The sky over Southwest Maine becomes more interesting every day after 1p.m. That’s when long haul flights—making their way from Paris, Cairo, and Doha—begin to arrive over North America after their hours-long crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. The next legs of their journeys will scatter them across the United States to Chicago O’Hare, John F. Kennedy, Logan, and Hartsfield-Jackson. But for now, their fuselages, tiny like toys hanging from fishing wire at 35,000 feet, are over my house where, from my patchy lawn, I’ve become a one-woman air traffic control center. My tools: a green fold-up camping chair, a palm-sized pair of binoculars, a straw sunhat, and my favorite app, Plane Finder.
Much like birdwatching, tail spotting (or plane spotting) is a hobby for enthusiasts wanting to learn more about who or what is flying around above them in the sky. And as with any hobby in the 21st century, technology has improved a tail spotter’s relationship to her subject. You’ve seen versions of these apps’ interfaces before on electronic elevator displays or on news broadcasts: a digitized map of the United States crawling with little animated airplanes, each one representing a commercial flight from Wichita to Dallas, Seattle to Spokane. Today, apps like Plane Finder or FlightAware provide us the minute-to-minute details of aviation with impeccable accuracy. These apps can tell you the airline, airplane model, altitude, ground speed, and flight path of just about any plane at any given time. Which is how midday became my favorite time to allow my normally indoor cat to nose about our yard while I greeted flights from my newly acquired lawn chair: She explored the ground as I explored the sky.
It used to be that all you needed for plane spotting was access to the outskirts of an airfield to marvel at planes taking off and landing. For years, my most sacred place in New York was a trash-strewn parking lot in Jamaica Bay at the end of one of John F. Kennedy Airport’s four runways. That’s where I would spend Sundays—the most anxious day—watching planes take off and land at a steady pace, like a heartbeat, the rhythm of travel soothing my jumpy mind. But as COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, the skies emptied out and planes were grounded, giving the atmosphere over New York an apocalyptic feel and dashing one of my favorite—and most therapeutic—hobbies. Suddenly, just like everything else in 2020, my tail spotting proclivities changed in accommodation of the pandemic.
My life changed, too. Soon we had relocated to be closer to family in Maine, which is anything but a commercial airline hub. Though the Portland Jetport is technically “international,” it hosts just a few dozen flights in a day, compared to JFK’s 800. The skies are generally sparse in rural Maine—that is, until about midday, when you can often hear the echo roar of a jet overhead. And so, I downloaded Plane Finder.
Between 2014 and 2015, many flight apps saw a boost in users. Over the course of that year, there were a number of high-profile aviation tragedies that aroused people’s inner investigators. Most alluring to the general public was the mystery of Malaysian Air flight 370, which departed Kuala Lumpur the night of March 8, 2014, and flew seemingly into an abyss. Search crews spent months combing the Indian Ocean for wreckage, while lay people like me combed the internet for theories and clues. Courtney Love even got in on the action, posting her MH 370 hypotheses to Twitter. The world was waking up to the idea that aviation provides an eternal flame of mystery, an idea that was already a central tenet to the tail spotting community. Tail spotting can be a soothing sky-watching habit, but its community also regards itself as a coterie of amateur detectives.
Using flight trackers like the one I access from my iPhone, tail spotters have turned their attentions to mysteries large and small. The community was quick to recognize that another Malaysian Air flight had been shot down on its journey from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and that there was suspicious activity with the flights taken by Saudi officials surrounding the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Last fall, tail spotters, along with mainstream news outlets, speculated about the absence of planes that seemed to suggest the airspace above Joe Biden’s Delaware home had become newly restricted—a sign that he had won the 2020 presidential election prior to it officially being called? This theory was later debunked, and we learned the restricted airspace was normal, but the desire for concrete answers about the election had us looking for clues in the sky. In between the blockbuster cases are smaller ones. Recently, from Twitter, I watched as #AvGeeks tried to figure out why an Air Canada flight headed to Seoul turned back to Toronto only an hour into its trip, speculating an onboard medical emergency. It’s the lower-profile aviation riddles that affirm what I’ve always believed: The details we gather from flight trackers—their depictions of tiny planes traversing the globe, each with its own story—have much to tell us about human behavior. Where are we going? How can we use that information to better understand the world? It’s a surprising place to look, but a flight tracker like Plane Finder, more than anything else, gives us data about ourselves.
What is gleaned from flight data is sometimes more complex than how late a plane pulled back from a gate: We learn authoritarian governments will go vastly out of their way to silence a single journalist, that we are eager—perhaps overly eager—for the resolution of a contentious election with too-close-to call margins, and that a pilot suffering from mental illness can build his own flight simulator and rehearse a clandestine mission before plunging a 777 with 239 passengers onboard into the Indian Ocean. It’s a lot of steps just to triangulate a single airplane’s journey or its meaning to us, which is why the participation of #AvGeeks is not just the about supporting the app. Sharing this information is central to the spirit of the plane spotter’s relationship to the sky. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French aviator and aviation philosopher, once wrote, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction. The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.”
The days of the pandemic wore on. My indoor cat, with enough visits to the yard, was becoming an outdoor cat. I knew without having to look at my phone that the first plane overhead at midday was the Qatar Airways flight to Boston. Still, there was one question that would go unanswered. Overwrought with information about transmission rates and handwashing routines, my mind was hungry for moments of the harmless indulgence of a day dream: Who was flying in a pandemic? Toward the end of summer, I realized I wasn’t using Plane Finder to solve mysteries so much as to create them. A survival technique, you could say.
Too meek to actually integrate with the tail spotters of social media, I watched the watchers and as they swapped theories and facts freely across platforms. I felt part of their community based on my silent participation. I was gathering my own data while reading the news: Some people were flying because they had to, but others did because they had the privilege to not have to worry about the risks of contracting COVID-19 or because they didn’t believe the science. My incredulity metamorphosed into rage as I saw in my tail spotting observations proof that some humans will use any logic available to make exceptions for themselves. Even in a pandemic.
More cathartically, though, the planes also provided me with a sense of escape. To fathom being above land, hurtling toward a new destination when my only one for months had been the grocery store, was restorative. Planes have always filled me with an awe of human innovation when I am otherwise depleted by humans in general. The technology dazzles me—millions of people in the atmosphere above us at any given time is in itself remarkable, but last summer, gazing skyward to the distant sound of jet engines was one of the only ways I was able to find any tranquility. It stoned me in a weird, satisfying way. The coming and going of airplanes is the amalgam of computing, engineering, navigation, commerce, exploration, and, above all, humanity.
For centuries, humans have gazed skyward in navigation, exploration, and benediction. We’ve used the sky to cross oceans in canoes, to tilt our chins heavenward and pray for loved ones or desired outcomes, and to simply pass idle time identifying shapes and animals in the plump curves of a cumulus cloud. My grandfather had a ritual of going outside every night to look at the moon. A colonel in the Air Force, he had fought in several major wars. I always suspected his nightly routine of checking on the moon came from his so many hours logged in the sky. The moon had kept him company when he was in the air. Why shouldn’t he return its companionship from the ground?
From my own small spot on earth, I used my awe of the technology required for humans to take flight to forgive them. As we were failing so profoundly as a society, knowing a plane overhead potentially carried life-saving vaccines nestled in their chilly boxes helped me remember there were bright data points too, one little yellow plane dutifully crossing the screen of an app like a shooting star.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.