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You won’t fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency’s Guide to Air Travel Tracking


Flight tracking is a fun way to follow the movements of aircraft in the sky. The ability to track how influential people and the military fly will help you learn interesting details about the life of your country. There are several sites (both commercial and amateur) that allow you to track flights on a map.

The purpose of this article is to tell you about how you can track flights on the Internet. After you finish reading it, you can open your browser and start following the movements of the aircraft on a virtual map.

We’ll start with a small glossary with the terminology needed to fully dive into the topic. Then let’s move on to the list of the most popular flight tracking websites and their features. A case study will be presented at the end of the article demonstrating how these sites can be used in conjunction with each other to track any flight.


Before understanding how to track aircraft in the sky, it is important to learn the terminology. Below is a glossary of terms that we will be working with throughout the article:

  • Callsign. A callsign is an identifier assigned to an aircraft during flight. While a private jet may use its registration number as a callsign, commercial flights tend to have callsigns that depend on their routes. Callsigns can change when changing destinations on a flight, and in some rare cases, even in the middle of the journey itself. In other words, the same aircraft can have multiple callsigns on the same day if it has many flights (eg Toronto-Montreal, then Montreal-Toronto, then Toronto-Ottawa).
  • Registration number. The registration number is the aviation equivalent of your car’s license plate. Whenever an aircraft is registered in a country, it is assigned a registration number. It is usually located near the tail section of the aircraft. The country in which an aircraft is registered determines, in part, its registration number. For example, aircraft registered in Canada will have a registration number beginning with the letter C; in France, the registration number begins with the letter F, while in the United States it begins with the letter N. A list of aircraft registration prefixes by country can be found in this Wikipedia article. As in the case of callsigns,you can change the registration number of the aircraft. If person X owns a private jet registered in Canada and sells it to person Y who lives in Germany, person Y can register his new aircraft in that country, which will mean that he will be assigned a new registration number by the German authorities.
  • Manufacturer serial number (MSN). The MSN is a unique number assigned to each aircraft at the factory. If the registration number is the aviation equivalent of your car’s license plate, then the MSN is like the vehicle identification number assigned to the car by its manufacturer at the factory. Unlike the call sign and registration number, the MSN of an aircraft cannot be changed. This makes knowing the aircraft’s MSN an important aspect if you’re trying to track it over the years. An aircraft can cycle through dozens of callsigns and registration numbers, but its MSN will always remain the same (to access the database where MSNs are stored, follow this link ).
  • ADS-V. ADS-B stands for Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast. It is this technology that allows hackers and enthusiasts to track flights on the sites that will be presented later in this article. Aircraft around the world are increasingly being equipped with ADS-B transmitters that transmit unencrypted information that can be tracked by antennas on the ground. The equipment needed to receive ADS-B signals is relatively inexpensive and easy to set up, allowing you to create flight tracking websites. ADS-B technology has become more common over time given its many advantages over older ground-based radars.

Whether to focus on the call sign, registration number, or MSN of the aircraft will depend on what you want to know. If a loved one is flying to you and you want to track their flight, then the flight call sign is all you need. If you are trying to figure out whether an aircraft registered to an individual was at location X at time Y, then the registration number will help you with this. Finally, if you want to track how one aircraft has changed hands over the years, knowing its MSN will come in handy.

Websites for tracking flights

There are several websites that allow you to track flights, both in real time and after the fact. As with any open source tool, it’s a good idea to check several websites, as one of them might have more information about the flight. Which website you choose to use as your default flight tracking page will depend on several factors, including the price of the subscription and its interface. These websites generally offer the same services and types of information, but once you start using them, you may find that their features are slightly different.

Sometimes it happens that the flight you are looking for is not displayed on the website. Perhaps the reason for this is that there are no records of this aircraft on the site. Remember that each website exists on the money of different people, so a flight that does not appear on one resource may be available on another. Sometimes individuals or the government may require websites not to show certain flights for a variety of reasons. This may result in flights being removed from the site, so keep that in mind when doing your research.

All of the sites below (with the exception of offer tiered subscription packages, including a free basic tier that shows live aircraft traffic as well as limited flight details. For most users, the free basic subscription will contain all the necessary flight information. If you still decide to subscribe to a paid subscription, then you will have access to a whole host of additional information.

Flight Radar 24 is one of the most famous flight tracking websites. The site interface is very user-friendly and simple (it can also be customized), which makes the resource an excellent choice for learning about flying.

Flight Radar 24 gives you the ability to view your flight history. In other words, if you search for an aircraft by its registration number, you will be able to find records on the website about flights the aircraft has taken in the past. This resource also offers a replay feature that allows you to view a specific area of ​​airspace as it was at the point in time you want in the past. This tool is useful if you want to track activity at a specific airport and are less concerned about the aircraft registration number (or just don’t know it).

Subscription types:

  • Basic subscription (free): There is live flight tracking and 7-day flight history.
  • "Silver" subscription ($1.49 per month): more flight details and 90 days of flight history.
  • Gold Subscription ($3.99/month): More flight details and 365 days of flight history.
  • Business Plan ($49.99/month): Complete arsenal of worldwide flight data, including 730 days of flight history.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

At first glance, Radar Box is very similar to FlightRadar24. This is true, but the slight difference between the two is that the default Radar Box interface will show you more information when you hover your cursor over an aircraft. This information includes the logo of the airline, the city of departure and arrival, the type of aircraft and its registration number. If you want to get a quick overview of the airspace, this feature can save you time.

Subscription types:

  • Basic subscription (free): live flight tracking and 7-day flight history.
  • Spotter Plan ($2.45/month): Access to a premium mobile app, more flight details, and 30 days of flight history.
  • Pilot plan ($7.95 per month): positioned for "pilots and air traffic controllers [air traffic control], controllers and controllers", has a 90-day flight history.
  • Business Plan ($39.95/month): Includes the ability to track ship movements as well as 365 days of flight history.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

Hovering over an aircraft in the Radar Box interface will provide you with important flight information, including aircraft type and departure and arrival cities.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

In this image, we can see that the Avianca AV47 aircraft (Madrid-Bogota) is a Boeing 788, its registration number is N784AV.

Flight Aware is the information hub for all commercial flights, including weather information for their destinations around the world and a map of the airports available on the home page. The site also has an RSS news feed (called "Squawks"), a bulletin board, and even an aircraft photo section.

Flight Aware allows you to be notified whenever the aircraft you are interested in departs or arrives at the airport; if the flight is delayed, canceled or will be rerouted. These flight alerts allow you to passively monitor flights as all you have to do is add flights to your list and wait for notifications to arrive in your inbox.

Subscription types:

  • Basic subscription (free): three months of flight history and five email notifications.
  • Premium+ ($39.95/month): Five months of flight history, unlimited flight notifications, and additional map viewing options.
  • "Enterprise" ($89.95 per month): Eight months of flight history, callsigns and no advertising.
  • Enterprise WX ($129.95/month): Eight months of flight history, weather, and additional aircraft information.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

Flight Aware shows which flights are delayed or cancelled.

Plane Finder (

Plane Finder boasts a huge aircraft database that includes a list of flights that have recently been cancelled.

Like Flight Radar 24, Plane Finder also has a replay feature that allows you to view a piece of airspace at a specific point in time in the past.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

Subscription types:

  • Basic subscription (free): real-time flight tracking and limited access to flight history.
  • Paid subscription ($1.99 per month): 365 days of flight history.

ADS-B Exchange is a project created by amateurs for amateurs. For this reason, there is no paid subscription on the page. Instead, all the data that the platform receives is made available free of charge to all its users. The website also prides itself on not deleting flight information unless compelled to do so by law. In this case, he claims that he will place a notice for users, warning them about the removal of the flight(s).

The ADS-B Exchange is also great for tracking military aircraft (although not all of course), making it a particularly useful tool for monitoring geopolitical hotspots live and getting the latest news. The live sitemap (located on the Global View tab on the main page) offers a handy filtering feature that only shows military aircraft.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

To filter the map to display only military aircraft, click on the Menu button in the upper left corner of the live traffic map. Then go to the "Filters" tab. Select "Military" from the drop-down menu, and then click the "Enable Filters" button. In this case, a US Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules aircraft is being tracked over the Eastern Mediterranean.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

ADS-B Exchange also tracks some military aircraft. In this case, a US Army UH-72A Lakota helicopter is being tracked flying near the Mexican border south of El Paso, Texas.

Filling Information Gaps: Twitter and Other Sites

Sometimes the aircraft you are looking for does not appear on any of the tracking sites listed above. To fill in the "gaps" in flight history, researchers have two other tools at their disposal: Twitter and aircraft photo sites.

Some of the Twitter users pay a lot of attention to the aircraft they see, whether on tracking sites or on the ground (often they take pictures of them). To find information about an aircraft on Twitter, all you have to do is type in its registration number into a search engine. This will bring up any tweets associated with it.

For example, here is Aeromexico flight AM646 from Mexico City to Los Angeles. We see that the registration number of the aircraft is XA-ADH.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

Searching for the registration number on Twitter will show you tweets about this aircraft.

Thus, Twitter can be a source not only for reference images of aircraft, but also for evidence that an aircraft was in a specific location at a specific time, even if it does not appear on any flight-tracking website.

Twitter is also not the only website that hobbyists and other enthusiasts use to upload photos of aircraft. There are small sites such as, and where people can share photos of aircraft taken around the world. The photos usually show planes landing, taking off, or just parked, which helps you understand if the plane was in a given place at the right time.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

Sample photo of Trump Force One (N575AF) at Please note that the post contains the MSN of the aircraft, where the image was taken and at what time.

So what if you want to know for sure if a plane is at the airport and can’t wait for someone to take a picture of it and share it on Twitter? AirLive provides you with links to webcams at airports around the world.

Case Study: Venezuelan government’s secret plane (well, not so secret)

Let’s look at the capabilities of the sites presented and the knowledge gained using a practical example.

On August 10, 2019, former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana tweeted that a plane belonging to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had recently traveled to Cuba carrying Colombian military leaders. Although there was no publicly available information to confirm who was flying the aircraft, flight tracking websites and other sources allowed people to verify Pastrana’s claim that the aircraft was being used by the Venezuelan authorities.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

In his tweet, Pastrana identified the aircraft in question as YV3016. Now that we know it’s the aircraft’s registration number, we can use any of the flight tracking sites in this article to find out more information about its flights.

In this case, we will use Flight Radar 24. To search for YV3016, simply write its registration number in the search bar at the top left of the screen.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

The website informs us that there are records of the flight history of this aircraft (drop-down box under the search bar)

Now let’s see what Flight Radar 24 has to say about the YV3016:

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

Searching for the registration number on FlightRadar24 shows us photos of the YV3016, the company that operates the aircraft, and its model (Embraer Lineage 1000).

The website tells us that YV3016 is registered and belongs to Conviasa, the Venezuelan state commercial airline. This is evidenced not only by the text on the left side of the screen, but also by two images of YV3016 on the right side of it. These images show that the aircraft livery (an aviation term for an aircraft paint scheme) is a Conviasa aircraft livery.

However, a quick look at the aircraft’s flight history raises some questions for us. We see that, for example, YV3016 flew from Caracas to Moscow on May 5th, from Moscow to Istanbul on May 6th, and from Istanbul to Caracas on May 7th. A search on the Conviasa website shows that the airline does not operate any of these routes. This tells us that the YV3016 is in the personal use of the person or persons making these trips abroad.

You won't fly away from us. Bellingcat Detective Agency's Guide to Air Travel Tracking

According to FlightRadar24, on May 5, YV3016 flew to Moscow, and on May 7, already to Istanbul. However, Conviasa does not operate these routes.

Searching for YV3016 on and shows images of aircraft at locations where Conviasa flights should not be sent, including Las Palmas, The Hague, Lisbon, and Geneva.

The YV3016 information page on Flight Radar 24 contains another important detail – it’s about the Embraer Lineage 1000, a luxury business jet.

Taken together, all of this information suggests that this luxury aircraft is actually in private use. Given the fact that Conviasa is owned by the Venezuelan government, this tells us that the company’s aircraft are used by Venezuelan government officials and VIPs to travel incognito around the world.

Are there any other planes disguised as commercial Conviasa airliners flying around the world with Venezuelan VIPs? If so, how many, which ones and where did they fly? Can we track the movements of YV3016 in the future to stay ahead of the news – that is, to find out where Venezuelan VIPs, including government officials, are going?

Thanks to the information contained in this article, you now have all the tools and knowledge to get answers to these questions and more on your own.


Flight tracking is made possible by the vast amount of information available on the Internet. While flight tracking websites require a paid subscription to get more data, the basic plans also provide a lot of useful information to users. Any "gaps" in the data that these websites may have can be filled in by other resources, making it possible to track almost any flight.

Based on Bellingcat.

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