Just as a car requires a vehicle registration number and plate to be airworthy, an aircraft must feature a data plate. Issued by the aircraft manufacturer, aircraft data plates are not something that you want to replace. They are notoriously hard to come by and are attached to a string of FAA regulations.
The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) section 14, part 45, Identification and Registration Markings, sets out all the FAA requirements concerning the legitimacy of aircraft data plates. There are a number of details that need to be included on the plate: the builder’s name, model designation, builder’s serial number, type of certificate number, and, if applicable, the engine rating must all be noted on the plate.
Typically, the data plate is set out with the required information heading on the left accompanied by a text box filled in with the aircraft specific data. Rather than a simple car registration plate where the registration number is centered, the data plate looks more like a filled-out metal form. The FAA also dictates the type of material that should be used to make the plates. As the data plate is required to be fireproof, durable, resistant to corrosion, and lightweight, there is little choice in terms of appropriate material. Metalphoto photosensitive anodized aluminum is a popular choice for data plates as the image is sealed beneath a sapphire-hard anodic layer. Data plates should be appropriately secured to the aircraft fuselage so that is legible to a person on the ground. It must also be adjacent to the rear-most entrance door or on the fuselage surface near the tail surfaces.
Many pilots and airlines despair at the thought of losing their aircraft’s data plate. Due to the various regulations surrounding data plates, it is difficult to source a new, legitimate plate for your aircraft. Aircraft manufacturers are hesitant to distribute plates as they are cautious of product liability exposure. Manufacturers also often go out of business, meaning that an aircraft owner has no choice but to look elsewhere for a replacement. Plates are therefore in high demand, leading to the proliferation of counterfeit plates. The FAA is not too helpful in light of this dilemma. Their official statement encourages the owners to purchase plates from an approved source, but first they must contact the local Flight Safety Standards District Office for approval and assistance.
It may seem like a resourceful idea to purchase an identical out of service aircraft and simply take the plate off and affix it to your new aircraft. Although sound in logic, this practice is warned against within the aviation world. The FAA has a strict policy concerning the removal and replacement of data plates. CFR 14 45.13 e specifies that no person can remove or install a plate that has been previously approved on another aircraft.
Data plates are essential to the airworthiness certification of an aircraft. If an aircraft has a missing, counterfeit, or switched plate, an FAA-appointed inspector will ground your aircraft, effective immediately.