4 Easy Ways to Identify Planes in the Sky

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a United Airlines-operated, Boeing 737-824, Flight 1601 from Orlando!

Commercial Jet Airliner Coming in to Land at Sky Harbor Airport Phoenix Arizona
Photo: Matt Mawson/Getty Images

As a traveler, living near Newark Liberty International Airport is convenient. It also means that the skies are almost constantly being crisscrossed by a dizzying number of aircraft.

It’s likely that a lot of these planes are operated by United Airlines — after all, the airline has its primary hub here, and operates nearly 400 daily flights out of this particular New York City-area airport.

But depending on the airplane’s angle and proximity to the ground, I may also be able to spot its livery (like its insignia or tail color), its silhouette (like the iconic, albeit rare Boeing 747 with the bulbous half-deck), or, at night, count the number of strobes on the plane’s wingtips.

Trying to determine what type of airplane is flying overhead is a popular sport for aviation enthusiasts — myself included. (There’s even a website dedicated to the art called Airportspotting.com.)

And if you really want to know the specifics of the planes flying by, there are apps and other high-tech tools for that.

Whether you want to play a plane-themed game of “I Spy” or just want to impress your fellow travelers, here are a few ways to sharpen your plane-spotting expertise.

Familiarize Yourself With Aircraft…

Airplanes flying at a low enough altitude might easily be distinguished by their livery, meaning you might be able to make out United’s globe-like logo, the bright red tail of a Virgin Atlantic plane, or WOW Air’s unmissable all-purple paint job.

If the plane is directly overhead, or a bit too far for livery to be useful, there are other ways to visually ID an airplane.

According to a CNN Travel guide to plane spotting, enthusiasts can use the number of engines and the width of a plane to get a better sense of the aircraft. Thin, skinny planes are probably narrow-body aircraft, like the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737. Thicker planes are probably wide-body models, like the Airbus A380 or the Boeing 777.

And at night, Kok Chwee Sim, an aviation photographer, told CNN that the number of strobe lights can be a dead giveaway. Two quick flashes, and you’re watching an Airbus; a single white blink, and it’s a Boeing.

…and Your Surroundings.

In the same way that northern New Jersey’s airspace is filled with United-operated planes, location is a great way to make an educated guess about what plane is flying overhead.

Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, for example, is a major Delta Air Lines hub, while Dallas Love Field is the headquarters for Southwest Airlines.

Download an App.

At this particular moment in time, there are 13,724 aircraft in the skies. But the one flying over the Travel + Leisure office is a Delta Connection flight preparing to land at LaGuardia Airport in just a few minutes. It’s a Bombardier CRJ-900LR jet.

This is the kind of real-time information you can get by using Flightradar24, a website and mobile app that shows you all the planes in the sky, and provides detailed information about where they’re from and where they’re going, as well as surprising details like the aircraft type, registration number, altitude, and ground speed. (That Delta Connection flight? It’d be going about 285 miles per hour on the ground right now.)

FlightAware, also available on either a desktop or mobile app, has a live flight tracking feature that functions very much like Flightradar24.

These apps and sites use navigation data from countries all over the world, including military and government agencies, in addition to radar data collected through a global network of antennas that track airplanes overhead.

You Can Even Ask Your Virtual Assistant.

It turns out Siri has a pretty good idea of what airplane is flying above you, too. According to Johnny Jet, all you have to do is ask her, “What plane is overhead?” and Siri will generate a list of all the planes flying nearby, including their airline, altitude, and aircraft type, among other interesting details.

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