Lancaster bomber, Tornado and F-35B at RIAT

How Are The Names Of RAF Aircraft Chosen?

Have you ever wondered how RAF aircraft are named and which conventions they use?

Lancaster bomber, Tornado and F-35B at RIAT

A Lancaster bomber, Tornado and F-35B at the Royal International Air Tattoo this year (Picture: Crown Copyright).

The Royal Air Force has never had set aircraft naming rules.

They have for the most part accepted the names selected by the manufacturers, although these needed to be formally approved by the Air Ministry - until 1964 - or by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) nowadays.

In 1918, the Ministry of Munitions created a "unified naming system", a set of conventions where the scheme would create classes of names that related to the role.

In this system, each aircraft would receive of a name, and sometimes a role prefix and a mark number. Typically, the names were then further divided by size and bu whether they were land- or sea-based.

For example, fighter aircraft were to be animals, plants or minerals.

Ever heard of the Sopwith Camel, the Gloster Meteor or the Hawker Demon?

Bomber aircraft were to have geographical names, such as the Lancaster, the Hudson, the Bristol Beaufort and the Boston Bomber

It is an easier association for heavy-lift aircraft, which tend to have names associated with strength.

Long-distance transport aircraft have travel-related names (e.g. Globemaster, Voyager) and Intelligence, Surveillance, Target acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft have names associated with watching (e.g. Sentry, Sentinel).

RAF Hercules
The Hercules and the Atlas are two examples of the original naming system (Picture: RAF).

However, there are also many heavy-lift or ISTAR aircraft that do not receive such names and simply go by the manufacturer's designation.

Stuart Hadaway, historical author and spokesman for the MoD's Air Historical Branch, explained the logic behind it: "In the 1930s, the convention was to give RAF fighter aircraft aggressive names - Fury, Gauntlet, Gladiator, Defiant, Spitfire," he said.

"With the entry into service of the Hawker Hurricane in 1937 this trend was extended to include violent winds and storms. 

"The Westland Whirlwind later followed this convention, as did other Hawker aircraft in the form of the Typhoon and Tempest, and the Tornado - although the Tornado did not get past prototype stage. 

 “The RAF also gave similarly themed names to several American aircraft when we took them into service, such as the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. 

"Again, though, there were exceptions, such as the North American P-51 Mustang or De Havilland Mosquito."

F-35B Lightning II Jet RAF Royal Air Force Aircraft Blue Skies Defence Imagery
The F-35B Lightning Jet might be new, but carries a name with a long history (Picture: MoD).

“During the post-war period, the trend continued with the English Electric Lightning and Panavia Tornado, although it was not held too rigorously - in fact with aircraft such as the Gloster Meteor, De Havilland Vampire, Supermarine Swift and Hawker Hunter there were more exceptions to the convention that there were aircraft that accepted it.

"The current trend is to hark back to the classic and iconic aircraft of the 1940s-1970s, with the modern fighter force being named in homage to the Hawker Typhoon, English Electric Lightning and Hawker Tempest.”

What does the future hold?

Last month a concept for the next generation of fighter jet was unveiled.

Named 'Tempest', it is part of a project where more than £2 billion will be invested.