Planespotting in an Electronic Age

Posted on May 9, 2016

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People also laughed fifty years ago when they were told someone would fly over Berlin.  I remember the excitement in the year 1910 when Count Zeppelin first came to Berlin, and now the Berliners scarcely look up when something sails through the air.  Besides the giant airplanes and the planes for fighter pilots, there are countless numbers of others in every size.  Man has yet to come to the end of discovery.  Who knows what we will use in a year’s time to pierce the blue ether!

– Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen, “The Red Baron,” 1917

What is planespotting, you might ask? It is the pastime of watching planes, usually near an airport where one has a steady supply of subjects to watch. Avid planespotters will know what types of aircraft they are looking at, maybe even where they are going. In modern times, serious planespotters are equipped with devices like the AirNav Systems RadarBox, which can read and display transponder information for many aircraft.

Alas, despite the technical advances, planespotting is perhaps a hobby from earlier, simpler times, those days before 500 cable channels and mobile internet on everyone’s phone. But we still have real-life planespotters… those people who like their entertainment big and bold and roaring right in front of them, feeling the rumble of the engines.  Right here in my own area, there is even advice on the best places to go to do your planespotting at Dulles International Airport.

Even if you don’t live near an airport, or if you like your entertainment on a small screen, you can still be a planespotter… sort of. Check out this site, Flightradar24.com!

It starts you off looking at a map of the Australian continent, and then you will see the map populate with a host of little yellow and orange airplane icons. At first it looks static… but it isn’t! It is a live flight tracking site and as you watch the planes will be seen to move about on their flight paths. Hover your mouse over any of the planes to see its identification; click on the plane to see its route and other information. There, you are a planespotter!

In the upper right, pull down the “Jump to area” menu to quickly navigate to another part of the globe, then give it a moment to re-populate the flights in progress there.

Use your mouse scroll wheel to zoom in and see the planes’ movements more closely; even more fascinating, zoom out and see where there are the greatest concentrations of air traffic. North America and Europe are just packed. Much of Mongolia, eastern Russia, and the Sahara show hardly a plane in the sky.

And yes, you could even use this to track the flight that is bringing your cousin over from Europe… or Asia… or wherever.

If you’d just like to see an animation of all the world’s flights over a 24-hour period, check out this video created by Karl Rege and his team at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences. Our planet just swarms with aircraft… even the Red Baron could never have imagined this.

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