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Researching aircraft

Many records are only available online, sometimes on more than one site. We have listed the main sources but there may be others. Some records are free to view but others may entail a fee for access (£/$). 

Getting started 

The serial number is often the most important piece of information you need to research any American aircraft.  

In full, US aircraft serial numbers take the format XX-XXXXX. The first two digits indicate the year the aircraft was ordered, though often the first digit is not displayed on the aircraft’s tail. 

Joe Baugher lists aircraft serial numbers used by the US Air Force and its predecessors from 1908 to date, along with detailed information about changes in numbering conventions. Specific aircraft can be found via the search engine

Single military aircraft histories are detailed in Individual Aircraft Record Cards (sometimes called Aircraft History Cards). Copies for aircraft from 1920- 1953 are held at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) and cover the life of an aircraft from its acceptance by the armed forces to its removal from the inventory.  

An aircraft serial number can also be helpful in tracing people’s stories, especially if they were part of an aircrew. 

Aircraft types 

Biographies of every B-17 Flying Fortress built are reproduced in our archive.  

For other aircraft types we recommend:  

Technical manuals can be viewed freely at AviationShoppe 

Crashes and accidents 

Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) list details of aircraft lost on combat missions, MACRs can be accessed via NARA’s Microfilm Catalog or at Fold3(£/$). They often include the type, model, and serial number of the aircraft and its engines, the unit to which it was assigned, the place of departure and destination of the flight plan, and cause of crash.  

Aircraft accident reports and be searched or ordered from Aviation Archaeology ($) 

Aircraft crashes were recorded in daily listings of mishaps, or in weekly or monthly intelligence summaries compiled at Squadron or Group level. Information about losses was sometimes recorded on Individual Aircraft Record Cards too. All these sources should be obtainable on microfilm from AFHRA or NASM

In the UK, aircraft crashes and accidents were also recorded by Air Raid Precautions (ARP). Many records are held in county record offices, The National Archives (TNA) search can help you to locate one local to you. Local newspapers may also contain information about aircraft crashes too. 

Well documented aircraft crash sites are often commemorated with memorials, you can find details of many of these on the American Air Museum’s archive or at IWM’s War Memorial’s Register

In the UK, the remains of all aircraft which crashed while in military service, whether on land or at sea, are protected by the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, interference is considered a criminal offence. 

Many European countries have similar legislation in place to protect military aircraft crash sites. If you believe you have located a crash site, report it to the local authorities or the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) 


Colours and markings  

Our ever-growing media section features thousands of images of aircraft from a range of USAAF (United States Army Air Forces) units and is a rich resource for determining an aircraft’s appearance.  

The US Army Center for Military History outlines colour guides for combat aircraft from 1940 to date. 

The Battle Colours series by Robert Watkins are a useful reference for US aircraft liveries during the Second World War