The Friday Fillip: The Planes, the Planes

A number of months ago I pointed you to a site that let you track shipping worldwide. And although lots of people take cruises, orders of magnitude more move about the globe in the air. So today we’re going up, up and away — not, alas, with Superman, but instead with the thousands of planes that ply the sky at every moment of the day.

Two sites (at least) offer you the full picture: Plane Finder and FlightRadar24. In each case, the website receives live data emitted by the aircraft and control towers and uses them to plot the location of every commercial aircraft aloft on a Google map. In each case, clicking on an airplane icon reveals the flight path of that plane and a panel with detailed information about the flight (airline, flight number, altitude, speed, route, etc.). Of course, for densely travelled areas you’ll have to zoom in considerably in order to separate out the aircraft, which otherwise look like a single mass or one of those enormous flocks of starlings:

You can modify the underlying map to show weather, cloud cover, or the roads below. And you can fiddle with the controls so as to filter out certain aircraft or to animate their courses.

If all this is somewhat daunting — or simply TMI — consider two more focused web apps. Wolfram|Alpha’s Planes Overhead is a remarkable piece of engineering that combines the sort of data used by the apps just described and your geolocation to show you what’s in your very own sky at the moment. The information is given in text and via a diagram of the dome of the sky at your location. Here’s a screenshot of what’s overhead here in Toronto at the moment. On the site itself mousing over the icons on the circle map shows the airline and flight information; clicking on one of the flights in the text portion brings up another screen with very detailed information about flight times, progress, and so forth.

Still too much? Well, if you’re interested in a single flight and know the airline and flight number, just enter it into Google. The essential information about that flight will be the first item in your results. There’ll be a link there to take you to more data via FlightStats, where, among other things, you can set up a flight alert to inform you about updates in status.

Happy landings!

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