CALL SIGNS AND IDENTIFICATION CODES FOR CIVIL AIRCRAFT
Bill's Radio Site
formerly the THE MARITIMES SCANNING SITE
Last updated October 1, 2012
Aircraft are identified on the radio, on the web and in timetables in a number of different ways.
Most commonly it will be by flight number made up of a spoken or written airline code followed by a number, e.g. UA56 or UAL56 or "United 56"
For civil aircraft not operating regular routes the official national registration marks are used instead, e.g. C-GMTS or N324CM
Military flights of Canada, USA and the UK that are transport aircraft use civil type identifications usually spoken only, such as "Canforce 3456".
Combat aircraft designations are similar except that they are specific to the squadron or unit involved. Examples are "Talon 04" and "Cheetah 67".
Here are the details:
1. REGISTRATION MARKS (OR INTERNATIONAL CALL SIGNS OR CALL LETTERS)
All civil aircraft have registration marks. In theory, in most cases, these are equivalent to the official radio call letters of the aircraft as a radio station, but even aircraft without radios will have these marks. In today's world these registration marks are used in an obvious way only by non-airline aircraft. The military equivalent of these registration marks are the serial numbers commonly seen painted on military aircraft; however it may be true in some jurisdictions that military aircraft also have registration marks that are just not actually painted on the machine.
For almost all countries these registration marks or call letters relate closely to the International Telecommunications Union (UN) radio call sign allocation table.
The official rules of the ITU dictate that aircraft radio stations, and therefore by convention, aircraft themselves, should be identified by a 5-letter call sign or registration mark. Most countries do follow this convention. Out of approximately 200 jurisdictions, about 170 do follow this method. For example Canada assigns a 5-letter registration to all civil aircraft and these begin with CF or CG. An example is CGMJT, which is normally written as C-GMJT. British aircraft invariably are marked with G-xxxx, such as G-TRGD. This follows the international radio allocation table for call signs. The way Canada marks its aircraft might imply that anything that begins with C is Canadian but this is not true.
The normal convention for countries that do not "own" a complete series of one letter is to indicate the markings this way: CG-MJT or CC-YTR, because in these cases CG is Canadian and CC is Chilean. Some years ago Canada switched from the CF-xxx model to the C-Fxxx model which does appear to be a presumptuous move. The following countries also use call letters beginning with "C" : Chile, Cuba, Morocco, Bolivia, Uruguay, Nauru, Andorra, Cyprus, Gambia, Bahamas and Mozambique. Any one of them has equal rights, so to speak, to identify its aircraft with C-xxxx, as long as they use their allocated character in the second spot!
Having said that, Canada toes the line much better than the 30+ countries that do not use the 5-letter convention at all!
The USA formerly used aircraft markings of the 5-letter type but they appear to be unused since the 1930's. All one can say now is that the US markings begin with N followed by at least two numbers, and then by various combinations of numbers and letters, which seem to add up to a total of four to seven characters in all. Very often in modern times the final two characters are a pair of letters that relate to the owners corporate name. An example for Western Pacific Airlines would be N232WP. Americans refer to their registration marks as "N-numbers".
The Russian pattern is a letter or two followed by numbers. For Russia itself the first two characters are RA. As you can see from this list, quite a few countries use this pattern, and of these there are several that begin their registration marks with letters that are not theirs according to the ITU table of call sign prefixes. These have been marked with a double asterisk (**).
China B (BH for Hong Kong, BM for Macau) Taiwan also uses this overall series.
S. Korea HL
Saudi Arabia HZ (but does have some 5-letter)
** N Korea P
** Vietnam VN
Marshall Islands V7
Other exceptions to the five letter system:
Dominican Republic HI # # #
Colombia HK # # # Letter
** Philippines RPC # # #
** Zimbabwe Z plus four letters
Venezuela YV # # Letter
Cuba CU then T or H, then numbers.
2. FLIGHT NUMBERS
Scheduled passenger and cargo airliners are generally identified by a flight number. This flight number is used in concert with the airline name or code or voice call sign to indicate the route and timing of a regular flight, regardless of the identity of the particular aircraft flying it at any particular time. For example Westjet's flight from Halifax to Calgary, leaving every morning at around 7:30 is identified on air and practically everywhere else as Westjet 229 even though the actual aircraft varies from day to day. Behind the scenes the civil registration marks of the particular aircraft are still used on the flight plans, and you might hear the clearance controller asking the pilot for the "civil" which means the registration marking on the aircraft as described above.
Flight numbers do have some variety in a few cases. This always relates to another airline being involved. For example all of the Jazz flights operating as Air Canada Express have two flight number variations. Jazz aircraft will identify on the air as Jazz 861 or similar, but on timetables and departure boards used by the public that will appear as Air Canada 8861. Most airlines do not do that however, so that for example Republic Airlines 3336 from Halifax to Philadelphia will appear as US Airways 3336 with no change in the numerical part.
A further variation in flight numbers occurs with code sharing. Generally this will not be seen on FlightAware or planefinder but is seen in airline timetables and sometimes on departure boards. If United and Westjet are code sharing on the Halifax to Calgary flight mentioned above it could be published additionally as United 7932 or similar (this is a fictional example) but it would never be used on-air. Occasionally some of these do appear on FlightAware with the giveaway being that two flights with the same aircraft type leave at the same moment and are scheduled to reach the same destination at the same time. This almost certainly means that there really is just one flight with one of the flights indicated being a sort of phantom, code-share designation for the real flight.
AIRLINE CODES and CALL SIGNS
In the preceding section I wrote as if the flight number consisted only of numbers when in fact they consist of the numbers preceded by the Airline name or code. These come in three varieties: ICAO codes, IATA codes, and oral call signs or names.
ICAO Airline Codes
All scheduled airlines use flight numbers that are made up of an airline code and a number. It is necessary for there to be distinct codes or abbreviations for all airlines and similar organizations. The ICAO codes consist of three letters with no duplications in the world. Unlike airport codes that have regional and national prefixes, the airline codes have no relationship to the country of ownership or operation, so that while ACA is Air Canada, AZA is Alitalia. I am not certain how the process works but it is obviously not arbitrary, in the sense that the airlines do get to apply for something that relates to the airline name. In FlightAware and planefinder you will see all commercial flights identified by ICAO codes. Some corporate and military flights also utilize such flight codes.
IATA Airline Codes
The IATA uses two letters (or a number and a letter) for airline codes. These are the abbreviations or codes you see on airline timetables, on tickets, and on departure boards. It is one of the mysteries of life why there are two different systems, but there are! Because there are only so many two character combinations it is possible for these to be duplicated in far-apart regions of the world.
Spoken Call Signs
Call Signs in this context refer to the spoken name of the airline, or a recognized substitute for that name. These are used on air for communications with Air Traffic Control and similar entities. In most cases the call sign is at least part of the name of the company. An example is "United" or "Air Canada" or "Delta" or "Air France" with the "Airlines" part if there is one left off. In a few cases the spoken call sign is a different word entirely, such as "Speedbird" for British Airways or "Brickyard" for Republic Airlines.
Note that the military may also use ICAO airline codes and flight numbers for transport aircraft, and all military aircraft use spoken call signs. In the case of military transports they will sound much like the airline type. Examples are "Canforce" for Royal Canadian Air Force transports and "Reach" for the USAF counterparts. In North American skies at least, most foreign air force transports identify by the name of the air force, such as "Norwegian Air Force". Combat type military aircraft use spoken call signs that vary with the squadron or formation to which they are attached or in fact can vary from day to day.
AERO CALL SIGNS and AIRLINE CODES
Codes and Call Signs of Airlines and other operators that fly into Maritimes airports (or have recently) or overfly the region on Trans-Atlantic routes.
Those that fly into our airports rather than simply overfly are indicated in yellow. Some of these no longer fly into our airports but recently did, or they are seasonal in nature. This category does not include overflying operators whose aircraft have landed for emergencies or technical difficulties but does include those that stop regularly for fuel.
This list is far from being complete but does include most of those operating over the skies of Nova Scotia either domestically or oceanic.
Note that on occasion many overseas airlines or air forces fly over our region for non-regular flights including such things as delivery flights from North American manufacturers.
|ICAO||IATA||OPERATOR||COUNTRY||COMMENT||ON-AIR CALL IF VARIES FROM AIRLINE NAME|
|AAR||OZ||ASIANA A/L||S KOREA|
|ACX||AIR CHARTERS (PARAIR)|
|ASQ||EV||EXPRESSJET AIRLINES (EX ATLANTIC S.E.||USA||FLIES AS DELTA AND UNITED||ACEY|
|AWI||ZW||AIR WISCONSIN||USA||FLIES AS US AIRWAYS|
|CHQ||RP||CHAUTAUQUA||USA||FLIES AS DELTA|
|CJC||9L||COLGAN||USA||FLIES AS UNITED|
|COM||OH||COMAIR||USA||FLIES AS DELTA|
|ETD||EY||ETIHAD AIRWAYS||UAE (ABU DHABI)|
|FLG||9E||PINNACLE AIRLINES||USA||FLIES AS UNITED||FLAGSHIP|
|GGN||ZO||AIR GEORGIAN (AIR ALLIANCE)||CANADA||FLIES AS AIR CANADA||GEORGIAN|
|ICL||5C||CAL CARGO AIRLINES||ISRAEL||CAL|
|JAS||JD||JAPAN AIR SYSTEM||JAPAN|
|JZA||QK||JAZZ AIR||CANADA||MOSTLY FLIES AS AIR CANADA||JAZZ|
|KFA||W8||KELOWNA FLIGHTCRAFT||CANADA||FLIES AS PUROLATOR||FLIGHTCRAFT|
|KLM||KL||KLM ROYAL DUTCH||NETHERLANDS|
|LOT||LO||LOT POLISH A/L||POLAND||LOT|
|MAL||MORNINGSTAR AIR EXPRESS||CANADA||FLIES AS FEDEX|
|MSR||MS||EGYPTAIR (EX MISRAIR)||EGYPT|
|NAO||NORTH AMERICAN A/W||USA|
|OAE||OMNI AIR EXPRESS||USA||OMNI|
|PA||POLAR AIR ARGO||POLAR|
|PIA||PAKISTAN INTL AIRLINES||PAKISTAN|
|RAM||AT||ROYAL AIR MAROC||MOROCCO|
|RCH||US AIR FORCE TRANSPORT||USA||REACH|
|RPA||YX||REPUBLIC AIRLINES||USA||FLIES AS US AIRWAYS||BRICKYARD|
|RZO||SP||SATA (AIR AZORES)||PORTUGAL|
|SAA||SA||SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS||S. AFRICA||SPRINGBOK|
|SPM||PJ||AIR SAINT PIERRE||FRANCE|
|SVA||SV||SAUDI ARABIAN||SAUDI ARABIA||SAUDIA|
|TAP||TRANS. AEREOS PORTUG.||PORTUGAL||AIR PORTUGAL|
|TCF||S5||SHUTTLE AMERICA||USA||FLIES AS DELTA AND UNITED|
|TCV||TRANS. AEREOS CABO VERDE||CAPE VERDE||CABOVERDE|
|TCY||TWIN CITIES AIR SERVICE||USA||PORTLAND-YARMOUTH|
|TFF||TALON AIR||USA||CORPORATE AIRCRAFT||TALON FLIGHT|
|TGO||TRANSPORT CANADA||CANADA||Federal Govt. Owns most airports but does not operate them|
|UPS||UNITED PARCEL SERVICE||USA||UPS|
|UZB||HY||UZBEKISTAN AIRWAYS||UZBEKISTAN||FLIES JFK ONLY||UZBEK|
|NS DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES||CANADA||Fire control helicopters operating within Nova Scotia||PATROL|
|NAVCAN||CANADA||Canada's provider of air traffic control and aeronavigation services. Their aircraft are engaged in monitoring and alignment of navigation aids.||NAVCAN|
|US NAVY TRANSPORT||USA||CONVOY|
|ROYAL AIR FORCE TRANSPORT||UK||ASCOT|
The following are unit specific call signs used by military aircraft flying within the Maritimes or commonly overflying the region. There are many more American overflights, not listed here. Note that transport aircraft commonly use civil type call signs as included above.
US Air Force air to air refueling tankers (depends on unit). Not all refuelers use the Ethyl callsign.
Cdn Armed Forces 413 Rescue Sqn Greenwood
Cdn Armed Forces 404 MP Sqn Greenwood
Cdn Armed Forces 423 Heli Sqn Shearwater
Cdn Armed Forces 406 Heli Sqn Shearwater
Cdn Armed Forces 415 MP Sqn Greenwood
Cdn Armed Forces 405 MP Sqn Greenwood
Cdn Armed Forces 403 Army Heli Sqn Gagetown
Top Aces (contractor to air force) Alpha Jets
Top Aces (contractor to air force) Westwinds