Who and why are all these little planes?
September 27, 2019 6:06 AM   Subscribe

A local driving school likes to use our neighborhood to teach parallel parking. I'm guessing that a local piloting school is doing the same thing, but would like to find out for sure why our airspace is so full of noisy little ships.

It's 5 AM, and a small, single-engine plane is flying noisy circles above my new neighborhood. It goes over about once a minute, and this has been going on for 40 minutes or so.

My other guess is that we're on the approach path for one of the regional airports, and these planes are just waiting for their turn to land.

I notice this sort of thing happening in the afternoon at least a few times a week. Young Corvid is delighted by airplanes, so they are normally quite welcome, but this is earlier and louder than I've noticed before, and has me wondering: is there any way of figuring out who these planes belong to and why they are flying tight circles over my house?

Public flight paths? Under-wing license plates? Transponders?

My next step is to research local flying schools and municipal airports, but a more direct path / education about small aircraft air traffic control would be most welcome.
posted by lordcorvid to Technology (15 answers total)
Go to flightradar24.com
posted by fixedthefernback at 6:26 AM on September 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

I doubt a 5am flight would be related to student lessons. FlightRadar can get you the registration number of the plane, though, and from there you can possibly determine who owns the plane, especially if it does belong to the flight school.

My wild guess for a single-engine prop at that time of day would be either law enforcement or agricultural activity.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:16 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Don't be shy about making a noise complaint- planes are a nuisance. Contact your local airport - they will have a formal process for handling buzzy planes. Unless it's military, on that you will be out of luck.

Details from the FAA.
posted by zenon at 7:33 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Any spraying for mosquitoes happening in your area?
posted by teragram at 7:37 AM on September 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Any agricultural areas nearby? I know you refer to planes and not helicopters, but I learned recently that cherries trees can be dried by having helicopters fly overhead. I was familiar with crop spraying (and that would happen by plane, requiring multiple passes) so perhaps it is some other agricultural use, which would explain the early hours.
posted by nathaole at 7:56 AM on September 27, 2019

flightradar24 if you're in a fairly densely populated area, or you could always set up an adsb-detecting setup yourself; you need a software defined radio dongle (~$30) and some free software and you can track nearby planes on your computer.
posted by cgs06 at 7:59 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not enough info, but I will say that part of the private pilot exam involves flying a circle around a fixed point on the ground and flying a square/rectangle. They require some practice. When I got mine it was a pretty rural area so I'd go find an intersection of some country roads and use that as my point.

Though 5AM is a little on the early side..
posted by booooooze at 8:32 AM on September 27, 2019

a more direct path / education about small aircraft air traffic control would be most welcome.

This varies slightly on airport size and whether they have a control tower or not, but in general:

Imagine a rectangle with an airport runway as one of the long legs of that rectangle. Aircraft will fly that rectangle in order to land, usually in left-hand turns. So, if I'm coming in to land at a runway pointed directly east, regardless of where I'm coming from I'll start descending from a distance away and maneuver so that I'm on the north side of the airport flying westbound. This is your "downwind" leg, and should be about 1,000 feet above ground level and around a mile horizontally from the runway. I'll fly away from the runway for maybe a mile or two, then start descending again and turn south. Once I'm about lined up with the runway, I'll turn back eastbound and descend to land. This is the basic landing pattern. Departure is a little more loose, but generally folks will climb out quickly on the runway heading for some distance before turning to their en route heading. Small planes generally do not circle away from an airport waiting for there to be a slot open to land (there are some exceptions to this, but they are rare and would not involve tight, low altitude circles over your house).

5 am is very early for flight training, but not unheard of. However, it's generally frowned on to do maneuvers training over populated areas (just in case a problem presents itself). I'd be very surprised if people are using your neighborhood for training purposes unless you're a lone house way out in the middle of nowhere. Much more likely would be law enforcement or other surveillance, although they also tend to rely on daylight so that time of day is still a little weird.

Here's how I would use sound to guess what's going on:
-Constant noise that does not change in pitch or intensity - someone is doing circles over your house
-Noise that changes in intensity - someone is doing surveillance/inspection tracks
-Noise that changes in pitch and intensity - you're underneath an airport traffic pattern

If you're comfortable sending me a message with where you live, I can take a look and see what's going on in your area.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:47 AM on September 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

Are you sure it is not a law enforcement drone?
posted by AugustWest at 9:06 AM on September 27, 2019

In addition to the near-airport traffic backseatpilot talks about, pilot training also involves a few maneuvers that students practice, like turns-around-a-point. Flight instructors often have their favorite spot to take students that is out of the way of other airplanes. You might be unlucky and be under someone's favorite spot. If so, if you can figure out which flight school they're coming from a polite phone call might encourage them to go elsewhere.

If you can post where you live to the nearest mile or so it'd be easier to figure out if a nearby airport is a busy student training place. You can try to figure it out yourself too using this map site. Switch to "Map" view and find yourself with Google Maps, then switch to "Sectional" or "VFR" to see a map with airports clearly marked. Here's a legend for the map; airports are in the upper left corner.
posted by Nelson at 9:56 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Student pilot here--practice areas are usually not over a populated area. If you're out in the country, and not in a town there could be a chance you're in one.

Take a look at google maps or Skyvector and see if there's any airports within about 10 miles of your house. There's landmarks that pilots flying under visual flight rules will use as they approach non-towered airports--for me, I know that a good way to line up for an entry into the traffic pattern is to descend to pattern altitude around the outskirts of a small bedroom community directly east of the airport. There's been at least one time that I circled the town when a bunch of jets showed up for landing at the same time. Some of my friends live in this town and they report lots of single engine traffic overhead.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:53 AM on September 27, 2019

Thanks for all the responses! Many good leads for me to follow. (Am I allowed to mark them all Best Answer?)

As many have asked, this is in the suburbia south of Seattle. Not urban, not rural, though there is still a lot of green hereabouts.

Definitely an airplane, not a drone.

No agriculture, no visible spraying. Looks like a small commuter aircraft, not any crop duster I've ever seen.

As best as I can tell/recall, the planes tend to make a counter-clockwise rectangle, staying south of and square to the nearby highway.

Edit: I should also note that I appear to be underneath a (much higher) approach path for SeaTac airport, based on the jet traffic.
posted by lordcorvid at 11:34 AM on September 27, 2019

If you're near Auburn airport, their traffic patterns are designed to keep air traffic over Rte. 167 and away from the residential areas to the east. If you're in that area and still noticing a lot of flyovers, it's probably not airport traffic.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:45 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

local media traffic reporting?
posted by patnok at 1:36 PM on September 27, 2019

The 5am I can think of training-wise is hours of flying in the dark. The handful of small aircraft pilots I've known after the no-instructor level and carrying-passengers level and outside-of-daylight levels are still going for number of hours experience to move up to the next level. That's a really bad explanation, but it's the reason I used to take a long lunch with a work buddy to go to an airport and fly to another airport just to eat and fly back and go back to work. Expensive lunch, but X hours of flight time. We'd fly at night and contact the tower for clearance to circle around Disneyland to watch the fireworks.

I'd suspect traffic monitoring or some such. There are so many helicopters flying around here that I've learned to tell the MediVac going to the hospital from the PoPo from the news choppers just by sound.

Hope you figure it out. I'm going to try that flightradar24 thing and see if they track helicopters as well next time.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:58 PM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

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