The ultimate guide to becoming an expert planespotter

Everything you need to know.
Everything you need to know. Photo credit: Newshub

To some they're 'planespotters', to others 'AV geeks'; but regardless of what you call them, the community of aviation enthusiasts continues to grow, despite a drop off in flights due to COVID-19.

Easy access to mobile phone plane spotting apps has helped develop the level of interest in aviation amongst the general public.

Whether it's you, your son, daughter, niece or nephew, this guide to being the ultimate plane spotter will tell you everything you need to know about taking that curiosity to the next level.

The ultimate guide to planespotting

Auckland's 'spot' is at the public viewing area.
Auckland's 'spot' is at the public viewing area. Photo credit: Dan Lake/Newshub

Location, location, location

Newshub Travel recently published a guide to spotting at Auckland International Airport. It includes information about where to go, as well as important things such as understanding codeshare flights and the location of food and toilet facilities.

While most airports will have a "spot" that provides the best vantage point, in many cases you don't even need to leave your house to do a bit of plane spotting.

Sometimes all you need is a window or balcony.

Flight paths into Auckland International Airport.
Flight paths into Auckland International Airport. Photo credit: Auckland International Airport

Familiarise yourself with the flight paths used coming in and out of your city. Using Auckland as an example, flights often pass over many of the city's suburbs as they approach the airport.

The most frequent activity will be in the western skies as this is where the majority of Auckland's air traffic travels to and from: Australia.

Also, work out where the airport is in relation to where you live, and make sure you're familiar with what effect a change in wind direction will have on what activity you see in the skies above.

There's an app for that

The ultimate guide to becoming an expert planespotter
Photo credit:

Flight tracking apps are incredibly common now and while some offer amazing services for a fee, there's also plenty that offer basic information at no cost.

Arguably the most common app is FlightRadar24, which was one of the first to enter this space and has continued to develop over time.

It will show you a live map of aircraft not only nearby, but all over the world. This is ideal for keeping an eye on incoming flights so you know when and where to start looking, but also for identifying flights you can see with your naked eye.

AR mode on FlightRadar24 app.
AR mode on FlightRadar24 app. Photo credit:

It also has an augmented reality mode, which will bring up flight information when you point your phone in the direction of any aircraft.

Premium features also include overlaying live weather and rain radar graphics on top of the map, which is handy when spotting on a stormy afternoon.

Arrivals screen for Auckland International Airport.
Arrivals screen for Auckland International Airport. Photo credit:

The app also has live departure and arrival information for your local airport, so you can keep an eye on what flights are departing and arriving for the rest of the day. Don't forget that codeshare flights can appear more than once on the timetable.

Golf, echo, echo, kilo

Tune in to the best radio station around.
Tune in to the best radio station around. Photo credit: Dan Lake/Newshub

Now things are getting exciting. If you've ever been spotting out at the airport and strained your ears to listen to the scanner being held by the person next to you, then it's time to take this next step and get yourself a radio so you can listen to the pilots and controllers as the flights come and go.

Contrary to what some think, listening to air traffic control is totally legal. But be warned: New Zealand law states it is an offence to disclose what you hear on radio communications, but most importantly, it is an offence to rebroadcast the transmissions.

That's not the case in many other countries where it's totally fine to rebroadcast air traffic control communications. All you have to do is visit and see the 2932 different live audio feeds from around the world that can be listened to, to not only see the difference in laws in other countries, but also just how popular listening to air traffic has become.

So, in summary, in Aotearoa you can listen in, just don't stream it on the internet.

Radios which can tune into the frequency range required are pretty affordable these days and are often sold on Trade Me second-hand.

Start with an entry level Uniden scanner.
Start with an entry level Uniden scanner. Photo credit: Uniden.

At the lower price range, look for something like a Uniden 72XLT or 92XLT. 


Up to date frequencies for your local airport are available online, so check these and programme them into your scanner to make sure you're hearing what you want to.

There are a few key channels every major airport will be using:

  • Control: This is often the first communication you will hear from an inbound flight as it nears its destination.
  • Approach: The aircraft will then likely change to the approach frequency once its within 40 nautical miles of the airport. This is used to position the aircraft as it heads to line up with the runway.
  • Tower:  Finally the inbound aircraft will transfer to the tower frequency where it will be cleared to land.
  • Ground: Once on the tarmac, this is the frequency used to communicate to the pilot which taxiways to take to get to the correct gate, and to make sure they do it safely.

For departing aircraft, they move through the same channels but in the opposite direction, from ground up to control.

It's important to keep in mind that the audio may not always be clear, and will depend on your location. Sometimes you might hear the pilots and not the controller, or the other way around.

Do you have any tips or questions about plane spotting? Jump onto our Newshub Travel Facebook group, or email