IDENTIFYING CIVIL AIRCRAFT
HEARD FLYING IN THE VICINITY OF THE MARITIMES

CALL SIGNS, REGISTRATION MARKS AND IDENTIFICATION CODES

Bill's  Radio Site
 
Last updated June 29, 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 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-THYX, 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. 
On-Air Call Sign Speedbird 563,  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.
Public Flight Number BA563 Airline aircraft are identified by IATA code and flight number in schedules, departure boards, and sometimes in flight-following websites.
Official Flight Number BAW563 Airline aircraft and many corporate aircraft are identified in official air traffic control 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 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.     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 CG or CF 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 the same thing beneath it all)

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 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 exceptions to the five letter system:

Letter Letter ## Letter: Venezuela ( YV # # Letter)
Letter Letter # # # Letter:  Colombia (HK # # # Letter)
Letter Letter # # # Letter Letter: Dominican Republic (HI # # # Letter Letter)
 Letter Letter Letter plus numbers: ** Philippines (RPC # # #) and Cuba (CUT or CUH # #)
** Zimbabwe Z plus four letters (may conflict with other countries that use Z as the first character)
 

 

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 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 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.    Why 32K is used instead of 326 is a bit of a mystery in most cases, and I have not heard a definitive explanation for it, with possibilities being that there is another 326 in the area, or that the airline has two 326's in the air at the same time.

 

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

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.

IATA Airline Codes

The IATA is the International Air Transport Association, which is also headquartered in Montreal, presumably to be close to the ICAO.  It is the industry association made up of most of the passenger and cargo airlines of the world.  IATA also 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.  

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
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
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
ABW RU AIRBRIDGE CARGO RUSSIA AIRBRIDGE CARGO
DAH AH AIR ALGERIE ALGERIA ALGERIA
AZA AZ ALITALIA ITALY ALITALIA
AAL AA AMERICAN USA AMERICAN
RRR   ROYAL AIR FORCE TRANSPORT UK ASCOT
AAR OZ ASIANA A/L S KOREA ASIANA
AUA OS AUSTRIAN A/L AUSTRIA AUSTRIAN
RZO SP SATA (AIR AZORES) PORTUGAL AZORES
BEL SN BRUSSELS A/L BELGIUM BEELINE
RPA YX REPUBLIC AIRLINES USA BRICKYARD
TCV   TRANS. AEREOS CABO VERDE CAPE VERDE CABOVERDE
KAP 9K CAPE AIR USA CAIR
ICL 5C CAL CARGO AIRLINES ISRAEL CAL
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
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 (EX MISRAIR) 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
GGN ZO AIR GEORGIAN (AIR ALLIANCE) CANADA GEORGIAN
BOX 3S AEROLOGIC GERMANY GERMAN CARGO
GTI   ATLAS AIR USA GIANT
IBE IB IBERIA SPAIN IBERIA
ICE FI ICELANDAIR ICELAND ICE AIR
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
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
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
1SS IG MERIDIAN fly ITALY MERAIR
TCF S5 SHUTTLE AMERICA USA MERCURY
BOS EC OPEN SKIES FRANCE MISTRAL
MON ZB MONARCH UK MONARCH
MAL   MORNINGSTAR AIR EXPRESS CANADA MORNINGSTAR
    NAVCAN CANADA NAVCAN
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
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
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
SIA SQ SINGAPORE SINGAPORE SINGAPORE
SQC SQ SINGAPORE CARGO SINGAPORE SINGCARGO
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
UAL UA UNITED USA UNITED
UPS 5X UPS AIRLINES USA UPS 
UZB HY UZBEKISTAN AIRWAYS 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 unit specific call signs used by military aircraft flying within the Maritimes.  Note that transport aircraft commonly use civil type call signs as included above.  

ETHYL

US Air Force air to air refueling tankers (depends on unit). Not all refuelers use the Ethyl callsign.

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