Take a moment to think about the pre-flight inspection acronym we are all familiar with, AROW (or ARROW depending on when you learned it): “A”irworthiness certificate, “R”egistration, “O”perating handbook, and “W”eight and balance data. The check of the registration certificate needs more than just a glance to see that it is in the aircraft. A pilot should verify that the N-number matches what is painted on the side of the aircraft and is printed on the airworthiness certificate, and every pilot now needs to verify that the registration certificate has not expired. While it is tempting to think this is a no-big-deal paperwork item, be warned, the operation of an unregistered aircraft is a violation of the regulations and statutes of the United States and therefore can subject the unwary pilot to an FAA enforcement action and subject the aircraft to seizure by and forfeiture to the U.S. federal government. That’s right, if you are caught flying an unregistered aircraft, there is the possibility that the aircraft will be seized—a very expensive mistake to make.
We generally recommend that pilots do one of two things to ensure they are not operating an aircraft without a valid unexpired registration certificate. If you regularly fly several different aircraft, get in the habit of looking at the airworthiness certificate and registration certificate prior to every flight to ensure they both match with the registration markings painted on the aircraft and the registration is unexpired. If an aircraft is regularly flown by only one pilot, I recommend making a “dispatch” sheet posted somewhere convenient in the cockpit that contains information about when the next (as applicable) annual or condition inspection, transponder and pitot-static checks, ADs, oil changes, and registration renewal are due. While you’re at it, you could include pilot information as well—think medical certification, 90-day currency, instrument currency or checks, and flight reviews. Then, add this check to your pre-flight checklist and check it prior to every flight.
Aircraft owners should know by now that the FAA has largely done away with aircraft registration certificates that have no expiration date on their face. Registration certificates will now expire three years after issuance. This should prompt a change in our pre-flight inspection procedures to ensure compliance with the law on each and every flight.