Human beings, when afraid, always seem to seek out new information. It’s the compulsion that makes us doomscroll, the modern equivalent of staring at a broadcast news channel for all your waking hours. But when the Twitter timeline runs dry, it seems many are turning to another source of information: Online flight trackers.
FlightRadar24, a website for tracking the positions and destination of various aircraft, has become a top source for information about who’s sending what where. Unlike traditional flight trackers, FlightRadar24 shows everything — commercial, private, or secret.
Tens of thousands of people are using FlightRadar24 to track the flights closest to Ukraine, and their findings are certainly interesting. Air Force spy plane FORTE12 has been a particularly popular flight to track, making its trips between Sicily and the very edges of Ukranian airspace, but a laundry list of Blackhawk helicopters and airborne tankers has captured the interest of the site’s users.
LAGR224, an Air Force Stratotanker, took off in the UK early this morning and has since been circling above Romania. LAGR132, another Air Force Stratotanker, has been making similar laps over Poland after taking off in Germany. In fact, four of the five flights listed among these most-tracked aircraft are U.S. military refueling planes (the exception being FORTE12, the previously mentioned spy plane making its rounds over the Black Sea). Other sought-out planes are include flights from the British Royal Air Force, and commercial jets with departure or arrival airports near Ukraine’s borders with Poland, Romania, or Moldova.
FlightAware24 has seen enough traffic that users have started being limited by Cloudflare. Cloudflare is possibly best known for its DDoS protection services, which are usually used in preventing coordinated attacks on a website — not actual users. It seems enough people have tried to access FlightAware24 in the past day that even this automated software has taken note of the traffic.
With misinformation rampant in the early hours of this conflict, pure-data sources like FlightRadar24 can appear to be the most trustworthy — after all, what bias can there be in raw flight data? Users on the site’s unofficial subreddit, however, have begun using that data to guesstimate at what those flights may mean. That educated guess method of reporting can lead to dangerous, unverified claims.
In situations as stressful as this, it’s only natural that people want the least biased information they can find. Sites like FlightRadar24 are scratching that itch for tens of thousands of people. In a time of rampant social media disinformation, sometimes raw information can be the best news source.