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Rubbernecking – Contrail Spotting

RUBBERNECKING; An Altitude Spotting Primer

Behold the Rubberneck

I often wonder what my neighbors are thinking when they see me staring up in the sky all the time…a bird? A plane? Superman? What could it be? Sometimes it’s all three! Well, maybe not Superman…oh well. Suffice it to say, that having your eyes in the skies all the time can make some think you are a bit daft, but rest assured, when you tell them that

what you are looking at is a “747-400 of KLM Airlines flying from Houston Texas to Amsterdam at 39,000 feet and 495 knots with two hours down and seven to go”, you just might impress them! (Or they will conclude that you are indeed daft!)

How it Started

Altitude spotting. That’s what we’ve been calling it for a while now, and that’s pretty much what it is; searching for and identifying aircraft at altitude as they pass overhead. It’s nothing new…in fact, during World War II it was your patriotic duty to keep your eyes in the skies and help keep the country safe from enemy invaders. Trading cards, playing cards, posters and other devices were used to educate the public about which

aircraft belonged in the skies above, and which ones belonged to the “bad guys”. These generally consisted of three-view drawings of allied and axis aircraft, as well as information about what to do if you should spot the enemy. All you needed was a pair of binoculars and you were on your way to doing your part to defend the country!

Altitude Spotting Now

Of course the times have changed drastically, and the aerial attacks that ultimately did occur on our mainland were performed with home-grown aircraft. Somewhat understandably, the quaint days of trading cards are long gone, but that is not the purpose of this article. We are going to concentrate on an exciting and growing hobby, and hopefully give you tips on how to get started.

Modern-day spotters have gone high-tech since then, with high-powered digital cameras, telescopic lenses, affordable scanners and more. In addition, there are a variety of programs and websites that allow you to track specific flights, airlines, aircraft types and more.

Of course, the more familiar you are with aircraft types, airline and airport codes, the easier it will be to use these, but not knowing these things should not keep you from getting started as most of the tracking sites have various ways for you to find this information.

You will find that a good working knowledge of geography, as well as being situationally aware of where you are geographically is also very helpful. If you see a contrail above and have no idea which way it’s heading, it would be pretty silly to try to find your target on a busy map! The tracking-site maps are frequently crowded, and having an idea of what kind of an aircraft you are looking for as well as some airline livery familiarity will help narrow the field down quite a bit. So…get out your atlas, figure out where you are and which way you are looking, and let’s get started.

What You Need

Depending on your skill level with identifying aircraft, you may need nothing more than your PC and naked eyes to identify a transiting plane. A nice pair of high-powered binoculars are of course a huge help, and if you have a good zoom on your camera you can use that as well. Often, you can get shots that you can later identify once downloaded onto your computer. You also need a good tracking program or website to assist you in making the identification. I use FlightAware (FA) almost exclusively as it is free and readily available online. You can find FlightAware here: https://flightaware.com/live/

I have used FA since it came out, and am pretty familiar with its use. The site is user friendly, and I find it to be very reliable. There are drawbacks to using FA however, but there are tricks too, and I will get to those later on. If you desire or require a more sophisticated program, there is FlightExplorer available here: https://www.avweb.com/fe/

This is a paid program, but its users really appreciate the extra features it provides. Whatever works for you and your budget. I find FA to be adequate, if sometimes frustrating and time consuming to use. Even at its best, there are times you just won’t be able to find what you are looking for, but don’t be discouraged, you’ll get plenty of use out of it!

If you will be photographing aircraft at altitude, you will of course need the requisite photo editing programs installed on your computer such as Adobe Photoshop or some other editing program with which to edit your pictures.


Now What?

Well, now that you know what you need you probably want to get started, so, what’s next? If you are equipped with WI-FI and a laptop, you are in good shape as you can stay outside and do your spotting. If you are like me and tied to your desktop computer, you’ll not want to stray too far since you’ll have to access the overhead maps in a timely manner. So, get your tracking program ready on your computer, grab your camera, binoculars and beverage of choice, and head outside!


Wow, that’s a Big One!

Okay, so you are are sipping away on your beverage with your head in the clouds when in the distance a big fat juicy contrail is heading your direction. What’s the first thing you do? The first thing is to decide which way the aircraft is heading. Is it headed north, east, south, west or any variable in between? (For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume we are spotting at my house near downtown Cleveland, and it is headed more or less eastbound.) At this point, we’ve already determined that it is a large contrail so we can immediately deduce that it is not a small business jet or even any number of regional jets; the contrail is just too thick.

Grab your binoculars, scope or camera, and get a better look at it. Size of the plane, number of engines, as well as atmospheric conditions greatly effect the way a contrail appears, so let’s see what we have. Does it have two, three, or four engines, and are they wing or tail mounted? (It’s usually easy to tell, as a wing mounted aircraft has a wider contrail than a tail mounted one.)

aircraft has a wider contrail than a tail mounted one.)

Okay, so you have a clear view of the contrail now, and you can see that it has four wing mounted engines with individual contrails emanating from each, merging together some distance behind the aircraft. Now we can eliminate all 737′s, 757′s, 777′s, A-300′s, and all other twin and three engined aircraft narrowing the field down further. You should also be able to tell by now whether it is an airliner or a military aircraft, and indeed if it is an Airbus or a Boeing. You say you can see the telltale hump on the fuselage of a 747? Great, now we know it’s a 747!

Can you see any color? On good clear days it is easy to spot color on large aircraft. Is the fuselage white, but the tail red? Is the fuselage light blue with a white tail? Light blue with a white tail? Okay, good.

So, what do we have so far? A large four-engined airliner with a light blue fuselage and white tail that looks like a 747 heading east. (Those of us who do this all the time process all of this data in seconds.) Now we need to go to our flight tracker and see if we can spot the target.

Looking it Up

Since we are using my house near downtown Cleveland as the example, we will now go to FlightAware and look up the airport closest to my location, which just happens to be Burke Lakefront airport (KBKL). As we are only looking for overhead traffic, we will ignore all the other good information on the page, and click on the overhead map in the upper right hand corner. Once we have pulled up the overhead map, we can look for your target.

You will see a blue map of your area, (in this case, northern Ohio and parts of Ontario and adjacent states,) with many “targets” or “blips” in the form of tiny green or blue airplanes with tails. (This is where your geography skills come in!) Along with the targets are some letters and numbers, indicating the airline, aircraft type, altitude and speed. Notice that not all the targets have this information, and that is something FlightAware has chosen to do in order to keep the overhead maps fairly easy to read. Look for a target that is heading in the same direction as the aircraft, and also scan the tags too, perhaps one labeled with a 747 will jump out at you. Better yet, if you see a 747 heading in the right direction and it is labeled with a “KLM” tag, you have probably found your target!

If you are looking at your local map, and you just can’t see a 747 on it, there are several things you can do to try to make the target appear. You can sidestep to another airport, search for just 747′s, or search for just the airline you think it is. If the aircraft is heading east, I will often side-step to the west and look at the airport map for Toledo or Sandusky. Other times I’ll move to the east and check Erie or even Youngstown. By doing so, you may be illuminating different targets on the map and you can often find it that way. Just keep hopping around until you find it or decide to try something else.

If that doesn’t work, and you are certain it is a 747, you can do a search for just 747′s and when you see a city pairing that you think may take it overhead, check it out. Since our example flight is heading eastbound, you can only assume that it came from the west and is most likely heading to europe or one of the major east coast cities. So, if you see a 747 flying from San Francisco to Paris on the list, you might want to check it out. You do this by clicking on the flight number in the list of 747 flights. However, since we know it is a light blue plane with a white tail, we can pretty safely assume it is a KLM aircraft, as that matches their color scheme (livery). If you are just looking for KLM 747′s, that will shorten the list you are searching even further. Click on the flight, and voila! KLM 662, a 747-400 flying from Houston Texas to Amsterdam in the Netherlands just passed over your house! At this point, you raise your beverage of choice, wink at your neighbor and start all over.

Now, one thing you have to know about FlightAware is this: due to government regulations dealing with free tracking sites, it is delayed six minutes. So if you are looking at the map and see a target over your house, forget it….it’s already gone. However, if you see something headed your way, you still have time to catch it. Obviously it’s much easier to focus on the larger targets such as any wide-bodied aircraft, but sometimes the smaller ones can be interesting too. Catching a GV or a Global Express overhead can often be just as rewarding as a 747 or a DC10. However, if you are out to take photographs, bigger is always better!

A Few More Things…

-This is not intended as a “how to” for FlightAware, just an overview of how I use it, and an introduction to some of the things you can do with it. I recommend spending plenty of time with it, playing around, reading the forums, all in all, just getting used to using it. This applies to other flight trackers as well.

-Do come to learn the airways (jetways) over your head, even if you don’t know their names. After a while, you will be able to see which aircraft are going to pass by, and pretty much exactly where that will be. It will also get you accustomed to the time delay.

-Not all aircraft are trackable by FlightAware and other similar programs. You will never be able to track Air Force One for example, nor most military aircraft for that matter.

-Weather plays a large part in contrail formation, with temperature and humidity being the major factors. Contrails can emanate just from the engines, as well as across the entire span of the wing (full-span contrails). There will also be dry days when contrails are non-existent, and spotting gets tougher! Contrails are a fascinating subject all on their own, and fun to do a little research on. I found this site to be quite interesting: https://asd-www.larc.nasa.gov/GLOBE/resources/

-FlightAware does not pay me to endorse their site, I just find it easy to use, and I am glad that there is such a fine free site available for all to use.


I hope you enjoyed this short introduction to altitude spotting. Once you get the hang of it, it can be quite addictive. Be prepared to be disappointed when you are away from your computer and you see something you want to look up. Mostly though, be prepared for those funny looks from your neighbors!