I come from a background in railroad watching, and often times one can identify the maker of a railroad locomotive purely by sound. Maybe not the exact model of locomotive, but at least what type of diesel engine is in the locomotive.

Although there is a similar question here: What could cause GE and Rolls-Royce turbofan engines to sound different?, my question is whether an experienced airplane spotter could be near the end of a runway at a busy commercial airport and be successful in identifying the model of commercial jet aircraft landing and taking off only by the sound the spotter is hearing from the aircraft as it flies overhead?

To me as an inexperienced airplane spotter, they all sound similar. But to airplane spotters, all railroad locomotives may sound the same too. :-)

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    $\begingroup$ Much like your train example they may be able to identify the engines better than the airframe. A lot of engines are used across multiple airframes. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ It may be possible with some incredible hearing and memory, but it is doubtful, especially since aircraft of a single type can have multiple different engine configurations/manufacturers. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ Well, it is possible to deduce the general build of an airplane by the sound intensity as the quad-jet airplanes are louder than the other kinds. The B787 and B737MAX airplanes are on the quieter side due to engine design. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ There used to be a DJ at one of the radio stations here would have people call in and he could identify their car from the sound of the horn. He was surprisingly good at it $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 2:31
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    $\begingroup$ I can tell the types of engines apart, but not the types of aircraft. Geared ultralight engines or radial engines are clearly different from regular piston engines. But to tell a Piper from a Cessna is not possible for me. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 7:35

6 Answers 6


Yes it is possible, although it is kind of hard to prove it over the internet.1

When a teenager I lived under the approach path of Westover AFB. My friends and I had no difficulty at all distinguishing among these types by sound alone:

  • Douglas DC-3
  • Douglas DC-7
  • Boeing 707
  • Douglas DC-8
  • Lockheed L-188 Electra
  • Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation
  • Convair B-36
  • Boeing B-47 Stratojet
  • Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
  • Convair F-102 Delta Dagger (singly or flights of two or four)
  • Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (singly or flights of two or four)
  • North American F-100 Super Sabre (singly or flights of two or four)

We only looked up when some other type flew over.

1. This line is an homage to kevin who said it first.

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    $\begingroup$ I also grew up next to an Air Force base and can still remember the sound of a C5 taking off. Nothing else like it in the world. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ Grew up under the traffic pattern of NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach. Could identify an F4, A6, A7, F14, A4, and most any other Navy plane in my sleep just from the sound. $\endgroup$
    – MikeY
    Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 21:58

Yes it is possible, although it is kind of hard to prove it over the internet.

Generally the type of engine (propeller / turbo-fan / turbo-prop etc.) is quite easy to distinguish as they make very different sound. I can also tell a Rolls Royce engine from others because Rolls Royce engines make a quite "harmonic" and "warm" sound as it powers up.

Now here is the fun part: I correlate the sound with the type of the plane by comparing the Doppler effect as the plane passes by. It tells you how fast the angular velocity is in relation between you and the plane. The variation in loudness gives you the approximate distance to the plane - if the plane is far away, its loudness would change slowly. Combine that with the geographic location of yourself and the flight paths of planes, it gives you the speed of the plane.

The speed of the plane is important because it tells you the size of the plane. If I hear a loud multi-prop engine moving slowly, I'd bet a transport plane, something like a C130. If it is moving quickly, I'd bet an aerobatic aircraft.

The location where I live is directly under one of the SIDs of a major airport. Planes are usually ~3,000 feet when they pass above me. One thing I notice is that long route planes like Boeing 777 or Airbus A340 makes a noticeably louder noise. This is because these planes carry a lot of fuel on takeoff, and their climb performance is restrained compared to short haul airplanes, meaning they pass above me at a lower altitude, hence the louder noise. I cannot distinguish from sound if it is a B777, B747, A330 or A340, but I know it is not a B737 or A320 unless the pilots fly slow and low.

I confess I have an unusually good hearing ability. I often hear faint sound or noises which others cannot notice. I am also a musician.


A few years ago I was camping at Download Festival with a friend who is a 747 pilot. When we weren't watching bands we spent a fair bit of time in our tent playing the "identify the engine" game as aircraft took off from East Midlands airport right over our campsite. She was pretty successful, pointing out the differences between jet engines, discussing the difference between a Graunch and a Whine, such that I can now easily distinguish between a Rolls Royce and a GE engine, between 2 and 4 engines, likely airframe (based on launch noise and volume) etc. So generally, yes, you can distinguish between many types of aircraft by noise profile.

One stumped her, though - and I identified it as a C-130 (from my years in the Falklands this was a familiar sound) so we watched it go by and then got back in the tent.

The next noise we heard was something neither of us could identify. So we climbed out of the tent - as did everyone else around us. The loud, earth-shattering roar that increased in volume was the Antonov AN-225 Mriya taking off almost directly overhead. Never going to forget that one.


Of course. I live right at the beginning of the runway 30ILS intercept area of KOAK. I hear a lot of planes, and you can usually identify an a320 variant (like a321) by its higher pitched noise compared to the 737. The 737 sounds like a hollow whooshing sound(like one you would make with your mouth). The MD-11 and DC-10 sound like the 737 but louder. 777 has its distinct GE90 sounds. Not very many 747/787's come by though. There aren't enough 757/767 for me to actually remember and recognize their sound. Keep in mind, these planes are all probably on idle as they are getting ready for final.

Also a short story: Once I was just sitting by my computer and I heard what sounded like a huge jet outside. It sounded so loud, definitely worth of 4 engines. I didn't recognize the sound so I opened FR24, and guess what? it was a British Airways A380.

So basically after a while of matching the sound with the plane you get used to it and you just 'know' what sound they make. Just like someone calls your name and you think "hey, that guys talking to me".


While some aircraft, with rare engine/prop combinations can be identified, many others cannot as the same basic engine and prop get used on many fairly similar airplanes. The prop diameter and pitch can change the sound, but similar aircraft will almost always have similar props with similar pitches. Prop RPMs are often within a similar narrow range - usually designed so that the tips are just barely subsonic at high speed, which when calculated at a specific diameter set the speed - although some have gearing, so the engine can turn faster, affecting the sound. A Piper and a similarly powered Cessna will be indistinguishable for instance, but will have a distinct sound much different than a turboprop or a big radial, even without any doppler effect. Multiple engine aircraft also sound different than single engine aircraft, and radial engines sound different than inlines, or horizontally opposed engines or the rotaries mostly used before and during WW1. Part of this is the small number of companies making aircraft engines - less than a couple of thousand world wide over the history of aviation, and only a handful with any large production runs over an extended period of time so a lot of airplanes used many of the same engines - and conversely, most of them were built using nearly every possible engine available, so two examples of essentially the same aircraft can sound different due to the engine - while another companies airplane may also offer the same engines, and so the ones using the same engines will sound similar.

Take a look at the listings for Waco biplanes - doesn't matter which type, but some of them could be bought with as many as a dozen different types of engines. Even now, most airliners are offered with several different engines, to match whatever a fleet is using, as they try to stick to as few different engines as possible.

In the US the most common piston engines are from Continental, Lycoming, Wright, Pratt and Whitney and either Jacobs or Kinner. In the UK, add de Havilland, Rolls-Royce, Bristol and Armstrong-Whitworth - the DH and AW both being widely exported and produced abroad, as were the Wright and Pratt and Whitney engines, and many of these have a distinctive note.

TL:DR version - sound can sometimes be used to determine the broad aircraft type but not the company or model unless it is a very rare combo, such as a B-36.


Yes and no. The heard sound depends on aircraft's speed, altitude, surface positions (flaps, AoA), gear, weather (especially wind direction), other external noise (e.g. nearby busy roads) and of course engines (big proportion).

So a "resident planespotter" like @kevin can clearly identify aircrafts very well just by sound. At a different airport with different environment conditions (especially different approach procedures), it is much more difficult.

By the way, the aircraft dependent noise (engines, gear, flaps) is studied and optimized during design of an airplane.


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