By Tommy H. Thomason

Sunday, April 4, 2010

What does the "V" stand for?

If you look closely at the above picture (click on it to make it bigger), you'll note that the KA-6D tanker is assigned to squadron VA-165 and the F-4J, VF-96. The A is short for Attack and the F, Fighter. So what's with the V?

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:

My understanding is that the designations first appeared in General Order No. 541 (see 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...


Steve Denoo said...

I could be wrong, but I was told when in Washington that when it came to Carriers, it went like this:
Carrier Version followed by: Attack, Nuclear, Anti Submarine Warfare, etc.
Then someone in the Pentagon did not like typing all those letters so everything was shortened to CV.
At least for a while before computers.
"P" meant "Pursuit" not patrol and was later changed to "F" for Fighter. They thought of using "I" for Interceptor but that never stuck.
A lot of that can be contributed to the old manual typewriters. My experience was that No errors were allowed in any documents.
No corrections, it had to be right or redo the entire document Lots of retyping went on, corrections were not permitted.

Tailspin said...

V meaning version doesn't sound valid, certainly not with those particular distinctions that didn't exist in the 1920s. The designations did change over time and did include CVA, CVN, CVS, etc. but I'm sure that CV predated all that.

I don't think the Navy ever formally used the word Pursuit. That was a Army thing up through World War II. When the Navy first used a designation system, it was F for Fighter.

Anonymous said...

The V in CV stands for vessel. For example: CV 6 was the designation for pre nuclear USS Enterprise, carrier vessel 6. Post nuclear designation is CVN - carrier vessel nuclear. CVN 65 is the present USS enterprise.

Tailspin said...

V stands for vessel? Do you have a USN document stating that? All ships are vessels. Why would the Navy distinguish only a carrier as a vessel back in the 1920s and none of its other ships?

Dave DeLang said...

Could the "V" for squadron come partially from the fact that early squadron formations were a V of aircraft? I'm guessing they couldn't use S for squadron because S was already used for Submarine. Of the remaining unused letters could they have chosen V for the resemblance to a squadron formation? I also had the thought that CV for aircraft carrier came from the Cruiser nomenclature. I'm happy to see some back up for that idea of CV meaning aircraft squadron carrying cruiser. It makes sense since the Lexington and Saratoga started as cruisers. Did the Langley have the designation CV-1 before the Lex and Sara were CV-2 and CV-3?

Aaron said...

I believe the N in CVN stands for night operations. I’m pretty sure the N was use late in WWII. Aircraft started operating at night at the same time.

Tailspin said...

Aaron - the N stands for nuclear-powered

Aaron said...

Tailspin- you are correct. The article I read was calling the enterprise CV(N)-6. Looks like that’s not the official “bureau” number. Thanks for clarifying that.