IMPDb:Military Aircraft Identification

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This page provides an amateurs guide on how to identify the make and model of an aircraft. Some people can identify and aircraft just by looking at it, however they still need to use other resources to identify particular models, and learn new aircraft!

There are some simple key steps on how to identify an aircraft, with the internet playing a major role.

This page looks at identifying Military aircraft. For identifying civilian aircraft, see Identifying Aircraft


Unlike civilian aircraft, there are no official military aircraft registration databases. However there are a couple of private databases with very comprehensive lists. Most military aircraft will have a serial number, tail code or both - this largely depends on the country.

The most comprehensive database is the MASR Online Database, which allows you to search for aircraft with multiple fields of information. This database is not 100% accurate however, so it always a good idea to double check your findings eg. by finding a picture on This is especially important for U.S. Military aircraft which can change hands between different units operating the type, even having the aircraft I.D. the same, but at different times.

In the United States the serial numbers of military aircraft varies between each service and has also been subject to changes over time. This table show some of the most common forms of registration.

Armed Service Format on aircraft Full registration Representation
US Air Force (non-tactical) YXXXX #Y-XXXX Y = Year (19#Y)
XXXX = Serial number
US Air Force (tactical) AF
YY-XXXX YY = Year (19YY)
XXX = Serial number, last 3 digits.
US Navy/Marines XXXXXX XXXXXX XXXXXX = Serial number
US Army (New) XXXXX YY-XXXXX YY = Year (19YY)
XXXXX = Serial number
US Army (Post-1956) YXXXX #Y-XXXX Y = Year (19#Y)
XXXX = Serial number
US Coastguard (tactical) XXXX XXXX XXXX = Serial number

A very good utility for searching US Military aircraft is on Joe Baugher's database. Here you can search for full or partial registrations, and will usually be able to identify an exact model of aircraft if you know the general model e.g. C-17.

For UK Military:

  • Up to 1916: 1 to 10000
  • Up to 1940: A1 to J9999, K1000 to Z9999 (excluding letters G,I,O,Q,U,Y)
  • From 1940: AA100 to ZZ999 (excluding letters G,I,O,Q,U,Y)

For Russian Military:

  • Non-tactical aircraft: RA-XXXXX
  • Tactical aircraft: XX on aircraft, Registration - XX + (Colour of marking)

For Chinese Military:

  • Most aircraft: XXXXX
  • Some fighter jets: XX

The best place to search for these registrations are on This site hosts one of the largest databases of aviation photography, so the chances are, if the registration is real, you can find it on here. If you can't find it, try Google, and if that fails post a note on the discussion page or use the Reference desk in case other users may have other resources.


The colour of the aircraft, any titles or military insignia can help to identify who the aircraft belongs to. From there you can create a shortlist of aircraft based on what aircraft that operator uses. Information on military fleets is often more limited than commercial fleets for security reasons, but it varies from country to country. Wikipedia is often the most comprehensive source, however it may not be completely accurate or up to date. It can also be used to identify insignia.

Aircraft Design

If the registration search fails to yield results then you will need to identify the aircraft using the visual clues of its design. Below are the key areas in which a visual analysis can be made:


First establish what type of aircraft it is. Options including typical designs include:

  • Tactical Transport - Large, wide fuselage, large wings, few windows, ramps.
  • Passenger Transport - Usually adapted civilian airliners, see Identifying Aircraft.
  • Bombers - Long, narrow fuselage, optimised for high speed and/or long range. Can be radical designs.
  • Reconnaissance/Electronic Surveillance - Usually modified transport or civilian aircraft fitted with aerials, radomes, pods etc.
  • Fighter - Small versatile aircraft, large engines, sometimes carrying lots of munitions.
  • Tankers - Modified transport or civilian aircraft fitted with refuelling boom and/or 'hose and drogue' pods under wings.
  • Trainers - Basic aircraft, often twin seat and variations of operational aircraft.
  • UAV - Small fuselage, long wingspan, crew-less air vehicles.

For Helicopters:

  • Tactical/Utility Transport - Large fuselage, large doors and/or ramp, minimal armaments.
  • Attack - Thin fuselage, electronic equipment, heavy armaments.
  • Heavy Lift - Large overall size, multiple engines, large and/or multiple rotors.
  • Observation - small in size, large windows.


As with civilian aircraft, the number of engines can reduce the number of possibilities. However, aviation has been around a lot longer in military service than civilian commercial service so identifying larger aircraft can be significantly more difficult. Some useful tips to remember though:

  • Tactical transports and large aircraft pre-1960 are mostly propeller or turbo-prop aircraft.
  • Bomber and Fighter aircraft will often have the engines integrated into the fuselage. You will always have separate intakes and exhausts which show how many engines there are.
  • Helicopters will also have separate intakes and exhausts however they may be more difficult to spot.
  • If the engines are wing mounted, look carefully to see how they are mounted i.e. under, on top or through the wing.


  • How many crew are there?
  • How are they seated? i.e. in tandem one behind the other.
  • How does the cockpit open? Hinged or sliding?


  • Is the vertical stabilizer curved at the top or straight?
  • Where about is the horizontal stabilizer located? On the fuselage tail, mid-vertical stabilizer or top of vertical stabilizer?
  • Does it have two vertical stabilizers? e.g. a fighter jet.


  • What configuration is it?
  • Does it fold away? If so, how? Are there covers?

See also

Identifying Aircraft