Digital camera as plane spotting assistant

by Matthew Gast

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Airplanes are just cool. In addition to the sleek flowing lines, they are complex machines and a tribute to the power of engineering. In the course of organizing all the airplane trivia I knew about, I became a plane spotter, though not one of the serious ones that plans vacations around it. (Too bad that looking at planes is now potential terrorist activity.)

I recently purchased a digital camera, which I take on all my travels. Before, I wasn't bad about identifying different planes, though I wouldn't call myself particularly good. Part of the reason is that I often had to guess, and had no way of confirming my guess.

Fortunately for me, all airplanes have registration numbers. There's a prefix assigned by the country, followed by a string of characters. U.S. airplanes have a registration number that begins with "N", such as "N7264V". (This is the registration number for a CRJ-200 I flew last week.) Other countries have different prefixes: United Kingdom registration numbers begin with "G-", and Canadian registration numbers begin with "C-". The registration records tell you which company manufactured the plane, the year it was built, the type of engines, and even the serial number.

Many of my airplane pictures have the registration number in view, or are easily enlarged to see the registration number with a digital zoom and crop. At that point, I can check my guess by looking up the plane in the appropriate registration database. The link above allows you to look up U.S.-registered planes by querying the FAA database. I'm aware of two others on-line, but my list is by no means exhaustive:

  • Canada's aircraft registration system is run by Transport Canada, and can be accessed through the search page. (If you need a number, look up C-GAQX, which is an Airbus A319 I saw in Phoenix recently.)

  • The United Kingdom's registration system is run by the Civil Aviation Authority, the UK's aviation regulator. The aircraft registration can be looked up through the CAA's G-INFO search page. (If you need a number, look up G-BOAF, which is one of the Concordes.)