Planespotting: A Guide to Tracking Aircraft Around the World


Staff member
Tracking aircraft is an increasingly valuable tool in the arsenal of investigators. Aided by new tracking technologies, journalists have:

Virtually observed a Russian oligarch’s jet making suspicious trips to the Middle East and Africa;questioned the use of private planes — by Hungary’s president, among others;If you just need a few quick tips, check out GIJN’s planespotting rendition flights by the Turkish government;followed the travels of government officials;learned about military operations;watched the movements of corporate executives;analyzed aircraft accidents; and more.

Recent years have been golden ones for reporters tracking airplanes.

In this GIJN resource you’ll find:

• The basics: How tracking works and why one new disruptive technology is democratizing the information.

• What sites will help you track planes.

• How to identify plane owners.

• Reporting with flight data: Doing data analysis and finding out who’s on board the plane.

• What about government and military aircraft?

• Corporate jets and extra stuff.

There’s lots here. For just the gist, see our one-page tipsheet!

Also see GIJC19 presentation, with exercises, by Jelter Meers, a researcher and reporter at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Mapping the Secret Skies: Lessons Learned From Flight Data (2020) by Emmanuel Freudenthal of OCCRP.


Basics of Tracking (and the Disruptive New Kid on the Block)

Since the early days of flight, and still today, amateur “plane spotters” (aviation geeks) have visited airports with their binoculars and cameras to watch aircraft – enjoying the planes, scoping out their identifying markings, taking pictures and keeping logs.

All aircraft have unique markings – a short alphanumeric string indicating its country of registration plus the identity of the specific aircraft. The registration number is near the tail, painted at least 12 inches high for visibility.

The prefix is a string of a few letters identifying the country of registration (see list of country identifiers). That’s followed by a few numbers and/or letters specific to one aircraft. Military aircraft use different ID systems.

In addition, all planes have another unique address, the “HEX code” (sometimes called the S-mode). This series of six letters and numbers is derived from 24-bit addresses assigned to governments by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Where can you get tail numbers, besides visually? Doing name searches in national aircraft ownership registries is the best source. Also, use court documents and do online research. (See “Ownership” section below.)

Here’s an example: N974HR.

Because it begins with an “N,” the plane is registered in the United States.

By querying the US aviation registry, you’ll find out it’s a Falcon 2000 jet owned by Roche Manufacturing Systems, based in Branchburg, New Jersey.

Enter the number into the database of a flight tracking service such as ADS-B Exchange and a map will show its activity. The jet was flown from Atlanta to New Jersey on March 21, for example, and its full flight record is also findable.


Tracking Systems:

Once airborne, planes are tracked in several ways. The newest system, being adopted internationally, provides richer information.

To step back, here’s a quick look at the radar-based systems in use for decades.

“Primary” radar detects and measures the approximate position of aircraft using reflected radio signals.

“Secondary Surveillance Radar” relies on a process in which information is transmitted back from each aircraft when it receives a radio signal. The response contains identification information (the ICAO hex code) and the aircraft’s altitude, but does not provide location information. The location can be determined, however, when the transmissions are received in multiple locations. These are combined through a process called multilateration (MLAT) to estimate the position of the aircraft. (Here’s a longer explanation with a graphic.)

This radar information is collected by national governments and sometimes is made public. More on that later.

Secondary radar signals can be tracked by enthusiasts and they contribute information to flight tracking vendors.

ADS-B: The New Kid on the Block

A new tracking system that is being slowly adopted worldwide allows far greater frequency, precision and coverage, at lower cost. It’s called ADS-B, which stands for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast.

With ADS-B, onboard equipment determines an aircraft’s position via satellite navigation and every half second transmits that GPS information, along with information including altitude, speed and heading, plus the identification code. This is called “ADS-B Out.” A take-off or landing can be inferred based on speed, altitude and location.

The disruptive element of ADS-B is that the signals can be picked up with equipment costing as little as $100 (much cheaper than a radar set-up). The unencrypted signals, transmitted at a frequency of 1090 MHz, can be received within a radius of about 200 miles. There are tens of thousands of these receivers now in existence, mainly operated by amateur aviation enthusiasts who resend the signals to commercial and nonprofit tracking services, sometimes for modest remuneration.

Using your own equipment can work well in localized situations, as described by John Keefe, who wanted to know what helicopters were doing up above him in New York City. See his 2019 Quartz article, Spotting Circling Copters.

By merging individual data points, a comprehensive tracking record can be created.

The record isn’t always complete. There are dead zones where no receivers exist, such as for deserts, oceans, polar ice caps and less-developing nations. Satellite-based ADS-B receivers will help alleviate this issue over time. And the number of terrestrial ADS-B receivers is growing. FlightAware, one of the largest tracking sites, boasts 20,000 contributing receivers.

ADS-B coverage will expand as more aircraft are required to install the equipment.

Adoption of ADS-B is underway internationally. For the United States, the deadline is the end of 2019 and in Europe, it’s June 7, 2020. ADS-B is already in place in Australia and Singapore. (One list of progress on adoption is published by the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Also see SKYbrary.)

If you want to host an ADS-B receiver, contact the US nongovernmental organization C4ADS at [email protected] fill out a pre-assessment form. You’ll receive free materials for tracking flights and access to flight tracking software to view the data collected by your receiver.

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