How to Identify Planes by the Tail Number

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Since the 1940s, the International Civil Aviation Organization has required all civilian aircraft to be registered with a national aviation authority. The ICAO also requires that a unique registration identifier composed of numbers, letters or both, and preceded by a letter code to identify the nationality of the plane, be displayed on every aircraft. This number is usually displayed on the fuselage immediately ahead of the tail and has come to be known as the aircraft "tail number." Several things can be derived from the tail number of an airplane.

  • Note the one- or two-letter code at the beginning of the tail number. The letter code for nationality may be either a one- or two-letter abbreviation. For example, aircraft in the United States display the letter "N" before the registration suffix. Aircraft registered in Sweden display "SE" before the registration suffix. The nationality code may or may not be separated from the alphanumeric registration suffix by a hyphen. For aircraft registered in the United States, it is not.

  • Note the registration suffix following the nationality code. The alphanumeric registration suffix may consist of one to five characters. The letters "I" and "O" are not included to avoid confusion with the numbers "1" and "0." In some countries, the format of the alphanumeric suffix may indicate the type of aircraft. For example, tail number combinations of D-EAAA to D-EZZZ indicate a small, single engine aircraft registered in Germany; D-HAAA to D-HZZZ indicate a German helicopter. However, because of the volume of aircraft registered, many countries including the United States do not assign tail numbers based on aircraft type anymore.

  • Check the online databases that provide the nationality of an aircraft based on its tail number nationality code. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration website offers an N-number search tool. Results of searching a valid U.S. N-number will usually include the type of the aircraft, its serial number, date of manufacture and the name and address of its registered owner. Aviation governing bodies of many developed nations have similar websites and there are private search tools available, as well. Airframes.org provides a worldwide searchable database which, though not yet fully comprehensive, searches the public databases of most nations.

  • Notice the tail numbers on military aircraft in the United States. For U.S. Air Force planes, the large two-letter code on the vertical fin of the tail indicates the base where the aircraft is stationed. Below that, near the base of the vertical fin, is a serial number. The first two digits represent the year the aircraft was ordered and the next three digits are the last digits of the plane's full serial number. For Navy and Marine aircraft, the two-letter code on the vertical fin represents the base code and the plane's entire serial number is usually painted on the empennage of the aircraft, below the tail. Websites such as Globemaster offer search tools for serial numbers of U.S. military aircraft.

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