Last year the FAA created a new requirement that transponders in aircraft had to be replaced or upgraded to use the new ADS-B technology. While we won’t focus here on specific details, a useful summary would say that any aircraft flying into controlled airspace now needs ADS-B equipment. This new technology offers great safety features for those in the air. It also now allows all of us on the ground an opportunity to use a new feature that you may find interesting.
You can now track on a smartphone or laptop the flight paths of Experimental aircraft as they fly in real time. While we have had the capability to track scheduled airlines for a while, the advent of mandatory ADS-B provides the ability to see homebuilt aircraft in the same manner. Using a free app on a smartphone or similar device, you can observe a wide range of details about these flights: the aircraft’s N-number and owner, the flight path on a map between takeoff and landing, and speed and altitude throughout the flight. These apps can also keep a history of prior flights, preserving this same detailed information.
It is quite an interesting experience to follow the flying activity of our fellow pilots. Whenever I hear a small plane flying overhead, I quickly open my app and easily identify the aircraft and where it departed from. I then can decide to watch and follow it on a map until it lands. Another fun use occurs when attending a fly-in or visiting an airport. By simply entering the N-number of a plane on the ground, the app will show the recent flight path the aircraft took to get here, along with its speed and altitude at every moment of the flight.
There are no secrets anymore! If ADS-B equipment has been installed in an aircraft, it must remain on whenever the aircraft is in operation per FAA rules. So even if the airport you are visiting is far from controlled airspace and does not require ADS-B, all aircraft with that equipment installed will continue to operate and report all flight details continuously within the capabilities of the ADS-B network. You can see how this tracking of homebuilts is something new and did not occur with traditional transponders. Remember that this is public information and is never deleted. It only takes a free app to make this data easy to view.
There are several free apps you can use for displaying ADS-B flight information on your phone, tablet or computer with a Wi-Fi or cell connection. The pictures shown here are from FlightAware. I am not recommending this app—it is simply the one I am currently using. You should research the available choices from your provider’s library of apps with a search like “track aircraft.”
The use of FlightAware is intuitive, and I was able to learn how to navigate its features without any formal instructions. The map display defaulted to my present location via GPS information. You can literally tap on any aircraft on the map to find out its pertinent flight data. While the app is free, there are extra features for a few dollars’ subscription charge. For example, how about getting an alert whenever your pilot friend flies his plane! All you must do is enter the aircraft’s N-number and the app will watch for movement by that aircraft.
There is a procedure (paperwork!) by which the FAA can prevent your N-number identifier from being broadcast by your ADS-B equipment and thus hidden from public view if desired. This might be a good topic for some future article. But while ADS-B technology is truly a wonderful tool in preventing aircraft collisions, we can wonder if there might be unintended consequences when it comes to privacy. Be aware and informed about the capabilities of your onboard technology. You might want to think twice about buzzing a friend’s house, for example. Your flight actions are being recorded. Plane and simple!