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Aviation history: Every tail tells a story

By Jeffrey Hood | 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | November 21, 2016

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --

Joint Base Langley-Eustis community members quickly learn to identify and distinguish the two types of aircraft currently flying here, the F-22 Raptor and the T-38 Talon. More perceptive fans of military aviation, like myself may also identify the B-52 Stratofortress and F-4 Phantom near the LaSalle Gate, the F-15 Eagle that overlooks the Armistead Gate or the mix of fighter aircraft that adorn Heritage Park.

If you can tell an F-105 Thunderchief from an F-16 Fighting Falcon, I would call you a keen-eyed observer.

But every non-transport aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory features both a distinct 2-letter identification and a serial number on its tail. Those letter and number combinations tell a story to those who know how to read it.

The two-letter code on an aircraft tail is officially referred to as the “Distinctive Unit Identifier Marking” but I know it sounds better as the fin flash. The fin flash is an easy way to instantly identify an aircraft’s home.

For example, an F-16 with “SP” on the tail immediately links that jet to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany while an “SW” denotes an F-16 from Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.

Tail letters often correspond to the name of the base, but not always. State-based letters are also common. Vermont Air National Guard F-16s identifies with “VT” and aircraft assigned to both Eielson and Elmendorf AFBs in Alaska feature “AK”.

While the names of states, bases, or cities provide the origin of most fin flashes, others, including “FF” here at JBLE are based on a nickname or mission. The 1st Fighter Wing is “First of the First”. The 8th FW “Wolfpack” at Kunsan AB, South Korea displays “WP”. The 35th FW from Misawa AB, Japan wears “WW” to denote its “Wild Weasel” mission.

The 100th Air Refueling Wing at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England uses the only official single letter designator, a simple square “D” which commemorates the World War II era 100th Bombardment Group that used the same tail marking.

Although 101 different letter combinations remain in use, many are no longer employed. For example the “AJ” on the F-4 by the LaSalle Gate was used during the Vietnam War by the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing , but is no longer in use today.

The serial number on an aircraft’s tail is unique. The first two numbers designate the year that the aircraft was ordered and the following numbers identify that aircraft’s specific position among all the aircraft from that year.

For example the serial number of Langley’s B-52 is 59601 and its F-105 displays 61217. These serial numbers indicate they were bought in 1959 and 1961 respectively. The oldest jet actively flying here at Langley is a T-38 with serial number 60582. That’s right, it was purchased in 1960.

That’s the story of the fin flash and tail numbers on every jet. Now you can decipher their meaning and read a little more of any fighter jet’s history for yourself.

Aircraft Aviation History F-22 Raptor history Joint Base Langley-Eustis Lagley Air Force Base tail number