I'm not sure if this question is on-topic here. Perhaps it should be asked on the Aviation SE. However it's not about practical details (I have no intention of doing such thing:). It's just supposed to be a scene of my story.

So I wonder if it's possible that some light aircraft flies unnoticeably, suppose, from the Pacific coast to somewhere in the Middle West. Unnoticeably for the appropriate authorities, I mean.


It seems that my original post was misleading to some extent. So I have to add some clarification.

First I didn't mean a drone or any unmanned vehicle, only manned aircraft, to be specific, 1-2-seat airplane.

Furthermore, "unnoticeability" of the depicted flight is not an objective. In other words the aircraft's crew has no intention to make its flight unnoticed, it just happens unintentionally.

Actually this flight doesn't matter much for the plot. I just need to bring a character, which is a sort of alien, from somewhere in Pacific ocean to somewhere in the middle of the U.S. Eventually he has to be taken by government. But before this, I'd like him to spend some time among ordinary people. So this flight may be considered as a plot device.

  • $\begingroup$ A question, and a comment. #1 How light? #2 Light aircraft are small, and thus have limited ranges. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Mar 15, 2018 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Also, you're right about Aviation SE being a better venue. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Mar 15, 2018 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ I'm absolutely no expert in air travel, but can't you see an aircraft with your eyes and hear it with your ears even? Do you want it to be completely invisible or just without the authorities interfering? On this SE, you kind of have to answer such questions $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Mar 15, 2018 at 16:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How small? Millions of really small aircraft fly all over the world unnoticed by any authorities. For example, DJI, a Chinese manufacturer of such really small aircraft, sold 18 billion dollars worth of them in 2017. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 15, 2018 at 17:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There's a big difference between being "unnoticed", and nobody knowing or caring who is flying the plane. All ATC (Air Traffic Control) cares about is not having planes hit each other. When you communicate with them, you just use the plane's tail number (and you could easily make up one). When you're VFR en route, you'll usually squawk 1200 - the transponder code for GA traffic. On approach to an airport with a tower, they'll often give you a particular code, but that's so they can keep track of individual planes. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 15, 2018 at 17:54

3 Answers 3


Trivially, as long as they avoid military or other restricted airspace. Civilian radar depends on transponders to track aircraft and aren't as powerful, so a small aircraft will easily avoid detection by them. As long as they avoid doing anything too suspicious (such as turning off the transponder before they clear their origin airport's airspace), they're pretty much guaranteed to be able to do it.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, ATC radar will often pick up planes without transponders, and indeed, sometimes hang gliders or flocks of birds. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 15, 2018 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ height is a big issue the closer you are the ground the harder you areto notice. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 15, 2018 at 20:12
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ ATC radars near major airports will certainly pick a plane up without transponder, because they have to be aware of everything and are thus appropriately sensitive. At long range, however, civilian radars in the US are not and depend on transponders; the military radars which will pick up a small plane are along the coasts and borders facing out. $\endgroup$ Mar 15, 2018 at 21:33

In 1987 a German landed on Red Square in Moscow. On the one hand, this was thirty years ago, when computers were more primitive. On the other hand, it was during the Cold War.

  • Can the aircraft fly low enough to stay out of air traffic lanes, but high enough to obey flight rules?
  • Can the flight path avoid airports, cities, and military installations?
  • Can the aircraft make the flight during the day, so that it might be mistaken for a legimitate flight in the same area?

I realize that this is no clearcut "yes" or "no" -- I think you can justify it in your story if you throw in a few close calls or misunderstandings.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Mathias Rust was spotted repeatedly by radar, intercepted by fighters once, and only made it to Red Square due to confusion in the chain of command. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jun 3, 2018 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark, see my last bullet point. They were not ready to make a "shoot" decision on the available data. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Jun 3, 2018 at 19:16

Not really, any aircraft flying needs to file a flight plan at the airport and have a air traffic control transponder. Not having these would get you noticed pretty quickly.

You might be able to do it by flying close to the ground under normal radar ranges but people on the ground might notice an aircraft flying so close to the ground for such a long period of time.

I don't know the details of your story but a more practical solution would be to give the aircraft a false but legitimate reason to fly so while the authorities don't make the connection. Fake identities, companies or aircraft (its actually one plan but have been repainted and its transponder changed) would be the way to go.

  • $\begingroup$ This is wrong. GA aircraft don't need to file a flight plan when VFR. When you do file a flight plan, you call the FAA. You don't file it "at the airport", if for no other reason than that a lot of airports, there is no official presence - and maybe nobody at all, if you're flying out of say a back-country airport in Idaho. Transponders are only required in controlled airspace, which is basically near major airports, and above 18K ft: aopa.org/training-and-safety/pic-archive/equipment/… $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 15, 2018 at 17:48

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