Plane Spotting Simplified: 10 ways to identify Aircraft type

You are at an airport watching planes. You see a particular aircraft and think it is A330 while your friend insists it is A350. How to differentiate between a wide body and narrow body jet? How to tell if it is a 737 or A320?  How to identify an aircraft type by looking at it? If you are an aviation enthusiast or plane watcher, below are several ways by which you can identify an aircraft type.

Passenger planes in which we fly can be broadly categorized into 3 categories:
  • Turbo props: Small aircrafts with external propellers- ATR-42, Bombardier Q400 etc, usually less than 100 seats
  • Narrow Body Jets: Single Aisle aircrafts with jet Engines, typically around 150-220 seats (A320, A321, B737, Embraer 72 etc)
  • Wide Body Jets: Bigger jets with two aisles- longer, bigger aircrafts with 300+ seats (A330, A350, B777 etc), a few have double decks- like A380 and B747
Turbo Props are easy to differentiate due to their small size, external propellers. It takes some observation skills to differentiate between a narrow body and wide body jet.

Check 01: Look for writing below the nose
Most aircrafts have their type written in the front portion, below the nose. This is the easiest and sure shot way to know aircraft type.
Check 02: Length of the aircraft, space between windows and number of doors
At times Aircraft type may not be written or it may not be visible. Next best way is to observe the length of the aircraft. A narrow body aircrafts are shorter with lesser doors/space between windows.
Above: A Boeing 777-300 ER Wide body- compare number of windows, space between windows and door positions with picture below:
Below: Jet Star A320 narrow body- notice the tiny size of overwing emergency exit doors
Check 03: Number of decks
If an aircraft has two decks (two rows of windows) throughout the length of the plane then it is definitely an A380. A380 is the only full length double Decker plane today. If it has double Decker but only for a short part in the front, then it is Boeing 747.

Check 04: Number of wheels
Take a close look at rear wheels. Narrow body planes usually have only two rows of wheels. Wide body planes have 3 or 4 rows of wheels.

Check 05: Engine cowling
B787 and 737 Max have a designer shape cut on the engine cowling. With 737 Max not in service, only dreamliner has the unique cut on the tailing edge of engine cover- this is also another easy way to locate aircraft type.

Check 06: Flight number or tail number
If you know the flight number (displayed on the gate inside terminal) on which the aircraft is operating or an aircraft's tail number (often written somewhere near the rear of an aircraft), various websites like, etc can reveal the aircraft type.

Check 07: Airline website
You can refer airline's website to check their fleet- many airlines limit to just a few aircraft types- this way you can eliminate several types and focus on only those that the airline operates

Check 08: Number of Engines
Most aircrafts these days come with only two engines- one on each side. However a select group of aircrafts have 4 engines, two on each side. A380, A340, B747 are few such aircraft types to have four engines.

If you see an engine on the tail instead of wings it could be DC9 (hard to find in India, few exist in USA), If there are two on wings, one on centre of tail it could be DC10.

Check 09: Marking on the ground
Most airports will have ground marking to indicate where should the front wheels of an aircraft rest depending on aircraft type- this is to make it easy for aero bridge to extend or other operational reasons. If you can see these markings, then you can be sure of aircraft type depending on where the wheels are resting.

Check 10: If nothing else works, just ask the gate crew- they will be happy to clarify!

Once you are inside an aircraft, safety manual in the seat pocket is the sure shot way to know aircraft type. But above tips are for identifying an aircraft type from a distance.

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