If you like to travel, and you’re from the United States, that probably means you’ve been on a flight recently. There are plenty of ideas out there about how to pass the time while you’re at an airport or waiting for your plane to take off, but my favorite is spotting planes. What is plane spotting? It’s the hobby of watching planes, or keeping track of what planes you’ve seen or flown on. It makes the time on the ground much more interesting and exciting, especially when you’re at a busy airport.
Since we live in the Pacific Northwest, our airline of choice for domestic flights is Alaska Airlines. There’s a number of reasons why we love them, but in this case one great thing is that they’re not a huge airline, since they operate no long-haul international flights. That means their fleet is a perfect size for plane spotting! As of the time of this post, they have 333 active aircraft in their fleet. Compare that with the 784 planes United Airlines operates, or the 917 flying around for Delta Airlines currently. Alaska’s fleet is a great size to start with.
How can you know what plane you’re looking at?
Each plane flying around in the world has a unique registration number. In the United States, it starts with the letter N, and has a combination of letters and numbers. The plane you see at the top of this post, for example, is plane N251AK. That particular plane is a Boeing 737-900ER that was delivered to the airline on July 14, 2016 (exactly three years to the date of this post). Happy Birthday to you, N251AK!
Knowing that each plane has a unique number is great, but how in the world can you find it? It’s slightly different for each airline, and can even vary within the same airline because of special livery, but generally for most planes it’s on the rear end of the plane just before the tail meets the fuselage. You can see an example below with a red circle around the registration number.
More options to identify your plane
On Alaska planes in particular, there are another two places you can see this number: Just above the cockpit windows and on the front wheel well cover. See the image below for an example. The red circle shows the number 461, and the yellow circle shows where you’d be able to see the same number if there were enough light.
Notice there’s only three numbers in this location: 461. The full registration number of this plane is N461AS, but for Alaska, there’s only one plane with that number. The exception to that is the Airbus planes that came over from the Virgin America fleet may share a number with Boeing planes that were part of Alaska’s fleet prior to that merger. Although they may share the same three numbers, all of the Airbus planes that are now a part of Alaska’s fleet use “VA” where you’d otherwise see “AS” or “AK” on Alaska’s Boeing planes. For the smaller Horizon aircraft, the letters “QX” identify the planes. If you see “AK” following the three numbers, those are the newest planes in Alaska’s fleet. They started using “AK” instead of “AS” in 2016.
So, there’s three places on most Alaska planes you can see the number. The exceptions are the Virgin planes which have not yet been painted in Alaska’s livery don’t have the number above the cockpit window. But what if you can’t see the number in any of those locations? There are a couple ways to tell: First, if you’re flying on the plane in question, and you either forgot the number while waiting to board, or couldn’t see it, you can find it just as you enter the plane. As you enter the aircraft, look to the left in the door frame where you’ll find a little tag that also displays the registration number. See below for an example of N224AK.
This plane, N224AK happens to also be the first plane Alaska used the letters “AK” instead of “AS” on. I snapped this picture while boarding a flight from SEA to ORD in February 2019, one of the three times I’ve flown on this aircraft.
So, what if I see a plane in the sky or it’s too far to read the number clearly enough? There’s an app for that. I’m sure there’s even more than one, but the one I like to use is called FlightRadar24. It shows you a live view of every plane that’s in the sky right now. Yes, every one of them. It’s awesome.
One you have the app, you can use it to identify planes flying overhead. Like when I used it to identify this AirFrance 777 flying overhead when I was in the Pasco, Washington area last summer. Notice it’s registration number: F-GSQC (many other countries use only letters in their aircraft identification).
I also used it to confirm that the plane flying overhead on a walk one day in our neighborhood was indeed a larger than normal aircraft:
That plane was a DreamLifter, a modified Boeing 747 that carries the fuselage of a 787 Dreamliner to where it will be assembled in Everett, Washington.
Of course, I’ve used it many times to identify Alaska planes in my quest to see all of them.
How do I keep track?
I’m glad you asked. I use a wonderful program called Trello. They have a free app as well as PC/Mac version you can download for your computer. Besides being a great tool for organization and team collaboration, it’s an ideal tool for keeping track of your plane spotting progress. Below you can see a screen shot of it with my current progress with Alaska plane spotting
What I’ve done is create several “lists”. Each plane has it’s own “card” that can be moved between the lists once I’ve seen them. I have a list for Alaska Planes and one for Virgin planes. I started off with a list for Horizon/SkyWest planes, but as that list got to be really short, I merged it with the Alaska Planes list.
Getting Set Up
To set up the list, I used the handy information available at PlaneSpotters. They have an abundance of information on every airline’s fleet in the world, I think. You need to register to get the full details , but it’s free and worth it if you ask me. From there, I typed in the registration number of every plane on a new card, and then wrote in what type of plane it was, along with the delivery date so I know how old the plane is. Doing this setup takes an hour or two at the beginning, but having that done it’s fun to be able to tell a little of the plane’s history when you see it at the airport. It also makes it easy to find when you spot a plane and want to move it to the “spotted” list.
You can check a lot of planes off when you’re at your airline’s hub and you can walk around to each gate and check them off or snap a photo. It’s also another great reason to book a window seat so you can check some more off while your plane taxis to take off or the gate.
So how did the first year go?
After about a year of Alaska plane spotting, here’s my little report:
14 planes still to see from the Alaska/Horizon/SkyWest group
20 planes still to see from the Virgin America lineup
93 planes spotted but not photographed (more on that soon)
161 planes photographed
46 planes I have flown on one time
7 planes I have flown on twice or more
3 planes are now retired since I started keeping track, including the one (N416QX) that a worker stole and crashed in August of 2018.
The prizes go to:
The most complete accomplishment of the year is having seen every one of the Horizon Q400’s in the fleet. I believe N403QX (Montana Bobcats livery) was the last one I checked off the list, pictured below. At one point I had also seen all of the E175’s in Horizon’s fleet, but as they kept taking delivery of a few more, there’s a couple more i still need to see. But that keeps it exciting 🙂
The youngest plane I’ve flown on was N297AK, which I first saw at the gate at SEA on February 10, 2019 – 17 days after it was delivered on January 24 of this year. Two months later, I flew that plane from PHX to PDX on April 10, 2019.
The plane I’ve flown the most on is N323AS, which I’ve flown on 5 times (three times between GEG and SEA, and twice between SEA and PHX). You can see a picture of that plane below.
Pictures Prove it!
It was about 2/3 of the way through the first year when I started to photograph planes I saw instead of just putting them in the spotted list. As you can imagine, this is a lot more difficult that just seeing them and marking it down. But it’s really fun to add this element to it, because after plane spotting for a while, you see the same plane a number of times and it’s nice to add another layer of difficulty to the game.
If you asked what my favorite livery is, right now I’d actually say it’s the N421QX heritage livery Q400 in Horizon’s fleet, pictured below.
I first saw it a day (or so) after they started flying it in March 2019 when our flight pulled up beside it at Spokane airport. I saw it a couple times since (one at PDX and one flying over our house). While I’ve flown on that plane twice (BOI to GEG and GEG to PDX), both were before the re-painting.
Whether you’re checking planes off your list, or just flying to see the great sights and culture our world has to offer, make sure to have fun! Many airports also have places nearby you can go to watch the planes come in and take off.
Are you a plane spotter? Tell us about your favorite planes, or tips and locations you use for spotting aircraft!
Note: all pictures of planes in this post were taken by my iPhone while traveling