Commercial Aircraft Identification
Imagine the following: You're sitting in Circle Pines International Airport waiting for your flight. Suddenly, a uniformed crew member - a pilot or flight attendant - plops down in the seat next to you. Opportunity! Endear yourself and you might score a free upgrade to first class or a tour around the cockpit.
However, if you simply blurt out I like airplanes!, the conversation is sure to go nowhere.
What to do?
Try opening with something like: Say, our CRJ sure is a handsome bird. Or: Say, isn't it odd that they are phasing out the MD-80 while producing the 717 which is basically the same plane? Bam! Instant connection. Sure, your uniformed crew member may point out that the regional carriers who fly the CRJs treat their pilots like dirt or that the 717 only has half the seats of an MD-80 and stop talking to me, but like all professionals they will appreciate you having done your homework.
It's like all those after-school specials promised: first you get the knowledge, then you get the power, then you get the fame.
However, fame costs. Here is where you start paying.
Commercial Aircraft Identification
You can't have sparkling conversations about aircraft if you can't identify them. Pilots assure me there exists no greater insult than having spent every waking hour of the last decade learning the ins and outs of your aircraft only to have the doofuses back in steerage not know what they're flying on. Sure, they'll probably overlook your confusing an Embraer 190 and a 170, or maybe even confusing the 170 with the 145. But beyond that? Let's just say you're in for some chop. And don't you dare confuse a Boeing with an Airbus (or vice versa) and get caught up in that blood feud. Not since MDs and Ph.Ds have two households both alike in dignity gone at it like cats and dogs.
In the world of flight, not being able to identify aircraft types would be like not understanding nouns and verbs, limiting your career options to athletics or the hip-hop.
Well, LabKitty is here to help. Behold LabKitty's patented guide to Commercial Aircraft Identification! A handy flowchart and supplemental notes to help you identify aircraft you will likely encounter in your vacation and business travel. We're sticking with the major types here - I'm not claiming my guide is comprehensive. Specifically, we'll ignore the smaller business jets, charters, and prop planes. No helicopters, gliders, or ultralights, either. Also: no Tupolevs or Ilyushins (sorry, Aeroflot).
Additionally, we're mostly gloss over subtypes. So, for example, I'll point out how to identify the Embraer 145, but won't get into the differences between the 135 and the 145, not to mention the 135ER, 135LR, 140ER, 140LR, 145STD, 145EU, 145EP, 145LR, 145LU, 145MK, and the 145XR, or the whole Legacy 600 thing, primarily because I can't tell the difference. If you are a pilot, mechanic, or some freakozoid who can distinguish these simply by listening to one fly overhead, well, my fur is off to you. This is intro to plane spotting, and we're just trying to get in the ballpark. You can feel free to chastise me in the comments for oversights and errors.
LabKitty gives you: Commercial Aircraft Identification.
Position and hold!
LabKitty on Zazzle
Our tale is long, yes. But it is long in a Lord of the Rings kind of way, not in a Critique of Pure Reason kind of way. That is to say, an adventure with many scenic overlooks and roadside attractions rather than a painful slog though a vast poisonous bog where the faces of submerged undead call you to forever slumber. Still, you may wish to purchase a fine LabKitty beverage product to slurf before proceeding.
Aircraft Terminology - Parts is Parts
To begin, let's cover some terminology. Knowing proper part names helps build your flight cred - you're not getting a complimentary meal coupon by calling the engines "spinny blow things." More to the point, these terms are necessary to point out features used for type identification.
I refer you to the labeled aircraft silhouettes above.
The stuff that the plane lands on is properly called "gear" and it comes in two varieties: main gear and nose gear. Nose gear is the one located at the front of the aircraft. The main gear is situated around midpoint. You need at least two of them (one on either side) so that the plane doesn't fall over. Some larger aircraft have additional main gear for improved weight distribution (the 747 has four, for example). The part of the gear that comprises the tires and wheels is properly called the undercarriage.
Also up front is the windscreen or what might colloquially be called a windshield. The windscreen is made up of individual window panels, the number and shape of which is handy for distinguishing between Boeing, Airbus, and the smaller regional jet types. More on windscreens later.
You know what wings are, and you probably also know that the little vertical additions on the end of the wings are called winglets (technically they're called "wingtip devices"). These reduce drag and in so doing reduce fuel consumption. As such, you might guess all aircraft would have winglets. Not so. Winglets are a relatively recent development (within the last decade or two) which meant retrofitting aircraft already in service. It doesn't make economic sense to add winglets to an aircraft - or an aircraft type - that is nearing the end of its service life. As such, the presence/absence of winglets can assist identification. For example, MD-80s don't have winglets, we are told, because these aircraft are nearing retirement.
Additionally, the shape of the winglet can assist in identification. You will often see a two-part winglet on Airbus types that extend both above and below the wing (called a wingtip fence). On Boeing aircraft, the devices are typically one-piece and extend only above the wing.
Bolted either underneath the wings and/or on the tail are the engines. Engine is a perfectly-acceptable term, but there is one case where we will need to refer specifically to the engine housing - i.e., the outside covering of the engine - which is properly called the nacelle. Specifically, that special case is the Boeing 737, because many 737 models have odd-shaped engine nacelles. More later.
Incidentally, there are a number of different aircraft engine manufacturers - General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls-Royce, just to name the big three. Their engines look different from one another, and serious aircraft nerdz can identify them on sight. However, except in one or two cases, engine type is not a good indicator of aircraft type for the simple reason that engines are interchangeable, at least to some extent.
Finally, at the tail of the aircraft, you find the tail of the aircraft (properly called the empennage). Here you will find the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. The shape of these is one of your primary identification tools. More soon.
How to Do It - Flowchart!
Devotees of the Gestalt theory of psychology will posit that aircraft identification, like any complex visual task, is internalized as a parallel matching algorithm. In lay terms, pros just look at the thing, shrug, and say something like: it's a 767. Whattayawantfromme?
But if you're just getting started, it's helpful to have a roadmap with points of interest that guide you to your destination. To this end, I have grouped the types we will consider into about a half-dozen categories and applied a flowchart to the whole mess (see above). A quick summary of the identification process goes as follows: (1) Does it have propellers? (2) If not, is it a T-tail? If not, does it have (3) four, (4) three, or (5) two engines? Finally, If it has two engines is it an (5a) Embraer, (5b) Boeing, or (5c) Airbus?
We'll visit each of these steps in the sections below and fill-in some details. The major divisions like "propeller vs jet" are pretty obvious, but eventually the types get harder to tell apart. For these, I'll point out the most obvious features we know that help nail down the type, rather than just admonishing you to gawk and memorize the shape like you're some kind of secret agent. Although, alas, I'll admit up-front that we sort of throw up my hands when it comes to the baby Airbuses. (Why would a company make so many different types that look exactly alike?)
Follow along on the handy identification flowchart above (please see the Image Credits section at the bottom of the page for image credits). Print it out and take on vacation. Consult while en route or on the beach!
1) Does it have propellers? - Begin your tour here.
Just like there was a time when all ice cream was vanilla, there was a time when all planes were propeller planes (aka "prop" planes; often aka "turboprops," although not all prop planes are turboprops. The distinction won't concern us here). But these days, the major carriers mostly use jet aircraft, as they are faster and have a higher cruising altitude, ostensibly for the smoother air there. On our last flight, someone forgot to inform the air of that.
However, a few prop planes persist, usually servicing short regional hops. If your plane has propellers, chances are it's either a Dash-8 or a Saab (yes, the car company). They're easy to tell apart.
Wings mounted on top of the fuselage? Big dopey rectangular engines that the gear comes out of? Dash-8 (more properly known as a Bombardier Dash 8 or Q Series, previously known as the de Havilland Canada Dash 8 or DHC-8). Otherwise: probably a Saab. The big Saab is a Saab 2000 and the little Saab is a Saab 340. They look very different from the Dash-8 and from each other.
One more: I should probably also mention the ATR-72 (shown at lower left), built by the French-Italian firm Aerei da Trasporto Regionale. It looks like a Dash-8, except the gear extends from the fuselage rather than the engine nacelles. It's mostly used by non-U.S. carriers.
2) Is it a T-Tail? - Ode to Empennage
You have reached this step because your plane does not have propellers. The next major division is between t-tails and not-t-tails. As the name implies, the t-tail has a tail shaped like the letter "t" (more properly: the horizontal stabilizer is mounted on top of the vertical stabilizer rather than on the fuselage). The t-tails we will consider are also easily identifiable in that the engines are mounted at the rear of the aircraft rather than under the wings. A picture says it all (see above).
If you are identifying a commercial t-tail, you basically have four options: the MD-80 (which I'm going to aka as an MD-81, MD-82, MD-83, MD-87, and MD-88, as well as the MD-90 which might upset purists) and all the rest, where "all the rest" are much smaller than the MadDog.*
* I am told you earn cred in certain circles if you refer to the MD-80 (or any McDonnell Douglas product) as a "MadDog" (because: McDonnell Douglas). It's unclear whether this is a term of endearment or a term of derision (like calling a Dash-8 a "Crash-8" or an Airbus a "Scarebus"). Your mileage may vary.
Back to the task at hand...
Count the number of windows in the windscreen. More than four? It's an MD-80 (the MD-80 also has two little windows above the main windscreen called "eyebrows"). Otherwise, you either have (1) an Embraer 135/145 or (2) a Bombardier CRJ (Canadair Regional Jet). We won't attempt to distinguish the EMB135 from the 145 or the -200, -700, and -900 CRJ subtypes. The Embraer 145 has a long nose; the CRJ's have a stubby nose (see pics). Also, the two aircraft use different engines - Rolls-Royce on the Embraer and Pratt & Whitney on the CRJ - which are easily distinguishable. There is also a slight difference in the shape of the vertical stabilizer. Lastly, for reasons I don't understand, I have yet to see a EMB-145 with winglets.
Corrigendum: Apparently the CRJ has GE CF34 and not Pratt and Whitney engines (but they still have a different appearance than the engines used on the Embraer). See Ozzman's Aug 7th comment. Thanks Ozzman!
Oops. Fly in the ointment. A few years back, Boeing started producing something called the 717 to compete in the regional jet market. You can distinguish it from the Embraer 145 and the CRJ's by the shape of the nose. In fact, the 717 looks just like a baby MD-80. Seriously. It's like an MD-80 got preggers and pooped it out.
Oops, Another fly in the ointment. A popular t-tail outside of the U.S. is/was the Fokker 100. They don't make them anymore, and American carriers don't fly them as far as I know. It looks identical to the 717 except it has an Airbus windscreen rather than a Boeing windscreen (more below on windscreens) and the two emergency exit doors over the wings are right next to each other rather than separated by a row. Think of the Fokker 100 as a baby mutant MD-80.
UPDATE: As Joe-e's Sept 3rd comment points out, I should have included the DC-9 as another aka for the MD-80. Thanks Joe-e!
UPDATE: As phexlink points out in the comments, the Bae146 we list in the 4-engine category has a t-tail, so it should technically go here. However, the engines are mounted on the wings rather than the fuselage like a classic t-tail (and we ran out of room on the t-tail picture) so I stuck it in the 4-engine category.
3) Four Engines? - Two under each wing
If you have reached this step, it is because (1) your plane does not have propellers and (2) your plane is not a t-tail. Also, there are engines under the wings. If there are four engines (two on each side), identification is pretty straightforward. Unless you're in a third-world country, it's either a 747 or one of the big Airbuses. These are easy to tell apart. If you're in a third-world country (or it's 1970) you might be looking at a 707. We shall not consider this possibility.
747 - The classic jumbo, with characteristic fuselage featuring upper-deck bulge (housing first-class passengers). The Boeing 747 is probably the most-recognizable aircraft in the world.
A380 - Airbus' recently-released ginormous design. Note the double rows of windows and overall ginormous size. Big forehead. Also: ginormous. You can often spot a A380 by the accompanying gaggle of airplane nerds taking pictures of it.
A340 - By process of elimination, if it's not a 747 or an A380, it's probably an A340. Note comically-stretched fuselage.
Bonus! The Bae 146 is used in by several European carriers as a regional jet. It's much smaller than the other four-engine types we consider here (in fact, you might not expect such a small aircraft to have four engines) and is easily recognizable. A later improved version of the Bae 146 was built called the Avro RJ.
4) Three Engines?
If there's an engine under each wing and a third one in the tail (more properly: mounted in the vertical stabilizer) you probably have yourself an MD-11/DC-10. In the U.S., they are primarily if not exclusively used by freight carriers such as FedEx.
Spotting Tip: Jelle informs us (see June 8 comment) that the MD-11 has winglets whereas the DC-10 does not. Thanks Jelle!
The DC-10 gets my vote for the best lookin' civilian aircraft ever produced. It has a perfect sense of proportion, and there's something majestic about the trijet design. Alas, the trijet design contributed to the DC-10's somewhat spotty safety record, as LabKitty almost got to experience first-hand when one tried to kill me a few years back (you can read all about that harrowing tale in my Ode to Flight).
Two other three-engine types are/were the Boeing 727 and the Lockheed L1011 (not shown). Most were retired decades ago. In fact, I only mention them to have an excuse to bring this up: In the first episode of The West Wing, Toby tells a stewardess that they're flying into Dulles on an L1011, which is highly unlikely unless they're flying on one equipped with a time machine. Perhaps in the future, Aaron Sorkin might consult LabKitty for proper rapid-fire aircraft dialog.
Wait, MD DC, what?
DC = Douglas Corporation, which merged with McDonnell Aircraft in 1967 to become McDonnell-Douglas, at which time their type specifiers changed from DC to MD. An MD-11 is more-or-less the same plane as a DC-10, although it's larger and has improved avionics and whatnot. McDonnell-Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997, which is why you don't see new MD types.
5a) Two-engine Embraer?
Our final category (two engines) is where things get confusing, because this is a common configuration and there's so many possibilities to choose from. Big picture: it's either an Embraer 170/175/190, an Airbus 300 series, or a Boeing 7x7 (where x = 3, 5, 6 or 7).
Let's see if we can't sort this out.
Windscreen = four windows or six?
The easiest way to identify a two-engine jet as an Embraer is to count the number of windows in the windscreen. Four windows = Embraer. Six or more windows = Airbus or Boeing. And if its an Embraer, its either a 170, 175 or a 190 (recall we met the Embraer 145 earlier in the section on t-tails). Each of these get a little larger as the numbers go up, but to be honest I can't tell them apart on sight. Sometimes the type is written on the nose.
If the windscreen has six windows, it's either a Boeing* or an Airbus. Eventually, you'll figure out that a Boeing "looks like a Boeing" and an Airbus "looks like an Airbus." But that doesn't help the novice spotter. One helpful trick is to again look at the windscreen. Number the separate windows one through six. On a Boeing, windows #1 and #6 are parallelograms**, with the leading edge larger than the trailing edge. On an airbus, windows #1 and #6 are rectangular but the rear upper corner is clipped off. Please refer to Know Your Windscreens, below.
* the new 787 has four, but you're not going to confuse a Dreamliner with an Embraer.
** yeah, technically it's not a parallelogram, but you get the gist.
Know Your Windscreens - Boeing or Airbus or Something Else?
UPDATE: Have a look at Chris' Oct 14 comment for help on differentiating Boeing and Airbus based on fuselage shape. Thanks, Chris!
UPDATE II: See also crslinyc's Dec 08 comment for using wingtip strobe lights to help differentiate Boeing and Airbus.
5b) Two-engine Boeing?
If you've identified your two-engine aircraft as a Boeing, it's then a question of whether it's a 737, 757, 767, or 777. The four types increase in size, but its usually easier to look for their characteristic features. Please refer to the examples shown above.
737 - Sits low to ground. Two-wheeled undercarriages. If you can see the gear, you can stop now. Also, the main gear does not retract inside the 737, so you may be able to see the tires tucked underneath one flying overhead. Typically sort of stubby looking, although the newer "stretch" models have a more-pleasing shape. Also: two-part vertical stabilizer. One final unique characteristic of the 737 are the flattened engine nacelles appearing on many (but, alas, not all) models. See pic below. Apparently these are called "hamster pouches," although it's possible the youngsters have been hacking Wikipedia again.
757/767 - The 757 and 767 look very similar, although the 767 is indeed larger (in a side-by-side comparison, a 757 sort of looks like an anorexic 767). Both types have four-wheeled main undercarriages, distinguishing them from the smaller 737 and the larger 777. On the 757, the rear door is under the vertical stabilizer and the nose gear is directly under the main cabin door. On the 767, the rear door is ahead of the vertical stabilizer and the nose gear is ahead of the main cabin door. Also, the 767 is unique in that it is the only aircraft in which the gear hangs forward when extended (see inset at lower right).
UPDATE: Scouse23 provides another tip for telling the 757 and 767 apart down in the GuestBook. Thanks Scouse23!
777 - Six-wheeled main undercarriages. If you can see the gear, you can stop now. Also: knifey tail instead of the cone-shaped tail used on the 757 and 767. Also: huge engines - we dare say comically huge - but this doesn't necessarily jump out at you. Engineer-types also go on about how the 777 fuselage cross-section is circular instead of whatever it is on other planes, but without actually cutting one in half, this is not much help.
Wait - 753? 739? What?
You will occasionally see a Boeing type other than a 7-something-7. These are simply a combination of the variant with the primary designator. Thus, for example, a 753 is just shorthand for a 757-300.
5c) Two-engine Airbus?
You have arrived here because you have exhausted all other possibilities in our flowchart. You probably have yourself one of the baby Airbuses.
An A330 is decidedly larger than the other two-engine Airbus 3xx series - it looks and feels more like a cousin of the (four-engined) A340. Note four-wheeled undercarriages.
As for the rest of the 300 series - one word: Yikes. Can someone explain how to tell the difference between the A310, A318, A319, A320, and A321? They all have the same nose and tail shapes. They have identical windscreens. Except for the A310, they all have two-wheeled undercarriages (the A310 has four-wheeled main undercarriages). Sure, they're different sizes, but without counting seats or a tape measure, I'm at a loss.
As such, we're going to treat "Baby Airbus" as an acceptable answer if you have exhausted all other possibilities.
UPDATE: Hey, everybody! Go down and read David's Oct 21 and Salvatore's Sept 27th Guestbook comments for how to ID the Airbuses. Thanks, guys!
UPDATE: StMcC points out that A310 (and, to our eye, the A330) has a more pointy nose than the other baby Airbuses. Bonus tip!
UPDATE: As FlyerJohn informs us in the comments: Airbus 319 - One door over wing. Airbus 320 - Two doors over wing. Airbus 321 - One door forward of wing, one door rearward of wing. Thanks!
Bonus fact! The aircraft that got clobbered by a bunch of geese and ditched on the Hudson w/o loss of life back in February 2008 was an A320. Go Captain Sully!
Now that the Dreamliner is coming on line (apparently they finally got that battery problem licked), I should prolly show one. See image at right. Note that it screws the windscreen identification tip pooch provided above, in that Boeing decided to go with a four-panel windscreen on the 787. But you're hardly going to mistake the super ginormous Dreamliner with a regional jet. Additionally, note the toothed trailing edge of the engine nacelles. This gismology ostensively reduces noise, no doubt discovered using some wicked-hard Navier-Stokes non-linear airflow computational simulation. But it also makes identification of a 787 easy. So: win-win. Enjoy!
UPDATE: The toothed nacelle design is pretty hard to make out in the image provided above. Here's a link to engine section on the Dreamliner Wikipedia page that shows the feature more clearly.
Commercial aircraft identification quiz! - Two- and four-engine types
Here's some great video of roll-outs at Manchester airport from Simon Lowe, complete with sweet sweet turbofan music. Test your knowledge of two- and four-engine types! (see Anonymous Sept 21 Guestbook comment for answers).
Most images have been cropped or otherwise modified from their original versions.
Image of Flybe Dash-8 by Adrian Pingstone and released into the public domain. Saab 340 by Tmaull and appears under terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Darwin Airlines Saab 2000 by Juergen Lehle appears under the GNU Free Documentation license. Aer Arran ATR-72 by Arpingstone and released into the public domain.
Spanair MD-80 by Barcex and appears under terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. Aeromexico EMB135/45 by Cubbie N. Vegas via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Delta Connection CRJ by Mark Wagner appears via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license (image has been horizontally reversed). Airtran 717 by mamageek and appears via the GNU Free Documentation License. Montegegro Fokker 100 by Dmitry A. Mottl and appears under terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
FOUR ENGINE TYPES
A380 by P. Loos and released into the public domain. British Air 747 by Arpingstone and released into the public domain. Cathay Pacific A340 by Arpingstone and released into the public domain. Buzz BAE 146 by Oliver Pritzkow and appears under terms of the GNU Free Documentation license.
THREE ENGINE TYPES
FedEX MD-11 by Arcturus and appears under terms of the GNU Free Documentation license.
EMBRAER TWO ENGINE
Canada Air EMB175 by BriYYZ and appears via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
BOEING TWO ENGINE
SAS 737 by Bastiaan appears under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Delta 757 by Makaristos released into the public domain. Delta 767 by BriYYZ appears via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Air Canada 767 by Altair78 appears under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. UAL 767 and JAL 777 by Arpingstone and released into the public domain.
AIRBUS TWO ENGINE
USAir A319 by Cubbie N. Vegas and appears under terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Emirates A310 by Juergen Lehle and appears under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license. Images of Air France A320, British Air A321, and USAir A330 by Arpingstone and released into the public domain.
Additional Image Credits
Image of 737 nacelle (hamster pouch) by Anonymous Powered via the GNU Free Documentation license. Image of USAir Flight 1549 by Greg L. via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Boeing 787 image digitally altered by Altair78 from the original provided by Spaceaero2 and appears under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image of FAA signage is in the public domain because it was created by a government employee as part of his or her normal job duties.