Inside the World of People Who Track Flights for No Reason

Meeting the dedicated community that diligently watches the planes that pass above us.

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Oct 20 2015, 5:00pm

Image courtesy of FlightRadar24

One warm night in August, Salomon Kabongo-Koopër is standing on his Crown Heights rooftop, laptop held tenderly up towards the sky. There is the occasional slam of a car door or bounce of a basketball, the yip of a dog, the roar of a car driving past blasting music. Every few minutes, though, a plane descending toward one of the airports will pass low enough to let out a dispatch from above; a low-slung humming sound.

"This is a good night," the 6'6" former college athlete says. At any given moment, there are thousands of commercial aircraft flying above the United States. In the area above this particular roof, tonight, there are fewer. "One... two... 20, OK, so there's 31 planes in the sky. But I'm probably missing some."

Not tonight, but in a few weeks, the news will be flooded once again with theories about a plane that actually is missing. Reports will surface, in mid-October, that wreckage allegedly found on Sugbai Island in the Philippines belongs to MH370 (that report will quickly be discounted); followed by a theory about how exploding batteries downed the flight.

From our lawn chairs (successfully commandeered from a neighbor two rooftops down), the cityscape is choppy—we can see as far as the lonely peak of 1 WTC in one direction and as far as a Chinese take-out by Eastern Parkway in the other—but Salomon outlines the airport panorama beyond: La Guardia, JFK, EWR. A thin, peach-colored panel of storm light is the only disruption in the sky itself. He points to the left.

"That airplane over there is taking off from JFK, see how it's going to loop around? I bet we can see it right now." He points his screen, as if it were a remote, in the direction of JFK. "Yeah. So that's Aer Lingus, that's going to Dublin."

To determine this stuff, he's using FlightRadar24, a real-time flight tracking app. According to its About page, the app's information is amassed through a data-gathering service called automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (known, much more succinctly, as ADS-B) which roughly 60 percent of commercial aircrafts are equipped with. It only takes a second or two for FlightRadar24 to identify a plane. This is less time than it takes an app like Shazam to identify, say, "Party in the USA".

"My roommates think I'm crazy," Salomon says. "They think it's just a way to pick up girls."

It's not. Tracking flights is a lonely endeavor that caters to obsessives, rewarding those patient enough to sit for hours on a roof, or behind a computer, watching the slow crawl of a flight line in the hopes that some sort of subtle disruption of flight patterns might present itself, and that that disruption means anything at all.

What's the point of knowing that information? Salomon shrugs. "In America, we want to know everything. Even what the Kardashians are doing."

Fair enough.

Image via Wiki Commons

People who like planes tend to really like planes, and they have no problem coming up with crazy theories surrounding them. Consider what happened after the world lost track of Amelia Earhart's plane while she was flying over the Pacific Ocean in a 1937 attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Some of the more eye-popping theories espoused after Earhart's disappearance include that: she was secretly an American spy who got captured by the Japanese and executed, that she assumed another identity and lived out her days as a banker named Irene, and that she had turned around mid-flight and fallen into the ocean.

The tendency to toss theories around when there's a mishap with a plane hasn't changed much—CNN anchor Don Lemon suggested MH370 had been sucked up by a black hole, after all—but what has progressed is the technology available to the layman spectator. In 1937, the casual plane enthusiast would have spotted planes with binoculars and perhaps a copy of the short-lived magazine The Aeroplane Spotter, which offered tips for identifying the makes and model of a plane. Now, there are sophisticated services such as FlightRadar24 and the slightly more intricate and community-based FlightAware, which also plays host to a fairly active message board. Posts range from the benign ("7 Stats About Air Traffic in the US") to the hyper-specific ("John Kerry's Plane to Somalia 5/5/15").

Reading through the site's boards from around the time that MH370 disappeared is haunting and oddly intimate—a user posted a FlightAware screenshot of the plane's flight line, in which that green line is suspended in the middle of the ocean. In that same thread, a user observed, "Definitively this was not a situation of a sudden plane malfunction, the pilot or one of the crew members would have sent radio message or distress signal," speculating that "this plane was voluntary shutdown by Malaysian Air Force to prevent an imminent terrorist attack," or that "the plane has exploded in high cruising altitude." Other users dismissed his theories as nonsense, while a savvy poster pointed out that the specific plane had previously been involved in an accident.

To look at a screen full of planes and understand that those planes are full of individual people can foster a sense of stewardship. One particularly active user, who asked to remain anonymous, said that his only goal in using flight apps was to ensure the safety of the aircraft. His worst fear, he claimed, was that the information would fall into the wrong hands.

Perhaps it is that same sense of protective paranoia that drove Jeff Wise, an established science writer, to become the de facto face of MH370 conspiracy theorists—dedicating over a year, a 95-page Kindle ebook, and a New York Magazine piece towards developing and disseminating the theory that Vladmir Putin had masterminded the disappearance of MH370. Crazy as it might sound, in Wise's hands, the hypothesis comes across as eloquent and rational.

Indeed, sometimes a combination of diligence, pessimism, and a surveillance app can pay off. It sure helped Pete Cimbolic, a policy analyst in Baltimore. Like Salomon, he'd wanted to be a pilot, but had ended up at a desk. Though he made pains to assure me when we spoke on the phone that he only uses the app occasionally and doesn't haunt flight message boards Pete does know a lot about planes. He told me he's attuned to the subtle sonic differences between aircraft and tends to pull out his phone whenever an unfamiliar sound passes overhead, hoping to catch a plane with his phone and identify it.

A lot of planes fly in the Baltimore area—every day, 734 flights pass through its airport, according to a recent press release—which can make it hard to separate an irregular flight pattern from the densely packed skies. But during the Freddie Gray riots, a sense of unease spread across the city. This was when a Washington Post story reported that Ben Shayne—who runs scanbaltimore.com, a website that monitors police activity—noticed two planes making tight, unusual loops over the epicenter of unrest.

"Anyone know who has been flying the light plane in circles above the city for the last few nights?" he tweeted. Within minutes, Pete Cimbolic replied with a FlightRadar24 screenshot of the two planes flight paths, and where they were registered: NG Research, a shell firm based in Bristow, VA. The exchange went viral, and the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Justice requesting more information.

An extensive Associated Press report followed, revealing that the two planes that Pete Cimbolic had identified, along with two other small planes, were contracted by the FBI to monitor the riot areas, and the people in them–a disturbing and almost certainly direct violation of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association. The AP report traced more than 50 planes, fronted by fictitious companies, to the FBI.

Cimbolic told me he feels that Apps like FlightRadar24 are a "powerful tool to access publicly available info" so that citizens might "spot patterns of abuse." He adds that he had kept an eye on air traffic above areas of political unrest, following Baltimore, but hadn't noticed unusual avian activity. The FBI, he said, seemed to have wised up.

Related: The Science of Stowing Away on an Airplane

When I asked David Fankhauser, a former pilot, if he thought it was possible that a casual hobbyist could, equipped with flight apps, truly identify (and perhaps solve) a problem for a live aircraft, he said no, probably not. "There are something like three to 5,000 commercial flights per day in the United States, so the needle in the haystack thing aside, I'm not sure the casual hobbyist possesses that type of expertise. Most aviation accidents or problems occur in a very short period of time."

So while it's doubtful that someone could help a plane in real time, it doesn't keep theorists from looking. Some follow the private jets of celebrities for fun (Donald Trump, not shockingly, blocked his aircraft from being tracked), others think they've stumbled upon irregularities that turn out to be, well, just regularities. But every so often, something truly unusual will show itself. Good thing someone is watching.

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