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Tracking airplanes used to be something only airline passengers cared about (“why is my flight late?”). But over time, general aviation pilots have come to use flight tracking services on a daily basis: family members track trips, flight schools monitor their fleet, and pilots take cues from other pilots about weather or airport congestion. FlightAware is probably the most popular option among pilots, and with good reason—it offers powerful tracking features and an easy-to-use mix of apps and online tools.
At the 2021 EAA AirVenture show, the company introduced a new paid service, called Aviator, which offers premium tracking features specifically targeted at piston airplanes. FlightAware says the package was developed by their own team of pilots, in an effort to combine many of their favorite features into one product. We’ve been using it for a week now and while we wouldn’t call it a must-have, there are some nice features for active pilots and fleet managers.
When you sign up for Aviator, you can register up to five piston aircraft (10 for the Aviator+ subscription). These are aircraft you regularly fly or track, and you do not have to be the owner—it works well for renters or flying clubs. You can track any airplane you want, and even save five more airplanes as favorites on your home screen, but registered aircraft offer the most options for alerts and scheduling.
One of the main additions here is the ability to create “flight intents,” which is a way to notify friends, family, or flying club members of an upcoming flight that won’t have a flight plan (like a VFR flight). This makes it easy to track almost any flight, including local or low level ones. Friends and family can receive alerts even before the airplane takes off, with the taxi out option.
When tracking a flight, you’ll benefit from FlightAware’s predictive ETAs, which go beyond the basics of distance divided by groundspeed. In fact, many airlines are using this feature to plan gate arrivals because FlightAware uses their machine learning technology to predict arrival times based on thousands of previous flights. Subscribers also get access to five months of past flight activity and statistics, which show top airports or routes by month. Aviator+ subscribers also get automated monthly reports via email.
Another helpful feature is not yet available in the app, but is online: premium map layers, including weather. This allows pilots to overlay a flight on sectional or IFR en route charts, then layer on AIRMETs/SIGMETs, lightning, icing, turbulence, and more. We’ve found this to be a useful training tool, since you can evaluate an upcoming flight (with a Flight Intent) or review a previous flight, complete with weather and airspace information.
There are two important limitations to remember. First, Aviator is restricted to piston aircraft, so if you’re flying a Meridian or a Citation, your N-number will not be accepted as a stored airplane. Multi-engine airplanes are allowed, but non-US/Canada airplanes are not.
Second, while ADS-B Out isn’t technically required, it does makes this service much more valuable. FlightAware has a network of over 30,000 ADS-B receivers worldwide, so their tracking goes far beyond Air Traffic Control sources. If you don’t have ADS-B Out and you’re flying VFR, it’s likely your aircraft won’t show up.
There are two subscription levels available: Aviator is $100/year and Aviator+ is $200/year. The Aviator plan should be enough for most casual users, and includes five registered piston aircraft, flight intents, five months of past flight activity, and aeronautical charts. Aviator+ allows 10 registered aircraft, automated monthly reports, and premium weather layers (like turbulence and icing charts).
If you’re a casual user of FlightAware, just tracking the occasional flight, this new subscription probably isn’t worth it. But if you travel a lot and would like to share those flights more easily—or if you operate a flight school—there are some helpful features in Aviator. We’ve found all kinds of uses for it over the last week, and it makes pretty good hangar flying too.