Sometimes when I get tired of listening to all the top 40 hits on the radio, I like to listen instead to the chatter of airline pilots and air traffic control (ATC). LiveATC.net offers feeds from nearly every major airport in North America and from many smaller ones as well. They also have feeds from many other airports around the world. The major exception is the UK due to laws banning eavesdropping on radio communications.

What’s really fun is combining the air traffic chatter with a map that shows flights in near-real time so you can see which flights are going where. FlightAware is a tracker website that shows flights and provides technical details about their trek across the US. It provides a visual reference that helps make what ATC and pilots talk about on the radio. The site provides all kinds of details that only an aviation geek would love like what waypoints a plane is following so that it stays on track.

But for the non-geeks, FlightAware is also useful if you’re going to pick someone up from the airport. When I was waiting for a friend’s flight to get in so we could meet up for dinner, I tracked his flight from Chicago to Orlando. As his flight was handed off to the Orlando tower and began to land, I knew it was time to head off to the airport to meet him. If for some reason his flight had been delayed, I would know without having him call me about it.

These sites are also useful if you want to get more details about flights gone wrong. Right now, LiveATC.net features on its front page the audio transcript of US Airways 1549 which went down in the Hudson. In fact, it’s this site where many of the media get the audio to replay on their newscasts. It’s eerie to listen to such feeds but also reassuring that even in a situation where a plane loses both engines it’s possible for pilots and ATC to react calmly and make good decisions about what to do next. FlightAware also featured the flight’s path on its site for a few days, complete with a line representing the flight plunging into the Hudson.

All in all, these websites have given me a deeper appreciation for just how complex getting planes from point A to point B can be. It’s also just fun knowing how the system works and makes any flight I take just a little more interesting.

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