A Beginner's Guide to Plane Spotting

How to Get Started With This Hobby

Plane spotters watching plane land at airport


Plane, or aircraft, spotting is a great way to learn about and enjoy the aviation industry and the airlines and airplanes that encompass it. For anyone who likes air travel, plane spotting makes a great hobby.

There are different types of aircraft spotters with different tactics and goals. Some spotters record the registration number of every airplane they've ever spotted in an attempt to log as many as possible or to remember which aircraft they've spotted. Registration numbers, which are really alphanumeric combinations, are also called N-numbers. That's because all planes registered in the U.S. have an N-number that begins with that letter.

Others photograph as many aircraft as they can, paying attention to the different types and liveries—the colorful graphics that operators of the planes affix to them b—and sharing their photos in online communities.

Aircraft spotters sometimes make it a goal to spot every airframe or type of livery from a particular airline. And still others just like to watch airplanes fly overhead without regard to the operator or type of aircraft.

Starting Out

Plane spotting is as simple as going to the nearest airport and watching airplanes. There are certain unwritten rules and guidelines to follow in order to keep the peace with airport management personnel, law enforcement, and other plane spotters, but for the most part, all you need to do to get started is watch and, if you'd like, photograph airplanes. 

Longtime plane spotter and NYCAviation founder Phil Derner Jr. suggests looking online for plane spotting information. "You can find out more about plane spotting in your local area by starting your search online," Derner says. "Or you can research and ask questions on the message boards at NYCAviation."

Once you meet other spotters in your area, don't be afraid to ask for their advice and socialize.

Finding a Location

Selecting a place to go can be difficult for beginners, but you can legally spot aircraft from just about anywhere. "Plane spotting is perfectly legal if you're on public property and not in a restricted area," says Derner. "Some private property owners will allow aircraft spotters, too, but they obviously reserve the right to ask you to leave if they wish."

Derner warns that no matter what, cooperating with local authorities is important. "If airport security personnel or local police ask you to leave, then you should leave," he say. "Whether they are right or wrong, it's best to cooperate. You can always seek legal advice later if you feel that your rights were violated and you want to take action."

Identifying Planes

Once you've found a location, you can begin looking for aircraft. You can always just sit and watch without really looking for anything in particular. But if you want to take plane spotting a step further, you can join the ranks of experienced spotters and learn to identify aircraft.

You'll look for distinguishing characteristics such as the registration number, size, engine location, wing shape, and livery designs and colors, to name a few. You can also search for a particular aircraft that is supposed to arrive or depart, based on a public flight plan database like FlightAware, which lets you track flights and determine the departure and destination airports and times for most aircraft.


The equipment you will find necessary for plane spotting will depend on what you wish to do with your new hobby. For example, you can use a sheet of paper or a computer database to log aircraft information. Or if you plan to take pictures, you'll probably want to have a decent camera and some memory cards.

Many plane spotters have additional equipment that assists in finding and tracking airplanes. A transceiver is helpful for listening to communications between air traffic controllers and aircraft. Sometimes an ADS-B receiver is used to locate aircraft.

At the very least, you'll want a chair and a good pair of binoculars.

The Rules

There are certain unwritten rules for plane spotting. Some are common sense, and some are discovered as you go. Climbing or touching the airport fence or messing around with airport lighting systems aren't allowed, for example. 

Some airports also have very specific rules about photography and will allow spotters only in designated areas.

In general, remember to be considerate of the airport, property owners, and other spotters.

For more information about plane spotting, including airport-specific spotting guides, visit NYCAviation.

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