Bored? Just Look Up


Photo Credit: Bailey Noel

Bailey Noel, Contributor

Life on the ground have you feeling bored? Then I have the perfect outdoor activity for you to do as the weather begins to warm up. Why not take a look up, and pay closer attention to the air traffic from nearby Pittsburgh International Airport?

One of the advantages to living only 10 minutes away from this airport, specifically, is the variety of air traffic arriving and departing each day, meaning there is always something for everyone. This includes the typical regional and mid-sized passenger jets, small charter jets of the one percent, the Air Force Reserve base’s C-17s, Pennsylvania National Guard refueling aircraft, and my favorite, the larger cargo airplanes that may be carrying your latest Amazon purchase.

You can take a few minutes any time throughout the day to stop and marvel at these airplanes since aviation is a 24/7, 365 days year industry.

So where do you start? Well, to know when airplanes are coming in and where they are, I recommend downloading a plane tracking app such as FlightRadar24. These apps are available for free on the Apple and Google Play store and track the plane’s location by their transponders, the same way air traffic control does.

And speaking of air traffic control, a second app you can download if you would not mind paying a few dollars, is LiveATC Air Radio, available on the App Store for $3.99 and Google Play Store. This app allows you to hear the conversations that the pilots are having with air traffic control in real-time. I will admit, the first few times you listen, it may sound like gibberish, but this seemingly complex “code” is fascinating and is what is keeping airports running smoothly worldwide.

One thing that especially confused me the first time I listened in was the callsigns some airlines have. Most are straightforward, such as “American” for American Airlines and “Delta” for Delta Airlines, but some airlines got a little creative when creating their call sign, such as “Hawaii 5-0” for Hawaiian Airlines, and “Brickyard” for Republic Airways.

A second thing that may confuse first-time plane spotters listening in, is hearing ATC clear “Brickyard” for takeoff and then seeing a plane with an American, Delta, or United logo on it liftoff. This is because Republic Airways is the company operating these regional connection flights while still flying under the other airline’s logo.

You can easily distinguish flights operated by the main brand and a secondary company such as Republic by going into the Flight Radar app, selecting the flight in question live on the map, and looking for the small subtext near the picture, which will denote if a secondary company is operating the flight.

There are plenty of good plane spotting locations in the Moon Area and even on RMU’s campus. The first campus location I recommend checking out is the Nicholson Lawn. If you place yourself closer to the John Jay center and look towards the neighborhood located at the back of campus, you can easily see arrivals preparing to land on runway 28 Right (28R) or lifting off from 10 Left (10L). If you bring some friends and a lawn blanket, position yourself under one of the plenty of trees on the lawn where you are able to enjoy a great view.

The second on-campus location I recommend is in the main commuter lot near Nicholson. If you place yourself along the side of the parking lot facing the police station and UPMC events center, you’re practically parallel to 28R arrivals and 10L departures.

If you’re looking for a view of the remaining three runways, then you will have to go off-campus. The best place for spotting at Pittsburgh International is known as the “Yellow Gate” up on Ewing Road, directly across from the Aetna Health Insurance office building. From this location, you have a full, panoramic view of the arrivals, and sometimes departures, this airport has to offer. I have had many great memories at this location, including having a Cathay Pacific Boeing 777 jumbo jet fly only 1,000 feet above my head and land on runway 28L, and most recently, I got to see a Boeing 747, the so-called “queen of the skies” glide gracefully right into a creamy, soft landing, right in front of me on 28 Center (28C).

A second location closer to campus I also frequent is the parking lot between Panera and the Hilton Garden Inn along University Boulevard. The benefit of using this spot over Ewing Road is that you can get the same effect of arrivals flying right over your head for flights inbound for 28R.

At Ewing Road, you can only see the flights landing on 28R glide in preparation to land, as it disappears below trees before they touch down, and even still, this runway is completely across the airport from 28L, which the Ewing Road spot is directly in line with, so smaller jets going to 28R are difficult to see.

One last piece of advice I have before you go look at the Moon Township sky differently for the first time, is to join the Pittsburgh plane spotting community. I personally follow fellow spotters on Instagram, and they were very helpful in answering questions I had when I was first getting started, still trying to figure out the ebb and flow of the airport’s operations.

I started spotting in Pittsburgh in September of 2021, and by December, thanks to helping from fellow spotters and spending plenty of time observing flights, I felt like I had sufficient enough understanding of how the airport organized its air traffic to plan a good day of spotting.

I know this is a lot of information to digest and remember, but in reality, the only thing you really need to do to start plane spotting is to just lookup.