There are several websites that allow us to track the movements of aircraft belonging to powerful individuals and the armed forces, which makes it an accessible and useful tool for open source investigators. We can add important details to stories, or even uncover entirely new narratives, by tracking the movements of aircraft belonging to powerful individuals and the armed forces.
As soon as you finish this guide, you’ll be able to watch the virtual skies in your browser.
To begin, I will give a glossary of terms related to flight tracking. Next, I’ll describe some of the features of some of the most popular flight tracking sites. A case study illustrates how these tools can be used to shed light on powerful figures’ air movements.
First, Some Terminology
Before we explore how to track aircraft, here is the glossary of terms we will use throughout this guide.
Commercial flights usually have call signs that vary based on routes. For example, Lufthansa’s Frankfurt-Orlando flight has the callsign LH464.
The registration is a unique identifier for an aircraft that is assigned by a jurisdiction whenever the aircraft is registered. Aircraft are typically marked with their registration near the tail section. The country of registration will play a part in determining the specific registration number. For example, aircraft registered in Canada will have registrations that begin with the letter C, while aircraft registered in France will have registrations that begin with the letter F.
A MSN is a unique number assigned to each aircraft on the factory floor. Registrations are the aviation equivalent of car license plates, whereas MSNs are like vehicle identification numbers assigned by manufacturers to cars. You should know an aircraft’s MSN if you plan on tracking it over a long period of time or buying it multiple times. It does not change like a call sign or registration.
With ADS-B’s many advantages over older, ground-based radars, the technology will become more ubiquitous as time goes on.
It depends on what you want to achieve whether you use the flight’s call sign, registration, or MSN. For example, if you want to track your loved one’s flight, you only need to know the flight’s call sign. You can use the registration to confirm if an airplane registered to an individual was in X location at Y time. Last but not least, knowing the MSN of an aircraft will enable you to trace how it has moved over time.
Flight Tracking Websites
Several factors, including subscription prices and interface preferences, will influence which tracking page you choose. These websites tend to offer the same services and kinds of information, but you might find that you prefer one over the others for personal reasons.
A flight that does not appear on one page might appear on another, since each website is “fed” by a different community of receivers. Occasionally, individuals or governments will request that these websites not display their flights for a variety of reasons. This might result in flights being taken off the website. When conducting research, keep this in mind.
There are tiered subscription packages offered by all of the sites below (except adsbexchange.com), which offer limited flight details and historical flight information, in addition to live air traffic. The free basic tier has all the information you will need about a flight for most users. The decision about whether to pay for a paid tier will likely depend on how far back you need historical flight information.
Known for its clean (but customizable) and straightforward interface, Flight Radar 24 is one of the most popular flight tracking sites.
This feature allows you to view historical flight records for an aircraft. In other words, if you search for an aircraft’s registration, you will be able to find flight records for the aircraft. Using this feature is useful when you don’t know (or don’t care) about an aircraft’s registration number (or want to monitor activity at a particular airport).
Flight Radar UK is a great hub for all things commercial flight, including easy-to-access weather information for destinations around the world and airport delay maps accessible on the home page. On the website, you can also find RSS feeds of industry news (called “Squawks”), message boards, and aircraft photos.
Additionally, Flight Radar UK enables you to be notified whenever an aircraft of interest files a flight plan, departs/arrives from an airport, or is delayed/canceled/diverted. Flight Alerts allow you to passively monitor flights, since all you have to do is add flights to your alert list and wait for notifications to arrive in your email.
Plane Finder (www.plane finder.net)
The Aviation Database on Plane Finder includes a list of flights that have declared emergencies recently, so you can stay up-to-date.
Plane Finder also offers a “Playback” feature that lets you see a section of airspace as it appeared in the past.
ADS-B Exchange (adsbexchange.com)
As a passion project, ADS-B Exchange is run by hobbyists for hobbyists, and as a result, there are no paid tier subscriptions. Instead, all the data that the platform receives is provided for free to all users. The website prides itself in not removing flight information unless compelled to do so by a legal order, and in that case, it claims it will post a notice to users informing them of the removal of the flight(s).
ADS-B Exchange can also be used to track military and police aircraft (though not every single one, mind you), making it a great tool for monitoring geopolitical flashpoints and breaking news.
Filling in Gaps: Twitter and Plane Spotter Sites
On any of the flight tracking websites listed above, you may not be able to locate the aircraft you’re looking for. Besides Twitter and plane spotter sites, open source investigators have two other tools at their disposal for filling in flight history gaps. They may only be able to find a few flights on these pages at a time.
It is not uncommon for individuals to spend a lot of their time tracking airplanes on Twitter. They spend a lot of time cataloging the aircraft they see, whether it be on tracking websites or on their own cameras on the ground. You can find information about an aircraft on Twitter by searching for its registration. This will bring up any tweets including the registration of that aircraft.
Two tweets about that aircraft can be seen here and here if you search for that registration on Twitter.
Twitter can be used not only as a source of reference imagery for aircraft, but also as evidence of an aircraft’s location at a given time, even when it does not appear on any flight tracking websites.
Pictures of airplanes can be shared on www.planespotters.net. The pictures are usually of airplanes landing, taking off or just parked in an airport, so they’re useful for confirming whether an airplane was at a given place and time. Searching on multiple sites for the same airplane is always a good idea.
Suppose you want to know if an aircraft is at an airport, but you cannot wait for someone to take a picture and share it with a plane spotter website? With AirLive, you can watch and listen to live webcams at airports around the world, and they are matched to their respective air traffic control transmissions.
Case Study: The Venezuelan Government’s (Not So) Secret Airplane
By looking at a recent example, we can put these tools and knowledge to use.
A Venezuelan airplane, owned by Nicolas Maduro, transported Colombian guerrilla leaders and others to Cuba, Pastrana tweeted last August. Pastrana’s claims could be verified using flight tracking websites and other sources, even though no open source information was available to confirm who flew the airplane.
Pastrana identified the airplane as YV3016 in his tweet. Once we know the airplane’s registration, we can use any of the flight tracking websites in this guide to learn more about it.
According to the website, YV3016 is registered to and operated by Conviasa, a Venezuelan airline owned and operated by Conviasa. In addition to the text on the left side of the screen, two images of YV3016 appear on JetPhotos.com to demonstrate this. Using these images, we can see that the airplane has the same livery (paint scheme) as any other Conviasa aircraft.
According to the aircraft’s flight history, YV3016 flew from Caracas to Moscow on May 5, Moscow to Istanbul on May 6, and Istanbul to Caracas on May 7.
On JetPhotos.com and PlaneSpotter.com, you can find images of YV3016 in other locations not served by Conviasa, including Las Palmas, The Hague, Lisbon, and Geneva.
Flight Radar 24’s information page for YV3016 contains another crucial detail – the aircraft in question is an Embraer Lineage 1000.
All of these details indicate that this luxury airplane registered under the name of Conviasa and painted to resemble an ordinary commercial airliner is, in fact, a private aircraft. Because Conviasa is owned by the Venezuelan government, it is likely that Venezuelan government officials and VIPs use it for international travel incognito.
Do Venezuelan VIPs travel around the world on other aircraft disguised as Conviasa commercial airliners? Can you tell me how many, which ones, and where they have flown?Is it possible to track YV3016’s movements in the future to get ahead of the news—that is, to find out where Venezuelan VIPs, including government officials, will be going? Is this tactic being used by other governments?
Using the information in this guide, you can now investigate these questions and others on your own!
Open source information can be found online in abundance for tracking flights. Even though they often require paid subscriptions for more data, flight tracking websites usually offer a great deal of useful information for free and next to free tiers. In order to fill in any gaps in data these websites might have, creative thinking is an essential skill for investigators who wish to use these tools in their own research.