There are numerous free websites and apps out there that provide near real-time flight tracking. These are useful for keeping an eye on airline arrivals when picking up family at the airport, monitoring airport delay/cancellation trends and keeping tabs on the location of general aviation aircraft.
Most tracking sites rely on the public FAA data feed to display this information. This works well for most users because the feed provides a complete view of all the airplanes in the national airspace system (except for blocked airplanes), but the tradeoff is that the data is delayed by about 5 minutes.
A popular flight tracking app called FlightRadar24 takes a different approach to this and supplements the FAA feed with real-time ADS-B traffic data, based on its worldwide network of over 8,000 ADS-B receivers. This allows you view the exact location of many of the airplanes displayed in the app without the 5-minute delay limitation.
About 70% of all commercial passenger airplanes are currently ADS-B out equipped, so the app is essentially displaying a live radar feed of airline traffic. FlightRadar24 isn’t quite as useful for tracking general aviation flights in real-time yet, since the number of ADS-B out equipped private airplanes is considerably lower. You’ll still see these airplanes in the app, but the exact location may be off a bit since the data is coming in from a combination of the traditional FAA feed and FlightRadar24’s alternate tracking methods.
FlightRadar24 takes this real-time tracking a step further by incorporating a technology called augmented reality in the app. This allows you to point your iPhone or iPad at the sky and identify planes flying nearby or overhead using your device’s location sensors and camera.
The app will display a small data tag on top of the live view of your surroundings, showing the airplane flight number, airline, destination, aircraft type and more. You can change the radar radius to limit the amount of targets that appear on the screen, from 1 to 93 miles away.
3D Pilot View
Another fun feature to check out in the FlightRadar24 app is the 3D view. This takes the GPS position data, ground track, groundspeed, and altitude to display a simulated real-time view from out the front of the airplane using satellite imagery. The quick position updates provide fluid motion in the full screen view, and allows you to watch some interesting approaches into airports around the world.