IDENTIFYING CIVIL AIRCRAFT
HEARD FLYING IN THE VICINITY OF THE MARITIMES

CALL SIGNS, REGISTRATION MARKS AND IDENTIFICATION CODES

Bill's  Radio Site
 
Last updated August 12, 2015

This web article is intended for use as part of listening to civil aircraft flying over the Maritimes or landing or departing at our airports.  It is also useful in conjunction with following aircraft on sites such as flightradar24, planefinder and flightaware. 

Aircraft are identified on the radio, on the web and in timetables in a number of different ways.  

International Registration Mark C-GHYX, N342TU Most light aircraft that by their nature are not in airline service or part of large fleets will identify with their registration marks.  Occasionally even large aircraft will use these, if they are on a delivery flight or in other unusual circumstances. 
ATC On-Air Call Sign Speedbird 56Tango,  Talon 04 Aircraft in airline service and many corporate aircraft will identify on-air by a spoken call sign and flight number.   These are also used by military flights, which may be service-wide or specific to a squadron or other unit.  Usually the number part is the same as the flight number mentioned below, but in many cases, especially for European airlines, is different. 
IATA Public Flight Number BA563 Airline aircraft are identified by IATA code and flight number in schedules, departure boards, and sometimes in flight-following websites.
ICAO Flight Number BAW563 Airline aircraft and many corporate aircraft are identified in official written usage by ICAO codes and flight numbers.  These are also used in many cases on flight-following websites.
Aircraft Fleet Number 871 Airlines also have fleet numbers for their aircraft, which are not heard on air, but are painted on the aircraft.  They may be of some interest in observing aircraft on the ground.  These are irrelevant for our purposes and will not be discussed further on this page.

Here are the details:

REGISTRATION MARKS
 ("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 painted on all civil aircraft but 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.

Standard Type:  

In this pattern the registration marks system adheres to the International Telecommunications Union (UN) radio call sign allocation table that states that aircraft radio call letters consist of 5 characters, consisting of a two-character country identifier, followed by 3 letters.   The country identifier could be two letters, a number followed by a letter, or a letter followed by a number. 

Canada's currently-used two-character identifiers are CF, CG and CI.   CI is only used for ultralight aircraft.    You may be interested to know that the CH-xxx series was formerly in use as well, for hovercraft, but these are now identified differently. These are drawn from Canada's total allocation of two-character prefixes (CF, CG, CH, CI, CJ, CK, CY, CZ, VA, VB, VC, VD, VE, VF, VG, VO, VX, VY, XJ, XK, XL, XM, XN, XO).   Note that Canada does not have all the C prefixes.   For example CC is Chile and CM is Cuba.    The evolution of who got what is a whole other story, and a complicated one at that.    Note that some countries do have all the combinations that commence with a particular letter.  For example the United Kingdom has all the G's and all the M's and France has all the F's.

Registration marks are technically just the five characters in a row but in practice, they are usually shown as the two country characters, then a hyphen, then the three specific letters, such as YG-ABC.   For countries that have a complete letter series, so that in effect that single letter identifies the country, they are written this way:  G-ABCD or F-HWRX.   Out of all the countries that use the standard pattern, Canada is the only one without a full letter series that uses the second convention, so that Canadian registration marks look like this:  C-GMRD or C-FTCH.   How this came about I do not know but it does give the implication that C means Canada whereas in reality it is the CF/CG/CI that does that task.   Certainly a country like Chile uses marks such as CC-GHR, which is the approved way to do it.   Some vintage aircraft do retain the old and proper way of doing things, so you may see something like CF-TCH (but there cannot be both a CF-TCH and a C-FTCH, as they are actually the same thing.)

American Type:

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 usually 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".   There are certain patterns that are reserved for US government use.  For example N23 would be only on a federal government aircraft.  

In on-air usage the first time an aircraft is in contact with another station the complete N-number is used, and normally prefixed by the type of aircraft.    In subsequent parts of the conversation, only the part that follows the N is spoken.    So an American aircraft approaching Halifax would on first contact with the tower identify like this:   Halifax Tower this is Cherokee November 434 Mike Tango (N434MT), but then would be referred to as 434 Mike Tango.

Russian Type:

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 (**).   Note that all the former Soviet Union components (other than Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) use the system inherited from the unified country.


China (in general)  B 
Hong Kong BH
Macau BM
Bolivia      CP
Armenia  EK
Moldova  ER
Belarus   EW
Kyrgyzstan EX
Tajikistan EY
Turkmenistan EZ
S. Korea  HL
Panama  HP
Saudi Arabia HZ (but does have some 5-letter)
 
Japan JA
Mongolia JU
Peru OB
** N Korea P
Uzbekistan UK
Kazakhstan UN
Georgia 4L
Azerbaijan 4K
Ukraine UR
** Vietnam VN
Marshall Islands V7
Cambodia XU

Other types (oddball types):

 

FLIGHT NUMBERS

This refers to the numerical designation of a flight but will always be preceded by a spoken or written prefix to identify the company. 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 used 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 are most closely associated with regularly recurring commercial flights, but any airline flight, even a one-off flight such as to move an aircraft from one place to another to replace another or other reason, will still have a flight number, even if it is only used that one time (but can be re-used for an entirely different flight some other day).   Flight numbers are also used by many corporate aircraft even if itinerant, and in some cases the same flight number is used for a single aircraft no matter where and when it is going.  An example is the Irving corporate jet which identifies as KC1 no matter where it is going, instead of using its official civil call letters painted on the side.   Military flights also use flight numbers similar to civil counterparts.

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 vary the number however, so that for example Republic Airlines 3336 from Halifax to Philadelphia will appear as United 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.

Occasionally with flights passing over the Maritimes you will hear spoken flight numbers that vary somewhat from what you wold see in a schedule or on the screen.   For example a British Airways flight that is identified in the schedule or on your planefinder screen as 326 or 326 might be heard on-air as 32K.    The use of 32K is an ATC-only identification, and appears to be a European "thing" in response to concerns there that there was confusion between airline flight numbers being used simultaneously by several airlines in those crowded skies.

 

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.

IATA Airline Codes 

The IATA is the International Air Transport Association, headquartered in Montreal, presumably to be close to the ICAO, mentioned next.  It is the industry association made up of most of the passenger and cargo airlines of the world.  IATA gives out codes to airlines, but theirs are only two characters long rather than three.  Unlike ICAO which uses only letters, IATA uses either 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. 

ICAO  and ATC Airline Codes 

The ICAO is the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency with headquarters in Montreal.  This is the official agency for intergovernmental cooperation and standardization of aviation practices.   The ICAO assigns three-letter codes to all airlines that operate internationally, or might do so.  It is necessary for there to be distinct codes or abbreviations for all airlines and similar organizations, 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 most commercial flights identified by ICAO codes.    Some corporate and military flights also utilize such flight codes.  To see full lists of such codes you should check the web. I have included in the chart below those of the airlines that regularly operate in our area.

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.   Examples are "United" or "Air Canada" or "Delta" or "Air France".  In a few cases the spoken call sign is a different word entirely, such as "Speedbird" for British Airways or "Brickyard" for Republic Airlines.  

A few words about military flights:

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 CODES for AIRCRAFT COMMONLY FLYING OVER AND INTO THE MARITIMES.
 

This is a list of 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.  

I have included all the airlines that I have logged in the past few months.  This may include some that are not regulars, and also includes some that formerly operated here but have ceased to do so, but might again.  I have removed any that were for airlines that have ceased to exist.  A major example is US Airways, with on-air call sign "Cactus", that has been merged into United Airlines.

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.  In general these are not included in the list.

This version of the list is ordered alphabetically by spoken (on-air) call sign.  You could copy to Excel and order by other factors.

ICAO

IATA

OPERATOR

COUNTRY

CALL SIGN (on-air)

ABX

GB

ABX AIR

USA

ABEX

ASQ

EV

EXPRESSJET AIRLINES

USA

ACEY

ACK

9K

NANTUCKET A/L

USA

ACKAIR

AFL

SU

AEROFLOT

RUSSIA

AEROFLOT

AMX

AM

AEROMEXICO

MEXICO

AEROMEXICO

BFF

AIR BAFFIN

CANADA

AIR BAFFIN

BER

AB

AIR BERLIN

GERMANY

AIR BERLIN

ACA

AC

AIR CANADA

CANADA

AIR CANADA

CCA

CA

AIR CHINA

CHINA

AIR CHINA

AFR

AF

AIR FRANCE

FRANCE

AIR FRANCE

AIC

AI

AIR INDIA

INDIA

AIR INDIA

TAP

TRANS. AEREOS PORTUG.

PORTUGAL

AIR PORTUGAL

ATN

8C

AIR TRANSPORT INTL

USA

AIR TRANSPORT

ABW

RU

AIRBRIDGE CARGO

RUSSIA

AIRBRIDGE CARGO

AIB

AP

AIRBUS INDUSTRIES

FRANCE

AIRBUS

DAH

AH

AIR ALGERIE

ALGERIA

ALGERIA

AZA

AZ

ALITALIA

ITALY

ALITALIA

AAY

G4

ALLEGIANT AIR

USA

ALLEGIANT

AAL

AA

AMERICAN

USA

AMERICAN

ADB

ANTONOV AIRLINES

UKRAINE

ANTONOV BUREAU

TFL

OR

TUI A/L NETHERLANDS (ARKEFLY)

NETHERLANDS

ARKE

RRR

ROYAL AIR FORCE TRANSPORT

UK

ASCOT

AAR

OZ

ASIANA A/L

S KOREA

ASIANA

AUA

OS

AUSTRIAN A/L

AUSTRIA

AUSTRIAN

AVA

AV

AVIANCA S.A.

COLOMBIA

AVIANCA

AHY

J2

AZERBAIJAN A/L

AZERBAIJAN

AZAL

RZO

SP

SATA (AIR AZORES)

PORTUGAL

AZORES

BEL

SN

BRUSSELS A/L

BELGIUM

BEELINE

BPA

GV

BLUE PANORAMA A/L

ITALY

BLUE PANORAMA

RPA

YX

REPUBLIC AIRLINES

USA

BRICKYARD

TCV

VR

TRANS. AEREOS CABO VERDE

CAPE VERDE

CABOVERDE

KAP

9K

CAPE AIR

USA

CAIR

ICL

5C

CAL CARGO AIRLINES

ISRAEL

CAL

CMB

MC

US TRANSPORT. COMMAND CIVIL

USA

CAMBER

CFC

RCAF TRANSPORT

CANADA

CANFORCE

CJA

C6

CANJET

CANADA

CANJET

CJT

W8

CARGOJET

CANADA

CARGOJET

CLX

CV

CARGOLUX

LUXEMBOURG

CARGOLUX

CPA

CX

CATHAY PACIFIC

HONG KONG

CATHAY

CWC

WE

CENTURION CARGO

USA

CHALLENGE CARGO

CFG

DE

CONDOR FLUGDIENST

GERMANY

CONDOR

CKS

K4

KALITTA AIR

USA

CONNIE

USN TRANSPORT A/C

USA

CONVOY

CRL

SS

CORSAIR FLY

FRANCE

CORSAIR

CHI

COUGAR HELICOPTERS

CANADA

COUGAR

CUB

CU

CUBANA

CUBA

CUBANA

DAL

DL

DELTA

USA

DELTA

DJT

B0

LA COMPAGNIE

FRANCE

DREAMJET

EDW

WK

EDELWEISS AIR

SWITZERLAND

EDELWEISS

MSR

MS

EGYPTAIR

EGYPT

EGYPTAIR

ELY

LY

EL AL

ISRAEL

EL AL

UAE

EK

EMIRATES

UAE (DUBAI)

EMIRATES

MPE

5T

CANADIAN NORTH

CANADA

EMPRESS

WEN

WR

WESTJET ENCORE

CANADA

ENCORE

ETH

ET

ETHIOPIAN

ETHIOPIA

ETHIOPIAN

ETD

EY

ETIHAD AIRWAYS

UAE  (ABU DHABI)

ETIHAD

EVA

BR

EVA AIR

TAIWAN

EVA

EJA

1I

NET JETS

USA

EXECJET

XPE

AMIRA AIR

AUSTRIA

EXPERT

FDX

FX

FEDEX

USA

FEDEX

FIN

AY

FINNAIR

FINLAND

FINNAIR

FLG

9E

PINNACLE AIRLINES

USA

FLAGSHIP

FLE

F8

FLAIR AIR

CANADA

FLAIR

KFA

W8

KELOWNA FLIGHTCRAFT

CANADA

FLIGHTCRAFT

FPO

5O

EUROPE AIRPOST

FRANCE

FRENCH POST

GGN

ZO

AIR GEORGIAN (AIR ALLIANCE)

CANADA

GEORGIAN

BOX

3S

AEROLOGIC

GERMANY

GERMAN CARGO

GTI

5Y

ATLAS AIR

USA

GIANT

IBE

IB

IBERIA

SPAIN

IBERIA

ICE

FI

ICELANDAIR

ICELAND

ICE AIR

AIE

3H

AIR INUIT

CANADA

INUIT

JAS

JD

JAPAN AIR SYSTEM

JAPAN

JAPANAIR

JZA

QK

JAZZ AIR

CANADA

JAZZ

JAI

9W

JET AIRWAYS

INDIA

JET AIRWAYS

EJM

EXECUTIVE JET MGT

USA

JET SPEED

JBU

B6

JETBLUE

USA

JETBLUE

JAS

JET AVIATION FLIGHT SERVICES

USA

JETSETTER

RJA

RJ

ROYAL JORDANIAN

JORDAN

JORDANIAN

TCX

MT

THOMAS COOK

UK

KESTREL

KLM

KL

KLM ROYAL DUTCH

NETHERLANDS

KLM

KAL

KE

KOREAN A/L

S KOREA

KOREAN

KAC

KU

KUWAIT AIRWAYS

KUWAIT

KUWAITI

LCO

UC

LAN CARGO

CHILE

LAN CARGO

GJS

G7

GO JET A/L

USA

LINDBERGH

LOT

LO

LOT POLISH A/L

POLAND

LOT

DLH

LH

LUFTHANSA

GERMANY

LUFTHANSA

GEC

LH

LUFTHANSA CARGO

GERMANY

LUFTHANSA CARGO

SKV

RS

SKY REGIONAL A/L

CANADA

MAPLE

MPH

MP

MARTINAIR

NETHERLANDS

MARTINAIR

TCF

S5

SHUTTLE AMERICA

USA

MERCURY

ISS

IG

MERIDIAN fly

ITALY

MERIDIANA/MERAIR

BOS

EC

OPEN SKIES

FRANCE

MISTRAL

MON

ZB

MONARCH

UK

MONARCH

MAL

MORNINGSTAR AIR EXPRESS

CANADA

MORNINGSTAR

NCR

N8

NATIONAL AIRLINES

USA

NATIONAL CARGO

NAVCAN

CANADA

NAVCAN

NRL

NOLINOR AVIATION

CANADA

NOLINOR

NAX

DY

NORWEGIAN AIR SHUTTLE

NORWAY

NOR SHUTTLE

NWS

N4

NORDWIND A/L

RUSSIA

NORDLAND

OAE

OY

OMNI AIR EXPRESS

USA

OMNI

PIA

PK

PAKISTAN INTL AIRLINES

PAKISTAN

PAKISTAN

PSC

P6

PASCAN

CANADA

PASCAN

NS DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES

CANADA

PATROL

PEN

KS

PEN AIR

USA

PENINSULA

PAC

PO

POLAR AIR CARGO

USA

POLAR

POE

PD

PORTER AIRLINES

USA

PORTER

PAT

US ARMY AVIATION BRANCH

USA

PRIORITY AIR TRANSPORT

PVJ

PRIVAJET

MALTA

PRIVAJET

PVL

PB

PROVINCIAL A/L

CANADA

PROVINCIAL

QTR

QR

QATAR

QATAR

QATARI

TAY

3V

TNT AIRWAYS

BELGIUM

QUALITY

RCH

US AIR FORCE TRANSPORT

USA

REACH

VRD

VX

VIRGIN AMERICA

USA

REDWOOD

ROU

RV

AIR CANADA ROUGE

CANADA

ROUGE

RAM

AT

ROYAL AIR MAROC

MOROCCO

ROYAL AIR MAROC

ROJ

ROYAL JET (LUXURY CHARTER)

ABU DHABI

ROYAL JET

SPM

PJ

AIR SAINT PIERRE

FRANCE

SAINT-PIERRE

SVA

SV

SAUDI ARABIAN

SAUDI ARABIA

SAUDIA

SAS

SK

SCANDINAVIAN

SWEDEN

SCANDINAVIAN

EIN

EI

AER LINGUS

IRELAND

SHAMROCK

AZQ

ZP

SILKWAY WEST A/L

AZERBAIJAN

SILKLINE

SVW

GLOBAL JET LUXEMBOURG

LUXEMBOURG

SILVER ARROW

SIA

SQ

SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE

SQC

SQ

SINGAPORE CARGO

SINGAPORE

SINGCARGO

KYE

GG

SKYLEASE CARGO

USA

SKYCUBE/TRADEWINDS EXPRESS

SLQ

SKYLINK EXPRESS

CANADA

SKYLINK

SKW

OO

SKYWEST A/L

USA

SKYWEST

SOO

9S

SOUTHERN AIR

USA

SOUTHERN AIR

SWA

WN

SOUTHWEST A/L

USA

SOUTHWEST

SPR

PB

PROVINCIAL AIRLINES

CANADA

SPEEDAIR

BAW

BA

BRITISH AIRWAYS

UK

SPEEDBIRD

SAA

SA

SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS

S. AFRICA

SPRINGBOK

XLF

SE

XL AIRWAYS

FRANCE

STARWAY

SWG

WG

SUNWING

CANADA

SUNWING

SWR

SR

SWISS INTL

SWITZERLAND

SWISS

THT

TN

AIR TAHITI NUI

TAHITI

TAHITI AIRLINES

TFF

TALON AIR

USA

TALON FLIGHT

TOM

BY

THOMSON AIRWAYS 

UK

TOMSON

TSO

UN

TRANSAERO

RUSSIA

TRANS SOVIET

TSC

TS

AIR TRANSAT

CANADA

TRANSAT

TGO

TRANSPORT CANADA

CANADA

TRANSPORT

THY

TK

TURKISH

TURKEY

TURKISH

TCY

TWIN CITIES AIR SERVICE

USA

TWIN CITY

TWN

EC

AVIALEASING

UZBEKISTAN

TWINARROW

AUI

PS

UKRAINE INTL A/L

UKRAINE

UKRAINE INTL

UAL

UA

UNITED

USA

UNITED

UPS

5X

UPS AIRLINES

USA

UPS 

UZB

HY

UZBEKISTAN A/W (OJSC NAT'L)

UZBEKISTAN

UZBEK

VIR

VS

VIRGIN ATLANTIC

UK

VIRGIN

VDA

VI

VOLGA DNEPR A/L

RUSSIA

VOLBA DNIPR

VAL

VC

VOYAGEUR AIRLINES

CANADA

VOYAGEUR

WJA

WS

WESTJET

CANADA

WESTJET

AWI

ZW

AIR WISCONSIN

USA

WISCONSIN

DHK

D0

DHL AIR LTD.

UK

WORLD EXPRESS

WOW

WW

WOW AIR

ICELAND

WOWAIR

YZR

Y8

YANGTZE RIVER EXPRESS

CHINA

YANGTZE RIVER

MILITARY

The following are some unit specific call signs used by Canadian military aircraft flying within the Maritimes.  

CANFORCE General call sign for RCAF aircraft, usually transport aircraft

TUSKER

Cdn Armed Forces 413 Rescue Sqn Greenwood

HUNTER

Cdn Armed Forces 404 MP Sqn Greenwood

TALON

Cdn Armed Forces 423 Heli Sqn Shearwater

MERLIN

Cdn Armed Forces 406 Heli Sqn Shearwater

PATHFINDER

Cdn Armed Forces 415 MP Sqn Greenwood

CASEY

Cdn Armed Forces 405 MP Sqn Greenwood

WOLF

Cdn Armed Forces 403 Army Heli Sqn Gagetown

CHEETAH

Top Aces (contractor to air force) Alpha Jets

BRUISER

Top Aces (contractor to air force) Westwinds