How to Identify a Commercial Aircraft

Two Parts:Getting equippedIdentifying the aircraft

Have you ever been driving down the highway or sitting in a park and seen an aircraft fly low overhead and wondered, what kind of plane is that! By using this article you will be able to identify most any aircraft you see. Whether you decide to be an aircraft spotter or are just looking for something to do while you wait for your flight, this article is a great resource.

Part 1
Getting equipped

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    Purchase a book that has three dimensional view drawings and other information to help you identify aircraft. If you're not sure if spotting is the hobby for you, check out a book at your local library before investing in purchasing one.
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    Bring the things you will need:
    • For the hobbyist/serious aircraft spotter: If you like, you can bring a camera so you can show off your discoveries on a website or just to keep and display in your home.
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    • For the casual spottee/person waiting for a flight at the airport: Since you probably didn't plan on having your flight delayed and you probably don't have a camera in your carry on, you are pretty much confined to observing, which is just fine.
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Part 2
Identifying the aircraft

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    Look for the basic identifying portions of the airplane. Since a good portion of the times you get a good look at aircraft, they are flying overhead, you may only have a few moments to lock vital information about the aircraft into your brain.
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    Check the type of engines. Look for the type of engines. Decide between the following:
    • Jets; or
    • Propeller driven
    • Gliders are also a possibility (no engines, no propellers).
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    Look for the number and position of the engines. These are as follows:
    • Wing mounted - Most jets and propeller driven aircraft have their engines wing mounted.
    • Fuselage mounted - The engines are attached to the fuselage at the back of the plane.
    • Nose mounted - The engines are attached to the fuselage, inside the nose of the aircraft. This is most common on single engine light aircraft.
    • Tail mounted - Not to be confused with fuselage mounted engines, tail mounted engines are actually in the tail.
    • Combination - Some aircraft such as the DC-10 and L-1011 have a combination. They have two-wing mounted engines and one tail mounted.
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    Check the wings. Look at the position of the wings (if you are looking at an airliner and can't decide if the wings are low or mid, mid is your best bet).
    • High - In this configuration the wings are attached to the top of the fuselage.
    • Mid - Most commercial airplanes have this orientation. The wings appear to sprout just above the bottom of the fuselage.
    • Low - This is mostly found on small general aviation planes. The wings are connected to the fuselage at the base of the fuselage.
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    Check the tailplane. The tailplane is the horizontal piece that sticks out of the tail.
    • High - Connects at the very top of the tail (the part that sticks straight up at the back of the plane).
    • Mid - In the middle of the tail.
    • Low - At the point where the tail connects to the fuselage.


  • Most books that you purchase that are specifically for spotting aircraft will have a system for identifying them. Usually this consists of four parts: wing position, number/position of engines, types of engines and tailplane position.
  • ( has a photo database that can help an an aircraft recognition quiz to help test your skills.
  • It really helps to take a photograph of the aircraft using your camera or phone. This gives you much longer to check out the identifying features, as well as allowing you to zoom up close to see things your eyes might miss.


  • After 9/11, some airport security personnel may not be too keen on having people near the airport perimeter taking photo; follow given instructions pertaining to each airport. Some places are more friendly towards aircraft spotters than others.
  • This is not always a family activity, particularly in the U.S. Aviation is really something that interests that those involved in it, so don't drag along your, son, daughter, spouse, dog or goldfish to go spotting with you unless they have a passion for aviation like you do.

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Categories: Aviation