Canadian Military Aircraft Markings 101

A short primer on the marking practices used from by the RCAF from 1947 to the present

In simple terms, the application of colours on an airframe, whether they are paints, decals, varnish, or other applications, can fall under either finish or markings. Together they form the "scheme" of an aircraft.

 The finish of an aircraft is the overall opaque (or translucent) covering that protects the metal, wood or fabric surface of an airframe as well as providing an overall appearance.  The intent of the finish can be either high visibility or low visibility (camouflage).  Other than aircraft assigned to Europe with NATO, starting in 1955, the RCAF maintained its aircraft in high visibility finish.  Only with the impending unification did the thought of camouflage return to the RCAF with the first Buffalo in June 1967.

 Markings are means of identification, used for a variety of purposes and are applied over the finish.  Military aircraft markings can be divided into three main groupings.  The first are the standard fleet markings, common to large numbers of aircraft.  The second, much less official and usually far more colourful, are individual unit markings while the third group consists of service and maintenance markings.

 The standard fleet markings group can be sub-divided into three categories.  The first is national and/or branch of service insignia, the second is a means of unit identification and the third is a means to identify a single airframe within its unit.  Many of these features changed with each markings era. 

Following the Second World War, RCAF aircraft returning from overseas and those that remained in Canada, maintained their RAF style markings until an indigenous system could be developed. Canada was the very first Commonwealth country to adopt its own unique national insignia in 1946. Between 1947 and unification in 1968, the RCAF transitioned through four distinct markings "eras".


VC Era 

1947 to 1951

The "VC" era introduced a new identification system set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization where a series of letters were assigned to each country. 

VC Era
June 1, 1947 - November 19, 1951

Following World War Two, the RCAF looked for a distinctive method of marking its diminishing fleet of aircraft to replace the RAF system. Concurrent to that search, came the introduction of the new International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) system of assigning a series of letters to users, including each air arm of a given country.

Starting on 9 May 1947, a five-letter registration was assigned to each aircraft in RCAF service. The RCAF was assigned the letters VC, the Royal Canadian Navy VG and Canadian civil aircraft CF. The third and fourth letters combined were to designate a unit, followed by the fifth letter was used as an individual aircraft code. 

Effective 1 June 1947, fuselage markings were to consist of the last three letters of the VC code, with a roundel separating the last letter, reading left-to-right on both sides of the airframe. Roundels were to be applied to both upper wings and the fuselage sides. The full VC code was to be applied on the under wing surface with VC under the starboard wing and the remaining three letters under the port wing. The last three letters were also carried on the upper wing surfaces, inboard of the roundels, with the two letter unit identifier on the upper port wing and the last letter on the upper starboard wing. Spacing details varied, depending on the wing shape, number of engines and drop tank configuration.

Tail markings generally consisted of the full serial number centered above the tri-colored fin-flash, with the red portion always leading in the direction of flight. 

This system worked well in theory, however it became a major refinishing problem during transfers of aircraft between units. The third and fourth letters would have to be removed and the two-letter identifier of the new unit applied above and below the port wing and on both fuselage sides. It would also, most likely, result in the removal and re-application of the fifth letter, to fit the aircraft into the new unit's sequence. This usually resulted in the re-application of each fuselage roundel as the roundel position was not symmetrical due to the fuselage string reading left-to-right on each side. 

On 19 November 1951, Canada dropped the entire ICAO system. Interestingly, the RCAF were about the only Air Force that was abiding by the ICAO regulations, which in fact, were not compulsory.

VC Era Key Dates

June 1
Type 1 red/blue roundel introduced on non-camouflaged aircraft.
VC Era codes begin.
Yellow search markings changed to red.
Silver maple Leaf roundel, standard number and letter sets introduced.
Air Transport Command drops codes and large fuselage last-three of serial.
Wing letters dropped; roundels substituted on lower wings on many aircraft. 
VC system dropped.

AB+3 Era 

1951 to 1958

The "AB+3" era replaced the ICAO letters with a new set and used the last three numbers of the aircraft serial number in place of the single letter of the "VC" system.

AB+3 Era
November 19, 1951 - July 30, 1958

As early as September 1948, it became evident that the ICAO system was not satisfactory for the RCAF, especially within Air Transport Command. A list of new two-letter unit codes was issued on November 19, 1951, effectively ending the VC system. 

Fuselage marking features for this period included the retention of a two-letter unit identifier, a roundel and then, as a new feature, the last-three digits of the aircraft serial number. These were in sequence, reading left-to-right, regardless of which side of the aircraft was viewed. The same non-symmetrical roundel position continued because of the retention of the reading left-to-right sequence. As in the earlier VC Era, all three components on the fuselage, including the roundel position could change when the aircraft was transferred between units as the unit letters changed in width. The only exception to this rule was the Chipmunk. The datum point picked had the roundel centered, with letters and numbers moving outwards using whatever space was required.

A standard full red letter, black shadow, fully spelt "ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE" title was used on larger aircraft. Tail markings continued as before - the aircraft serial number centered above the fin-flash. In Europe, the Canadian Red Ensign was introduced in place of the fin-flash around mid 1955, in both left-hand and right-hand versions. The serial was moved to below the ensign, though many examples exist with the serial maintained above during the conversion period.

Air Transport Command continued the policy of not carrying unit identifiers and the large last-three of the serial on the fuselage. To clarify the issue, the Chief of the Air Staff issued a letter on 18 December 1956 to this effect. This letter lists the Boxcar, Comet, Dakota, Expeditor and North Star. The feature was still noted on many transports. The Bristol Freighter carried unit codes and last-three of serial on the fuselage, but also carried improvised full red titles while in aluminum (unpainted) and camouflaged finishes. What made the type an exception was, although a transport, they were assigned to 1 Air Division, thus not part of Air Transport Command. The same markings also existed for the camouflaged Dakota assigned to 1 Air Division in Europe.

The under wing surface markings were noted in two variations and were not finalized when fuselage markings were set in late 1951. The standard was to have a roundel on each outboard wing surface, without crossing any applicable search marking. This changed following correspondence dated 14 January 1952 which noted "... there was no need for any markings on operational aircraft other than roundels on both upper and lower surfaces." It was also thought to leave the full aircraft identification (i.e., a squadron code and last-three of the serial) on the under surfaces of Training Command aircraft, to act as a deterrent to any student possessing the idea of carrying out unauthorized low flying. One idea was to paint all Harvard aircraft, in this method, to eliminate the changing of markings when an aircraft was transferred between commands. 

The following policy came in effect on 18 February 1952.

  1. All RCAF aircraft to have roundels on upper and lower surfaces of main planes.

  2. In addition to (a) the under surface of the main planes of the following types of aircraft are to be marked with the unit Identifier and the last three figures of the aircraft registration number;

    1. Chipmunk

    2. Harvard

    3. Mitchell l 

    4. Expeditor

    5. T-33 - with the exception of those earmarked for overseas squadrons.

Thus, aircraft listed within the above definition would have the two-letter unit identifier, roundel and last three digits of the aircraft serial, applied to under surface of each wing. The port wing application would face the direction of flight, the starboard wing toward the rear. In addition to the above trainers, the Neptune fleet was also noted with unit codes and last three under each wing. There were many variations to this standard. The Anson, which served until September 1954, was not included in the above list and maintained the VC Era markings. 

AB+3 Era Key Dates

November 19
AB+3 Era begins with a new list of two-letter Unit Identifiers.
1-GP-12a colour chart issued.
Under wing letters and numbers dropped in favor of roundels only (except trainers).
Red Ensign usage starts in Europe.
Black "RESCUE" titles introduced.
Standard full shadow titles (red with black shadow) introduced.
Ensign replaces fin-flash & camouflage introduced to NATO assigned aircraft.
1-GP-12b colour chart issued.

RCAF+3 Era 

1958 to 1965

The "RCAF+3" era replaced the two letter unit identifier with the abbreviation RCAF on aircraft that did not carry the full spelled out name. 

RCAF+3 Era
July 30, 1958 - February 26, 1965

On 10 January 1958, an aide to the Chief of the Air Staff was asked about the feasibility of putting the "RCAF" abbreviation on smaller aircraft not carrying the full shadow titles. This was in response to the suggestion from several sources that markings should be clearer. It was also noted that the RCN aircraft carried a large "NAVY" on assigned aircraft and the USAF used "U.S. AIR FORCE" on the side of its aircraft (not to mention "USAF" on wing surfaces). The idea was to replace the two-letter unit code with the abbreviation "RCAF".  Approval of the this new marking scheme by the Air Council took place on 30 July 1958. The new standard fuselage marking string was: "RCAF", roundel and last-three of serial on the port side and the inverse on the starboard fuselage. Transport aircraft maintained the basic fuselage markings of the previous era, though refined with use of the ensign, full shadow titles, flash, white tops for the fuselage and continued omission of the large last-three of serial on the fuselage. The common feature that identifies aircraft painted in this era was the abbreviation "RCAF" under the starboard wing and last-three of serial under the port replacing the roundels.

Depending on spacing requirements, as in the previous era, there were two methods of fuselage markings. The division was with the size and spacing available on the aircraft for the application of full shadow titles on the fuselage. The process to redraw all types, either way, took 15 months to complete with a change to smaller aircraft halfway through.

For aircraft not fitting the full shadow titles, the abbreviation "RCAF" was to replace the two-letter unit identifier. Thus, the fuselage marking string read, "RCAF", roundel and last-three of serial on the port side, with the same on the starboard fuselage side. The letters "RCAF" took more horizontal space than any last-three of any serial. Thus the spacing for both the letters "RCAF" and longest length possible for the last-three of the serial, i.e., "444" was considered when drawings were prepared. This system had the added bonus of not requiring repainting on transfers between units.

Halfway through the new drawing process in April 1959, a policy change was made for non full shadow titled aircraft to amend the starboard string to read last-three of serial, roundel and "RCAF". The new standard for all, non full shadow title aircraft was to have the "RCAF" forward of the roundel in the direction of flight on both sides. Six types: the Albatross (early non-white top), Canuck, Harvard, Neptune (overall blue scheme) Sabre (both camouflage and aluminum (unpainted)) and Silver Star (natural metal), had already been drawn with the starboard side marking string as "RCAF", roundel and last-three of serial. A change was ordered for the starboard side and the six types were revised to follow the standard convention of placing serials aft of the roundel. Photographs exist of Neptune, Sabre and Silver Star with the reversed earlier "incorrect" starboard sequence. This took some time to accomplish, with all six types revised by September 1959. The Albatross fleet was delivered with the correct sequence starting in August 1959. Usage of the incorrect marking string by the Canuck and Harvard remains unproven. Non full shadow titled types Canso and Chipmunk, were drawn "correctly" after the change in policy.

These changes took considerable time to apply to airframes. The confusion period from 20 February 1958 through the "corrective" period, in 1959, may account why so many starboard side photographs of these types exist with the roundel and last-three to the right only, compared to photos of the port side with the string, roundel and last-three of serial. This could be either a case of the aircraft being between unit assignment, or during the conversion period of mid 1958 through mid 1959.

Tail markings continued with the left and right-hand red Ensigns on aircraft based in Europe while those based in Canada followed with trainers last. Serials were maintained centered below the Ensign.

The larger transport aircraft types continued, or were introduced with, the full red colored black shadow spelling of "ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE" on the fuselage. Thus, there was no need for the "RCAF" abbreviation on the fuselage of these aircraft. The same exemption of the large last-three of serial from the fuselage from the previous era was supposed to continue. Other non-transport aircraft carried the full shadow titles but did also carry the large last-three of the serial on the fuselage.

The full shadow title markings were applied to the Albatross (after the November 1960 revision) Argus, Comet, Dakota, H-21/44, H-34, Lancaster, Mitchell, Neptune (1960 grey and white scheme), North Star and C-5. Aircraft types introduced after the starting date with these features included the Caribou, Cosmopolitan, Hercules, Labrador, Voodoo (after the April 1968 revision) and Yukon. 

The common feature of the RCAF+3 era, were the markings applied to wings. On all types, each upper wing surface was to have a roundel, outboard, but not overlapping any applicable search markings. The under wing surfaces changed from the previous era, with the last-three digits of the serial applied under the port wing and the abbreviation "RCAF" under the starboard wing. All were to face the direction of flight - forward.

RCAF+3 Era Key Dates

July 30
RCAF+3 Era begins with approval to drop two-letter unit identifiers.
Red ensign begins to replace the fin-flash on aircraft based in Canada.
New standard letter and number sets released.
Smaller aircraft start application "RCAF", roundel, last-three of serial on both sides.
Tail nomenclature feature introduced.
Smaller aircraft starboard sequence changed to last-three of serial, roundel and "RCAF".
Tail nomenclature feature reversed.
SAR fluorescent band outlined in blue introduced.
Red search markings replaced by fluorescent anti-collision markings on most types.
Fluorescent anti-collision markings added to trainers.
1-GP-12c issued.
Camouflage colours withdrawn.

New Leaf Era 

1965 to 1968

The "New Leaf" era used the new 11 pointed leaf found on the new Canadian flag introduced in February 1965. All other markings remained the same.

New-Leaf Era 
February 26, 1965 - February 2, 1968

With the arrival of the new Canadian flag in place of the Red Ensign, the fourth era of RCAF markings had begun. New drawings were done for all types with a few specialized exceptions. It was with this era that drawings had the content split between finish and markings. - the binary drawings. A scheme could only be completed with two (and sometimes three) drawings.

Marking placement remained as per the RCAF+3 Era. Changes on new drawings were generally restricted to two areas, the flag/roundel design and the replacement of the troublesome fluorescent anti-collision markings.

The removal of the Red Ensign and the Silver Maple roundel from all RCAF aircraft was distinct and in the rush to achieve a new look, shortcuts were taken. The supply of new flags was not a problem, but roundels were another matter. The insertion of a smaller leaf cut from the flag decals, or applied from stencils resulted in a variety of roundel appearances. The new roundel was to have a wider blue band plus new standard colours were used. The end result was a lengthy transition period of inconsistent markings, not only between different aircraft types, but between like aircraft. This appeared to have been solved with the introduction of the newly drawn revision E of the New-leaf roundel drawing 51849 in May 1967. Furthermore, this further widened the blue band while also increasing the size of the leaf within. This continued as the standard post unification. 

New-leaf Era Key Dates

1965  February 26  New-Leaf Era Canadian Flag & 11 point leaf to be applied. The Ensign was replaced by the aluminum outlined new Canadian Flag no earlier than February 15, 1965. The 11-point New-Leaf roundel replaced the Silver Maple Leaf roundel on the same date. Drawings were issued on February 26 for all types. All fluorescent anti-collision markings were replaced by red search markings fleet wide while orange anti-collision markings were introduced for some trainers. 

SAR bands and titles, also adopted the Orange colour in place of fluorescent. Placement of markings generally remained constant from the previous era.


Since Unification, the Canadian Armed Forces has had three distinct time periods in which markings were drawn. 



1968 to 1973

The "CAF" era converted all Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force markings into a single unified style.

February 2, 1968 - March, 1973

As mandated with unification, changes had to be made to all aircraft owned and operated by the newly titled Canadian Armed Forces. The sizes of the flags, letters, numbers, roundels and titles remained constant with previous standards and generally all markings positions were maintained as during the RCAF years. 

 The new French language full shadow titles were to be used on the starboard sides of the fuselage on all aircraft with the English version on the port side in the same format. The abbreviation RCAF was replaced with CAF within the fuselage markings string applications and under the starboard wing.



1973 to 1983

The "Symmetrical" era saw the introduction of the fuselage "Roundel-Ident" which could be read in both official languages either left-to-right or top-to-bottom. 

Symmetrical Era
March 1973 -  June 1983

It had been pointed out to the Canadian Armed Forces that its markings did not meet the ICAO regulation of maintaining standard markings on both sides of all military aircraft. This, coupled with the requirement of displaying some sort of French language equivalent was the challenge.  The solution came in two parts. 

 The first was to replace the previous port side fuselage "CANADIAN ARMED FORCES" and the starboard side fuselage "FORCES ARMÉES CANADIENNES" with the single word "CANADA" 

 The previous fuselage string of CAF, roundel and last-three of serial was replaced by a new roundel-ident. This feature was a standard roundel flanked with small titles that could be read in both official languages horizontally and vertically. The last-three of the aircraft serial on the fuselage was repositioned, usually closer to the nose. Wing and tail markings remained the same as were not affected by the ICAO rule.



1983 to today

The "FIP" era was a result of the new Federal Identity Program and introduced the Canada "Wordmark" and federal government department "Signature".

June 1983 - present

As part of the new government policy all departments were to adopt a common method of identification. This program began in 1970 with other departments adopting common markings for equipment, vehicles, aircraft and even post office boxes. This became know as the "Federal Identity Program". The Canadian Armed Forces was not exempt from this policy and the roundel-ident, CANADA and CAF were replaced with new markings.

The Canada Wordmark was developed as a stylized "Canada" with a Canadian flag over the last letter. This was a feature for all government departments and continues to this day on everything from buildings to stationary.

The second component was a departmental signature. This consisted of a small "one ocean" flag (later changed to a full flag) and the name of the government department in both languages. In this case, "Canadian Forces" and "Forces Canadiennes" could be read left to right or top to bottom.

The third change was to wing markings. Roundels were now placed on the upper port and lower starboard wings with the last-three of the serial on the upper starboard and lower port wings. The one exception to this rule is the CP-140 Aurora and Arcturus which has a roundel on both upper wings to prevent orbiting satellites from recording their serial numbers.


The above 3-view drawings are my attempt to graphically illustrate the differences between the marking scheme eras. In all cases, the aircraft type used to show markings placement is a natural metal T-33 Silver Star two seat trainer built by Canadair under license from Lockheed. 

It is interesting to note that this particular aircraft type is the ONLY one to have worn ALL of these post WW2 Canadian marking schemes! The first of 687 Silver Stars were acquired by the RCAF in May 1951 and although they were retired in 2002, there were a few still flying with AETE (Aerospace Engineering and Test Establishment) in Cold Lake until officially withdrawn from service in March 2005.

Much of the text used above is condensed and paraphrased from the two volumes written by Patrick Martin. If you would like to learn more about Canadian military aircraft markings and their history, I highly recommend you get them before they are sold out. They can be purchased by following the "CANMILAIR HOME" link below.

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