Plane spotting: How to tell what sort of plane you're flying on

What was the last aircraft you flew aboard? You could have reached for the safety card and found out, but what if you saw the aircraft from the outside, would you know? Most of us could tell the difference between a Boeing 747 and an Airbus A380, but what about a Boeing 767 and an Airbus A350? Not so easy, but there are a few subtle differences.

The light brigade

Two of the most popular twin-engine aircraft in the air right now are Boeing's 737 family and the Airbus A320 series. it can be hard to spot their differences at a casual glance but when they're parked close together it's obvious. Boeing's 737 has a more pointy nose, the Airbus A320's is more rounded, rather like a dolphin's nose. The tails are even more different, the tail cone on the Airbus is longer and fatter, the Boeing's tail cone is short and stubby.

Airbus A321neo

The dolphin-nosed Airbus A320.

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At night there's a dead giveaway that allows you to spot the difference between a 737 and an A320, even when it's passing overhead. The strobe lights on the wingtips of the Airbus flash twice in quick succession, the strobe on the Boeing is just a single flash.

See also: The Boeing 737 MAX: Meet Virgin Australia's new plane

The wide-bodied look-alikes

Airbus A350 cockpit windows and nose

The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades: The cockpit windows of the A350 are distinctive. Photo: Bloomberg

The twin-engine category also includes wide-bodied aircraft from both Boeing and Airbus, so how to tell which is which, and how to differentiate them from the narrow-bodied twin-engine aircraft from both manufacturers?

Most 737s and A320s have a single break in the line of their windows, at about where the wing sits. It's not a fail-safe identifier – in early models the windows were regularly spaced for the entire length of the aircraft. On both the wide-body A350 and A330 and Boeing's 767, 777 and 787 there are two or more breaks in the line of windows with an emergency exit in each of these breaks, creating further segments in the aircraft.

The newest aircraft from Boeing and Airbus are the 787 Dreamliner and the A350, and the differences between them are obvious when you take a look at the cockpit windows. If there are four separate windows, that's a 787. Six separate windows means an Airbus A350. Another difference – the cockpit windows on the A350 are often outlined in black, making it look as though the plane is wearing sunglasses.

Qantas Dreamliner aircraft supplied on March 25, 2018.?

The Dreamliner has four cockpit windows.

But then along comes another wide-bodied twin-engine aircraft, the Boeing 777, and throws a curve ball. Because just like the Airbus A350, most 777s have six-window cockpits. No sunnies, but neither do a small number of A350s. While the noses of the two aircraft are slightly different, unless they're parked close it's a tough call.

One hint – winglets are far rarer on the 777 than on the A350. Winglets are the curved ends of wings that help reduce drag on aircraft. Singapore Airlines is one of the very few carriers that flies its 777s with winglets. Almost without exception A350s fly with winglets. Next, take a look at the tail cone. If it's flat, that's a 777, if it's rounded it's an A350. Finally, if there are just two pairs of wheels in each set, that's an A350 although a recent iteration, the A350-1000, has three, same as the 777.

The Airbus A350-1000 plane at Mascot airport, Sydney. 12th February, 2018. Photo: Kate Geraghty

The Airbus A350 almost always has winglets. Photo: Kate Geraghty

How to tell a Boeing 777 from a 787? Consider the rear of the engine housing. Does it end in a circular sawtooth or is it smooth? If it's sawtoothed, that's a 787, and that's a dead giveaway.

United Airlines 787 Dreamliner

Sawtoothed engine housing? That's a Dreamliner.

Another wide-bodied airliner that's tough to pick out is the Boeing 767. It's a six-window cockpit just like the A350. They often come with winglets, again like the A350. Beneath its belly the 767 has two sets of wheels, with two pairs in each set. That sets it apart from the 777, which has three pairs of wheels per set, but that makes the landing gear on the 767 very similar to most models of the A350.

The differences between the A350 and the Boeing 767 are mostly small. The windows on the A350 are more regularly spaced than on the Boeing 767. On the A350 the rear door is set further forward of the tail than the 767's. Also, the A350 has a more bulbous wing box that finishes well aft of the trailing edge of the wing, on the 767 it creates less of a bulge.

There's another wide-bodied aircraft that doesn't give too much away – the Airbus A330. Nothing obvious in the cockpit windows or the landing gear to make identification easy but take a look under the wings. That big bulge the goes right under the fuselage in a way that looks as if it's about to give birth? That's what marks it as an A330. Not too different from the underside of an A350, although on that aircraft the bulge is flatter on the bottom.

The jumbo giants

FAIRFAX. NEWS. BRISBANE. AIRBUS A380.  The largest passenger aircraft in the world, the Airbus A380 lands at Brisbane Airport today in front of a 747 400 before being repainted in Qantas logos and heading off to Sydney tomorow.  Picture by Paul Harris.  Saturday 12 November 2005

Jumbo and superjumbo. These two are easy to tell apart. Photo: Paul Harris

Four engines, easy peasy. If there are two decks with windows it's either going to be a Boeing 747 or an Airbus A380 and there's an easy tell. Two rows of windows almost the full length of the aircraft, that's an A380. If the double windows are just in the hump at the front, that's a 747.

Four engines and just one row of windows? Almost guaranteed it's an Airbus A340. It could also be a Douglas DC-8 but that's a rare and precious sighting. NASA operates one as an Airborne Science Laboratory, as does the government of the Republic of Togo for ferrying its leaders around. A small number are still flying as cargo aircraft but it's extremely unlikely that any are carrying fare-paying passengers.

See also: Goodbye, jumbo jet: Qantas announces retirement of 747s

Want to find out in advance what aircraft you'll be flying aboard?

Some airlines will tell you on your e-ticket what sort of aircraft you'll be flying on and some will even tell you at the time of booking, allowing you to choose a flight with your preferred aircraft. If not, Google "flight number + flight aware". The results are historic rather than predictive, but if the date of your flight is close, you can be reasonably sure that's your aircraft. 

See also: Flying long haul? This is the plane you should look for

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