Aircraft Recognition -- Military Usage
Aircraft recognition is nothing new -- it's as old as
Aviation itself. For fighter pilots from World War I on,
Aircraft Recognition became the simple difference
between shooting down quite literally, a "friend or foe."
The same is true for ground personnel trying to defend
against aircraft in the air, with a mix of enemy and
friendly aircraft engaged in combat at the same time
over the battle area.
Aircraft identification mistakes have been made by
all militaries, though "IFF" capability (an electronic
signal to "Identify Friend or Foe") has decreased the
number of incidents of accidental shoot downs due to "Friendly
During the attack on Pearl Harbor, land and sea gunners
on defending US air bases and ships mistook a flight of
US Navy aircraft arriving from a carrier out to sea, and
shot several down.
Radar has also helped, but in some situations, has
hindered. Without IFF at the time when radar was new,
Army observers were unable to identify the Japanese
attack force inbound to Pearl Harbor. A flight of B-17
Flying Fortresses were inbound to Hawaii at the same
approximate time -- literally arriving in the middle of
the attack -- and the Japanese attacking force was
mistaken for them.
In the latter day case of the U.S.S. Vincennes, which
was trying to identify an aircraft not responding to IFF,
the result was a missile fired in defense of the ship,
and the shoot down of a civilian Iran Air Airbus
A-300B2-202 on July 3, 1988, with the loss of 290 people.
Though accidental, a Libyan terrorist group later
retaliated with the bombing of the Pan Am Boeing
747-121A, "Clipper Maid of the Seas," over Lockerbie,
Scotland, killing 270. A total 560 people died for lack
of IFF and lack of visual identification. Altitude of
the airliner would certainly have played a factor.
Likewise, so would weather conditions. A single layer of
clouds can prevent visual ID, resulting in the need for
IFF or AWACS.
In the post-Desert Storm period, the pilot of an F-15
Eagle accidentally shot down two "Friendly" US Army
UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters believing them to be "threat"
Iraqi aircraft -- possibly MI-24 Hinds. Though under
guidance from a nearby AWACS, a series of errors
complicated the situation, hindering the pilot's ability
to identify the aircraft positively. 26 people died.
Above: Mi - 23 Hind
On the left: UH - 60 Blackhawk
On September 1, 1983, a Soviet SU-15 shot down a
Korean Air Lines Boeing 747-230B, which had flown off
course during a trip from Anchorage, Alaska, in the US,
to Seoul, South Korea. The Soviets did not follow IATA
procedures by allowing the 747 crew to identify
themselves and make contact. The SU-15 came up from
below and behind the 747 at night, failed to make a
proper identification, and failed to properly identify
A 747 in-flight, as seen from beneath the aircraft, can
give the appearance of being a Boeing 707 or a military
distinguising difference could have helped the SU-15
pilot avoid the tragedy. The 747 horizontal stablizer
has a light on the trailing edge of each fin, at the
outboard tip. The 707/KC-135 do not.
269 people aboard the 747 died. Also, this was not the
first incident between the South Koreans and the
Russians. A KAL Boeing 707 had been forced down with
casualties years earlier after straying off course.
Above: Boeing 747
On the left: Boeing 707
While visual recognition of aircraft cannot always be
accomplished, when it can, it's important that military
personnel train in Aircraft Identification (Friend and
Foe), to be able to do the job. Ground personnel, for
example, equipped with Stinger Missiles trying to defend
their unit from aerial attack, have a need for Aircraft
Identification. Army SQT (Skill Qualification Testing)
includes both Aircraft and Vehicle identification. The
same is true of the Air Force and Marines. For the Navy,
the identification of civil and military aircraft and
vessels is paramount.
Aircraft identification could be the difference between
life and death for a squadron mate, and the difference
between the wanton destruction of friendly aircraft and
the destruction of the foe, in a hostile orunfriendly
Civil Uses For Aircraft Recognition
The Civil World has long used aircraft identification to
track type of aircraft, aircraft movements, change of
owners, color schemes, newsmakers, modifications to
aircraft, et al, often for News, Business, Educational
and Insurance purposes.
Commercial Aviation and Air Traffic Control (ATC) are
the primary users of Aircraft Recognition guides, with
pilots needing to "See and be seen" -- to be able to
identify the type of aircraft and (when available) the
airline markings of another aircraft -- while Air
Traffic Controllers need to be able to identify aircraft
by type, performance, capacity, etc. This includes ATC
in the tower and ATC in the radar room. For example,
knowing an aircraft type allows a controller to assign
approach and en route speeds.
Civil (General and Executive Aviation) also require this
as need-to-know information, and of course, going back
to the military, which frequently operates in Civil
Airspace, they too, must know aircraft in the Civil
World beyond "friend and foe" military aircraft over the
Mark S. Daniels
Silver State News Service