An Eleven Year-Old’s Guide to Plane-Spotting

by Luke Knapp


Flying has become a routine, nothing out of the ordinary. Most people can’t tell one plane from another. This article should teach you how. Maybe it will rekindle a lost sense of wonder for these machines.

My first airplane ride was when I was four. I applauded and yelled “Whoo hoooo!” during takeoff. I’ve enjoyed flying ever since.

A year ago I became interested in commercial aviation. There are several reasons why commercial aircraft fascinate me.

Power

The roar of the massive jet engines, the large plane lifting gracefully off the ground, the giant landing gear retracting: these are all things you don’t get when you ride on AmTrak.

One more thing: The pause when you’ve taxied to the beginning of the runway and are waiting for the roar of the plane and the sudden acceleration that pushes you into your seat.

Adventure

When I see a Lufthansa jet taking off, going to Frankfurt (a place that I’ve never been), I enjoy thinking about the people on board: why they are going to Frankfurt, what there going to do there, and who they’re going to see.

I also enjoy the feeling of adventure when I arrive at the airport ready to start my trip.


Good Looking Paint Jobs


I also enjoy good looking airline paint jobs (an airplane’s paint job is called a “livery.”) I tend to think that it looks best when the livery is pretty simple and not too busy. Here are some of my favorites:

Illustration by author.

Lufthansa’s dark blue Helvetica “Lufthansa” at the front of the airplane, the light gray underside of the plane, and the dark blue tail fin with the crane in a yellow circle. I’m glad they have kept this classic livery, it’s one of my favorites.

Illustration by author.

SAS Scandinavian Airline’s cream colored body, red jet engines, and blue tail fin. I think that all of the colors go very well together, and that the red jets add a bold touch.

Illustration by author.

Swiss International Airline’s is clean simple, and well, Swiss. Also, I like the Swiss flag on the tail fin.

Illustration by author.

KLM stands for Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij. Try to say that five times fast! Anyway, I like their teal fuselage and silver underbody with the crown above the “KLM” on the tail fin.

Illustration by author.

British Airway’s tail fin is just fine, but I really like Mylius, the font that they use for their logo.

Illustration by author.

Last but not least, I love the kangaroo on QANTAS tail fins. It adds so much personality. (In case you’re wondering, QANTAS is an acronym. It stands for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services. QANTAS is now its official name. It was shortened for obvious reasons.)

OK, time for the plane-spotting guide:

Plane-spotting is when you identify any sort of aircraft and, if you want, keep a log of the type of aircraft, the time, and the date, and maybe any other interesting things like a bird, or a really good apple that you’re eating (I stress again that the log is optional). If you are watching commercial aircraft you should try to identify the airline, too. I take photos of the airplanes for fun as well.

There are two main aircraft companies that make most (if not all) of the commercial planes you fly on: Airbus and Boeing. Airbus is based in Toulouse, France and makes the largest passenger plane in the world, the A380. Boeing is based in Everett, Washington and is the maker of the Jumbo Jet: the 747.

I’m going to teach you how to identify six planes: the Boeing 737, 747, and 787 Dreamliner, and the Airbus A320, A340, and A380. This probably sounds like Martian to you, but don’t worry, this should make sense by the end of this article (its just “plane” english).


Boeing 737

The Boeing 737 is the best selling commercial airplane ever.

Identification

You can recognize a 737 by its rather pointy nose, two jets, upward facing winglets (the tips of a wing that stick or taper up), and how the base of the tail fin juts out.

Photo by author.

Airlines

All major U.S. carriers operate them, including Southwest Airlines, whose fleet exclusively contains 737s. Non-U.S. carriers include QANTAS and SAS Scandinavian Airlines.

Tip

Since Southwest operates only 737s and has a rather bright livery (bright red, bright orange, and indigo), it’s easy to tell if a plane belongs to Southwest from a long ways away. So you can easily impress people by telling them “That happens to be a Boeing 737 operated by Southwest Airlines.”

Photo by author. (View from behind)

Winglet note

Earlier models of the 737 do not have winglets, so look at the nose and tail fin to identify it. Also, the new 737 MAX has winglets that go both above and below the wing.


Airbus A320

The Airbus A320 is the Boeing 737's main competitor.

Identification

You can identify an A32o by its smooth nose, two jets, and winglets that go both above and below the wing.

Photo by author.

Airlines

Delta, United, Virgin America, and JetBlue all operate them. Non-U.S. carriers include Air France, British Airways, and Lufthansa.

Photo by author. (View from in front.)

Winglet note

The newest model of A320 (the A320neo), has winglets that just go above the wing, so look at the nose for identification.


Boeing 787 Dreamliner

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is one of the most fuel efficient planes in the world. It is one of the A380's main competitors.

Identification

I like how graceful the Dreamliner looks. You can identify it by its tapering wings (winglets are blended into the wings), large jet engines, and the smooth shape of the cockpit.

Photo by author.

Also, both the back of the jets and the APU at the back of the plane are very pointy (The APU or auxiliary power unit powers all the onboard systems from the cabin lights to the air conditioning. You know the exhaust that you see coming out of the back of a plane? That’s the APU exhaust.)

Airlines

Major operators include All Nippon Airways (ANA), United Airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL),and Qatar Airways.


Airbus A340

The Airbus A340 is the one of the only commercial planes currently in production that has four jets, but is not a double-decker. It is my favorite plane that Airbus makes. I like its streamlined body and the four jet engines make it look powerful and graceful.

Identification

You can identify an A340 by its pointy nose, 4 jets and upturned winglets (not blended, mind you).

Photo by author.

Airlines

Main A340 operators include Lufthansa, Air France, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, Iberia, Swiss International Air Lines, and South African Airways.


Boeing 747

The most iconic airplane in the world, the ol’ Jumbo Jet is one of my favorites. It suprises me that it was introduced quite a while ago, but is still so successful. I feel like it is the most elegant airplane around.

Introduced in 1969, more people could fly on the 747 because it was bigger than most other planes and could carry more people, so ticket prices were cheaper.

Today, a lot of people know about it, from the four year old at the playground yelling “Mommy, a Jumbo Jet!!!” to aviation enthusiasts discussing engine specifications.

Identification

747s have four jets, a thick body with a raised front area, and most have upturned winglets. Also they have a rather giant tail fin.

Photo by author.

Airlines

Main operators include British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, and United Airlines.

Winglet note

Boeing has released a new version of the 747 (the 747–8) that has blended winglets, slightly wider jet engines, and a slightly longer fuselage.


Airbus A380

The mammoth A380 is the world’s largest passenger plane. It is the the only plane that has two decks of the same length. It is a competitor to Boeing’s 747 and 787. Honestly, the A380 reminds me of an eggplant. A flying eggplant. It seems so short and squat.

Identification

You can identify the A380 by its stubby nose, giant double-decker body, mammoth tail fin and four jet engines. Also, it has winglets that go above and below the wings, like the A320.

Photo by author.

Airlines

Main operators include Emirates, Singapore Airlines, QANTAS, Lufthansa, and Air France.


Plane-spotting packing list:

My plane-spotting necessities. From left to right: My Bushnell binoculars, my Lego notebook where I record my sightings, the Civil Aircraft book, and a 85% cacao chocolate bar.

If you would like to see some of these planes in real life I recommend you find a place with a good view of the airport. Try to find a place where planes are coming in to land or just taking off. Here is a list of what I recommend you take when you go plane spotting (I hope you do, fingers crossed!)

  • Appropriate layers, 70% chance you’ll be outside.
  • A snack (optional)
  • Airplanes (Don’t pack this. it should be at the place where you’re going)
  • A good attitude and patience. There could be a lull in air traffic while you’re there.
  • Maybe a chocolate bar for the possible lull.
  • Binoculars (recommended, but not necessary) Helps you zoom in on winglets, cockpits, and tail fins for identification (Or if the airline writes the plane type on the outside, you can just read that!)
  • A notebook and writing utensil (If you’ve been reading carefully you’ll remember what I said about keeping a log.)
  • A camera (optional)

I think this article is coming to a close now (I know, I’m sad, too). I hope that you do decide to go plane-spotting, have enjoyed this article, and found it helpful.

For further reading on commercial airplanes, airlines, and airports, I recommend Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker, a 747 pilot. The book is poetic and contains fascinating facts. Also, Patrick Smith’s Cockpit Confidential, a book that allows anyone a glimpse into the world of commercial aviation.

If you find a good plane-spotting location in your city, or have any tips, please leave a comment or reply!