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On the Web, an Unblinking Eye in the Sky

By Craig Stoltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 1998; Page E02


My 8-year-old son just went on his first vacation away from Mom and Dad, but don't worry, this isn't about that.

It's about an oddly functional piece of travel technology that my son's trip led me to try for the first time. I will probably never use it again, but I think I'm glad I used it this once.

As it turned out, the Saturday morning Caleb was scheduled to leave from BWI with family friends for a week in Texas, I was sitting at my computer doing some work on the World Wide Web. I suddenly had a dim memory (premonition?) of seeing, on a travel-related Web site somewhere, something called "real time" flight monitoring. I tried several sites from memory until I hit, a site aimed at business travelers. And there it was, on the home page, a link to real-time flight tracking.

A couple of clicks later I was asked for the airline name and flight number for the flight I wished to track. Strangely excited by the audacity of what I was about to do--it was about 10 minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart--I keyed the information in. After a dialogue box warned me that a java applet would need a moment to compose itself, I was looking at a regional map that showed, quite plainly, the airliner in which my son was scheduled to depart. A big plane icon sat on top of the dot showing BWI. A smaller, national map showed the plane's intended route, southwest to Houston. An on-screen altimeter and speedometer registered zero. A line of text reported the flight's status as "scheduled."

It was clear that, wisely or not, I was about to technologically intrude on my son's first "independent" flight. And I'd been so proud at my wife's and my unclingy decision to let him go on this trip without us! And now, here I was, tethered to the tailfin of his plane--a Boeing 737C, if the screen report could be trusted--by a phone line!

The scheduled takeoff time, 11:25, passed without the plane budging. I "reloaded" the Web page repeatedly to ensure that my browser hadn't taken a nap.

At 11:49, the icon shimmied. I reloaded the Web page again. Houston, we have liftoff! The altimeter was registering 2,700 feet! The plane was going 241 mph! It was heading west-southwest!

Geez, did we remember to pack Cal some sugarless gum so his ears wouldn't pop?

The icon continued to stutter across the screen, the image occasionally marred by horizontal bars of bad color. I reloaded the page, watching the plane soar in stop-action . . . 10,000 feet, 17,000 feet, 32,000 feet; 340 mph, 400 mph. . . . At one point the icon seemed to move backward, but I'm sure that was just "line noise" or something inside my computer.

As the airplane icon moved south and west along its flight path, I noticed that it was heading, by pure coincidence, directly over Rockville, the patch of suburbiana where our house is located. Luckily, nobody else was home, so I didn't have to explain or deny anything as I hunted through the closet for the binoculars, stepped out the front door and swept the sky looking for a Southwest jet. This was stupid, I knew as I scanned the cloudless sky, one full step stupider than tracking his flight via the Web. This was becoming "Mission: Impossible" directed by Sally Jessy Raphael, starring Rick Moranis as the father. I feared what the neighbors would think of the spectacle.

Until--yes!--a tiny jetliner miraculously, silently, slid into the quadrant of open sky above our house. I trained my binoculars on the plane for several minutes, until it disappeared behind the trees. Was it really the plane my son was in? I couldn't make out the airline logo, and of course I couldn't see into the tiny windows, so I'll never know. But it appeared to be going in the right direction, at approximately the right time, and seemed to be rising rather than landing.

I went back inside, where my computer remained locked on the flight. I could see the plane heading down toward the Shenandoah Valley. I continued to monitor the flight the rest of the way, switching mostly into a faster text-based mode that instead of a map uses a set of numbers to report the plane's approximate location ("10 miles outside Knoxville, Tenn."), along with the miles to go, expected landing time and so on. Although I did some work while I was diddling with the flight in the background, I suspect that I was eventually at least as bored by Caleb's flight as he was. There were a few dumbly anxious moments, like when the computer reported "n/a" for air speed, and I wondered what exactly would show up on my screen if--and let's cut right to the neurotic subtext here--the plane were to catch on fire and crash. Of course, I'll never know. I monitored the flight's smooth descent, from 40,000 feet, gradually, to 5,000 feet and below. Finally the message read "on the ground" at Houston's Hobby Airport. It was 1:25 p.m. Houston time, 2:25 at my computer.

Like a lot of Web technology, real-time flight tracking is very impressive and, aside from the pleasure it affords during its first demonstration, of precious little value. I suppose if I needed to pick up somebody at the airport I could use it to verify that the flight was on time this way, though calling the airline would probably be easier. And since it takes at least 45 minutes to get to any one of the three airports in this area, chances are pretty good that by the time I could find out a flight was late I'd already be there waiting for it.

I suspect that the single commercial airline flight whose details I'm likely to care about most irrationally during my lifetime has already taken place. I'm glad, I think, that was there for me.

And someday, perhaps, my son will even forgive me.

Many travel-related sites offer real-time flight tracking. To sample TheTrip's, go to, then click on the words "Real-time flight tracking." If you have an older Web browser or a slow computer, you may be able to access only the text-based version of the program.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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