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An Introduction to Aircraft Spotting

What is aircraft detection?

Airplane (or aircraft) watching is an observational hobby. Enthusiasts take note of details about the aircraft they observe, such as the type of vessel, its registration number (also known as tail or “N number” in the United States), and any distinguishing markings. The information collected is recorded in a notebook and can then be added to an online spreadsheet or database.

What are some of the things aircraft spotters notice?

  • What kind of engine does it have (jet or propeller)?
  • How many motors does it have (2, 3 or 4)?
  • Where are the engines located? Are they in the fuselage or under the wing? Is there one in the queue?
  • What kind of tail does it have?
  • What is the type of wing?
  • What is the location of the wing (high, medium or low)?

supplies needed

The supplies you choose to use may vary. At its most basic, you’ll need a notebook and pencil to record the planes you see.

For the more advanced, you’ll want to invest in a decent camera for taking photos. You’ll likely use apps on a smartphone (like the ones below) and record your sightings using a computer.

In any event, it would be wise to carry your identification, in case you are questioned by airport security or police.

airport codes

While aircraft detection could technically be done from anywhere, it will usually take place near an airport. Regardless of where you see it, you’ll be tracking where a plane is headed and/or where it came from. Therefore, it will be useful to know that there are two coding systems to identify aerodromes: IATA and ICAO.

IATA is a three-character code generally used by the travel industry. You will see these codes when purchasing tickets and on baggage. The IATA code for my regional airport, Spokane International Airport, is GEG.

ICAO is a four-character code used for flight plans, air traffic management, and weather reports. In the United States, IACO codes always begin with “K.” The IACO code for Spokane International Airport is KGEG.

aircraft search app

aircraft finder gives you information about planes en route. While I use this service almost exclusively through the smartphone app, it’s also available on my computer.

When using the service, you will see a map with aircraft icons, which move in real time. To find out more about a specific flight, click on that plan’s icon and (if available) you’ll be shown the following information:

  • call sign
  • Altitude
  • Title
  • Position
  • squawk number
  • Velocity

Live ATC App

ATC live it’s a neat service that allows you to listen to your local air traffic control. As with Plane Finder, this service can be accessed through a computer or through a smartphone app.

Aircraft location databases

Two online aircraft location databases are Detection Log & Spot2Log. These online databases allow you to record information about the aircraft you’ve seen, as well as photos you’ve taken. In addition, each site integrates with social networks. These are great benefits over using traditional spreadsheets!

conclusion

Airplane watching is a unique hobby that can be done alone or with others. It is an intersection of many different subjects (airplanes, photography, cartography, radio communication, etc.). Participation will certainly broaden your horizon!

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