Science, Science and Society, Technology

Flight sim without the fuss

The headline to this post is, at the same time, misleading and not misleading at all.

To explain: allow me to introduce to you FlightRadar24: Live flight traffic.


A screengrab of a zoomed-out FlightRadar24 landing page.


Now, I’m well aware that aeroplane anoraks* will either already know about it, or have just left this post by frantically clicking on the link above. As a result, this post will be slightly more targeted towards people who just thought ‘so what?’.

Seeeeww. So what, indeed?

FlightRadar24 does pretty much exactly what it does on the box. It takes live data on where planes, all over the world, are right now(ish), and allows us, the public, to see that. In the form of a map, with all teensy planes over it, which we can click on to find out more about the flight number, plane type, speed, route, and mystical things like ‘hex’.

Simply go to an area of the world in which you’re interested, and have a look at the planes. You may notice that as you zoom in further, more planes appear.

Next, click on one which you think looks interesting. I, for example, have just clicked on a plane heading for Wellington airport (my hometown). It turns out to be QF47, and is coming in from Sydney. Very brave, considering the gales we’ve been having here since Friday. And I can see all sorts of fun things about it, including the fact that it’s a Boeing 737-838, and that it’s landing NOW.


FlightRadar - information on QF47. Click to enlarge.


Which brings us to our next cool bit. At the bottom of the left hand side information panel about the plane, there’s a little blue button called ‘Cockpit view’. Click on this, give it a moment, and you can watch the plane flying over the Google Earth landscape** IN REAL TIME.  If you have a look at the picture below, that’s the image that I took _as the plane was flying past me_. I heard its roar as it went by.


The view from QF47 as it flew right past me - FlightRadar24. Click to enlarge.


But wait, there’s more! If, once in cockpit mode, you toggle the switch which puts it from ‘Cockpit’ to Aircraft’, then you get to see everything from the vantagepoint of just outside the plane. THIS is cool as it makes it especially clear whenever the plane yaws in any way, or makes any sort of correction. Below, you’ll see a view from flight NZ852, from Melbourne, as it heads in over Wellington city.

For both this and cockpit view, one can, with another of those toggles at the bottom, also look out different sides of the plane, and toggle whether the map is on or off.


‘Aircraft’ view of flight NZ852 - FlightRadar24. Click to enlarge.


If that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.

Ah, yes, and also: there is apparently an app, which will work on iOS and Android. The app allows one to do a range of things, including point the camera at the sky and get an augmented reality view of the plane’s vital statistics. As one person put it: “That sounds like a good laugh…I sound like some form of aerial trainspotter now.***”.

Yes. Yes you do.  And who wouldn’t, with fun like this to be had…

Hopefully, my headline makes a bit more sense now.  Well, it’s like a flight simulator in that you get the feeling, especially from the cockpit view, of flying a plane. BUT without all that tiresome stalling and actually having to control the damn thing :P



No, it doesn’t show all planes. The system works off getting ADS-B transmissions from planes, so those without such a transponder don’t show up. According to the website, though:

Today about 60% (about 30% in USA and about 70% in Europe) of the passenger aircraft and only a small amount of military and private aircraft have an ADS-B transponder.

The system’s got about 500 of these receivers around the world  - it covers 90% (it says) of Europe, and bits of the rest of the world too. Including New Zealand.

I’ll stop there with the details - for those who want more details, have a look at their about section.


* God bless anoraks, in whatever shade. You are, all of you, awesome :)

** So you will need to the GE plugin for your browser. Just warning ya.

*** +Jim Cheetham, one of the many wonderful sciencey people on G+.