Following Civil Air Traffic Simultaneously on Your Computer Screen and Scanner

Bill's  Radio Site

Last updated June 17, 2012


This page will tell you how you can see on the computer screen the aircraft you are hearing on the scanner.  It is oriented towards those listeners who are located in Nova Scotia or the Maritimes in general but the concept works everywhere.   I will be discussing high-flying aircraft but the concept works for low-level localized traffic as well.   I am NOT an expert on this and this is intended as a stepping-off place for you to go off and explore for yourself.   For those who visit and know more than I do, please share your suggestions and corrections.

First off, I want to acknowledge that if you have the money to buy one, there are radar receiver boxes available to the public that allow you to more or less see in real time what the air traffic controllers in your region are seeing.   These not only show civil traffic but also many of the military flights as well.   What I am writing about here is the poor person's alternative and all you need is the internet and your computer.  

Secondly it would probably be best if you also read my page on low level traffic in and out of Halifax Stanfield International, and my page on high level traffic transiting (overflying) the region.   In this page I will be discussing call signs and airline codes.  To see those used by airlines flying regularly in and out of Halifax see this page: Aero call signs

I use the procedures described here when I am wanting to listen to the high level traffic passing over Nova Scotia on its way to and from Europe and the Middle East.  The intent is to not only listen on the scanner but also "see" the aircraft on the computer screen as they progress along their paths.    You could do the same for local traffic but although I listen to the local traffic on the scanner I don't bother as much with watching that traffic on the screen.   My comments will be confined here to the high level aspect.
First of all you must pick what frequencies you want to monitor in your scanner.   The possibilities are described more fully in my page on high level traffic linked above, but if you live in the Halifax area you will want to use 133.95, 135.2, and 125.25 as a bare minimum; however I myself monitor other Moncton high level frequencies used in the Maritimes: 128.375, 132.95, 127.125, 132.7, 132.8, 133.3, 133.7 as well as Boston 134.95 and 133.45 and occasionally 128.05.  I do not generally bother with the Gander frequencies as I cannot usually hear either side of those conversations however you will hear aircraft being passed to Gander frequencies, particularly 134.7, 128.175, 132.05, 125.075 at Trepassey, 132.6 and 133.9 at Gander or 135.05 at Stephenville, but you are not likely to hear anything on these unless you live in northern Nova Scotia.  You may however hear occasional traffic on Gander's Oceanic clearance frequency of 119.425.   See my page on high level traffic linked above for more frequency information.
Okay, now that the scanner is operating, let's turn our attention to the computer.
There are two main alternatives available to you for online depiction of air traffic over the Maritimes and elsewhere.   Note first that neither of them as a general rule depict military aircraft.  These are FlightAware and Planefinder.   I do not find either of them perfect.   Both omit aircraft to different degrees, and both are not the easiest to work with.   You will most likely prefer Planefinder due to its nice display and lack of delay, but I myself often run into difficulty in reloading it or having it freeze in time.   Because I like to see the regional traffic as well as the high flyers I prefer FlightAware which shows much more of this type of traffic, such as what is going in and out of Halifax airport.  Planefinder shows hardly any of that.   As I am writing I have been following ABX977, a 767 cargo aircraft enroute from Cincinnati to East Midlands in England.  It is currently just off the coast near Halifax but I am only seeing it on FlightAware, with no sign of it on Planefinder.  Go figure!?  In fact you will sometimes encounter traffic on the scanner and nothing to go with it on either of the websites.  I have just been listening to a Boeing 757 in contact with Gander and heading for the crossing, but not seen on the screen.  Mind you it was some type of non-airline flight as they identified as 757 Sierra Sierra.  Neither of them show military aircraft to any great extent, however I did recently see a Canforce flight, most likely a transport aircraft. (No aircraft type was indicated).     Nothing will be perfect, for example as I write this I am following on Planefinder a number of flights heading east towards Newfoundland, but in this time there has been a Westjet flight suspended motionless over the Bay of Fundy for the last half hour at least, and not only that it is only identified as "229" without Westjet or the type mentioned, whereas on FlightAware this aircraft was identified more fully and is long gone towards the west.   I also have noted on several occasions the routing shown for an aircraft makes no sense at all in Planefinder.  For example I am currently seeing a United flight over New Brunswick and obviously inbound to the US east coast from Europe, yet its route says it is from Dulles (Washington DC) to Denver, Colorado!  FlightAware lists this flight as being from Manchester, England to Dulles.  All in all however, these are both really wonderful sites if you are interested in observing, keeping track, or listening to aircraft.
The first alternative is FlightAware, which I will refer to as FA.  FA is based on official information from ATC authorities and ultimately does two main things.   First of all it brings you lists of aircraft arrivals and departures, past and future, from whatever airport you choose.  While I have on occasion chosen other airports out of interest, I almost always go to Halifax airport as this is my local airport by going to the Halifax airport page at FlightAware..  My main aeronautical radio interest is the local traffic in and out, as I generally look up at the arriving and departing aircraft in my vicinity or actually go to the airport, so I frequently use the lists at FA.   Also however I will be interested in the map that appears at the top.   When this map first comes up it will be centered on Halifax airport and will be a close-in view and therefore will be showing only aircraft that have just left or are about to land at Halifax, unless by chance there is a high flyer nearly overhead.   Since we are at this point interested in high flying aircraft, go to the zoom control at the top left of the map and click two or more times on the minus button.   You may have to do this one click at a time.   This will bring you to a map scale that covers all of NS plus PEI and much of NB and the coast of Maine, plus the offshore out at least 200 km.   You of course can vary this to whatever scale you want.  You can also move the map centre around to suit.  A screen shot from FA appears farther down the page.   I like FA for the fact that it does seem to include more aircraft than Planefinder (described below) which omits many of the regional flights.  Also I like that the identifications of the aircraft by flight number and destination/origin appear right on the screen as a sort of box.  Check this screen shot, that includes the small map as well as the top of the Halifax airport movements lists.  This shot was taken at nearly 0800 on June 7, 2012.
The flights on the screen are in light blue for those that are connected with Halifax (as we are at the Halifax page).  For example in the above shot an ExpressJet flight (ASQ5387), a CRJ700, has just left Halifax, bound for Detroit.  Other flights, passing by or not connected to Halifax are  and in green.   For example CKS207 coming up the Bay of Fundy.
The information for flights is indicated by a symbol in the shape of either a jetliner or a propeller plane, accompanied by a sort of box of characters such as this:
CKS207 B742
310    499
The top row indicates the airline and flight number, followed by the aircraft type.   The second row is the altitude expressed as a flight level followed by a speed in knots. the third row is the airport the aircraft departed from, followed by its destination.  Both FlightAware and  Planefinder use ICAO codes for airlines and for airports.   ICAO codes are issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the UN based in Montreal.   Airlines are issued 3-letter codes and airports are issued 4-letter codes.    In the case of airports these are organized by world regions so that in the above example the E in EDDP indicates the destination is in northern Europe and the first D indicates it to be in Germany, and the DP indicates the specific airport.  In this particular case the code box is interpreted to indicated Kalitta Air Flight 207, a Boeing 747-300, flying at Flight Level 310 (approximately 31,000 feet) at a speed of 499 knots.  It is enroute from New York JFK to Leipzig, Germany.  
As you watch the map you will see these symbols and info boxes moving along.   You will find that the FlightAware page itself refreshes itself every couple of minutes (not on the screen shot!) and when this happens the aircraft will take a few seconds to come up again.  Note that at this time of day there are not many flights showing.  This is the quiet time for trans-Atlantic flights, with most being cargo flights as in the case above where you can also see an UPS flight.  Most of the flights shown are actually regional traffic here in the Maritimes.  In times when there are not many flights showing, all of them will have their ID's showing but in busier times there will be a cycling through the aircraft identifications, although the little aircraft symbols will remain.    You will also be able to move around and centre the  map other than on Halifax, and I find I do that from time to time to perhaps check on what is farther out in the ocean or up more towards the northern Gulf of St Lawrence, or in Alabama for that matter. 
For more information on how to read the airline and airport codes keep on reading as this is explained farther down the page.
One caution about FA is that the information you are seeing has been delayed by a few minutes for security reasons.    This becomes quite relevant if you are using this map to see what is approaching your location overhead and are planning to actual look for it in real life.   If there is a delay you might see the aircraft on the screen approaching your location but in actuality it has already passed over you. 
The second alternative for on-screen depiction of flights is I will refer to this as PA from this point on.  Here is a screen shot taken not long after the FA one above.
It is obvious from this screen shot that PF is a clean display of traffic, without the arrivals and departures list for Halifax and in fact you do not get to the screen by picking an airport. You start with the world and zoom into the area you want and can freely pan and zoom as you wish.    The information on PF comes principally from contributor radar boxes sent in to a central spot and compiled.    The advantages of PF are that you can click on any flight and a box will appear with the information clearly spelled out as in the EVA Air example above, but you will note that only one is identified at any given time.    For example the aircraft shown at Moncton is Morningstar 8062, a Fedex flight between Halifax and Moncton but I only knew that from clicking on it previously.    The other big advantage is that in PF the information is current, i.e. there is no delay like there is in FA.    On the other hand, PF show very few of the regional flights within North America and is therefore best for the trans-Atlantic traffic.  The Morningstar flight just mentioned is an uncommon exception, and results from the fact that PF is based on reception of one type of radar transponder that is in increasing use but is predominant in Europe and transcontinental flying at this point.
Here is a shot at 0930 on a typical day, and things are still very quiet compared to what they will be.   You may be interested to know that the five flights passing along offshore of Nova Scotia are all Fedex flights from Memphis to Dubai, Frankfurt, Stanstead and two to Paris.  All of these were heard on the scanner from Halifax on 125.25 with the controller heard on 133.95.
Farther down this page I include other screen shots showing busier times of the day.  It is amazing how busy it can get.
For myself I like to use FA most of the time as it shows many ID's at once and a wider range of aircraft and I am not one who usually goes outside to see the actual aircraft unless I am lying out on the lounge in the summer.  If you are you will want to use PF due to its lack of delay.    PF is great for being able to see the big picture all at once with its large map area on the page.  In fact now that I know about PF and am still getting used to it, I imagine I will use both.     
Please note that there is a third website called flightradar:  that I have not yet investigated.
A big question for a beginner is the one about the codes as shown in my Kalitta example above.   These websites use ICAO codes Almost all airlines have two sets of designators, a two letter one assigned by the IATA, and a three letter one, assigned by the ICAO.   IATA codes are used on airport public use screens and for schedules, for example AC for Air Canada.   ICAO codes are used for anything official such as air traffic control.   I am going to refer here only to the three letter codes as that is what is on your FA and PF screen.   For Air Canada it would be ACA, not the two-letter AC.    For airports there is a similar situation.   Practically all airports have a three letter code issued by the IATA and commonly used in schedules, on public arrival and departure boards, and also on baggage tags, for example JFK, BOS, DTW and for Halifax YHZ.     There are also 4-letter codes issued by the ICAO and these are the ones used on FA and PF.   All US ones begin with K and almost always are the same as the 3-letter with the K in front.   Similarly all Canadian ones start with C and are similar to the 3-letter in most cases.  For example Halifax is CYHZ.   In the rest of the world the 3-letter and 4-letter codes do not resemble each other. For example London Heathrow is LHR for IATA coding but is EGGL for ICAO.    For a listing of region and country prefixes, as well as a list of specific airports associated with flights over and into Atlantic Canada go to this page.
Airlines have a similar duality of codes from the ICAO and IATA.  These are also explained on the page linked just above. 



Keep in mind as outlined in my other pages that trans-Atlantic passenger flights operate in waves, so that Westbound flights mostly are transiting our area from mid-morning to late afternoon, whereas eastbound flights are from early evening to around 2 AM, so as to suit business travellers and the efficient use of aircraft and crews.   Outside of these waves there are occasional odd passenger flights such as charters, but mostly will be cargo flights


BELOW: By noon local time the rush westward has begun.  On this day the traffic westward has obviously mostly taken a northern route over the Atlantic and therefore is coming in over New Brunswick today rather than over Nova Scotia or the offshore.  The few eastbound flights shown are mostly over the offshore.   This separation is partly due to safety issues but more so is due to the fact that eastbound flights take advantage of eastward flowing jet stream winds, and westbound flights try to avoid those winds.



BELOW: 6 PM still predominantly westward.


BELOW: Example of the late evening rush. This screenshot from planefinder was taken at approximately 2300 ADT on June 7, 2012.   Note the large number of aircraft heading east with only a very few heading west. A large clump has just passed by Nova Scotia, and there are quite a number following behind.  This offshore traffic on that line between New York and the leading edge clump are all listenable on the scanner located in Halifax, once they are about halfway between Cape Cod and Yarmouth.  Most traffic was heard on 135.2 approaching and passing by southern Nova Scotia and then over to 125.25 or 133.95 and sometimes 132.75. The controller for 125.25 and 133.95 is simulcast so for myself in Halifax I could hear the ground side, the controller, on 133.95 with the aircraft on the same frequency or on 125.25.   The large clump is in the area where aircraft are handed over to Gander Centre.   In this region it would be to sector frequencies with a ground station in Trepassey, Newfoundland at the south end of the Avalon Peninsula.  At the time of writing Trepassey had four frequencies: 134.7, 128.175, 132.05 and 125.075.   134.7 appears to be used for the farthest offshore traffic. Other than this I have not so far analyzed what frequency is used for which particular geographic area but it is common to hear all of these mentioned in the handovers from Moncton.



BELOW:  The same on FlightAware. about half an hour later.  This shot of FlightAware was taken about 1/2 hour after the planefinder shot above.   The screen on FA is much smaller however it can be zoomed.   You will see that on this screen the identifications of many of the aircraft show at the same time and without being clicked on, unlike PF where you can only see one ID at a time. In FA only some ID's show at any particular time.  For example in the shot below, in the bottom left only Delta 136,  United 90 and Cactus 706 are shown with ID's.  In a few seconds the display will cycle and their ID's disappear and others come up.  Notice that on FA, the aircraft heading to Halifax or leaving from there are in blue, because I defined Halifax Airport as my place of interest when I opened FlightAware.   Underneath the map screen you will see the beginnings of the flight information in and out of Halifax. f