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Military aircraft usually display a serial number along with other insignia on the tail or body of the aircraft, as described here. However military serial numbers are not the same as FAA tail numbers on civilian US aircraft, which begin with the letter "N".

Do military aircraft also have an "N" number, or do US military aircraft simply not have an "N" number?

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The 'N' numbers you're referring to are FAA registration numbers. The FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations) specifically mention registration as not being required for military aircraft:

14 CFR 47.3

(b) No person may operate an aircraft that is eligible for registration under 49 U.S.C. 44101-44104, unless the aircraft—

(1) Has been registered by its owner;

(2) Is carrying aboard the temporary authorization required by §47.31(c); or

(3) Is an aircraft of the Armed Forces

The FAA issues these registrations in accordance with its responsibilities under the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which required (in Article 20) that:

Every aircraft engaged in international air navigation shall bear its appropriate nationality and registration marks.

As per the above-cited 14 CFR 47.3, though, the U.S. specifically requires that all eligible aircraft have registrations unless it's either a military aircraft or it has temporary authorization under 14 CFR 47.31(c).

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    $\begingroup$ You cite both FAA regs and the history of those regulations from a 1947 aviation convention: +1 sir! $\endgroup$ – steampowered Aug 10 '15 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ The FAA shares more history about N numbers here. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Aug 10 '15 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ The military uses buno (beuno?) numbers to identify specific aircraft. An aircrafts side number may change over its history, but the buno number remains constant. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Aug 11 '15 at 1:51
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    $\begingroup$ BuNo = bureau number, a unique serial number used by the navy, assigned sequentially. army and air force use a similar system, 6 or 7 digits long where the first two digits is the year of acquisition, followed by 4 or 5 digits unique to each year grouping. actually putting this number on the aircraft seems to follow several different standards. $\endgroup$ – erich Oct 19 '15 at 4:48
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As @reirab explained, "N" registration numbers are generally used for civilian aircraft. However, there are some notable exceptions.

The de Havilland DHC-7 (aka "Dash-7", variously nomenclatured O-5A, EO-5B/C, or RC-7B) is used by the United States Army as its Airborne Reconnassaince-Low manned aerial imagery intelligence platform.

enter image description here
Image credit: Alan Radecki / Wikimedia Foundation

Another de Havilland, this one a DHC-6, is used by the Air Force Academy's parachuting team:

enter image description here
Image credit: Ian Tate / Flickr

Dover AFB's 436 Force Support Squadron employs several Cessnas at their Aero Club, used for flight training. One of them made the news when it made an emergency landing onto a local highway.

enter image description here
Image credit: Adrian R. Rowan / Dover AFB

These are just a start. Getting creative with search queries, you can also find hundreds of other aircraft listed in the FAA registration database.

Virtually all of these are very special-purpose aircraft, with no munitions or other armament (aside from chaff/flare as in the case of the Dash 7).


And although not technically military (yet), it is common for developmental aircraft to be given civilian registration numbers during flight testing phases prior to final delivery. This prototype KC-46A, painted mostly in military-style "livery", has registration number N461FT.

enter image description here
Image credit: Ken Fielding / Wikimedia

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting that the KC-46A needed an FAA registration prior to the US military taking ownership. $\endgroup$ – steampowered Oct 19 '15 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ @steampowered Since it's technically not "an aircraft of the armed forces" until they actually sell it to the Air Force, it would run afoul of 14 CFR 47.3(b) if they didn't register it (or at least apply for the registration) before flight testing. $\endgroup$ – reirab Oct 19 '15 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Good point with this answer, @erich. The FARs just say that the military isn't required to get a registration number; they don't say that they can't get one. $\endgroup$ – reirab Oct 19 '15 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ And then there are probably aircraft that are owned by DoD but aren't part of the armed forces. VIP transports and such for non-military senior staff. $\endgroup$ – jwenting May 24 '17 at 6:48

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