Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Planespotting for Beginners

Once upon a time when I lived in Sydney, Australia, I was standing down at the beachfront one night looking out into the dark distance of the Pacific Ocean when a single, plaintive light came twinkling into existence on the horizon. The lonely light gradually drifted closer and grew in strength, and without a great leap of recognition I soon realized that I was watching a late evening flight arriving in from New Zealand. Covering those vast distances, even at the jet-powered speed of a commercial airliner, there was something slow and sad about the light drifting wistfully closer.

I don’t know about you, but for me there are few more humbling sights as a human being than to look out on a clear night and see the silent winking of an aircraft’s lights, especially when it’s high overhead and as it makes its way into the distance. There is something about the scale and distance of the immense and powerful aircraft covering its monumental journey, whilst looking no more than a speck in the sky, that brings me for some reason very much in touch with the fragility of life, and the true tininess of human beings in comparison with the vast space of our planet and its atmosphere. Even though commercial airline flight is clearly a widespread commodity in many parts of the world these days, we can always imagine that the people on the plane have some special trip ahead of them, some work meeting, or are perhaps heading back to their families and friends and the familiarity of home.

I couldn't resist choosing this particular picture of an aeroplane (it's not even an Austrian airline).
The work of RuthAS under a Creative Commons Licence.
We recently had a visit from a relative from Germany who is a commercial airline pilot. He was stopping over ready to pilot his flight the next day from a nearby airport, and having some free time decided he would come and see us and visit my grandfather, his great uncle. When he was growing up, he would see my grandfather on visits to my Austrian grandmother’s home village in the mountains. There they spent long and happy hours in each other's company, though as I understand it, the ambition to become a pilot did not come until many years later. Fast-forward to 2015, and there we were sitting in my grandfather's home in England, with a living breathing pilot telling his wide-eyed audience about the wonders of flight and the true realities of the career of a pilot, the good and the bad. We were of course, suitably starstruck.

During that meeting he suggested we get hold of a cheap plane-tracking app, easily downloadable from the app store or whatever, for a bit of fun to track him back home the next day. I went for PlaneFinder, but in reality I see there are many available, and (even normal) people use them to track relatives flying in for a visit.

There are more planes than I thought.

Apart from happily tracking our relative back home the following morning, directly over the roof of Grandad’s care home, my current usage is far more nerdy than tracking my rellies. If I’m walking through the park or on my way to and from work, and see a vapour trail tracing across the sky, I will look it up. I find out which airline and aircraft is flying the journey, and where the people on board are headed (sometimes bringing back unpleasant memories of long-haul flights to and from Australia). I see how long I can keep sight of a particular plane as it soars into the distance. It helps me to visualize something that has often captured my interest and imagination: the true scale of the island upon which I live. The other night I just about managed to watch a plane from passing mostly overhead to the point where it passed the coast and headed out over the North Sea, before I lost track of it in the haze. 

They say the aeroplane has shrunk the planet, but I think in a way it can also help to teach us how big it really is compared to us, or rather how small we are in comparison to it. As a physicist I appreciate anything that helps me to make these visualisations.