Records of the Skies: Obtaining Airplane Records

My last post featured tracing a former “family” airplane to its modern owner in order to share photographs and information. Tracing a family artifact, no matter the size, helps to flesh out fragmented stories, produces facts to weave into a narrative, and can offer enjoyment to the artifact’s former owner.

My father’s airplane story had three main sources of information.  My search began with the first of these, family sources.

1) Family sources including stories, photographs, and a pilot’s logbook.

2) The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), including their website and ordered records.

3) The plane’s present owner, identified though FAA records, who shared paperwork, photographs, videos, and an artifact.

Learning the plane’s N-number, aka registration number, was crucial. My father remembered the number, and it appeared in photos and in the pilot’s logbook. His plane’s N-number was on the tail and on the wings. In the “Pilot’s Flight Record and Log Book” I found the N-number in the “Equipment Flown” section, in the “Certificate Number” column. The “N” was not listed, but the remaining five digits were. The plane’s make was in the “Aircraft Make and Model” column. If you only know a plane’s make or model, you might still be able to find statistics and other data on the FAA website.

The FAA website allows for a search by N-number. Put your plane’s N-number in the search box, leaving the N out. In my search, I discovered that the N-number from my dad’s 1950s plane is assigned to a plane of the same year, make, and model that he owned. While N-numbers can be changed, it was unlikely with everything matching. The search results showed three sections for my aircraft: Aircraft Description, Registered Owner, and Airworthiness. Sections without data included Other Owner Names, Temporary Certificates, and Fuel Modifications. The results page included a link to order the aircraft’s records.

The FAA site allows a manufacturer or model search. If dealing with a vintage plane made by a company that no longer exists, the number of results may be manageable.  A search by specific model or manufacturer gives a rough idea of how many are registered with the FAA. A search for “Ercoupe” under model provides statistical information, showing registered Ercoupes in the U.S. at present.

To request copies of an aircraft record, complete the online form. Enter the N-number and serial number from the aircraft search results. Note if requesting paper records or a CD, if the order is for a governmental entity, and if requesting document certification. (I did not request certification.) Add the aircraft to your cart and go to checkout. My order was $10.00. I ordered records on CD on December 9th and received the CD by mail on December 18th. The CD’s label indicates it was created on December 11th. Pretty fast service.

The CD contained three PDF files.

The “Read Me” file had two pages. They explained document types, duplication method, and document order.

The second file, “Registration Paperwork,” contained 108 pages of aircraft registration paperwork, bills of sale, endorsements after sales, applications for aircraft registration, certificates of ownership, and like papers. These documents allowed me to build a chronology of the plane from the day it left the factory to its present owner. Not every bill of sale shows the actual sale price, but they include the buyer’s name and address, the date, and the seller’s signature. Certificate of Registration documents list the owner’s name and the airport name and location. The Application for Registration includes the applicant’s name, signature, and address, and the aircraft make, N-number, and serial number.

“Airworthiness Reports” made up the remaining 68-page file. This file included reports of repairs or alterations, applications for airworthiness certificates and airworthiness certificates, annual inspections, operation limitation papers, weight and balance/loading condition paperwork, and drawings of repairs. Aircraft mechanics completed repair and alteration reports, so if your family included an airplane mechanic, they might have completed paperwork in applicable files.

Another file that might be included is a “Suspense File,” which has examined documents that were returned for corrections or held for further documentation, and examiner’s letters.

Documents were from the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which was created in 1958 as the Federal Aviation Agency.[1]

I learned that after the Ercoupe left the manufacturer in 1946, it has had 24 owners, some owning as partners. Two were corporate owners, a plane sales company and a plane rental company. My father’s plane has called five states home since leaving its state of manufacture.

Of genealogical interest were documents that supported family stories or caused me to ask clarifying questions, placing associates together in a string of documents, addresses and airport locations, and using the documents, photographs, and pilot’s logbook to build a timeline for my father’s airplane-owning adventure. I created a map of a two-week flying adventure found in his logbook.

If you trace a family plane, respect the privacy of the present owner. It is possible that the present owner would enjoy old photographs of their plane.

Enjoy your trip into the records of the skies.

[1] “The Birth of FAA,” The Federal Aviation Administration,


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2 Responses to Records of the Skies: Obtaining Airplane Records

  1. Patrick Deady says:

    Wow, that is amazing information! Great job, Debbie!! I found an onion skin paper copy of something from the FAA that involved an accident my father had with a plane he had rented. I suppose that I could see if they still had a file of that on record even though the accident occurred in 1952 or 1953. Thanks again for giving us this info in your blog!!

    • debbiemieszala says:

      If you have the plane’s N-number from the document you have and you order the records, there should be a report of the repairs done on the plane in the airworthiness file. The file I have has record of a wing repair due to damage to the tip, but it does not contain an accident report explaining how the damage was incurred. I am unsure that you will find the accident report with the plane’s records, but if you do it would be great to know.

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