written in official DND documents and internal communications. But that little piece of punctuation is added in communications destined for audiences outside the Canadian Armed Forces. And why? As the National Defence Terminology Manual states, “a hyphen with no spaces is an acceptable way to write aircraft designations in order to comply with the Canadian Press Style Guide.” In other words, we add the hyphen in material for the general public because it’s a little easier to read and that’s the way the general public is accustomed to seeing it. It doesn’t affect the official five-character alpha-numerical designations, which do not take hyphens.

So, the next time you hear someone talk about a Canadian Globemaster, you’ll know that although it was a C-17 when it rolled off the assembly line at Boeing, it became a CC-177 when it was taken onto the Royal Canadian Air Force’s inventory. And Canadian fighter pilots don’t fly F-18 Hornets, they fly CF-188 Hornets.


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