All aircraft have unique markings that sometimes can be used to track their flights and identify their owners.
Investigative journalists are using this information to uncover corruption, learn about surveillance flights, discover rendition operations and more.
This tip sheet is a short summary of a longer description of how to track planes that you can find here.
Tracking is being enhanced by a new tracking system, ADS-B, which stands for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, that is being adopted worldwide. Not only does it provide greater accuracy, but it circumvents US rules that had allowed jets to fly without being tracked.
Tracking planes globally is facilitated by commercial and nonprofit organizations that assemble vast amounts of flight data from government and private sources. The sites featured below are major sites willing to work with journalists.
Icarus Flights, released in 2021, gives reporters a formidable high-quality flight tracking tool from the nonprofit Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS). See this GIJN article for more details.
ADSB Exchange, unlike the other tracking sites, does not filter out information about US aircraft that have requested anonymity, which makes it attractive to journalists. It’s free for non-commercial use (contributions requested). In late 2019, access to historical data was suspended. Journalists with project needs should use the contact form here.
FlightAware allows guest users free tracking options, including alerts on planes of interest. Help for journalists is available by contacting Sara Orsi, Director of Marketing, at email@example.com.
Flightradar24 is a commercial flight tracking service that permits free tracking of flights. The company has worked with journalists on specific projects. Contact Ian Petchenik at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The OpenSky Network is a nonprofit association based in Switzerland. OpenSky is geared toward academics and nonprofits doing research, but has aided journalists with clearly-defined requests.
Identifying aircraft owners is theoretically possible, but practically difficult because most countries do not make public their registries of owners. AeroTransport is a good place to start looking. Some searches are free, but otherwise subscriptions are needed. Also see Airframes and RZJets.