Saturday, September 13, 2008


Disappeared flight (not really)

by Larry Geller

Instead of finishing a couple of half-written articles last night as planned, I found myself stuck to the picture tube flat screen monitor staring at something silly, which nevertheless sucked up my spare time. Or rather, I let it.

A friend left Hawaii for the Mainland on an American Airlines flight last night. We had mentioned to her how to track the flight via text messages from a popular website, So I set it up via their webpage, and then idly clicked on the display that shows how the flight progresses as it leaves Honolulu International Airport. The display shows a map, rotating through various views, just like the map you see on the cabin TV monitor.

The flight was AA102, which has the worst on-time record for that slot, Honolulu to Dallas Ft. Worth, according to the helpful data screen. A really pathetic performance.

I thought the flight would just turn around and head for DFW, but for some reason it wobbled all over the place. So I was hooked. Did the pilot party too late last night? What could have been up there that the plane was avoiding? Weather?

Just idle curiosity. Of course pilots don’t party before a flight. Of course they get enough sleep. Nothing to worry about.

And then the screen went blank. Then this message appeared:


Do not be alarmed,” it said. Right. Try not to be alarmed. Don’t even think of what might be going wrong. In my mind was the recent incident in which an American Airlines pilot already over the Pacific after leaving DFW for HNL decided it would be best to turn back to the Mainland and made an unscheduled landing in Los Angeles to top off his gas tank.

In just a moment, the display will be back. No panic, just wait.

Or better, turn off the computer and go to sleep, there’s nothing wrong with the flight, like they said. Nothing. Don’t worry about it.

But I know too much. I went to another tracking system.

AA102 Details

Now, maybe the data for this one comes from the same place, but it seems the airplane, which should have been kind of moving along, was stuck at 337 miles out. I waited. It remained stuck. Of course, I said, the plane is ok.

Before you know it, about an hour had passed. I was wondering where to find disaster or exception reports, or maybe I should call American Airlines or the FAA. I didn’t, because of course the plane is ok, they would think I’m some kind of nut and put me on some FBI list. Why would I think something is supposed to be wrong with this flight? These days you can ask an innocent question and have Homeland Security busting down your door before the night is over.

But no true geek is ever deprived of data. You gotta be persistent and all will be revealed. But wait—finally the display changed! Yay!

AA102 Details-1

Oh no! Over on the right side, just below the middle, it no longer says 337 miles, now it says “No recent position”. Yikes! So off in search of alternate data.

Handover OK

It is possible to find out all kinds of tracking information for just about any flight (maybe even those CIA flights to black hole locations, if you know the tail number). In fact, you can probably track your Christmas present across the Pacific in a FedEx jet. And the display showed a handoff from Honolulu air traffic control to Oakland at 02:24 a.m. Eastern time. Latitude, longitude, air speed, and altitude were there and non-zero. Whew!

So I turned everything off and went to sleep knowing that all was well, except possibly with what I thought was a reliable tracking service. Who knows what went wrong. I no longer cared. The airplane is ok.

My obsession to track the flight ended up costing me time I could have spent more productively.

And now, for some reason, you’ve read all about it. Sorry about that.



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