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What flight tracking data reveals about details of the Ukraine crisis


The other day, a lone Russian government plane took off from St. Petersburg, went north to the Norwegian Sea and carefully avoided European airspace as it headed toward the American East Coast. Over its 12-hour journey, plane spotters tracked it in real time and speculated using flight-tracking apps and other aviation data all widely available. Dan Streufert is the founder of ADS-B Exchange, a flight data co-op, and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

DAN STREUFERT: Thanks, Debbie. Good to be here.

ELLIOTT: So that plane, which was briefly famous on TikTok, I might add, ended up landing outside Washington, D.C., to collect Russian diplomats, all with the knowledge and cooperation of the governments involved. But it seems surprising that any person can monitor a Russian government plane from a phone. Where does that information come from?

STREUFERT: Well, so there's an international standard. It's called ADSB, and that is typically how air traffic control will monitor the locations of aircraft. It's one particular tool that they use, but it's been mandated in most airspace. So what happens is the transponder on the plane broadcasts the location every seconds or so, and we have a network that's fed by hobbyists and enthusiasts and, you know, anybody who's interested that aggregates all this data and sticks it up on the map. So it's really a function of the avionics on the plane and the standards that broadcast the signal.

ELLIOTT: So we have been seeing people look to this information for updates on the conflict in Ukraine in real time. And people are saying they're seeing fighter jets and drones and this type of thing. Are they really seeing that? I mean, how reliable is this information?

STREUFERT: Yeah, it's quite reliable. I mean, every so often, there will be someone that maybe tries to fake a signal and send it in, but that's relatively easy to detect. In fact, the governments involved generally know that, you know, when they're - when they flip the switch and they're broadcasting on this channel, they know that everyone can see them. There was an incident a couple of days after the invasion started, where you could actually see an F-35 fly up and approach, you know, just across the border from Lviv. And you could see it join up with the orbiting tanker, do midair refueling. It was pretty clear that, you know, they were broadcasting these signals to basically send a message because they know when they're broadcasting, everybody can see them. That was the theory anyway, that they were sending a message to the other side that, you know, they're here in force, basically.

ELLIOTT: Do you have any advice to, say, the armchair air traffic controllers out there as they try to figure out what's happening over and around Ukraine?

STREUFERT: Well, you know, you can read a lot into if you see a certain plane doing something, and you can also read a lot into if, suddenly, you don't see planes doing something because that could mean that, you know, things have escalated to the point where they're going to turn their transponders off, and they don't want to be seen. You know, there's a lot of different theories, I guess, you could derive from it. I would say\ just watch the radar.

ELLIOTT: That's Dan Streufert, founder of ADS-B Exchange. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

STREUFERT: Thank you, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.