How To Tell Airplanes Apart

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.

Boeing 747

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.

Lufthansa-747-400
Lufthansa 747-400

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.

Lufthansa-747-8
Lufthansa 747-8

Boeing 767

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.

Condor-767
Condor 767-300

American-767
American 767-300

Boeing 777

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).

American-First-Class-777-37
American 777-200

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
Cathay Pacific 777-300

Boeing 787

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.

Ethiopian-787
Ethiopian 787

Airbus A330

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.

Alitalia-A330
Alitalia A330

Airbus A340

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.

Lufthans-A340
Lufthansa A340-300

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.

Etihad-A340
Etihad A340-600

Airbus A350

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.”

A350
Qatar Airways A350

Airbus A380

I don’t think anyone has trouble identifying this whale-jet, given that it has two full decks.

Korean-Air-A380
Korean Air A380

Bottom line

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!

Comments

  1. By the way, the B777 tail is a vertical “line” with a exhaust pipe hole on the left side of it, unlike B767 that has the common tube like tail with exhaust hole in the center back. I agree that the two axles vs three axles wheels are great identifiers of 777 and 767, but from a distance, I have an easier time with the tail shape. 🙂

  2. This instantly becomes one of my favorite posts you’ve ever done! I’d love to see a narrow-body follow up.

    One question – is there a trick to tell the A330 from similar sized Boeings? You give a trick to tell the 767 and 777 apart, but what about 767 and A330?

  3. How about the differences among DC9, MD80,85,86,87,88 90 and B717? that is another tough one from a distance

  4. I always feel like 767 is way smaller on the inside than 777… just doesn’t have that open feel.

  5. @Lantean actually, you can open the emergency door easily on the B767 to get that “open” feeling like the 777 has. They do it often in China.. I think Lucky wrote about it a while back

  6. I sweat that the A340-200 had different landing gear configuration compared to the A340-300.

    I know the SA airlines one have the random little extra wheel

  7. Didn’t Drew from travelisfree already make this a few weeks back?

    I think he covered way more aircrafts though.

  8. @Sunrise089

    “One question – is there a trick to tell the A330 from similar sized Boeings? You give a trick to tell the 767 and 777 apart, but what about 767 and A330?”

    I use the shape of the tail cone.

    On the A330, the tail cone, viewed from the side, is more like a right triangle. The top of the tail cone is completely horizontal, parallel to the ground. The bottom part makes the “hypotenuse” of the triangle, and is slanted.

    On the 777/767, the top of the tail cone is more like an equilateral triangle. Both the top and the bottom of the tail slant equally towards each other. On the 777, the tail is also “squished” into the wedge shape, but the 767 is more like a cone.

  9. How I (try to) identify them:

    B777: has a weird “forehead”, with the cockpit windows kinda abruptly put into the metal. And the lots of wheels and the very large engines.

    B767: the one that doesn’t stand out, usually with long winglets.

    A330: small winglets.

    B787: has a really cool front, without “breaks” at its lines. It looks very smooth.

    A350: same as the 787, but longer and with raked wingtips.

    For the narrowbodies:

    B737: cute nose.

    A32x: weird nose, and delta-shaped winglets. Also, very funny looking tail.

  10. What about 737 vs A320 or MD-80,88,90 vs. 717? For the former, the A32X series has distinctive sharkets and once you establish that you can tell 318, 319, 320 and 321 from the size. I don’t know about the latter?

  11. My weakness in identifying aircraft is always referring to the 767, I can not so easily distinguish the -200 of -300.

  12. I too use the wheels trick for the 777 and 767 when I’m not sure in a distance!

    I can quite get the tail shape trick though…

  13. I always struggle telling a 757 from a 767.

    If they’re parked next to each other, then it’s obvious, because the 767 is a widebody, and the 757 is much smaller… but without a point of reference between the two I always struggle.

  14. Nice tips, especially on how to distinguish the 777 from the 767. The gigantic pair of GE 90 engines makes the 777-300 easy to spot. To determine A (Airbus) from B (Boeing), look at the front; the nose and cockpit window designs are different. Also, I frequent airliners[dot]net to see beautiful images of planes from around the world. Studying the images helps with spotting.

  15. Personally, I would consider myself more of an “expert” with aircraft identification. The nose of an aircraft really gives a lot away. Engine’s especially too. GE90 on a 777 compared to a CF6 on a 767, there’s an enormous difference. Winglets are tricky. There are “standard” winglets (e.g. 744, A330/340), raked wingtips (e.g. 77W, 787, 748), blended winglets (e.g. 737, 757, 767), wingtip fences (e.g. A310, A320, A380), sharklets (A320), split scimitar winglets (737), and of course, the A350, who’s wingtips are somewhat a conglomeration of a few. Overtime, you can see a speck in the sky and because of the high angle of wing sweep and 4 engines, instantly recognise it a Boeing 747 🙂

  16. I look at the window lines.

    The A330 and A340 have passenger windows that go up at the back end (inside you can see this as a sloping floor towards the rear). The Boeings all have a straight and level line of windows.

    Also on the single deck Boeings the window line looks like it’s exactly in the middle of the tube, while on the single deck Airbuses it looks like the row of windows is above the center line of the tube.

  17. sexiest nose: 757
    sexiest tail: 787
    sexiest wing: 747-8i
    toughest: dc-9
    sexiest engine: Ge90

  18. I love posts like this. I now know everything in here by heart, but I remember when I decided to start taking my AvGeekiness more seriusly and wanted to be able to identify planes just by looking at them, I found it really overwhelming, but resources like this are what got me where I am now.

    Two additional hints:
    @Sunrise089: The quickest way to differentiate between (almost) any Boeing jet and any Airbus is by looking at the shape of the sidemost windows of the windshield. This is always the first thing I look for when I’m planespotting. Airbus’ side windshield windows look like a perfect rectangle that has had a notch taken out (like the notch from the corner of an SD card), while Boeing’s look like a trapezoid (like the shape of Nevada, more or less). This is true of all the modern jetliners except the 747, 787 and A350 (and the A380’s windows have different proportions, though they do still technically conform to this), but those three should should easily be able to identify with other characteristics. Regional jets usually have only 4 windows, while both Boeings and Airbuses (again, with the 787 and A350 exceptions) have 6. If you’re not sure if something is a 767 or an A330, simply knowing the manufacturer will tell you what you want to know.

    @yaychemistry: I have found that differentiating the 757 and 767 to be kinda difficult at times, too. The thing I usually look for there is whether the front landing gear is *directly* under the 1L/R doors (757), or fully in front of them, with the doors aft of the wheels (767). Of course, that doesn’t really help if the landing gear are up. Then you really do have to rely on eyeing the proportions of the jet.

    Hope it helps!

  19. As an Air Traffic Controller Student I have to be able to recognize well over 100 different airplanes. The differences pointed out here are basically the most important ones for these planes.

    For the beginner the Boeing vs Airbus difference can be a good place to start. Once you are able to distinguish these two (there are quite clear differences) you have a good start.

    A couple of planes you have not mentioned, and some ways to distinguish between them:
    ATR:
    – AT43: 4 propelleblades
    – AT45: 6 propellerblades
    – AT72: 6 propellerblades, longer than AT45

    A320-family:
    – A319: One exit over each wing (except Easyjet, which has two as they stable so many people in the bus that safety regulations require it)
    – A320: Two exits over each wing
    – A321: No normal over wing exits, but two smaller doors in front of and after the wing

    B757: Long and thin, most distinctive of all

    CRJ-family
    – CRJ2: Short sharp nose, 1 door and no emergency exits
    – CRJ7: Longer than CRJ2, 1 emergency exit
    – CRJ9: Longer than CRJ7, 2 emergency exits

    (Canada regional jet vs Embraer: CRJ looks like E135 and E145, but the Embraer has mroe of an angle from the cockpit windows to the nose, whilst the nose of the CRJ goes in a straighter angle from the windows.)

    Another mix people often are the CRJx, F70/F100, MD8x/9x and DC9x. The CRJs and the Fokkers stand out in terms of the engine placement. Between the MD and DC it is the tail that is the biggest giveaway. The DC has a smooth tail, whilst the MD has some kind of lump on the top of the tail.

  20. I’m amazed I know something I get to share first! Re the 787, there are two variants, the -800 and -900. The -800 does have those zigzag cowlings. But the -900 does not (apparently). I haven’t seen one live but was talking to a boeing engineer who’d know… related to noise abatement and they were able to do it in other ways and reduce costs of manufacturing.

  21. Great post Lucky! My school used to offer a class on aircraft identification as part of its Professional Pilot degree program but sadly they discontinued it before I had a chance to take it so I’ve had to teach myself. I understand this post focused on widebody jets but I’m curious if you will do a followup post on narrowbodies. Its relatively easy to tell the difference between an Airbus and Boeing (vertical stabilizer, winglet design, and windshield shape are all dead giveaways) but I haven’t quite mastered distinguishing a 737-400, -700, -800, 900ER (and the A318/19/20/21 equivalents) from each other.

    Also, does anyone have suggestions for identifying aircraft from underneath? I live in Seattle directly under the approach/departure path for SeaTac airport and as a pilot/aviation geek I have a habit of looking up every time a plane passes over and try to identify it (this drives my boyfriend NUTS, especially during peak periods on VFR days when the aircraft spacing is literally one minute). The hardest to identify-by-belly is the 767/A330, especially since most airlines who operate one out of Seattle also operate the other…and on similar schedules (Delta, I’m looking at you) so livery and time of day don’t help. We also get a lot of FedEx traffic in Seattle and for the life of me I cannot distinguish a DC10 from an MD11.

  22. Hey @BradR,
    I’m sorry but it looks like some information got crossed somewhere in there. The 787-9 definitely has the chevron’d nacelles: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_flight_of_Boeing_787-9.jpg

    Having said that, I absolutely believe you were talking to someone in the know who said something like that, and now I’m really curios about what they said. Maybe they thought that they wouldn’t include them, but then wound up having to anyway? Or maybe they could have dropped them but decided not to for some reason? Lots of stuff changes over the course of a multi-year project.

    Very curious!

  23. Just a point on nomenclature:

    The wingtip devices on the 787 and 747-8 are known as raked wingtips, and these are not considered winglets. A “blended winglet” is a winglet that is, well, blended into the wing with a smooth transition from wing to winglet, a la the 767 and 737-800. A traditional winglet is the kind you see on the 747-400 and A330, with a sharp corner at the end of the wing, and the winglet sticking up from that corner.

    Some Airbus models (particularly the A320) have wingtip fences, with a small winglet both above and below the wingtip.

    Oh, and for those interested, all these wingtip devices are just different ways of reducing wingtip vortices, which are a bi-product of wing lift. Wingtip vortices create induced drag (called “induced drag” because it’s induced by lift), so reducing wingtip vortices reduces drag, which increases efficiency, which saves fuel, which extends range, which… etc. etc. In short, aerodynamic is cool!

  24. I differentiate 767s and 777s by 1, their length and 2, the airline. Some airlines only fly one of the type, others fly both. And for those wondering how to differentiate 737s, 757s and A320s, the 737 has a pointier nose, the 320 a slightly more bulbuous nose, while I found the 757 and A350’s noses the same shape.

  25. @Lucky –

    I’ve found the best way to differentiate 767 from 777 is the tail. 777 has a distinctive cone-like, flat tail, whereas 767 has a traditional tail. I found this especially helpful in identifying A340-200/300 and A340-500/600 and 777-300 from 777-200.

    Thank you

  26. Lucky, I noticed an error in the way you explained how to distinguish the A340.
    The error you made is that only the A340-600 has five doors on each side. The A340-500 has four doors on each side, but it has a longer fuselage and larger wingspan than the A340-200/300 models. You should probably fix that if possible.

  27. Sometimes use the following process of elimination to work out aircrafts:

    1) Look at the cockpit windshield to differentiate between Airbus or Boeing. Airbus has a small “cut” on the top side of the windshield. Boeing makes a “V” at the base of the windshield. This sets apart Boeing 737 from an Airbus A320, B777 from A330 and so on.

    2) Count the wheels. “If it has triple set of wheels then its a triple seven” otherwise for Boeing it can be B767 or 757. B757 has a dolphin like shape and has a pretty narrow fuselage. If its a Boeing and not a 777 or doesnt feel like a dolphin then its a 767.

    3) If it is wide body Airbus and has winglets it becomes A330 by default.

    4) If it has 4 engines then it can be B747, A380 or A340. B747 and A380 can be spotted with eyes closed so the 4 engine rule is useful for spotting A340.

    5) B787 and A350 have very unique windshields so shouldnt be too difficult to spot.

  28. “Batman-y” LOL. “It’s funny ’cause it’s true” (Homer Simpson)

    Great advice from my fellow avgeeks. All of which I’m sure I’ve used at one point or another.
    Distinguishing planes is second nature to me now. Been an avgeek for as long as I can remember.
    My first drawing was an airplane. (Still have it… My mom put it in my baby album.) It was hideous, kinda looked like an A380.
    I realized the full extent of my avgeekyness about 10 years ago when I started trying to distinguish planes by their sound only. (Yikes!) Some are easy – A320’s distinctive Hum, 747’s thunderous growl, 787’s smooth low-pitch whine and who could ever forget Concorde’s orgasmic symphony.
    Please tell me others do this… Hate to think I’m an avfreak.

  29. I’d love to see a similarly visual post about narrow-body jets typically seen on US domestic flights.

  30. Would just like to repeat what Sam @ SFO says as this is the first thing I learned about identifying planes (I’m from Hamburg where Airbus are built): Airbus planes have a cutout on their outermost cockpit windows – though, as Sam says correctly A380 and A350 don’t follow this design line 100% anymore, even though you can still clearly see that stylistic origin on the A380.

  31. 777 is way bigger than all 767’s
    All 777-300 have HUGE GE 90-115 engines those engines are only 6 inches in diameter smaller than the fuselage of all 737’s

  32. 757-767-777 DNA: What’s in common, what’s different?

    I know all three share the same cockpit(section ahead of
    ’41’). This is why the 757’s front end looks bug-eyed,
    the 767, just right, and the 777 – slightly squinty, widening
    aft to accommodate a nearly 747-wide cabin.

    Secondly, the vertical stabilizer(‘tail fin’) on the 767 looks
    disproportionately tall, and correspondingly undersized
    on the 777. Looks like the same sized fin was just
    transferred to the later, larger 777. 757’s stabilizer is
    unique to that type.

    Finally, the 787(Dreamliner) and Airbus’ A350 are probably
    going to be the two most confusing modern aircraft in the
    sky!

  33. Re: A320 family:

    Mainly the length of variants. A318 & -19 shorter, -21 longer, plus possibly slightly fatter engines.

  34. Uhh, yeah? And some are painted purple, and
    some are painted green – depending on the
    customer. We’re talking physical attributes
    that differentiate planes here, not paint jobs.

  35. @olsDC10 I’m sorry. I was just Trolling you. I understund what you said. Others weren’t into great details to distinguish began die sent manufacturers and models. Since you just said one is longer than the other, it sounded funny. That is all.

  36. For the 777 I always look at either the landing gear or the bladed tail, to distinguish it from a 767.

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