In the trip report I wrote yesterday about my flight from Frankfurt to Philadelphia, reader Francisco C asked the following:
Lucky, I ‘m always impressed how you can distinguish all these airplane varieties (A330 vs 777 for example) when you’re in some cases hundreds of meters away. Any suggestions on how an interested novice like myself could train his/her eyes to tell planes apart. thanks!
There are lots of different types of people in this hobby, from people who are just interested in travel, to hardcore aviation geeks. I know plenty of people who fly hundreds of thousands of miles per year and can barely tell the difference between a 747 and an A380. And that’s fine.
I figured I’d quickly share how I easily identify planes in a split second. Of course there are lots of methods for doing this, but I figured I’d very briefly share mine (and maybe other hardcore avgeeks can chime in with their methods in the comments section). To keep things simple I’ll just stick to the most popular widebodies.
As far as I’m concerned, the 747 will always be the queen of the skies. While the A380 has overtaken it in terms of size and passenger comfort, it can’t compete with the 747’s curves. The 747 has a full lower deck and then a partial upper deck, making it easy to identify.
The 747-400 has a smaller lower deck than the 747-8 and also has traditional winglets which stick up.
Meanwhile the 747-8 has a longer upper deck. If that doesn’t give it away, then you’ll also notice that it doesn’t have traditional winglets. Instead it just has blended winglets which don’t stick up as much. The rear of the 747-8’s engines are also similar to those of the 787, as explained below.
From a distance, it’s not unreasonable to think that a 767 and 777 look alike. I even sometimes make that mistake. It’s especially tricky since there’s a 767-300 and 767-400, and they’re roughly proportional to the 777-200 and 777-300 in terms of their dimensions.
What makes identifying the 767 especially tough is that many airlines have “modified” them. Some airlines have winglets on the 767, while others don’t. Some airlines have two doors on each side of the 767-300, while others have three doors.
So let me make this very simple — at the base of each wing, the 767 has two sets of two wheels. In other words, on each side there are four wheels, for a total of 10 wheels on the plane (including the two nose wheels). Meanwhile the 777 has three sets of two wheels at the base of each wing, for a total of six wheels on each side. I know this might sound minor, but I’ve actually found it to be a very easy way to tell the planes apart.
For me there are two identifying characteristics of the 777 — two huge engines, and no winglets.
But how do you tell the difference between a Boeing 777-200 and a Boeing 777-300?
A Boeing 777-200 has just four doors on each side of the aircraft (one in the very front, one in front of the wing, one behind the wing, and one in the very back).
Meanwhile the 777-300 has five doors on each side of the aircraft (one in the very front, one in front of the wing, one immediately behind the wing, one a bit further back, and one in the very back).
Cathay Pacific 777-300
The easiest way to identify the 787 is by the zig-zag “cut outs” in the back of the engine. Also, the wings have a very unique shape. While there aren’t abrupt winglets, the wings “stretch” pretty high up.
The A330 is a pretty “proportional” looking plane, and can easily be identified by the fact that it has two engines and the most “traditional” winglets out there. The winglets are an easy way to differentiate it from the other twin-engine widebodies out there.
The A340 is a single deck and has four engines, which makes it pretty easy to identify. So how do you tell the difference between the A340-200/300 and A340-500/600?
The A340-200/300 has engines that looks disproportionately small, and also has just four doors on each side of the aircraft.
Meanwhile the A340-500/600 looks disproportionately long and skinny, and has more appropriately sized-looking engines. There are also five doors on each side of the aircraft.
This is the newest plane in the sky, and has two identifying characteristics — an extremely sleek design (especially near the nose), and very “steep” winglets (they’re not gradual, unlike the 787). The cockpit windows also look very “Batman-y.”
Qatar Airways A350
I don’t think anyone has trouble identifying this whale-jet, given that it has two full decks.
Korean Air A380
I intentionally tried to keep this as simple as possible, since for a novice I think it’s easier to learn a couple of “obvious” tricks as opposed to studying each plane in great detail.
To fellow avgeeks, I’d be curious to hear how you easily tell planes apart!