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How to use flight-tracker apps to tell what planes are flying overhead

July 09, 2020
7 min read
How to use flight-tracker apps to tell what planes are flying overhead
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On any given day, even with the drop in air traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are thousands of airplanes flying over the United States and the rest of the world — commercial jets, general aviation and private aircraft and military planes from various armed forces. If you are an AvGeek, you know that there are apps and sites you can use to track those planes and tell exactly what the one you've just seen fly over is. You can use them to track aircraft you cannot see, too. We'll talk about the two most commonly used apps, Flightradar24 and FlightAware, which both have iOS and Android versions and a website as well.

If you have an iPhone, you can just ask "Siri, what flights are overhead?" — and the voice-activated digital assistant will return a screen like this one. The two tables taken together will give you a pretty good idea of what is flying above you. But you can know a lot more than altitude, distance, aircraft type, airline and flight number. You can find out pretty much everything about a flight, in real time, and anywhere in the world.

iPhone screen cap by Riley Arthur/The Points Guy

With Flightradar24 and FlightAware, you can find out granular details including how fast and high a flight is, its route, the exact airplane operating it and when it was built, and what routes it flew before, even months in the past.

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Flightradar24 calls itself the most popular flight-tracker app; the Google Play store shows it has more than 10 million installs, while FlightAware has more than five million. Flightradar24 is the more customizable of the two, and while FlightAware says it tracks more flights, it lacks options like showing planes on the ground. (There's also a third flight-tracking app and website, Planefinder, which looks and feels similar to Flightradar24 and has the same price for the premium version.)

FR24 features more options that will appeal to casual users, and while both apps have good free versions, Flightradar24 offers cheaper premium levels. FlightAware markets itself more to professional users in the aviation industry.

At TPG, Flightradar24 is the app we use every day to track flights, both for work and for fun.

The free version is pretty intuitive; it defaults to your location, which you can return to at any time by touching the arrow at bottom left, and shows you every plane in the vicinity with either airline code and flight number (for commercial flights, like Delta 996 or Southwest 1731 below) or registration (for some private aircraft, like N41645.)

Screen cap from Flightradar24

Premium versions of the app can show you airplane type, speed and altitude without having to click on a plane's icon.

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Screen cap from Flightradar24

In free and paid versions, by touching a plane icon you bring up a list of details about that flight.

An interesting option is the 3D view at bottom left, which brings up a fully pinch-to-zoom, rotating look at the world around the plane. The airspace over New York City can get much busier than what is shown in this screen shot, taken on Thursday at 12:49 p.m. — air traffic has declined hugely during the pandemic. You can manipulate the view in many ways, and declutter it by going to Settings > Visibility and toggling on and off options like having aircraft still on the ground appear on the map.

Screen cap from Flightradar24

Both apps are very useful if you want to know where the airplane taking you on your next flight has been, or where it's coming from — a great help in case of a delay, for example. We have a handy primer on how to use them for that purpose.

You can use Flightradar24 in augmented-reality mode, too. Tap the "AR" letters in the top left corner and the app will let you look around you, telling you which planes, if any, are found in the airspace surrounding you. Point your phone at a plane in the sky, and you'll get a text label with flight number and destination.

Screen cap from Flightradar24

Flightradar24 has two upgrade options, Silver and Gold, for $9.99 and $34.99 a year respectively. While we use the Gold version at TPG since we need its deep archive of past flights, it may be overkill if you are not a hardcore aviation geek or an aviation-industry professional. The Silver option is all the upgrade most enthusiasts will need for practical purposes.

FlightAware's premium options, geared more towards professional users, start at $39.95 a month. Its free version, while perfectly fine for flight tracking, is less customizable than FR24.

Screen cap from FlightAware

It pays to know the four-letter aircraft codes FlightRadar24 uses, which are those issued by ICAO, the International Commercial Aviation Organization — the ruling body of commercial aviation. Some of those codes are pretty intuitive; if you see a plane labeled "A321," it's easy to deduct you're looking at an Airbus A321. But what about a BLCF or an A20N? Fortunately, ICAO publishes the codes in a searchable database.

Screen cap from ICAO

Not everything can be tracked, though, or at least not fully. Many private planes, for example, will display as "Blocked," with no data beyond the ability to track their route. That's because their owners have requested anonymity. Military planes mostly do not appear on flight-tracking sites because of operational secrecy, even when they are on innocuous missions. That's where another flight-tracking site comes in, at least for the military planes: ADS-B Exchange. (There's no app, but it works fine on the mobile web.)

Like the others, it's based on ADS-B technology, an acronym that stands for "Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast." Airplanes have devices called transponders, which transmit data to air traffic control including altitude, speed, heading and more. Unlike the others, it does not censor the ADS-B data of military aircraft, so you'll be able to see them there. Go to ADS-B Exchange's "Radar View" page and click on the U indicated by the red arrow to isolate only military traffic. You may see aircraft without much information next to them, but with the unmistakably aggressive silhouette of a fighter jet — for example the two green F-16s in the image below, flying under the call signs "Gundog 7" and "Gundog 9."

You may even be able to see Air Force One this way; it can sometimes be spotted on the tracker as "AF1."

Featured image by NurPhoto via Getty Images

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