By Tommy H. Thomason
Sunday, April 4, 2010
What does the "V" stand for?
The V means that it's a fixed-wing heavier-than-air squadron (as opposed to H for a rotary wing, i.e. helicopter, heavier-than-air squadron). Why V? It turns out that not even the Navy knows for sure, although its historians think it might have represented volplane, a French word for an aircraft sustained in the air by lifting surfaces as opposed to a bag of a gas that is lighter than air. In the beginning, since the usage predates helicopters by more than 20 years, it stood for heavier-than-air, period, with the designation for lighter-than-air being Z. It seems very likely that the Z is based on Zeppelin, the name of the Count who pioneered rigid airships before World War I, although the Navy applied it to non-rigid as well as rigid airships. See: http://www.history.navy.mil/avh-1910/APP16.PDF
My understanding is that the designations first appeared in General Order No. 541 (see http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/genord_541.htm) approved by the Secretary of the Navy on 17 July 1920. It provided two-letter (and in some cases, three-letter) designations for all the Navy's ships and airplanes. The first letter of the ship designation was its basic type, e.g. battleship, cruiser, destroyer, submarine, etc. The second letter was a modifier as to class within that type, e.g. a light cruiser was designated CL and a battle cruiser, CC. The aircraft carrier, the first of which was in the process of being converted from a collier (AC), was considered to be a type of cruiser, probably by default since it resembled any of the other six types even less. For some reason, an ordinary cruiser was a CA, which eliminated the use of A for aeroplane for the aircraft carrier, which was designated CV. Almost every letter in the alphabet was used for the second letter in the various designations, most being logical like SF for Fleet Submarine. V, whether for volplane or not, was probably as good as any other letter available once A was not.
Heavier-than-air airplane designations were to begin with V as well, with the secondary letters been F for fighting, O for observation, S for scouting, P for patrol, and T for torpedo and bombing. As it turned out, however, the V system was used to designate squadrons as shown above rather than airplane types, whereas ships were identified by the two-letter designation and sequential numbers, e.g. CV-1 was Langley, CV-2 was Lexington, and so forth.
Your guess is as good as mine as to why a battle cruiser wasn't a CB and an ordinary cruiser a CC (a battleship was a BB, a destroyer a DD, and a submarine an SS, for example), making CA available for the aircraft carrier. Better, actually, since I don't have one...