How Online Flight Trackers Have Helped People Follow Nancy Pelosi, Taylor Swift, and Russian Oligarchs’ Private Flights

More than 700,000 people were tracking the flight path of the US military plane believed to be carrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this morning. She touched down in Taiwan at 10:50 pm local time, making Pelosi the first high-ranking American official to visit the self-governing island in 25 years, amid threats of a military response from China.

People were watching the flight’s progress on FlightRadar24, a flight tracking site that uses open-source data to track flights. FlightRadar24 and tools like it, such as ADS-B Exchange, have been particularly useful in recent weeks, as people have used it to track private jet routes live for celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Kylie Jenner to planes to Russian Oligarchs and now, Nancy Pelosi.

FlightRadar24 has had so much traffic today that the home page reads: “We are seeing a high demand in users wanting to access our services. As a temporary measure there is a waiting room to prevent crashing. Paying subscribers can log in to bypass the waiting room.”

FlightRadar24 combines data from several sources, including ADS-B, MLAT, and radar data, aggregated with schedule and flight status information from airlines and airports.

ADS-B stands for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, which is a technology that allows an aircraft to be tracked through satellite navigation or other sensors. The ABD-S transponder on aircraft transmits a signal containing information such as the plane’s location, which is then picked up by a receiver connected to FlightRadar24. Most aircraft are required by law to have ADS-B equipment, including in the United States and Europe.

While FlightRadar24 filters some of the data, making it difficult or impossible to track certain private jets, a different site called ADS-B Exchange let users track private planes owned by celebrities and oligarchs: “ADS-B Exchange does not participate in the filtering performed by most other flight tracking websites which do not share data on military or certain private aircraft,” the site says.

FlightRadar24 combines data from several sources, including ADS-B, MLAT, and radar data, aggregated with schedule and flight status information from airlines and airports.

ADS-B stands for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, which is a technology that allows an aircraft to be tracked through satellite navigation or other sensors. The ABD-S transponder on aircraft transmits a signal containing information such as the plane’s location, which is then picked up by a receiver connected to FlightRadar24. Most aircraft are required by law to have ADS-B equipment, including in the United States and Europe.

While FlightRadar24 filters some of the data, making it difficult or impossible to track certain private jets, a different site called ADS-B Exchange let users track private planes owned by celebrities and oligarchs: “ADS-B Exchange does not participate in the filtering performed by most other flight tracking websites which do not share data on military or certain private aircraft,” the site says.

MLAT is an acronym for Multilateration, which is used by FlightRadar24 to help locate planes that don’t have ADS-B receivers. MLAT uses a method called Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA) which measures the time it takes to receive the signal from an aircraft with an older transponder in order to determine its location.

FlightRadar24 has additional sources of data, including satellite tracking, which takes data from satellites equipped with ADS-B receivers. These satellites help increase coverage of flights over oceans or where ground-based reception is not possible. The site also receives live data in North America which is based on radar data and from the Open Glider Network (OGN), which is a unified tracking platform for small aircraft.

On the FlightRadar24 site, you can see the world map covered in small plane icons. Each plane is clickable and once you click on it, a popup appears to the left, providing you with information about the flight, including its scheduled and actual takeoff and landing times, where it currently is on its flight route, aircraft information, speed and altitude data, and the data source from which the information was gathered. A majority of the plane icons are yellow, which means the planes were tracked from earth-based radar stations, while the blue ones show planes that were tracked from a satellite.

Ian Petchenik, a spokesperson for FlightRadar24, told Motherboard that the flight tracking website is working on adding more resources, due to “the extreme sustained interest” in tracking Pelosi’s flight.

“Today’s flight was the most tracked live flight we’ve ever had. Just over 700,000 people tracked the landing of the aircraft in Taipei. The second most tracked live flight was when Alexei Navalny flew back to Russia, from Germany, and that peaked at 550,000,” Petchenik said.

Recently, aircraft have been in the news quite frequently. First, Kylie Jenner faced widespread criticism after it was discovered that she took a 17-minute flight, emitting 1 ton of carbon emissions in doing so.

Following this, the sustainability marketing firm Yard put together a report ranking the celebrities whose private jets have flown the most so far this year, and their corresponding carbon dioxide emissions. At the top of this list was Taylor Swift, who’s jet flew 170 times this year so far, emitted 8,293.54 tons of carbon, which is about 1,185 times more than the average person’s total annual emissions.

There are now Twitter accounts that track specific planes with a bot using public ADS-B data. There too @ElonJet, @CelebJets, @SportJets, @Corporate_Jetsand @RUOligarchJets which were all created by Jack Sweeney, a second-year student at the University of Central Florida.

It seems that more and more people are interested in tracking aircraft, especially those belonging to our favorite celebrities, because they are realizing how outrageous some of the flights are—such as Floyd Mayweather’s ten-minute flight to Las Vegas. On Twitter, people have been commenting not only about how these celebrities are unbelievably out of touch with the rest of us, but also the severe climate damage that incurs with each flight.

As for Nancy Pelosi’s flight, people were holding onto their seats, watching a precarious diplomatic move at a low point in the relationship between the US and China.

Currently, Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform, also facing slow load times and crashing pages as many users take to the site to express their opinions on Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The company had to pause the operation of its platforms in Taiwan, and on the mainland site, there was an outpouring of anti-US sentiment on Tuesday due to Pelosi’s visit. Many users referred to the possibility of a war between the US and China over Taiwan.

One viral Weibo comment that got over 18,000 likes read: “America and the West were formed by looting, plundering, and colonizing. There is no concept of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faith in their culture. […] Robbers will always be robbers.”

Update: This article and headline have been updated to clarify that not all flights are available on FlightRadar24; another tool called ADS-B Exchange is often used to track flights by oligarchs and celebrities.

Update 2: This article was updated with the latest user numbers from FlightRadar24 and to include a quote from a spokesperson.

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