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
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
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
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
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
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
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
|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
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.
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
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
The following policy came in effect
on 18 February 1952.
All RCAF aircraft to have
roundels on upper and lower surfaces of main planes.
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
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
|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)
Ensign replaces fin-flash & camouflage introduced to
NATO assigned aircraft.
1-GP-12b colour chart issued.
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.
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
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
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
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
|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.
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.
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
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
||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
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
1968 to 1973
"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
1973 to 1983
"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.
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
"FIP" era was a result of the new Federal Identity Program and
introduced the Canada "Wordmark" and federal government
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
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
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