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When someone operates an unregistered vehicle on public roads we know how they are caught: Police routinely pull people over, and they always check registration of vehicles. In fact, police will frequently "run tags" without even stopping cars. They have a realtime connection to a nationwide registry that can report the details of the tagged car and whether a tag is expired or stolen.

Apparently there are a good number of fines and prosecutions for operation of unregistered aircraft. And at least some are reported by ATC. I'm going to assume that nobody is foolish enough to file a flight plan listing an unregistered aircraft ID.

So how does ATC check aircraft registration? Do they have live access to the registry? When someone calls an ID over the radio are there controllers that routinely check the ID's registration? Is it illegal to make up an ID for radio interaction with ATC? Are there people that visually watch for tail numbers and discrepancies with radio calls?

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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking about a specific country? There's a big difference between the US, where private GA flying is essentially anonymous (like using your own car), and other countries that charge ATC fees. The countries that charge user fees may track and record tail numbers and interactions with ATC for billing; the US has no reason to do that. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 6 '15 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife - I did not know that! Then yes, this question is about the U.S. $\endgroup$ – feetwet Dec 6 '15 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ @feetwet: In general, unless you have a reason not to, assume a global audience. Because you do have a global audience. Seems you took the opposite approach here, for some reason assuming you were talking only to your countrymen. $\endgroup$ – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 7 '15 at 1:30
  • $\begingroup$ @LightnessRacesinOrbit That's good advice, but questions about only one country are perfectly fine as long as that's stated/tagged correctly. Many regulatory and procedural questions can only have country-specific (or at least regulator-specific) answers, and we have a lot of those questions in aviation. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 7 '15 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife: It wasn't originally stated/tagged at all. I'm sure the OP shall now be sure to do so in the future. $\endgroup$ – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 7 '15 at 15:05
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Aircraft don't have to be actually flying for people to notice something fishy going on. In particular, there are always people hanging about at airports keeping an eye on everything going on. Furthermore (at least in the US), aircraft registration details are a matter of public record and can be easily looked up online.

For example, here is the registration detail page for John Travolta's private Boeing 707: http://registry.faa.gov/aircraftinquiry/NNum_Results.aspx?NNumbertxt=N707JT

As you can see it contains complete registration details including type, validity status, expiration dates, owner name and address, and airworthiness status.

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So how does ATC check aircraft registration?

They don't, that isn't their job. The only time that anyone will ask to see your registration in normal circumstances is during a ramp check, and those are done by FAA inspectors. There are probably some other 'routine' checks, like a checkride examiner verifying it as part of the checkride or your insurance company asking for a copy. I suppose it's also possible that your state might want to see it for some tax-related reasons.

Do they have live access to the registry?

I have no idea, but as Greg pointed out the registry is open to anyone with an internet connection so it's at least possible that they do. But I don't really see how any of the registration information would be relevant or useful to ATC operations anyway. One possible exception could be search and rescue: I guess the registration information might be useful for contacting the aircraft owner if the aircraft is missing.

When someone calls an ID over the radio are there controllers that routinely check the ID's registration?

Again, I have no idea, but I can't think why ATC would want or need to check it and I couldn't find anything in the ATC orders about checking it.

Is it illegal to make up an ID for radio interaction with ATC?

I couldn't find any specific regulation about that, but if the FAA wants to enforce it then I'm sure they'll find something. They could always fall back on 91.13 and claim that by lying to ATC you're displaying reckless behavior. And if the government really wants to get serious with you then they could charge you under 18 USC 1001: lying to a federal government agent is a criminal offense.

Are there people that visually watch for tail numbers and discrepancies with radio calls?

Yes, they're called planespotters :-) I'm only half-joking: some people are obsessive about things like that, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if someone out there likes to look up the owners of aircraft he hears on the radio.

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  • $\begingroup$ Except that browsing these reports at least several of the ones I've checked say something like, "air traffic controllers identified aircraft N5863S as an unregistered civil aircraft...." So ATC does appear to check registration. (Again, maybe only pursuant to some airspace rule violation, but the reports I've seen don't suggest that.) $\endgroup$ – feetwet Dec 6 '15 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ Those seem more to be, post issue, and usually done by office staff people, not the operational day-to-day controllers $\endgroup$ – slookabill Dec 6 '15 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ ADS-B and mode S transponders transmit your aircraft's ICAO number which is like the VIN number on your car. All the registration, owner, tail number, etc will be referenced to that ICAO number. I'm sure modern ATC systems, after interrogating the transponder can automatically pull up the aircraft type and tail number from a database. It's quite possible that it will flag unregistered aircraft on their screen. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Dec 6 '15 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ On Flightradar 24 the data for ADS-B aircraft are collected by private ADS-B receivers. If you click on a plane it has the tail #, and if a flight plan is filed it has the origin & destination. So obviously even their system pulls this data from a public database. It would be very simple to have a computer flag any unregistered plane. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Dec 6 '15 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ @TomMcW That might be possible for large commercial aircraft, but this question is about GA aircraft which, at least in the US, aren't required to have ADS-B or even a transponder. Even after ADS-B becomes mandatory in 2020, it's only required for some airspace and there'll still be large areas of the US where you don't need it. There's a lot of relevant information in this question. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 7 '15 at 1:25

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