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How Many Aircraft Are In A Squadron?

The term “squadron” is used by the air force, army, and navy to describe operational units with two or more aircraft. In the United States Air Force (USAF), the squadrons may be categorized based on their function, such as bomb squadron or fighter squadron, but how many planes are in a squadron?

TLDR – Squadrons typically include between 12 and 24 aircraft, depending on the type of aircraft and the branch of the military. Land-based squadrons with heavy aircraft may have around 12 aircraft in a squadron. However, fighter units may have 18 to 24 aircraft.

How Many Airplanes in a Squadron?

While 12 to 24 may be the typical number of aircraft in a squadron, branches of the military do not have a set number for squadrons. They need to remain flexible to accommodate different situations.

Republic F 105F 1 RE 22Thunderchief22 sn 63 0331 foreground and nine F 105Ds of the U.S. Air Force Reserve 465th Tactical Fighter Squadron 507th Tactical Fighter Group
Public Domain Republic F-105F-1-RE Thunderchief in foreground and nine F-105Ds of the U.S. Air Force Reserve 465th Tactical Fighter Squadron 507th Tactical Fighter Group.

Aircraft that have additional maintenance needs are likely to travel in smaller squadrons. For example, a transport plane or planes that require fueling in mid-air may travel in formations containing 12 aircraft.

Fighter squadrons in the United States Air Force (USAF) often include four “flights” of four aircraft, for a total of 24 aircraft in the squadron. However, a flying squadron with large aircraft, such as bombers or cargo planes, may support fewer planes. 

Many non-flying units in the military are also organized into squadrons. This may include missile squadrons, intelligence squadrons, aircraft maintenance squadrons, and civil engineering squadrons. 

Militaries in other countries may use a specific number of aircraft in a squadron. For example, the Indian Air Force (IAF) uses squadrons with 18 aircraft. Each squadron is part of a “station,” which is the equivalent of the groups of wings used in the United States Air Force. 

Squadrons of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings taxi F 35As on the runway
388th Fighter Wing Squadrons of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings taxi F 35As on the runway

How Many Helicopters in a Squadron?

There are typically about 16 helicopters in a squadron. However, the number varies depending on the role of the squadron and the branch of the military. 

For example, the HMX-1 squadron of the United States Marine Corps has a total of 32 helicopters in its fleet. The USMC also has nine heavy helicopter squadrons, each with 16 CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters.

The United States Navy has several rotary wing squadrons, which also use the “H” designation. This includes three HM squadrons. Each HM squadron has 28 MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters. The Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) squadrons typically have eight MH-60S Seahawk helicopters. 

The Helicopter Maritime Strike Wing of the US Navy has seven helicopter squadrons. Each squadron has 12 MH-60R helicopters. 

The United States Air Force has nine active helicopter squadrons. They are assigned to various Air Force Bases in the United States, including Langley and Andrews. Each squadron typically has 10 helicopters. 

The United States Army Aviation Branch does not typically use the term “squadrons.” An air cavalry division often contains several platoons of helicopters. For example, during the Vietnam War, an air cavalry troop (ACT) would contain a platoon of six to eight UH-1D/H transport helicopters and a platoon of eight to nine UH-1 gunships. 

Who Commands the Squadron?

In the USAF, the squadron is typically commanded by an officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel. This includes both flying squadrons and non-flying squadrons. 

In the United States Navy, flying squadrons are often commanded by an officer with the rank of commander. The commanding officer (CO) is assisted by the executive officer (XO) of the same rank. The XO acts as the second-in-command.

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) uses the squadron designation for any unit that provides aviation support, such as wing headquarters, air control, aviation logistics, and tactical air command squadrons. 

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How Many Aircraft Are in a Flight?

A flight is a military unit consisting of two or more aircraft, including their crew and ground staff. While three to six is the typical number of aircraft in a flight, the number may vary. 

Flights are often used to divide squadrons into smaller groups. Each flight is typically commanded by an individual squadron leader.

The United States Air Force (USAF) also has different types of flights. A numbered flight is a unit used for unique purposes, such as training. 

Alphabetic flights are used for operational squadrons. The aircraft in the squadron is divided into “flights” and assigned letters of the alphabet. For example, a squadron may have an A, B, C, and D flight. 

Squadrons may also include flights that are categorized based on the type of aircraft. For example, a flying squadron may include a flight with two or three of the same type of aircraft with the same mission objectives. 

How Many Aircraft Are in a Wing?

A “wing” is a military aviation term for a unit of a command containing several squadrons. A typical wing may include three or four squadrons. 

Traditionally, the wing was commanded by a wing commander. After World War II, the USAF consolidated the command of multiple wings into a single group. A group is a unit consisting of several wings and is typically commanded by a group captain. 

How Are Squadrons Named?

The US Navy and the US Marine Corps have specific guidelines for the designations used for aircraft squadrons. The USAF has slightly different guidelines, but the principles are relatively the same.

The name of the squadron typically consists of a series of letters and numerals. The first letter is used to signify the type of aircraft used by the squadron:

  • V – Fixed-wing aircraft (jets and planes)
  • Z – Lighter-than-air aircraft (blimps and balloons)
  • H – Rotorcraft (helicopters)

The designation may also include one or more letters to indicate the primary mission of the squadron. These letters are called “class letters.” For example, “A” is often used for attack squadrons while “B” is often used for bomber squadrons. The class letters “AW” are used for all-weather squadrons. 

After the class letters, the squadron designation typically includes a dash and a numeral. The numeral at the end of the designation is a unique identifier for the squadron within its class. 

What Types of Aircraft Are Used in Squadrons?

Squadrons may consist of attack aircraft, bombers, transport aircraft, and many other types of military planes. As of 2017, the USAF operated more than 5,369 military aircraft organized into more than 300 operational squadrons.

Two squadrons of F 22 Raptors
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors from the 3rd Wing and 477th Fighter Group participate in a close formation taxi, known as an Elephant walk.

The squadrons typically contain aircraft of the same type. Some of the most common types of aircraft used by the USAF include:

  • A – Attack aircraft
  • B – Bombers
  • C – Transport aircraft
  • E – Special electronic aircraft
  • F – Fighter aircraft
  • H – Search and rescue aircraft
  • K – Tanker aircraft
  • M – Multi-mission
  • O – Observation aircraft
  • R – Reconnaissance aircraft

Attack vs Fighter Aircraft

Civilians may easily confuse “attack” and “fighter” aircraft. An attack aircraft is designed to attack ground targets and provide support for ground forces.

Unlike bomber aircraft, attack aircraft can deliver precision strikes, allowing them to operate around friendly forces. Examples include the A-10C Thunderbolt II and the AC-130W Stinger II.

A fighter aircraft is a maneuverable aircraft designed for air-to-air combat. However, they may also have ground-attack capabilities. Common examples include the F-15E Strike Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

How Many Squadrons Does the USAF Have?

The USAF currently has about 312 squadrons that remain operational. However, members of the Department of Defense (DoD) have expressed the desire to increase the number of squadrons to compete with increased military spending by foreign powers. In 2018, the USAF proposed a 24% increase in its fleet size with a goal of 386 squadrons.

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