When I first posted about returning to my old plane-spotting hobby I suggested I might do a weekly update. That might be a bit too frequent though for a ‘this is what I saw’ type of post. So here we are nearly 3 weeks later with an update which conveniently ties in with Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge of Jets and Planes.

Since the last post I have refined my knowledge of ADS-B websites and how they function, my spotterscope has arrived and I’ve actually taken a couple of photos too! I mentioned in that first post that FlightRadar24 obfuscates some data from ADS-B. I have now started using an enthusiast website called ADS-B Exchange which doesn’t. It’s a bit clunky compared with the professional site with a slower refresh rate but all the key info is there. I had some examples of FlightRadar24 hiding, not just info but the existence of flights this very morning – Airforce 2 was noted departing London Stansted and 2 KC-135 tankers were also noted passing over east London. So using ADS-B Exchange makes sense for the enthusiast. However, FR24 is still a very useful site and it’s sometimes good to crosscheck between the two.

Last post, I expressed some concerns about the accuracy of the aircraft registration info recorded in the ADS-B data displayed. I had seen some debate about this on the website forums. That debate seems to be old – dating to 2016-17. I now have quite a lot of ‘confirmed’ registrations that tally with the ADS-B data. It appears that the ADS-B is required to transmit the aircraft ‘Tail Number’ as part of its response. That would make absolute sense to me as a pilot because the full details of an aircraft can be very important to ATC in an emergency situation. Another thing that suggests this is the case was a 2019 law change in the US where aircraft working on Homeland Security can turn off the ADS-B transponder for security reasons – quite how that benefits flight safety at a time when ADS-B has become mandatory and is due to completely replace normal Radar for flight control I don’t know? In the words of Buffalo Springfield “Paranoia runs deep!” Anyway, my conclusion is that the information received is probably 99% accurate – at least within European jurisdiction. And that means that anything I can get a good look at with my ‘scope to confirm operator and type is going to be logged 🙂

The last couple of weeks have seen some good days for watching the skies and others that were best spent driving trucks or farming on the computer. Today started good and I logged an ACE Belgium Boeing 747 freighter passing over on a flight from Liege to New York. In a week when most passenger airlines are retiring their 747’s – BA announced this last week and Qantas flew their last one today on a farewell special – it’s good to see one flying and to note that one of UPS’s 747 800’s was flying out of Stansted to Hong Kong as well.

Flights over my garden are generally in 4 different altitude bands. The ACE 747 was at 29000ft, so lets call that the 30kft band and is usually aircraft transitting UK airspace from Europe to the US. Then we get the 15kft band. This is where we get aircraft inbound to Stansted, Luton, Kidlington. Sometimes I also get military aircraft transitting in this band on their way to Brize Norton and Upper Heyford, for example an RAF C17……apologies for the quality – heat haze becomes an issue in the middle of the day as evidenced by this shot of an Etihad Airways Boeing 777 freighter in the turn at around 7000ft inbound to Heathrow……that represents our 3rd band – most Heathrow bound flights that come over my house are descending through 7000ft.

The final flight band is between 500ft and 4000ft – this is occupied by general aviation types including the Air Ambulance, Police and TV helicopters as well as some private flights. It is also where I get aircraft inbound to RAF Northolt like this Bombardier BD-700……with a KLM flight passing above at 32kft, and this Embraer Phenom……both representative of business jets or biz-jets as they are commonly called. There are also some RAF aircraft but I haven’t got a photo of one to show in this post, maybe next time 🙂

After my Changing Tracks post telling of my intention to get back into plane spotting, I thought a weekly ‘what I saw’ type of post might be fun… We’ll see, but here’s a review of the first week.

To start with, let me talk in a bit more depth about the tracking website and my local area. As I said in the previous post, there are several flight tracking websites online. I have chosen to use FlightRadar24. In terms of displayed data I don’t think there’s much to choose between the various sites as they all rely on received ADS-B transponder data to display the aircraft and their position. You can read all about how it works here. The reason I went with FlightRadar24 is that it works well with my personal modus operandi. Everything about it is intuitive for me. Others may find the other sites out there like FlightAware, for example, better suited to their needs.

My local area is best defined in this screenshot from FlightRadar24……I’m roughly centre of that screen, at the northern edge of the Heathrow Control Zone. To the south you can see two aircraft flying west on their final approach to London Heathrow – note that Kew Gardens is on the flight path, which makes it a great place to combine nature and plane spotting 🙂 Still on the southern end of the screen, on the right hand side is London City Airport, beside the River Thames. On the upper half of the screen there are three key navigation beacons, Bovingdon to the northwest, Brookmans Park to the north and Lambourne to the east. When the number of flights is at normal levels, aircraft from northern Europe and Asia queue in a holding pattern over Lambourne and then are routed over my garden on their way to pick up the ILS (glideslope) approach to Heathrow. I also get higher level transits like the Ryanair flight you can see just left of centre on their way into Stansted and Luton airports (both just off the map to the north). Not obvious from the screenshot is RAF Northolt – it’s hiding below the sun and cloud symbol. Aircraft flying into Northholt’s southwesterly runway also pass close to me at quite low altitude. Finally, and there are no clues on the screenshot, I also get some Zone Transit traffic travelling south-north. These are usually helicopters though sometimes twin engined aircraft. I hope that has adequately set the scene?

What have I seen this past week? Not a lot! That’s as much a result of the weather as there being fewer flights. Much of the week has been wet with low cloud but there have been some brief periods of blue skies. It was during a period of high overcast that I saw my first confirmed sighting……PH-KIO. That was back on June 29th. You may be wondering why it’s flying such a pattern? It’s doing aerial survey work.

July 2nd was a better day with some clear sky in the morning. N990EA, a Gulfstream IV, flew over inbound to Stansted. In common with a lot of Business Jets, the ADS-B data did not include the aircraft’s registration but I picked that up from the aircraft’s calls to control. I got a good view of the aircraft as it passed overhead – I might not be able to read the registration with my binoculars but it had a very distinctive paint scheme. I had three airliner ‘unconfirmed’ sightings from Ryanair, United Airlines and Aer Lingus. There were also two Helicopters that passed on a zone transit. The first was G-MFLT, a Eurocopter AS365 N3 Dauphin 2, on a direct track northwest. The second was a pleasant surprise as the aircraft initially routed up the Lea Valley and wouldn’t have come anywhere near me on that route if it had continued up over the reservoirs, but it maintained a northwesterly track along the edge of the Heathrow control zone and I was able to catch a view of G-ITOR to the north of me. Two nice confirmed sightings.

I should explain what I mean by confirmed and unconfirmed. Airliners use a callsign based on their flight number and this is displayed next to their track. Most of them will have their registration displayed in the details when you click on their track in FlightRadar24. However, this information can be incorrect as it is taken from airline schedules that are prepared around a week previous to the flight and sometimes the aircraft that should be doing that flight has been changed for another due to operational issues. So unless I can read the registration as an airliner passes overhead, it becomes an unconfirmed entry in the log. Some aircraft do not show their registrations for a mixture of deliberate privacy requests and incorrect type designations. N990EA was one of these but that’s where the airband radio comes into play – while some ‘Biz Jets’ use company calls, most use the aircraft registration as a callsign when talking to ATC. General aviation types, like the two helicopters, normally use their registration as callsign so they’re easy and will normally be a confirmed sighting if I can see them. That’s probably as clear as mud now 😉

The weather is supposed to clear up today so maybe I’ll get to log some more aircraft. Sometime next week with luck, I’ll be receiving my new spotting scope – that should improve the ratio of confirmed to unconfirmed 🙂