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A Beginner's Guide to Plane Spotting in the Wild

April 09, 2017
9 min read
Photo courtesy raihanshahzad via Flickr
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Anyone who has flown internationally in the last decade has probably spent some time at airports marveling at today's modern-day flying machines. From smaller, narrow-body planes to the giants of the sky, commercial aircraft are something all aviation enthusiasts love to look at. But identifying these may be a difficult task. How can you tell the difference between two Boeing 747s? Moreover, can you identify the subtle differences between the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families? Keep this illustrated guide handy to help you determine which aircraft you're looking at the next time you're plane spotting at the airport.

Airbus A380 vs. Boeing 747

The two jumbo jets that fly today — the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747 — couldn't be more different from one another, but are often confused by the uninitiated. Just focus on each one's top deck. The 747 is known for its iconic "hump" at the front of the aircraft, which gives it two floors for just the front portion of the aircraft. In comparison, the A380 has two floors that extend the full length of the plane, making it the only fully double-deck commercial airliner out there. Another subtle difference between the two is the placement of the cockpit: the A380's looks as if it's located between the two decks, while the 747's is located squarely on the upper floor.

Image of the A380 (left) and 747 (right) courtesy of xingxiyang via Flickr.

Airbus A350 vs. Boeing 787 Dreamliner

As with the jumbo-jet variants, deducing the difference between the two next-generation aircraft is all in the details. Launched several years apart from each other, the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner represent the future of commercial aircraft, made primarily of composite materials and boasting better fuel efficiency than their predecessors. The key differences between these two can once again be found above and below the wings. First of all, the Dreamliner engine features a modern-looking removable cover with a toothy ring at the rear, surrounding what almost looks like the bottom of an ice cream cone — this is the exhaust cone, which controls the flow of the exhaust gases, which in turn reduces turbulence and increases the vessel's velocity. The A350's engines, however, are housed in more traditional coverings, with a smooth-ringed shell at the back around its exhaust cone. The A350's wings curve up at the end, forming winglets at the tips, while the Dreamliner's wings are sweeping and don't feature winglets at all. Finally, it all comes down to the nose: the A350's is pointy, while the 787's is more rounded.

Image of the A350 image (top) courtesy of Airbus; image of the 787 Dreamliner (bottom) courtesy of Boeing.

Boeing 747-400 vs. 747-8I

If identifying an A380 vs. a 747 was too obvious for you, try picking out the differences between several variations of the Queen of the Skies, Boeing 747. Originally debuting with Pan Am in 1970, more than 1,500 of these planes have rolled out of Boeing's factory over the last 47 years. Today, only two variants of this marvelous aircraft remain: the 747-400, introduced in 1989, and the 747-8I, introduced in 2011 — the "I" stands for "Intercontinental," to indicate it's the passenger-carrying version, while the 747-8F is the freight version. While the two airliners may look almost identical in every way, there are several details that differentiate them. First, the 747-400 features traditional, smooth cowling around each of its engines, while the 747-8I's is more modern-looking and jagged. Another key difference can be found in the wing style. The 747-400 has raised winglets at the tips, but the 747-8I has much more rounded wings, similar to those of the 787 Dreamliner. Finally, the 747-8I has four more windows on its top deck, with 22 on each side compared to the 18 you'll see on the 747-400.

Images of the 747-400 (top) and 747-8I (bottom) courtesy of skinnylawyer via Flickr.

Boeing 767-300 vs. 767-400

Now, try determining the difference between two variants of the same aircraft just one model number apart. The Boeing 767 is one of the most commonly used aircraft for international travel, and those who look close enough will be able to spot the specific models. Aside from the physical size of the two aircraft (the 767-400 variant is larger), the key differences lie in the body styles: the 767-300's nose appears to be smaller and comes to an abrupt point at the front of the aircraft, while the nose of the 767-400 appears to be longer and more rounded at the bottom. Additionally, the 767-300 features two emergency exits over each wing, while the 767-400, keeps its emergency exits in front of and behind the wings.

Image of the Asiana 767-300 (top) courtesy of Hugh Llewelyn via Flickr; Image of Delta's Air 767-400 (bottom) courtesy Bram Steeman via Flickr.

Airbus A330-200 vs. A330-300

The subtle differences between the two main variations of the Airbus A330 can throw even the most experienced aviation enthusiast into fits! Still, those who know what to look for can easily pick out one from the other. The A330-200 and A330-300 share many of the same body properties, including a pointed nose jutting from underneath the cockpit, winglets at the end of each wing and a narrow emergency-escape door behind the wing. The key to telling them apart is the distance between the emergency exits. On the A330-200, the forward emergency exits are closer together than on the A330-300. Be sure to look closely: the difference between the two really only comes down to four windows.

Image of the A330-200 (top) courtesy of larssteffens via Flickr. Image of the A330-300 (bottom) courtesy of aero_icarus via Flickr.

The Airbus A320 Family

Mixing up the three types of Airbus A320-series aircraft — the A319, A320 and A321 — is a forgivable offense, especially since these are among the most commonly-used among the world's major airlines. What sets these three apart isn't found in the engine or on the winglets, but in the number and size of their emergency exits. The A319 has three emergency exits on each side: one at each end of the aircraft and one over the wing. The A320 features an additional emergency exit over the wing, bringing the total to four on each side. The A321 also features four emergency exits on each side, but has them spaced evenly across the entire body. The overall size and nose shape are also differentiating factors: as the numbers go up in the sequence, the aircraft gets longer, and features what appears to be an increasingly elongated nose.

Images of the A319 (top), A320 (middle) and A321 (bottom) courtesy of Airbus.

The Boeing 737 Family

The workhorse of the domestic American market, the Boeing 737 has gone through seven variations since first being introduced to the world in February, 1968. The aircraft manufacturer is also preparing to launch two more variants: the 737-MAX in 2017, and the 737-MAX 9, which is scheduled to enter service in 2018. There's also a MAX-10 variant reportedly being shopped around. Although each of the 737 aircraft may look identical, there are a few key differences between the older and next-generation models. The newest versions of the 737, the 700 and MAX variants have a split-tip winglet at the end of each wing, jutting both upward and outward, while the older 737-600 and 737-700 often have winglets featuring a single, gentle curve upward. You can also tell which 737 is which by its size: the 737-600 has eight windows between the cabins and a single over-the-wing exit, while the 737-700 has 12 windows in front of the wing and two over-the-wing emergency exits. The 737-MAX, meanwhile, has 17 windows in front of two over-the-wing emergency exits.

The older 600 and 700 variations (not shown) are smaller and have curved winglets instead of the split winglets you'll find on the latest-generation MAX aircraft (shown above). Image courtesy of Boeing.

Do you have any tips for aspiring plane spotters? Share them in the comments, below.

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Featured image by Photo courtesy raihanshahzad via Flickr