The aircraft designation system currently in use by all branches of the armed forces is called the “Mission Design Series” (MDS) and uses letter and number combinations to indicate certain basic facts about a given aircraft. When you first encounter “F/A-18E/F,” representing the Super Hornet, you can’t help but think this is something only for cryptanalysts—but the good news is that it is mostly logical and definitely decipherable.
The simplest way to begin is to remember this: One thing common to all aircraft designations is the dash. Whether the aircraft is a P-8A, or an EA-18G, or an F/A-18E/F, there is always a dash in the designation. If you use that as your starting point, you will have a consistent reference from which to begin cracking this code.
Type or Basic Mission
The first letter to the left of the dash tells you one of two things: either the type or the basic mission of the aircraft. If the aircraft is a special type, such as a glider or a helicopter, the first letter to the left of the dash will be one from this list:
NOTE: The current Tri-Service aircraft designation system has been in use only since 1962, so if you are reading about aircraft from World War II and before, for example, the designations will not be the same. Earlier designations will be covered in a forthcoming “Bluejacket’s Manual” column.