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There have been several news reports about aircraft (light planes and helicopters) flying without visible registration numbers or identifying marks in the USA:

The NYPD referred to the helicopter only as “23”—a reference to the number of police officers killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks—and initially the aircraft had no registration number painted on its tail or side. source

and

Cimbolic was beginning to worry that he had overreacted when he noticed, on the same flight-radar Web site, the second plane flying higher in the sky, carving bigger loops above West Baltimore. The Web site reported that this plane was a Cessna 560 Citation V, a small jet. But it showed no tail number, offering no possible trail to Federal Aviation Administration records. This only heightened his curiosity. source

Eventually these aircraft were identified (and in the case of the former, a registration number found). But the general question I have is:

Are non-military aircraft allowed to fly without visible registration numbers (tail numbers) in the United States?

Fine print: I am aware that military planes usually have visible tail numbers, this question is about non-military craft. So "non-military" in this case includes federal agencies and state and local police.

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    $\begingroup$ In the second article, where it says "it showed no tail number", I think that "it" is referring not to the aircraft itself, but to the FlightRadar24 website. In other words, I don't think they're claiming that there wasn't a registration number painted on the plane, just that FR24 didn't show it. I believe that FR24 lets aircraft operators request that their registration numbers be "blocked" and not displayed on the site, if they prefer to have more privacy in their movements. $\endgroup$ – Nate Eldredge Jun 18 '15 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, Nate, for the clarification. Even if the news reports are wrong (that the planes did have tail numbers), I wanted to know if it were even possible that there could be planes with no tail numbers. $\endgroup$ – RoboKaren Jun 18 '15 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Nate, it may not even be blocked. FR24 just may have, for whatever reason, failed to get the mapping from the identifier sent by ADS-B to the registration. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jun 18 '15 at 19:14
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14 CFR 45 subpart C governs the display of "nationality and registration marks".

14 CFR 45.21 says:

Except as provided in §45.22, no person may operate a U.S.-registered aircraft unless that aircraft displays nationality and registration marks in accordance with the requirements of this section and §§45.23 through 45.33.

Section 45.22 gives some exceptions for "exhibition and antique" aircraft, and for aircraft of unusual design that may need an alternative marking scheme.

I presume there is another regulation, or international agreement, requiring that foreign-registered aircraft must also display their registration marks, but I haven't found it yet.

As to which aircraft have to be US-registered in the first place, see 14 CFR 47. It's a bit complicated.

The US military is generally not bound by FAA regulations (though they may choose to follow some of them), see How much jurisdiction does the FAA have over military aircraft?.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I know the military isn't bound by FAA which is why I bracketed them out of this discussion. Thanks for the FAA regs. It'll be interesting to see how the agencies who are operating the unmarked craft are getting around this. $\endgroup$ – RoboKaren Jun 18 '15 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @RoboKaren: The first article claims "the NYPD also requested special “undercover” registration handling from the FAA..." I would presume the FAA has the authority to waive any of its regulations on a case-by-case basis. $\endgroup$ – Nate Eldredge Jun 18 '15 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @NateEldredge Generally yes, provided that the regulation isn't actually directly written into a law that provides them no such authority. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jun 18 '15 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ @RoboKaren All military aircraft I've been around have side numbers and buno numbers displayed on the exterior of the aircraft. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Jun 19 '15 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ The government in general is not bound by FAA regulations, not only the military. $\endgroup$ – pericynthion Sep 19 '17 at 16:00
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I fly a gyroplane without the N number. It's an Ultralight that also has a N number, but since I fly it as an ultralight I need not display the N number...

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  • $\begingroup$ Yup, Part 103 ultralights aren't required to have a registration number. I'm a little curious, though, since you say it "also has an N number, but I fly it as an ultralight". Does your gyroplane have an airworthiness certificate? Under Part 103, an ultralight must not have an airworthiness certificate; if an aircraft has an airworthiness certificate, it can't be flown under Part 103. So if it does have an airworthiness certificate, and you want to fly it under Part 103, you need to surrender the certificate. $\endgroup$ – Terran Swett Jun 12 at 4:33

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