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;
- exposed 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.
• 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
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.
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@example.com to 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.
Greater Transparency, For Now
ADS-B technology increases aviation transparency because the signals can be received by anyone with minimal equipment.
Once an aircraft’s ID number is known, uncovering ownership information is possible. Maybe.
The big catch is that many countries do not disclose aircraft registration information, citing personal privacy. (For more, see the “Ownership” section below.)
The US government reveals ownership information, but has allowed aircraft owners to keep their flight information from being disclosed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which makes real-time flight data available. Aircraft owners can request to be part of the Aircraft Situation Display to Industry (ASDI) Blocking Program. (See a good description here.)
Under this program, recipients of FAA flight tracking data, mainly commercial vendors, promise not to publicly display identifying information for aircraft on the blocked list.
The major commercial flight tracking companies, such as FlightAware and FlightRadar24, honor the privacy requests.
However, one tracking service, ADS-B Exchange, relies solely on crowdsourced inputs. By operating independently of government-collected data, it is not obligated to uphold the confidentiality requests.
Interestingly, the list of those who requested anonymity has been made public periodically pursuant to reporters’ FOIA requests.
Push-back against the growing lack of anonymity caused by ADS-B has been building among private aircraft owners and pilots. In the US, an industry-government task force is looking into how to maintain confidentiality for those who want it.
The idea on the table is to assign temporary numbers, known as “rolling ICAO codes,” to owners who prefer anonymity. The code would last for just one flight and would be unrecognizable to observers, except air traffic controllers and law enforcement agencies.
Details of the plan are still being worked out, but if it is enacted, plane-spotting could be hampered, although experts said work-arounds are possible.
Multiple Sites for Tracking Information
Tracking planes is facilitated by commercial and nonprofit organizations that assemble vast amounts of flight data from government and private sources. (See “Basics of Tracking,” above, for more details on what’s collected and how.)
Here are the major sources for flight information, all of which provide some free searching. For some levels of information, such as for receiving an alert on a plane taking off or for full access to the database, subscriptions are required. For summaries of what’s available through subscription at each service see A Beginner’s Guide To Flight Tracking by Giancarlo Fiorella, an investigator and trainer for Latin America at Bellingcat.
All four sites featured here are willing to work with journalists.
ADS-B Exchange rightfully calls itself “the world’s largest source of unfiltered flight data.” The key word is “unfiltered,” meaning that the site relies on ADS-B signals and does not filter out information about US aircraft that have requested anonymity through the US government, which makes it attractive to journalists. As the only tracking service to do this, ADS-B Exchange has proved to be a disruptive force in the tracking industry since it was started by US pilot Dan Streufert. Billing itself a cooperative, ADS-B Exchange relies on a worldwide community of more than 2,000 people who send in real-time MLAT and ADS-B data. This is uploaded on a searchable website. It’s free for non-commercial use (contributions requested). Commercial users are required to license the data.
In October of 2019, ADS-B Exchange removed the historical search option until further notice, citing financial reasons. Access is still possible if you host an ADSB receiver and send data to ADS-B Exchange.
To search flights of a specific plane, go to the “Other Tracking Information” tab and then to the “Flight History Data” tab. Under “Global Radar View,” the tab “Global Radar” shows live flights. A detailed options menu permits narrower parameters, such as of only military planes. Data can be explored in more depth with an API (more information here). Downloads of data are also possible, though a charge is usually necessary. Journalists with project needs should use the contact form here. Here’s a tip sheet on using ADSB Exchange by Jake Creps.
FlightAware allows guest users free tracking options, including some alerts on planes of interest. Register for “Basic” access. FlightAware sells more advanced features to “Premium” and “Enterprise” members. Its breadth is created by 23,000 ADS-B providers from 197 countries. Its coverage of over-ocean flights was enhanced by a 2018 deal with Aireon for satellite ADS-B data, but that isn’t part of the public data website. FlightAware honors confidentiality requests made via the US system and any other such requests made to FlightAware.
“We do make every effort to support journalists whenever we can,” according to Sara Orsi, FlightAware’s Director of Marketing. Data is provided free. The firm’s data analysts will do custom reports, sometimes quickly, Orsi said. In some sensitive situations, the company prefers not to be named as a source.
Flightradar24 is a commercial flight tracking service that permits free tracking of flights globally, with searches by registration number, airline and airport. For more information, there are various subscription levels: Silver ($1.50 per month or $10 annually) and Gold ($4 per month or $35 annually) which give you more flight histories and live weather overlays. The company honors confidentiality requests made per the US system and offers paying clients the option of blocking tracking of their planes.
The company sells data and has worked with journalists on specific projects. “We will often do media data requests without charge, providing they are not too broad and too complicated and place too much stress on the system,” said Ian Petchenik, who handles such requests (he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org). He said Flightradar24’s data is “cleaner” than that of competitors and boasted of having the largest terrestrial network, with more than 21,000 stations. See a 2016 article about a reporter’s use of its data, “Tracking Flights in Real Time With Flightradar24.”
The OpenSky Network is a nonprofit association based in Switzerland that says it has the largest air traffic surveillance dataset of its kind because “we save every single message we ever receive from a plane,” one of the volunteers told GIJN. Under Aircraft Database, a search on tail numbers will show registration information about the plane, recent flight history and whether it is in the air. In the Explorer feature, searches show planes in the air. There’s also a 30-day history on all aircraft tracked. Another feature is a list of all emergency alerts.
OpenSky is geared toward academics and nonprofits doing research, but has aided journalists with clearly-defined requests and teamed up with media for visualizations “and other things that benefit us through increased exposure.”
Other Tracking Providers
Need Help? Journalists can receive assistance from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project via OCCRP’s Investigative Dashboard. Send in a request for an airplane search and an OCCRP expert will interrogate databases and send you the results.
Many other tracking sites exist. Most of them provide some free information, charge for more sophisticated access and honor the US confidentiality system. Virtually all sites are in English.
Planeradar.ru is a flight tracking system in Russian, focused on flights in Russia.
Most airlines and many airports sponsor their own sites.
Using FOIA in US to Get Flight Data
Another way to obtain flight data in the United States is to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Aviation Administration. Request can be sent to this email address: email@example.com
Ask for “TFMS repository flight records for aircraft with tail number” and give the tail number. TFMS is the Traffic Flow Management System repository. Also set a time frame such as “…from Jan. 1, 2020 through the date of fulfillment of this request.” Ask that it be provided in electronic format. The data provided includes flight information not obtainable through the flight tracking services if the owner exercised his or her blocking option.
Here’s an example of what can be obtained, in this case by ProPublica reporter Justin Elliot for a 2020 story Steve Bannon’s Use of Private Jet Linked to Chinese Businessman Could Violate Campaign Finance Law.
Armed with the identifying information for a plane, finding out who owns it is theoretically possible.
The unique identifier, that short alphanumeric string, is specific to the aircraft and also signals the country in which the plane is registered. (See full list of country identifiers.)
About 60 governments make some ownership information available, usually in national “registries.” Some are fairly user-friendly, allowing online searches, the US one included. For some countries, data can be downloaded.
Most countries do not make ownership information public, however, applying privacy restrictions. In Germany, for example, ownership information may be provided, but only with the consent of the owner.
Even when information is available it can be skeletal: just the type of plane and the owner’s name. And while some registries are updated daily, others get recharged only monthly or annually.
Where to Find Ownership Info
AeroTransport is a good place to start looking. The “Data Bank” includes information from more than 60 countries and there’s a multifaceted search system. Some searches are free, but otherwise subscriptions are needed, with a monthly option at 120 euros and annual options from 1,200 euro to 1,700 euros.
Spotters maintains a list of national registries and has downloaded databases that only let you query one or two records at a time.
Airframes also offers an ownership search system (free, but registration required). The content is from various sources, including official registries, like the Canadian, French, British, US, Danish, Dutch, Swedish and Australian registries.
RZJets allows searches by tail number, etc., and also has a lengthy list of airplane models. Click on a model, such as Boeing MAX, and see all the owners of that model.
Also check out:
- LAAS International Corporate Aircraft register
- OpenSky Network,
- Antonakis Spotters,
- Torben Koed, and
Some ownership information appears on FlightAware and Flightradar24.
Here are some of the major searchable registries:
- US – Federal Aviation Administration
- France – Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile
- Canada – Civil Aircraft Register Database
- Australia – Civil Aviation Safety Authority
- United Kingdom – Civil Aviation Authority
Several websites provide lists of national registries:
• AirDataSearch, a Dutch site, has a list of 45 national sites where information is available, although whether online searches are available is not indicated.
• The Airline Codes Website has a list of 28 official sites. There’s also a list of unofficial sites, but most of those are old.
• Skytamer also has a list
• AviationDB is another place to search US registered planes.
• Wikipedia hosts a list of national aviation authorities, but these may not have ownership registries.
CorporateJetInvestor, in its Official Guide to Airplane Registration 2019, provides summaries of national registration requirements. It includes the names of national registration agencies, but without links. The entries indicate whether there is a public registry. In the “Country Data at a Glance” section (beginning on page 76) the Guide says whether the registry is public but without detail. Usefully, the summaries are done by local experts, whose names and contact information are listed.
The information gaps can make reporting difficult.
Reuters explained in 2018 how it used national registries for a major investigation in which it reported “how aircraft from the West end up in the hands of those on US blacklists.”
Reporter Rinat Sagdiev wrote a helpful sidebar about how Reuters identified owners in the United States, Ireland, Russia and Ukraine. “After Ukraine, however, many of the aircraft that Reuters reporters tracked went to Iran, Afghanistan or Syria. None of those countries keeps a publicly available aircraft register,” he wrote.
On the other hand, there are pleasant surprises.
In Serbia, reporter Ivan Angelovski, for this 2019 article in Balkan Insight, used a variety of tools to investigate a jet used by the prime minister. Angelovski traced its purchase from a Brazilian drug company “that only months earlier won the right to buy a state-owned Serbian drugmaker.” There was no official record of its purchase for $6 million, but he usefully found that the jet was registered by government.
A nice example of using multiple sources to determine the real owner (in the face of off-shore registration by a shell company) is found in a 2020 ProPublica article, Steve Bannon’s Use of Private Jet Linked to Chinese Businessman Could Violate Campaign Finance Law. Among other things, ProPublica’s Justin Elliot reported, “There are multiple videos online of [the apparent owner] that appear to be taken on the plane that match independent photos of the interior and exterior of the jet with the same tail number.
Records May Be Misleading
Hiding the actual ownership of planes isn’t uncommon.
The name in the registration database may prove to be a shell company in a country where uncovering the actual, beneficial owner will prove very difficult.
That means tracing obscure companies and shadowy persons.
The frustration of pinning down ownership was noted in this story from Middle East Eye. It reported: “The plane was registered in the Isle of Man last year to a company called Multibird Overseas LTD, but the final ownership of the plane remains unclear. Simon Williams, director of the Isle of Man’s Civil Aviation Administration, refused to respond to MEE’s questions.”
US Secrecy Tricks
In the United States, investigative reporters have explored how some owners have registered their jets via banks or trusts to avoid identification.
The US government permits foreign owners to transfer titles to a US trustee. More than 1,000 aircraft have addresses of trusts such as Aircraft Guaranty Corp., all in Onalaska, Texas, a town without an airport, reported WFAA in 2019.
The Boston Globe exposed the scope of disguised registrations in a series, Secrets in the Sky: “A Spotlight Team investigation has found that lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration, over decades, has made it easy for drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and even people with links to terrorism to register private planes and conceal their identities.” The ownership of more than one out of every six registered planes in the US is untraceable, according to The Globe.
Favored Countries for Registration
Registration need not take place where the plane’s owner lives. And planes can be re-registered (sometimes with ID number changes).
Corporate Jet Investor’s Official Guide to Airplane Registration 2019 describes national rules on registration of planes, and the website aggregates aviation business news. Ease of registration, privacy and tax benefits are key considerations.
The Isle of Man is one popular aircraft registration jurisdiction, providing a way to escape EU taxes, according to a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Leasing Poses Another Complication
When jets are leased, a common practice, it is nearly impossible to learn who is paying for a specific flight.
This was the experience for reporter Erdélyi Katalin from the Hungarian investigative site Atlatszo when she started asking about the use of a private jet by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Her investigation found that the jet was registered in Austria. Who paid for the flights is unknown; the jet is operated by International Jet Management GmbH, an Austrian company specializing in operating business jets.
GIJN published an article by Atlatszo reporters describing their investigation, “How They Did It: A Private Yacht, a Luxury Jet and Hungary’s Governing Elite.”
Related Records Useful
Other government records may prove useful, particularly those dealing with aviation safety. Accident reports might provide additional ownership detail. National agencies in charge of flight safety may disclose records of crashes and inspections.
The Aviation Safety Network (ASN) is a private, independent initiative that maintains an online database on accidents and safety issues with regard to airliners, military transport planes and corporate jets. The ASN Safety Database contains detailed descriptions of over 20,300 incidents, hijackings and accidents.
ASN has an international list of accident investigation boards.
For accidents in the US, the responsible agency is the National Transportation and Safety Board. Other US agency records, such as purchasing and contracting records, also offer potential sources of information for stories on government planes. BuzzFeed used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain information showing how the Drug Enforcement Administration transferred registrations to disguise the size of its fleet.
The Aviation Herald diligently reports on all kinds of incidents and accidents worldwide.
Additional FAA Records Can Be Purchased
In the United States, the registration database maintained by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is pretty rudimentary. However, additional information can be found in two other reports.
One is the registration/sales history. The other is the airworthiness certificate, which documents modification and repairs. Among other things, the certificates show what alterations were made, such as drilling holes in the fuselage to install cameras.
These reports are available for $10 and can be ordered online from the FAA. You’ll need the N number and serial number, and it takes about a week. (Tip: Don’t use “N” when you enter the N number in the search field.)
Specialized Sites of the Rich and Famous
A few sites exist that collect information on the private planes of important people in business and government. And much more can be found on Google.
Here’s a selection:
The Private Jet Owners Register is a selective list of the planes of prominent people in the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and other countries, run by a person who prefers to remain anonymous, and who also runs www.SuperYachtFan.com.
AirCharterService keeps a list of planes used by major world leaders, with pretty detailed descriptions.
Dictator Alert is a Twitter bot that tracks planes registered to authoritarian regimes landing and leaving Geneva Airport. The results are posted on Twitter and Facebook. The project is run by François Pilet and Emmanuel Freudenthal. Pilet is a freelance investigative journalist based in Switzerland and co-founder of the news agency vesper.media. Freudenthal is a freelance investigative journalist based in Africa. The list of tracked planes is based on public sources and official registers. You can download the current list of tracked planes as an Excel file.
What do presidents and kings fly? See a list maintained on Wikipedia.
Technical and Conceptual Issues on Reporting With Flight Data
This section will address:
• Using programming to analyze flight data
• Ambiguities in the ADS-B data
• Learning the identity of passengers
• Handling speculation
Data Availability and Use
A lot can be gleaned from using the public tools on flight tracking sites.
These sites provide application programming interfaces (APIs) to facilitate use of the information. It may be necessary to get a subscription to receive alerts when specific planes take off.
More ambitious projects will require getting access to data and refining it with custom programming. Arranging to get data from the major tracking services, as previously noted, is possible.
To work with bulk flight tracking data you will usually need some expertise with a programming language like R or Python to process and analyze it. If you have a very large amount of data, you will probably need to store it in a database. PostgreSQL is good for that because of its PostGIS extension, which allows you to store the data as geographical objects and run spatial queries on it — for example turning point data on transponder detections into lines showing aircraft tracks.
One expert on using flight data is Peter Aldhous of BuzzFeed News, who used data provided by Flightradar24.
In 2016, Aldhous wrote “Spies in the Skies,” showing that planes operated by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security routinely circle over most major US cities. Later he used machine learning to identify further spy planes, by training an algorithm on the data for FBI and DHS planes. (For more details see this explanation.)
There are some wrinkles to be considered when using flight data.
The system produces multiple points of data, including location and altitude, but doesn’t send a message or concrete proof that a landing has occurred. But connecting the data dots that show a plane descending toward an airport provides virtually certain evidence about when and where a plane has landed.
Another complication is that in places with spotty ASD-B coverage, such as over the Sahara desert, signals may disappear. No receivers, no data. The plane may reappear later.
Purposeful avoidance is also a possibility. Pilots can turn off the transponder. It might not be legal, or safe, but this effectively avoids ADS-B tracking.
Who’s on Board?
Knowing about flight routes is not the same as knowing who was on the plane or why the trip was made.
In many ways, flight information provides major clues. Verification and further fact-finding is required to develop the tips.
Sometimes the ambiguities can get reporters in hot water.
Avi Scharf, editor of Haaretz English Edition in Israel, who regularly tweets about military flight movements, wrote a story in October of 2018 that sparked an uproar.
Sharf reported an unusual flight of a private business jet to Islamabad from Tel Aviv. The Pakistani government denied it and the ambiguities of flight data forced Scharf to admit that he wasn’t 100% certain that the plane landed in Pakistan, although it was descending in that direction, as recounted in an article by the Pakistani daily Dawn.
Several weeks later, a reporter for Middle East Eye located airport staff witnesses who confirmed the landing. “But a major mystery still remains,” reporter Suddaf Chaudry wrote. “What was the plane doing in Pakistan — which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel — and who was on board?”
Why Was the Trip Made?
The purpose of trips may remain unknown.
Trying to unlock the reasons for travel was the challenge for Novaya Gazeta and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project when they tracked a plane owned by Yevgeny Prigogine, a businessman with many Russian government contracts and who is sometimes called the “Kremlin cook.”
Why was the Raytheon HAWKER 800XP with registration number M-VITO flying in Africa and the Middle East almost every month? Reporters Irina Dolinina, Alesya Marokhovskaya and Novaya Gazeta’s data team followed its movements for 26 months. They connected the jet to Prigogine by finding Instagram photos of the plane’s interior posted by his daughter. Leaked information helped them confirm who was on the flight. (Such information is rarely available.)
Novaya Gazeta documented many trips to Syria and frequent hops to Africa. The circumstantial evidence of travel records triggered their hunt for why the trips were made.
Travel to the Central African Republic, for example, may be related to investments by companies associated with Prigogine to develop gold and diamond mines. The reporters located a contract granting the Russians the right to make cash payments to officials and noting that the delivery of cash “is only possible on a private jet.”
Another look at travel over an extended period of time was done by The Washington Post in 2019. The resulting story was “Elon Musk’s Highflying 2018: What 150,000 Miles in a Private Jet Reveal About his ‘Excruciating’ Year.” The Post followed his jet on 250 flights. “It provides a glimpse at the wild life of America’s most polarizing tech superstar, underscoring the chaos of a year…,” wrote reporter Drew Harwell.
The flights were tied to developments during the year. Describing what reporting was necessary to do the story, Harwell said, “The data does not show who was on board during the flights, but aspects of Musk’s travel were confirmed by his public appearances, interviews and tweets.”
Military and Government Aircraft
Although most military and government aircraft make themselves untrackable, that’s not always the case. Reporters have developed stories telling of their movements.
There’s also a surprising amount of available information on jets used by government leaders.
An academic study found that “more than 80% of all military aircraft and 60% of all government aircraft are filtered for reasons of privacy, with significant variation between different countries.” The lead of six authors was Martin Strohmeier, Department of Computer Science, University of Oxford.
Much of the tracking can be done on the sites noted previously, but below you’ll find some interesting specialized sources and some examples of good reporting.
Special Sites on Tracking Military Flights
There are a few websites that specialize in tracking military flights.
ADS-B.NL is a site based on real-time data from ADS-B Exchange that focuses on tracking military aircraft worldwide. With information on military aircraft from more than 70 countries, the site offers a range of viewing options. See an explanation from founder Peter Lammertink.
Radarbox allows some free searches and allows you to build your own widget to be able to track live flights. To protect the operational security of military operations, as well as the privacy of certain private jet operators, Radarbox either blocks or censors their tracking.
Scramble has databases about different aircraft of the air forces in Europe, the US and Canada, plus some about air forces in South America, Africa and Asia. The site is maintained by the Dutch Aviation Society and has active forums. Scramble also hosts The Soviet Transport Database.
Planeflightracker specializes in NATO and Russian military aircraft.
GVA Dictator Alert is a bot tracking planes used by authoritarian regimes landing at Geneva Airport. The project and Dictator Alert is run by two freelance journalists, François Pilet and Emmanuel Freudenthal. A script is run once per hour to compare the logs from a private ADS-B antenna with a list of aircraft registered to or regularly used by authoritarian regimes.
Aircraft Serial Number Search allows look-ups of US military planes and is maintained by expert Joe Baugher, “an aircraft serial number freak.” His website also has an amazing collection of Aviation Sites.
Media Successes Watching the Military
David Cenciotti, a Rome-based journalist who runs The Aviationist blog has tracked his way to numerous scoops. He showed that the US had increased the presence of its airborne assets near Crimea after a 2018 incident there. And in April 2018 he charted the aircraft used by the US, UK and France to launch air strikes against Syria after analyzing the strike paths. He routinely analyzes US military movements, such as on May 10, 2019, when he reported that the US Air Force was positioning four B-52s to Qatar.
In the same vein, Reuters in 2018 reported: “Private Russian military contractors are being sent on clandestine flights to Syria, plane-tracking data shows. And a trail of documents reveals how aircraft from the West end up in the hands of those on US blacklists. […] Reuters reporters staked out the Rostov airport, logged the unusual flights using publicly available flight-tracking data, searched aircraft ownership registries and conducted dozens of interviews, including a meeting at a fashionable restaurant with a former Soviet marine major on a US government blacklist.”
Old-fashioned though it may be, direct observation still generates stories. Javier Mayorca, a Venezuelan journalist, wrote on Twitter in March 2019 that he saw about 100 troops and 35 tons of equipment offloaded from Russian planes at Venezuela’s main airport. Reuters elaborated, “An Ilyushin IL-62 passenger jet and an Antonov AN-124 military cargo plane left for Caracas on Friday from Russian military airport Chkalovsky, stopping along the way in Syria, according to flight-tracking website Flightradar24.”
Tracking military planes does raise eyebrows though about disclosure of sensitive information. The implications are developed by Anand Kumar of The Lede in an article about how planespotters, quoted in the article, disclosed movements of the Indian Air Force in February of 2019.
Turkey’s Secret Abduction Planes Found
Early one morning in March, a jet with the tail marking TC-KLE landed in the capital of Kosovo, Pristina. Two hours later it took off with six Turkish citizens, five of them teachers, and later landed at an airbase in Ankara, according to a 2018 joint investigation (in German) coordinated by the German news outlet Correctiv and Frontal 21. They were Turkish citizens, arrested in other countries and brought back to Turkey by the country’s intelligence service, MIT. After receiving flight information unofficially, the reporters identified the aircraft being used and tied its ownership to the Turkish intelligence service by using the Turkish civil register.
A major earlier investigation of rendition conducted by the US Central Intelligence Agency was later described in a book, “Ghost Plane,” by British journalist Stephen Gray.
In an interview he said:
“I really didn’t know how it would be possible to penetrate the CIA, the world’s most famous intelligence organization, that wall of secrecy. And when I finally did — with others — it came as a great surprise that you really could track down the movements of CIA operatives. They’d leave all kinds of amazing clues. And you could actually get hold of flight plans of the CIA fleet of airplanes — their entire network of operations around the world, just laid out before you. I ended up with thousands of flight plans of the CIA planes, which enabled me to pinpoint and confirm all kinds of stories of rendition that prisoners were coming up with.”
Buzzfeed News “trained a computer to search for hidden spy planes,” as described in this informative how-to article in 2017 by Peter Aldhous. One story developed from this was his 2016 “Spies in the Skies.” It begins, “Each weekday, dozens of US government aircraft take to the skies and slowly circle over American cities.”
Trips by government leaders are often well publicized, but there are surprises.
With a fluke photo, a UK bird watcher got lots of attention when he photographed Air Force One taking Donald Trump on a surprise visit to Iraq in 2018. “As a result, the White House was forced to reveal details of the trip ahead of time, throwing media management and security plans into chaos,” The Guardian reported.
A Canadian spotter figured out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to Mali using a flight tracker.
On Twitter, @CivMilAir asked: “Erdoğan heading off somewhere?”
The Lure of Private Jets
Jets are expensive perks, and officials not infrequently get in trouble for buying them or getting lifts in others’ jets.
The use of private jets by officials also has been effectively scrutinized.
An investigation published in 2018 by Atlatszo in Hungary found links between members of the Hungarian elite, including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and a luxury yacht and private jet, both registered abroad.
Politico has written about how its reporters followed up on a tip that US Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was using private jets for routine travel, possibly in violation of federal travel rules. First the reports built a database of his trips. Then they staked out airports to identify the plane he used and researched the costs of charters.
The McClatchy article “Trump, Russian Billionaire Say They’ve Never Met, but Their Jets Did — in Charlotte,” by Kevin G. Hall, Adam Bell, Rick Rothacker and Greg Gordon, published in March 2017, drew attention to the intersecting flights of candidate Donald Trump and Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. The journalists were tracking planes associated with Trump and a variety of Russians, in collaboration with other journalists. The coincidental landings scoop was one of several stories that developed from regularly following specific flight data. Other stories were developed focused on Rybolovlev’s business dealings. The New York Times summarized the Trump-Rybolovlev connections in a 2017 article, “Tracking the Yachts and Jets of the Mega-Rich,” which noted:
“New technology, specialized websites and an army of amateur plane-spotters and yacht-watchers around the world have made it easier than ever for anyone to pinpoint a billionaire’s yacht or jet anywhere in the world and track their movements.”
“Planespotting: Michael Cohen’s Amazing Journey,” by Louise Mensch, published in her blog Patribotics in February 2017, is worth reading for the canny use of aviation records to ascertain the whereabouts of Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen. Particularly fun is how an Instagram photo out a plane window, including part of the wing, was used to identify the aircraft.
Tracking for Profit
Reporters also track jets used by businessmen and celebrities. And investors and competitors do, too.
ADS-B tracking of corporate jets online opened a business opportunity for several companies that sell tips based on the movements of corporate jets.
Early on, investors hired planespotters to identify corporate jet activity at particular airports. There has even been discussion of whether using the resulting information constitutes illegal insider trading. (Short answer: no, as described in this CNBC article.)
ADS-B tracking of corporate jets online opened a business opportunity for several companies that sell tips based on the movements of corporate jets. Observers create lists of corporate jets and watch for patterns and deviations. Specific flights at specific times are analyzed within the context of other news and information.
JetTrack sells information to investors and also reveals its findings, later, as case studies. One concludes: “An analyst using JetTrack could have followed the travel of Constellation executives leading up to the August 2018 announcement — and seen a strong indication that Constellation was interested in making an additional investment in Canopy.”
“JetTrack also allows users to search by sector, which provides the opportunity to compare the regularity of visits by Michael Kors executives to the regularity of visits by executives from other publicly traded companies in the industry.”
The company offers free data “to academics affiliated with accredited institutions or entities who are attempting to prove or disprove an idea.”
Quandl started a service called Corporate Aviation Intelligence in 2018, stating, “Atypical corporate flights are strong signals of M&A, company expansion, partnerships and other activity.” In an anecdote about its success, the firm wrote:
Confirmed: SunTrust | BB&T. Suntrust and BB&T banks announced a US$66 billion merger, forming the sixth-largest US bank based on assets and deposits. SunTrust visited BB&T in North Carolina twice last week and once last August. Both firms were in New York on December 3.
There has even been academic research on the use of planespotting for corporate intelligence purposes.
Oxford University professors have used flight data to show numerous instances where potential buyers traveled to visit a corporation targeted for acquisition prior to the official announcement. The academics argued for providing options for confidentiality in their article, “The Real First Class? Inferring Confidential Corporate Mergers and Government Relations from Air Traffic Communication.”
Corporate jets have been tracked by investors and journalists.
As one example, Aphria’s possible deal with one of the largest tobacco giants in the world, Altria Group Inc., was outed in 2018 by an investor who tracks tail numbers on private jets at the airport where Aphria is based.
On May 8, 2019, Reuters reported, “Hedge funds paying upward of $100,000 per year to track the flights of corporate jets were vindicated when Occidental Petroleum Corp announced two deals last week that matched locations the US oil and gas company’s private plane had recently visited.”
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ 18-seat Gulfstream G650ER jet, N271DV, was tracked for clues to which city would be the location for a new Amazon headquarters. (As I was writing this, I could watch in real time on ADS-B Exchange as his jet was flying west from New York back to Seattle.
Amateur planespotters, who exist in almost all countries, often take photos.
For large photographic archives try: