Airplane Watching and Recognition

- A few tips -


"Dad, there's a plane coming in!"

"It's a Dash-8."

"How can you know? It's so far away!"


Airplane identification is easy if you follow these simple tips.

First take a pair of binoculars with you. You will be able to see the planes coming for farther away and it will give you more time to note typical features.

Buy yourself an aircraft recognition handbook. They usually contain pictures and silhouettes from front, side and under to aid shape recognition.

At first, try to identify a few characteristics:
  • propeller or jet engine
  • how many engines (1,2,3,4...)
  • engine position
    • nose
    • wing
      • in
      • on
      • under
    • tail
      • on the side or tail fuselage
      • in tail assembly
    • fuselage
  • ...
  • shape et dimension
  • etc.
B707, B 747, DC-8, A340
B 737
B 727
B737-200 B737-300+
  • wings (front wings)
    • shape of the wings
      • swept-back (ex. B-747)
      • straight (ex. CL-215)
      • tapered (ex. Dash-8)
      • variable geometry (rare)
      • delta (rare)
      • with (ex. Airbus A-320) or without winglet (ex. Boeing 757)
      • avec (ex. Airbus A-320) ou sans ailette (ex. Boeing 757)
    • flaps and ailerons
      • position of ailerons and trailing edge flaps
B-737, A310, A319, A320, A330
F-27, FH-227, Dash-8
  • tail assembly (fin and tail wings)
    • fuselage mounted tail unit
    • fin-mounted tail unit
    • T-tail unit
    • multiple (fins) tail unit
Vanguard, Viscount, DC--4, DC-6
BAe-146, C-5, C-17
  • landing gear
  • number of wheels
  • shape
  • position of main landing gear
    • in fuselage
    • in a nacelle against fuselage
    • with the engines
ATR-41, Dash-8
  • general silhouette
    • bulky (ex. BAe 146 100 serie)
    • short, medium, long fuselage
    • with (ex. B-747) or without an upper deck
    • special features
      • nose or tail extensions
      • radomes
      • ...

Lockheed CP-140 Aurora
(Lockheed CP-140 Aurora)

(SAAB 340)Saab 340 B

Montreal International Airport, located in Dorval, is a good place to see many Dash-8 and an occasionnal ATR-42. For a beginner, they seem to look alike. It's easy to distinguish one from the other if you use the tips mentionned above. Dash-8 vs ATR-42

Both planes have two propellers engines and are used for regional transport of passenger.

Dash-8 (airNova) ATR-42 (American Eagle)
The ATR-42 has a fin-mounted tail unit (horizontal stabilizer not quite at the top of the fin).
The Dash-8 has a T-tail unit.
Dash-8 (airNova)
ATR-42 (American Eagle)

The ATR-42 has two landing pods protruding on each low side of the fuselage containing the main landing gear.

The Dash-8's main landing gear is distinctive with its long leg between the motor housing.

Dash-8 (airNova) ATR-42 (American Eagle)
The ATR-42 has a relatively remarquable tail cone that is distinctive when seen in profile. ATR-42 (American Eagle)

In this exemple, we can see that all the aircraft caracteristics aren't needed for a basic recognition. Be aware that you will rarely have enough time to note every detail. Recognition of an airplane type commes with practice. Remember your first encounter with some individuals. First you remember the color of their hair but not the shape of the nose for instance. Then, as you see that person on a regular basis, you can tell it's him just by the way he walks.

The example above with the Dash-8 and the ATR-42 commes from a very short stay (little more than an hour) at the end of the runway of Montreal International Airport in Dorval. At this site, at least a dozen of these planes land within that period of time. It vecomes easy to roughly identify at first and then refining the observations, formely identify these planes.

(Since the last revision of this text in 2000, the ATR-42 has becomed a rare sight in Montréal skies. But a look-alike could be observed in summer of 2001, the Dornier 328) [no longer at YUL in 2004]

Here are three more exemples

McDonnell Douglas DC-9
Bombardier Regional Jet
Boeing 727

Text : Jean-Pierre Bonin © 1999-2004

You remember a few characteristics of the plane but can't remember the name?
Try this visual guide. I hope it will help you.

Click on the drawings to go to the visual identification guide.

B 737

Wondering how a plane flies and
you want to know more on the moving parts that help control flight

To more airplane watching pages

About the author

Web site conception and production , text, pictures and illustrations : Jean-Pierre Bonin     © 1999-2004
Send suggestions and comments to :
Web site created on August 8th 1999
Page created in 1999 / Last update of this page July 13th 2004

If you use my pictures or illustrations, please send me your web page address by e-mail.
If you use these images for a school research, then don't forget to mention the source of your document (and I wish you a good grade!)

 Autres sites du même auteur /
Other web sites created by the author

Pédagogie / Pedagogy [in French only]

Techniques d'électrophysiologie médicale /
Medical Electrophysiology Techniques
[in French only]