08 January 2011

Google Maps Catches An Airplane In Flight

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Actually, it's surprising this doesn't happen more often.


Barry Meislin said...

Oh come on, that pure von Daniken.

(From the long-lost archives, no doubt.)

jim_hamlen said...

Actually, you can go on Google Earth and scan near the runways of large airports, and see planes taking off and landing. The most interesting observation is when you see the shadow of an aircraft on the ground, but cannot find the plane itself. This was the case with Atlanta about 2 years ago, east of the airport. I don't know if they brushed the plane out of the picture, but it was not where the shadow indicated it would be.

The over-water approaches are the easiest to find. Although it has probably been updated by now, the photos of Logan and San Francisco used to show multiple approaches or departures. Ditto for Hong Kong.

David said...

True, but what makes this cooler (to me, at least) is that the plane is clearly at altitude, and the trouble that causes the perspective in the photo.

If you look at the scale, the plane is about 1250 feet long.

Hey Skipper said...

True, but seemingly odd.

The satellite would be at least 100 miles up, the plane about 6. I wouldn't think 6/100 would make that big a difference.

Where is AOG to explain it to me?

erp said...

Skipper, perspective is in the eye of the beholder. You say the plane is 30,000 feet in the air, yet to the uninformed eye (me) it looks like it's about the land?

It's a great picture in any case.

David said...


I have to admit that it took me a while to figure out why the state forest had that big plane-shaped clear....


Susan's Husband said...


I wouldn't think so either. The only explanation I can suggest is that it's a low angle shot. That is, the satellite is near the horizon, not over head, relative to the pictured terrain. In that case, the plane could be a much closer than the terrain that appears to be under it. Based on what you can see of the plane, it does appear to be at an angle, not directly overhead.

Hey Skipper said...

It is more relative size I am referring to.

The airplane is either an B737 or an A320, wing span 112 feet. That means it would be a comfortable fit in any of the fields below it. However, the plane appears much larger than the fields. Since it is closer to the camera, that relative size changes is no surprise; but that much?

It could be an artifact of the image process. The angle from the aircraft to the camera looks to be just shy of 45 degrees from the vertical, yet the image is (bigtime guessing here) processed to give the appearance the camera is directly over any point in the image. That would (more guessing here) distort an out of plane plane.

Susan's Husband said...

Yes, I meant relative size. My point was that, because of the camera angle, the fields that are occluded by the plane are not the fields that are under the plane. Therefore the relative size looks wrong, because your eye is doing the wrong comparison.

Hey Skipper said...


Click on the larger image.

According to the scale on the lower left corner, the wingspan of the airplane is approximately 15 times greater than it actually is. (Which is also, without having looked at the scale, roughly what my eyes said the moment I looked at the picture.) I'm used to seeing airplanes from above--with the distance ratio (viewer to plane:plane to ground) being on the order of 1:5, instead of at least 3:50.

I have absolutely no expertise in optics or perspective, but this picture is close to how things look from 36,000 feet: roads and structures easily identified, trucks less so, and cars only to those with 20-10 vision.

And with that is probably the answer: telephoto distortion.

Hey Skipper said...

I have the actual answer, courtesy of a friend of mine who has some fair expertise in the area.

As you shift the view from lower to higher resolution, the image source changes from satellite to airplane.

David said...

Well, that's fascinating.

Was the plane in the picture flying relatively low, then, or is the picture taking plane flying very high?

Hey Skipper said...

As a guesstimate, I'd say the picture taking airplane was somewhere between 35 and 40 thousand feet, with the accidentally captured aircraft 2-4000 feet below.