if you follow me on twitter, you know that about a week ago i was obsessing about the whereabouts of my new iPhone.
i discovered that thanks to the magic of the internet, you can take that obsession to an unhealthy level of precision. unhealthy because, as you'll see, it's so easy to be very certain about an item's location and be very wrong.
so yes, as you may have ascertained, you can track UPS planes on FlightAware. in fact, since they count as their own "airline", you can watch the whole fleet moving packages in all directions at once, if you like. suddenly my UPS tracking updates just weren't enough anymore. all they had told me was that my package went from ZhengZhou to Incheon to Anchorage and as of 2:53 AKDT was on its way to me!
this is where i went wrong. i checked UPS flights out of Anchorage, picked the one that best matched my package's Departure Scan (and moving generally toward the midwest), and figured that my package must be on UPS 105 to exurban Chicago. that's how i determined that my iPhone was speeding its way through North Dakota airspace.
but if i'd been paying attention, i would have checked the previous leg, and noticed that the only recent flight in from Incheon was UPS 99, which just made a quick customs stop in Anchorage, and was already on its way to Louisville under the same flight number. a little further out of the way to get to Michigan, but that was the plane i was actually looking for. i had no idea where my phone was.
i pieced it together after the next tracking update, and went and rooted out all three flights (Incheon to Anchorage; Anchorage to Louisville; Louisville to Detroit; i have no idea how the package got from China to Korea, but given how long it took it must have been by plane too. ) here's where it gets crazy.
FlightAware lets you export a .kml file of any flight. again:
FlightAware lets you export a .kml file of any flight.
i thought that these files would contain neat little static lines like you find on ordinary FlightAware maps. as i imported them into Google Earth, i noticed they were behaving weirdly, though. sometimes they would disappear! sometimes only part of the line would appear! what's going on? then i noticed a little slider at the top of the window.
these .kml files are not static. they're time-coded. you can scrub through them, and set a rolling cut-off point that limits the trail length. oh, and they also have the altitude data. my jaw dropped when i tilted the view down and got a view similar to the image that leads off this post. you can use FlightAware .kml files to see a plane appear over the horizon, make its approach, and land. the amount of data you can play with, and the ways you can arrange it visually are stunning.
this all became rather hilariously moot when my phone arrived and i found out that it had a bum SIM card. despite the fact that was the only hardware flaw, i wound up with a white-box iPhone from my local Apple Store. who knows what its path was. but someone, somewhere, will get a shiny refurbished iPhone 5s, and i know a little bit of its history.