The aircraft

'In the AAF we enter into a partnership with our machines and instruments. It is a close relationship, at times conducted virtually on a man-to-man basis, and our mechanical needs are great, both in quality and numbers.'

The Official World War Two Guide to the Army Air Forces, 1944

Different types of aircraft were developed for the USAAF, each one suitable for different tasks. By the end of the war, the main and most vital priorities were bombers to attack Germany, fighters to defend them, and transport aircraft to move huge numbers of troops into combat.

In addition, the Army Air Forces needed other types of aircraft for reconnaissance, close air support (attacking targets on the ground on or close to the front lines) and for other general duties.

Most of these aircraft were American-built, made either by the company that designed it or by contractors working to the original design.

Some British aircraft types also served with American units, just as some American aircraft types were used by the British air arms.

As easy as ‘B’, ‘P’, ‘C’…

Each type of American-built aircraft was given a letter, which tells you about the role it was designed to fulfil, and a number, producing a name such as ‘P-38’.

The number part of the name indicated the order in which designs were accepted for use, although as the Official World War Two Guide to the Army Air Forces states, 'numbers are often assigned to designs which are subsequently cancelled. Therefore the number 17 in B-17 does not necessarily identify this model as the 17th bomber design produced for the AAF.’

Aircraft with 'B' titles were bombers, such as the B-17 Flying Fortress or B-24 Liberator. 'P' stood for 'Pursuit', more commonly known these days as fighters. These were designed to shoot down enemy aircraft. Most famous examples include the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang. 'C' types were cargo aircraft; ‘G’ stood for gliders, ‘AT’, ‘BT’, and ‘PT’ for advanced, basic and primary trainers; ‘O’ for observation.

Types were updated and new types introduced throughout the war, each one featuring improvements such as more powerful engines or better armament. To show the difference, extra letters were added to the name, such as B-17G, or P-51D.

As you can see from the above examples, aircraft types were also given names such as ‘Flying Fortress’, ‘Thunderbolt’ or ‘Lightning’. Often types had nicknames too: the P-47 Thunderbolt was affectionately known by its pilots as the 'Jug'. Sometimes specific variants of aircraft types had nicknames. One version of the P-47 Thunderbolt was known as the ‘Razorback’. So, you might find someone talking about a ‘P-47’, a 'Razorback', a ‘Thunderbolt’ or a ‘Jug', and they'd be discussing the same type of aircraft.

Find out more about the development of aircraft for the USAAF here.

Memphis Belle or 41-24485?

In addition to the official name, and the nickname for different types of aircraft, each individual aircraft had a number, also known as the serial. Broadly, the serial number shows the year in which the aircraft was made, and when shown in full often show even more data, such as when and where it was produced, and in which batch. Aviation historian Lee Cunningham describes this unique aircraft 'fingerprint':

‘US aircraft carried a model number that began with a letter "P" (pursuit, fighters); "B" (bombers); "C" (cargo, troop carriers) "F" (photography) etc; followed by and numerical designation "17", "24" "47" "38" etc.; followed by a Letter (Indicating model) "A" "B" "C"; followed by the manufacturer's Production Block designation (numerical) followed by a two letter Manufacturer's code.

‘For example: B-17 41-24485 was actually model number B-17F-10-BO. Thus, the model number tells you that the aircraft is a bomber, model 17F, of Production Block 10, produced by Boeing (BO).’

So there’s plenty of data to work from. More information on understanding aircraft serials can be found here.

Many had their own nicknames (the most famous, of course, being the 'Memphis Belle', real-life star of a Second World War film and a 1990s Hollywood movie). These names were often painted onto the side by their air or ground crews.

Aircraft nicknames – and the ‘nose art’ associated with them – were opportunities for the crews to personalise their machines. Popular subjects were female names, such as ‘Piccadilly Lilly’, or references to loved ones or sweethearts at home. Some names were puns, playing on popular phrases. Others were named after characters in cartoons or popular culture. Find out more about nose art at this website.

Have a look at some examples of nose art in our interactive archive.

As well as the 'nose art', each aircraft had an official paint scheme, or livery. Even late in the war, when aircraft were being sent into service 'bare metal', each one had certain pieces of information painted on it, including national markings and unit markings to aid recognition.

Some of the most brightly painted aircraft were known as 'assembly ships'. These helped the huge fleets of bombers 'form up' before they flew off. Find out more about these 'assembly ships' at this external website.

You can also find photos of these aircraft in our interactive archive.