How would the pilot of Marine One identify himself to air traffic control without the President on board? Does it have an N-number? If anyone knows, I would like a specific call sign/N-number of any of the Sea Kings. In particular, how would a Sea King pilot flying alone identify themselves to air traffic control?

  • $\begingroup$ The Marine squadron that runs Marine 1 and the decoys is HMX-1. I believe that their callsign is 'Nighthawk'. There are several lists out there of military callsigns, but not having been in the military, I can’t tell if they are accurate. Anyway, they say that NIGHTHAWK Helo in Marine One party, or Pres not aboard NIGHTHAWK CH-46E HMX-1, MCAF Quantico, VA (CH-53D) ominous-valve.com/callsign.txt $\endgroup$
    – JScarry
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 1:02
  • $\begingroup$ So if one of the Sea Kings is flying around without the president on board, they would just say something like "JFK, this is VH-3D Nighthawk"? No specific N-number, as with most aircraft? $\endgroup$
    – birdus
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ @birdus military aircrafts have tail number but that has nothing to do with their callsign. Callsign is most time depends on operational needs. Not registration. They work in different world from us civils. $\endgroup$
    – vasin1987
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ @vasin1987 So is my guess correct, then, that the pilot would say something like "JFK, VH-3D Nighthawk" to establish contact with the tower rather than "JFK, VH-3D November-12345"? I'm just trying to piece this together from the various tidbits that people are giving me here. $\endgroup$
    – birdus
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 3:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ They wouldn’t use the helicopter type after the initial call for clearance. Just something like Nighthawk 1. Just like when an airliner calls, they don’t give the type of aircraft. e.g. Southwest 2932 or United 133. Military aircraft do not have N numbers but they do have identification numbers and can use them instead of mission identifiers. $\endgroup$
    – JScarry
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 16:43

3 Answers 3


Marine one is the call sign of any of the (300+) United States Marine Corps aircraft carrying the President of the United States. So, if he's not on board, the aircraft reverts back to its original radio call sign.

In case you are asking about the Marine Helicopter Squadron One, you can find the ID from helis.com. HMX-1 uses the call sign 'NIGHTHAWK' usually, but this is prone to change depending on the circumstances. From the site:

In Korea, call signs changed on a regular basis; during the Vietnam War, squadrons might use the same call sign for more than a year. Today, squadrons deploying to a combat zone,i.e. Iraq and Afghanistan, are assigned a "theater" call sign for use during that deployment only.

  • $\begingroup$ Maybe I'm just dense, but it's not at all clear to me what the tail numbers (radio call signs) of the Sea Kings are from that web page. And yes, I'm talking about the Sea Kings of HMX-1. $\endgroup$
    – birdus
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ Okay. I see. So when talking to ATC, they might initiate a conversation by saying something like: "JFK, VH-3D Nighthawk"? $\endgroup$
    – birdus
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 1:18
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @birdus They'd get a callsign assigned for the mission by their planning and operations department. Often that will be "Nighthawk" followed by their tail number, so e.g. "Nighthawk 205" for aircraft #205, but doesn't have to be. When flying in formation, you'd get "Nighthawk 205, flight of 3" if 205 leads a flight of 3 aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting Is "205" an actual tail number of any of the Sea Kings? I'm looking for actual numbers here, if those are known. Would they start their identification the same way another aircraft would, such as with "VH-3D"? So would their initiation of a conversation with a tower go something like "JFK, VH-3D Nighthawk 205"? $\endgroup$
    – birdus
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 16:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @birdus 205 is just an example of a possible tail number, not one I know to be used by that unit. Mentioning your type is more something for VFR aircraft that don't have a filed flightplan (the filed plan would mention your type and you'd only then mention it if the actual aircraft used were different). If you did it at all, it'd be something like "Kennedy approach, Nighthawk 205, flight of 3 VH-3s, with you 5000ft 5 miles from Ellis Island". $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 7:12

You seem to be confused about a couple of things. To clear everything up and reiterate some of what was said in other answers:

  • US military aircraft do not have "N-numbers" but they do have registration numbers (Bureau Numbers or BuNos).
  • Just like civil airliners, which have N-numbers but usually use callsigns and flight numbers instead, military aircraft will often identify themselves using a callsign and mission number.

When identifying using the BuNo, ATC will refer to the flights using "the service name, followed by the word 'copter,' when appropriate, and the last 5 digits of the serial number" (FAA JO 7110.65 2–4–20 6a). For example, the Sea King with the registration number 159357 would be "Marine Copter Five Niner Three Five Seven" (VM593571).

If not using their registration number as an identifier, Navy or Marine fleet and training command aircraft use "the service name and 2 letters, or a digit and a letter, followed by 2 or 3 digits" (2–4–20 6h2), for example "Marine Four Charlie Two Three Six" (VM4C236).

USAF, ANG, and "Military District of Washington priority aircraft" use "pronounceable words of 3 to 6 letters followed by a 1 to 5 digit number" (2–4–20 6h1), which is the "tactical callsign" others have alluded to. Apparently HMX-1 uses "Nighthawk," for example "Nighthawk Eight-Four" (NTHWK84 or similar; the spellings can be forced at times).

So a Marine pilot from HMX-1 who is calling ATC might identify themselves as follows:

Potomac Approach, Nighthawk Eight-Four, flight of three Sea Kings (type code S61).

The actual mission number used in the identification will be assigned by the unit's planning and ops department, as jwenting said, and may or may not have any relation to any number painted on the aircraft.

1The service prefixes for registration-number IDs are as follows: Air Force: A, Army: R, Coast Guard: C, National Guard: G, Navy: VV, Marines: VM (7110.65 2–3–5 b4a).


US military aircraft use mission callsigns, which can change with every flight, not tail numbers. Therefore, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive list for what a particular aircraft might use.

That said, squadrons often perform the same mission repeatedly, which means using the same callsign prefix, e.g. "Nighthawk" for the squadron you're asking about. That prefix is usually followed by a mission number, similar to an airline flight number.

However, some missions are unique and therefore do not need a number, and some missions (e.g. Air Force One and Marine One) always use the same number. The only hard rule is that there should never be two aircraft in the air at the same time with the same callsign.

  • $\begingroup$ Guard helicopters very commonly call with their BuNo instead of a mission callsign, at least around me. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 3:19

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