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What are the requirements for an aircraft's tail number to match the registration?

What happens if an aircraft changes its number? Is it grounded until the new number can be painted on?

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The registration number painted on the aircraft is required to match the aircraft's registration certificate (and airworthiness certificate). If the numbers don't match the aircraft's paperwork isn't in order, and it can't legally be flown.

There is a procedure for changing your N number which is usually used to put a "special" (reserved) number on an aircraft:

  1. Send the FAA a letter requesting an N number change.
    (It probably helps to have a good reason - like say United Airlines buying a used jet and wanting to re-register it with a N___UA tail number from their reserved block).
  2. Wait for the FAA to send you paperwork authorizing the N number change.
    You will get 3 copies of form 8050-64 - two for the FAA, one for you.
  3. Put the new N number on the plane.
    Usually you'd do this by repainting the aircraft (or the portion of the tail where the number is), but you could also do vinyl stickers or something similar)

    One of the copies of form 8050-64 becomes your temporary registration certificate at this time, and you must carry that along with your original registration certificate showing the old registraton number.

  4. Within 5 days of applying the new N number return one of the copies of form 8050-64 to the FAA to obtain a new registration certificate with the new N number.
  5. Within 10 days of applying the new N number return the other copy of form 8050-64 to the FAA to obtain a new airworthiness certificate with the new N number.
I expected to find something stating how long you have between the time the FAA grants the request to change registration numbers and when you must apply the new one to the plane, but as far as I can tell you can take your time doing this: there doesn't seem to be an expiration on the authorization to change N numbers.


As long as you comply with the requirements for the registration number change the aircraft is only "grounded" for as long as it takes to apply the new registration number (if you're repainting this could take a while ; if you apply a large sticker with the new number on it it could be done in less than a day).

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    $\begingroup$ Does the FAA ever grant exemptions from this? In the UK, many ex-military aircraft are granted exemptions to display their military serials instead of their civil registrations. (See, for example, Avro Vulcan XH558.) $\endgroup$ – gsnedders Jul 15 '14 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ @gsnedders UK law is rather different. 558 is still on the military registry, not civilian. So its registration is still XH558. Dutch procedures are more in line with what you seek. There for historical aircraft the old code can be shown accurately, the new "modern" code printed in smaller print somewhere on the aircraft (still visible but unobtrusive, for example it might be on in small print under the old code). $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jul 16 '14 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting XH558 is registered with the CAA as G-VLCN and operates under a permit to fly issued by them. She has an exemption to display her old RAF number. $\endgroup$ – Nigel Harper Jul 16 '14 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ And notably she doesn't, as far as I'm aware, have G-VLCN anywhere on her. Hence her markings do not in any way match her registration. $\endgroup$ – gsnedders Jul 16 '14 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @gsnedders Waivers are available for special circumstances (like filming), but as far as I'm aware an aircraft on the civilian registry in the US must display appropriate registration markings. There is a standing exemption allowing "small N numbers" on warbirds though, and it sometimes takes a sharp eye to spot them. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jul 16 '14 at 15:55
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I think you're also asking about Airline ship numbers (or fleet number, etc). All airline aircraft in the US (and probably most other countries) have to have a registration, and most airlines also have a ship or fleet number. This is the number that's approved on the airlines OpsSpec (Operations Specification, that basically outlines the entire airlines operations, from Diversion airports to numerous other considerations). If what I understand is correct, an airline just lists the aircraft N number, with it's internal number (whatever they want it to be, sometimes a part of the registration, other times completely different). As long as it's documented, and any changes are documented correctly, it doesn't matter how they correlate.

In the image below, you see the ship numbers on the nose door. The registration would be near the tail, and there are FARs for sizing and placement of that. Also, it's rare that an airline will change the registration or fleet number.

Ship Numbers

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the question is actually asking about whether the registration number painted on the tail has to be correct, and how soon the registration number has to be repainted if the aircraft is re-registered with a different number. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 16 '14 at 7:49
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for not being more clear, this wasn't intended to be part of this question. However, I have wondered about this before, thanks for the info. If you want I can ask a new question so this answer has a proper place. $\endgroup$ – fooot Jul 16 '14 at 16:49

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