Aircraft Recognition Hints

by Sq Ldr S W Gardner
Command Intelligence Officer, Royal Air Force

Ability to identify all aircraft, friendly or enemy, is vitally important in air war.

With the progress of the war, the subject of aircraft recognition has become increasingly important and, similarly, increasingly difficult, as there now are approximately 400 types of aircraft used by the Allied and Axis air forces. This condition is in sharp contrast to the opening days of the war when aircraft identification was comparatively simple. Insofar as Great Britain was concerned, the distance of enemy bases from England prevented other than multi-engined enemy aircraft from reaching London or other objectives across the channel. This circumstance naturally limited the number of foreign craft which had to be known on sight.

Both the Allies and Axis have modified earlier designs until there is not such a clear cut difference and in some cases there is great similarity. There is the classic instance of the pilot of a Messerschmitt Me-109 who shot down a Dornier over its own airport and upon landing at his fighter base phoned the bomber airport concerned to ask for confirmation of his victory!

With our 400 types of aircraft to consider and many similarities, the problem assumes gigantic proportions. Many methods of simplifying the problem have been suggested. Some of these methods have been almost as difficult to learn as the aircraft themselves, and therefore methods of recognition which in any way increase the number of items to be remembered, should be avoided.

Every possible means should be taken to cut down the number of aircraft to be studied, and while it is not considered impossible for the normal mind eventually to identify and remember 400 types of aircraft, yet to attempt this all at once can only lead to chaos.

Therefore, some method of elimination is necessary. This is best done by considering that our aim is to be able quickly to recognize the enemy.

If we are able without fail to recognize the enemy, it is not necessary (though it will assist) to be able to identify friendly aircraft. For example, if we were on the police force and were charged with the responsibility of rounding up a gang of criminals, we should not study photographs of all the people on the earth to be able to identify the criminals. We should concentrate upon the criminals.

In view of the fact that the enemy has few types in comparison with the Allies, this procedure simplifies the problem and does not give the mind too large a number of aircraft to deal with at the outset. Therefore, concentrate upon knowing the enemy.

If we also take into consideration the area in which we are operating or likely to operate, the number of aircraft to be dealt with first will be still further reduced. For instance, in the British Isles, mostly German multi-engined types will be met. In the Middle East, both German and Italian types will be found, while in the Far East it will be essential to concentrate first upon Japanese aircraft.

Whichever area we have to consider, not more than 20 enemy types are likely to be in that area. After taking into consideration the disposition of the enemy forces and the range of their aircraft, and a decision has been made upon the actual types we may meet, then all our attention should be given to those few until we are able to recognize them in any position.

After making sure of these, our next step should be to consider friendly aircraft operating in the area concerned which may be confused with enemy types, and after these, other types in the same area. By the time this stage has been reached (if study has been careful and concentrated) there will be little danger of mistaking friend for foe or vice versa. Therefore, a system which enables you to be sure about the enemy you are liable to meet immediately, enables you to proceed to learn enemy types which may be encountered in other areas until a stage is reached where all enemy types can be easily identified.

Then a similar sequence should be followed with the friendly types, always paying particular attention to those aircraft which are similar to enemy types such as the Blenheim and Junkers Ju-88, the Beaufighter and Messerschmitt Me-210, the Lightning and the Focke-Wulf Fw-189, the Douglas DC-3 and the Mitsubishi Me-20, and the Mustang and the Heinkel He-113.

After we have divided our aircraft into classes and, in accordance with the area in which we are operating or expect to operate, have decided which class must be given priority, then the question arises as to the best method to fix in our minds the appearance and shape of the aircraft. Some method of study must be arranged which allows the student of aircraft recognition to have continued and concentrated exercise until the knowledge of what the aircraft look like is firmly fixed in his mind.

When the impression is retained, the mind will automatically respond to the various aircraft shapes and with the additional knowledge of details such as position of wing (high, mid or low), radial or inline engines, shape of fuselage, shape of tail unit, etc, it will be found that confidence is sure and recognition is easy.

"Automatic recognition" is the automatic response of the mind to a given impression. Whenever we receive an impression through any of our senses it is conveyed to the mind as a nervous impulse. If the impression is strong enough or repeated often enough, it is retained, enabling us to recognize various things for what they are. In this way we quickly recognize thousands of objects, and so we know a chair, a tree, a house, a hill, a horse, a flower, etc, the moment we see them without having to study any details. We probably know 500-600 people, and if we put ourselves to the test we shall find that we recognize them by their general appearance, and not by any special characteristic — in fact we shall find we do not know the color of the hair, eyes, shape of head, nose, etc, of any but an intimate few of all the people we know.

Commence your study of the aircraft you wish to know by having photographs and silhouettes of each. When you have a few moments to spare, study the photographs and exercise your mind — send the impression of what the aircraft looks like again and again to the brain until you find it remains. You can always tell when the impression has been fixed, for without reference to a photograph or silhouette you will find you are easily able to create a mental picture of any of the aircraft you have learned to know.

Remember the exercise is to allow the eye to photograph the shape, in order that the impression can be passed to the brain. It does not matter much whether silhouettes, photographs, models or films are used, so long as the correct appearance of the aircraft is constantly photographed by the eye.

Automatic recognition or spontaneous recognition is not free from snags. The response of the mind to a general appearance goes a long way towards recognition, but there is always a danger of aircraft being seen in one of those difficult oblique positions, which are so many and varied as to be impossible to fix in the mind. Further, when the mind responds to a general appearance it does not allow for similarities. We all have probably experienced the reaction of the mind to some person who we were sure we knew, but upon reflection we felt we were mistaken and so we looked for a prominent feature of that person, and assured ourselves one way or the other if our first response was right.

This occurs upon many occasions with aircraft, and when this difficulty is taken into consideration along with the many varied positions an aircraft may be seen in, then it is obvious that in addition to our knowledge of the general appearance of the aircraft, we also need to look at the various components. Now it is little use trying to look at these components in any particular order such as wing, engines, fuselage, tail, nor is it worthwhile attempting to learn every little detail about each aircraft. It will be found in practice that many of these details cannot be seen nor is there time to consider first the wing, then the engine, and so on. Each aircraft has one or two distinctive features.

And so the elliptical wings of the Spitfire, the large span of the tailplane of the Messerschmitt Me-110, the high fin and rudder of the Wellington, the slimness of the Dornier Do-17, the flat top of the fin and rudder of many of the German aircraft such as the Junkers Ju-52, Heinkel He-115, the Junkers Ju- 86 and -87; the dihedral on the tailplane of the Boston and several of the American flying boats, the engine in tandem on the Dornier Do-18 and 26, the long engine of the Junkers Ju-88, the unbroken dorsal line and shallow steps of the Kawanishi T-97, navy flying boat; the low aspect ratio, large tailplane and conspicuous fuselage taper of the Mitsubishi T-96, heavy bomber; and the even taper on the fuselage and triangular fin and rudder shape of the Zero navy fighter. These are all features which render considerable assistance in identification, and which can be learned in the same way as the general appearance of the aircraft.

Don't be satisfied until you can not only picture the aircraft, but also any important components.

This article was originally published in the June, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 6, pp 60, 169-170.
The original article includes 1 photo.
Photo credited to US Navy.