A Beginner’s Guide To Flight Tracking

Flight tracking serves as a valuable tool for open-source investigators, providing insights into the movements of aircraft owned by influential individuals and armed forces. Various commercial and hobbyist websites facilitate this task, offering accessible means to monitor flights.

This guide aims to familiarize you with flight tracking, from essential terminology to utilizing popular tracking websites. Upon completion, you’ll be equipped to navigate these platforms and observe air traffic activity effectively.

We’ll begin with a glossary covering key flight tracking terms, followed by an overview of prominent flight tracking websites and their features. Finally, a case study will demonstrate the practical application of these tools in uncovering significant air movements.

First, Some Terminology

According to Sean Philips of FlightRadar Online, Before delving into aircraft tracking methods, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with some fundamental terminology. Below is a glossary of key terms that will be utilized throughout this guide:

Call Sign: A call sign serves as an identifier used by an aircraft during its flight. While private aircraft often use their registration numbers as call signs, commercial flights typically adopt call signs based on their routes. For instance, as of the time of publication, Lufthansa’s Frankfurt-Orlando flight is identified by the call sign LH464, which would be printed on the boarding pass for passengers on that flight. Call signs can vary frequently depending on the flight, and occasionally even change mid-flight. Thus, a single airplane may have multiple call signs within a day if it operates numerous flights (e.g., Toronto to Montreal, then Montreal to Toronto, followed by Toronto to Ottawa, etc.).

Registration: The registration of an aircraft is analogous to a car’s license plate. When an aircraft is registered in a jurisdiction, it is assigned a registration number typically located near the tail section of the aircraft. The country of registration partially determines the format of the registration number. For example, aircraft registered in Canada feature registrations beginning with the letter C, while those in France start with the letter F, and in the United States, they start with the letter N (hence, aircraft registration is often referred to as the “N-Number” in the United States). Aircraft registration can be changed; for instance, if a private jet registered in Canada is sold to someone residing in Germany, the new owner may opt to register the aircraft in Germany, resulting in a new registration assigned by German authorities.

Manufacturer Serial Number (MSN): The MSN is a unique number assigned to each aircraft during its construction. Analogous to a vehicle identification number (VIN) for cars, the MSN remains constant throughout the aircraft’s lifespan. Unlike call signs and registrations, an aircraft’s MSN does not change. Knowledge of an aircraft’s MSN is crucial for tracking it across various years and ownership changes. While an aircraft may undergo changes in call signs and registrations, its MSN remains unchanged.

ADS-B: ADS-B, short for “automatic dependent surveillance—broadcast,” is a technology enabling open-source investigators and enthusiasts to track flights using dedicated websites. Aircraft worldwide are increasingly equipped with ADS-B Out modules, which transmit unencrypted information detectable by ground-based antennas. The equipment required to receive ADS-B signals is relatively affordable and straightforward to set up, facilitating the existence of flight tracking websites. ADS-B technology is expected to become more prevalent over time due to its numerous advantages over older ground-based radar systems. For instance, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates that aircraft operating in most controlled airspace must be equipped with ADS-B Out transponders by January 1, 2020.

According to Ivan Wainwright of RDW Kenteken, The choice between focusing on the call sign, registration, or MSN of an aircraft depends on your specific objectives. If you’re tracking a loved one’s flight, the flight’s call sign suffices. For verifying whether an airplane registered to an individual was present at a specific location and time, the registration is valuable. Lastly, to trace the ownership history of an aircraft over time, knowledge of its MSN is essential. 

Flight Tracking Websites

Numerous websites provide options for tracking flights, both in real-time and through archived flight records. Like any open-source tool, it’s advisable to cross-reference information across multiple platforms, as each may offer varying levels of detail. Your choice of default tracking website will depend on factors such as subscription costs and interface preferences. While these websites generally offer similar services and information, personal preferences may lead you to favor one over the others as you become more familiar with them, says Andrew Adams of Vluchten Volgen

Occasionally, you may not find the desired flight on a particular website. This could be due to various reasons, including the absence of records for that aircraft on that specific platform. Additionally, different websites are fed data by distinct communities of receivers, so a flight missing on one site might appear on another. Moreover, individuals or governments may request that certain flights not be displayed on these platforms, further affecting availability. Thus, it’s important to consider these factors while conducting research.

Most of these websites, except for adsbexchange.com, offer tiered subscription packages, including a free basic tier providing live air traffic updates and limited flight details. For the majority of users, the free basic tier typically offers sufficient information. However, if you require access to historical flight data, you may need to consider signing up for a paid tier, with the decision usually based on how far back in time you need access to archived flights.

Flight Radar 24 (www.flightradar24.com)

Flight Radar 24 stands out as one of the most renowned flight tracking websites. Its default interface is clean and intuitive, offering easy navigation, which makes it an excellent choice for beginners in flight tracking.

Similar to other platforms mentioned in this guide, Flight Radar 24 provides access to historical flight records. This means that by searching for an aircraft’s registration, you can access the website’s records of the flights that particular aircraft has undertaken in the past. Additionally, the site features a “Playback” function, allowing users to observe a selected section of airspace as it appeared at a specific time in the past. This tool proves valuable when tracking activity at a particular airport or when the aircraft’s registration is unknown or less relevant to the investigation.

Radar Box (www.radarbox24.com/)

At first glance, Radar Box bears a striking resemblance to Flight Radar 24. In many aspects, it indeed is quite similar. However, one minor quality-of-life improvement on Radar Box is its default interface, which provides more information when hovering the cursor over an airplane compared to Flight Radar 24. This additional information includes the airline’s logo, departure and arrival cities, aircraft type, and registration number. This feature proves beneficial for swiftly surveying airspace, potentially saving users from excessive clicking. (Note: Flight Radar 24 also offers a similar feature with some adjustments to its settings.)

Flight Aware (www.flightaware.com)

Flight Aware serves as a comprehensive hub for commercial flight information, offering convenient access to weather updates for destinations worldwide and an airport delay map directly on its homepage. Additionally, the website features an RSS feed called “Squawks” for industry news, a message board, and a section dedicated to aircraft photographs.

One of Flight Aware’s standout features is its Flight Alerts, which enable users to receive notifications whenever an aircraft of interest files a flight plan, departs or arrives at an airport, or experiences delays, cancellations, or diversions. These alerts facilitate passive monitoring of flights, requiring users only to add desired flights to their alert list and await notifications delivered to their email inbox.

Plane Finder (www.planefinder.net)

Plane Finder offers an Aviation Database feature, which includes a list of flights that have recently declared emergencies. This resource can provide valuable insights and potentially allow users to stay ahead of breaking news developments.

ADS-B Exchange (adsbexchange.com)

ADS-B Exchange operates as a passion project by hobbyists, catering to enthusiasts without any paid tier subscriptions. Instead, the platform provides all its received data freely to all users. Furthermore, the website takes pride in its commitment to transparency, stating that it does not remove flight information unless compelled by a legal order. In such cases, it pledges to notify users of the removal of affected flight(s).

One notable feature of ADS-B Exchange is its capability to track military and police aircraft, although not every single one. This aspect makes it a valuable tool for live-monitoring geopolitical flashpoints and breaking news events.

Filling in Gaps

At times, aircraft may not be visible on the listed flight tracking websites, or only a limited number of flights might be displayed. To bridge these gaps in flight history, open-source investigators can utilize two additional resources: Twitter and plane spotter sites, says Dan Eastman of Ship Tracking

Twitter hosts numerous individuals dedicated to tracking airplanes, with many meticulously cataloging aircraft they spot, whether through tracking websites or personal observations with cameras on the ground. To access information about a specific aircraft on Twitter, simply search for its registration. This search will yield any tweets containing the aircraft’s registration number.


Flight tracking benefits immensely from the abundance of open-source information accessible online. From live traffic platforms offering historical data to plane spotting websites and Twitter, a diverse range of resources contributes to this endeavor. While some flight tracking websites offer paid subscriptions for access to additional data, the free and low-cost tiers typically offer substantial information. Moreover, any potential gaps in data on these websites can often be supplemented by leveraging other free resources. This highlights the importance of creative thinking for open-source investigators seeking to maximize the utility of these tools in their work.