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When you hear the roar in south Minneapolis, look up to add color and form

illustrated map of msp flight pathsMinnPost illustration by Andy SturdevantIt’s possible to see aircraft roaring in all day and night for your entire life, and not really understand a thing about flight paths, final approaches, or much of anything about how, why and where aircraft pass over a city.

My friend Pete McLarnan used to live near 56th Street around Diamond Lake in what I sometimes call the Deep South of Minneapolis. Pete is a filmmaker, and recently completed a gorgeous gem of a film called “The Sound of Small Things,” about the fitful relationship between a newly wed husband and wife. (Disclosure: I donated to the film’s Kickstarter campaign.) The film was conceived and written while living in that neighborhood.

It’s set largely in one of those tiny cottages in Nokomis, in the city’s Deep South. It debuted at Slamdance last year, and will be streaming on a new film crowdfunding website called Seed&Spark later this week.

True to life in that part of the city, the film is saturated with aircraft noise. In nearly every single scene, even those shot indoors, there is the distant roar of a jet overhead.

“So much of the dialogue was improvised,” Pete explained. “And the planes became a part of that dialogue, like a third character. It always seemed to show up at the right time.” Onscreen, the actors pause, wait for the aircraft to pass, then continue. “It’s like an ever-present interloper in your life,” he adds.

Airplane over s. minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
South of 46th street, there’s often an airplane overhead in Minneapolis.

Anyone who has ever lived south of 46th Street knows about this particular interloper. Aircraft noise in south Minneapolis has been and remains a hot-button political issue. Mayor R.T. Rybak’s involvement in the community group Residents Opposed to Airport Racket (ROAR) was one of his earliest entrees into civic life. 

As irritating as this residential airport racket can be – and I live in Powderhorn, which gets its own share of overhead air traffic – there is something vaguely romantic about the ubiquity of these jetliners, bringing in thousands of visitors to the cities every minute of the day. Vaguely romantic, not totally romantic. For this column, I am taking our usual examination of the physical and material culture around us, so often applied only to those items of interest within our sightlines, and pointing it heavenward. This is the first in a series of field guides to the skies of urban Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The majority of jets coming into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) over the neighborhoods of the Deep South are operated by Delta Air Lines. These are easy to spot from the ground – each airline’s fleet sports a standard livery, or paint scheme for all its aircraft. With the exception of some of the smaller regional jets, Delta aircraft livery consists of a white fuselage, blue wing-mounted engines, a blue underside, and a blue tail, with a two-tone red wedge (known as the “widget”). In fact, these liveries actually have official names – the current scheme is called “Onward and Upward,” and its eight-colored predecessor, which apparently took much longer to paint, was known as “Colors in Motion.” I suppose cool livery names like “Screaming Vengeance” and “Here Come the Warm Jets” were already taken.

Other major airlines operating out of MSP are easily identified. American Airlines jets typically still sport polished, unpainted metal fuselages. United has white fuselages with a yellow stripe and a blue tail decorated with a yellow globe. US Airways’ livery is light gray and dark blue. There are nine other airlines operating out of MSP, as well, many with more lively liveries than these four. But most of the airplanes you see are from one of these airlines.

It’s possible to see aircraft roaring in all day and night for your entire life, and not really understand a thing about flight paths, final approaches, or much of anything about how, why and where aircraft pass over a city. I initially thought (naïvely, it turns out) that there must be some easy way to observe what direction the aircraft were flying in from, and then from there deduce what city they were coming in from. Like if a plane is coming in low and from the west, it must be coming from a nearby western city, like Sioux Falls or Fargo, right?

No. Of course not. Not even close. In fact, that’s ridiculous.

A number of aviation enthusiasts explained to me that by the time the aircraft has made its final descent into MSP, it has come in from a pre-determined point many miles outside the Twin Cities that has little or nothing to do with its city of origin. Most of the flight paths approach beacons in suburbs or exurbs like Afton, Anoka and Farmington. Wind direction affects which of the four runways are in use. 

In other words, a flight coming in from JFK looks a lot like one coming in from LAX from the ground in south Minneapolis.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t make some reasonable speculations about where the jets coming in overhead have come from. This is a very, very simplified guide to spotting various types of aircraft flying over you while you stand near Minnehaha Creek, trying to figure out where they’ve come from. Let’s take Delta’s fleet, for example. Delta operates a little less than 30 types of aircraft. The largest are the Boeing 747s, which have four wing-mounted engines. They look like this:

The Boeing 747
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
The Boeing 747

A 747 has a range of more than 7,000 miles and was introduced in the late 1960s. Apparently you don’t see as many of these coming out of MSP as you once might have. Delta operates daily flights from Narita International Airport in Tokyo, and while these once utilized 747s, they now are generally 777s. The 777 looks somewhat like the 747, but with only two wing-mounted engines.

767s, 757s and 737s are smaller, with similar bodies and also with only two wing-mounted engines. This is what a 767-432 looks like:

The Boeing 767
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
The Boeing 767

Very likely, a craft like this would also be coming in from overseas as well. Amsterdam, Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow, for example, all of which have direct Delta flights. It might also be from a high-volume domestic airport, like Denver, O’Hare or Atlanta. The stories you might create in your head about the passengers on these planes may involve high finance, long-distance relationships, business deals, conferences, or cross-cultural exchanges of one kind or another. You can imagine the passengers on these planes have been sitting still for many, many hours.

Quite a lot of the air traffic, though, is connectors from regional airports, which typically utilize smaller aircraft, like the Bombardier Regional Jet CRJ-200ER, 700 and 900ER. They’re perhaps a little over half the size of a 777, and with rear-mounted engines. The CRJ-900 looks like this:

Bombardier Regional Jet CRJ-900ER
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
Bombardier Regional Jet CRJ-900ER

It’s probably come from a place like Minot, Madison or Wausau. It might be on a longer trip, stopping in at these smaller towns between here and Delta’s other hubs in Detroit or Memphis. The stories you might create in your head about the passengers on these planes may involve slightly less exotic but no less emotionally fraught situations, such as grandparents, or high school athletics, or breaks in the academic calendar.

This is an absurdly oversimplified introduction to a highly complex subject, one to which hundreds of informal clubs, Internet message boards, and international governing bodies have been devoted. Aircraft spotting and tracking is one of those subjects you could get as deep into as you wanted and still have lots to learn. (In fact, please leave comments if I have made particularly egregious errors here.) But even just a cursory understanding of the liveries, flight patterns and designs of our overhead neighbors goes a long way in adding some color and form to this specific breed of hyper-local noise pollution. It’s a distinctly south Minneapolis fact of life. We might as well claim some ownership over it.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated there are direct transatlantic flights between MSP and both Dublin and Frankfurt, and neglected to mention Amsterdam and Paris. It’s been corrected. Special thanks to Rob Hamilton and Bob Collins for their assistance.

Ask Andy questions on Dec. 19 at noon during our next MinnPost Live Chat.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 12/05/2012 - 09:03 am.

    As someone who finds the airplanes a bonus of living in the neighborhood you describe, I’d break down the flights differently:

    -First distinction: widebody vs non-widebody. The 747, 777, 767, and airbus 330 are the standard passenger wide-bodies, and just have a different heft to the sound of their engines. Add in the fed-ex MD-11’s, and these are the ones that when you hear the distinctive sound, you know something big is about to glide over. The 747 is unique in that it is the only passenger jet to make our dishes rattle in the cabinet when it takes off.

    -Then, civilian vs. military. There are a lot of c-130 cargo planes that the air national guard flies, big 4 engine propeller planes. they have their own unique drone, and often come in pairings of 2-4, much more closely spaced then any civilian flight. They tend to leave quite a dark plume of exhaust, and I always wonder how many dollars and gallons are going up in smoke for some (necessary?) flight to get the crew their airtime. More interestingly, but also much more rare, are the occasional F-16 and F-18’s fighters that come in. Intense roar when they leave, and go so fast that you miss them if you don’t look up within a few seconds.

    Thanks for the article; I know most view them as a nuisance, but I view the planes as a bonus to living where I do (and the source of our central air-conditioning).

    -Finally, there are the smaller planes. There’s always a few 2-engine prop planes laving every morning, and they seem to be the same ones. I always wonder if they are some sort of custom courier service, or a business that decided to be different by not having a lear-jet, or some other small jet. But they seem to be far too regular to just be a private pilot out for a pleasure flight.

  2. Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 12/05/2012 - 09:36 am.


    Spoken like a true southsider, Dimitri! My aircraft taxonomy was really broad, so thank you for adding some key details. 

  3. Submitted by John Dybvig on 12/05/2012 - 10:18 am.

    Additional resource

    Another way to see the big picture is to look at flight tracker

    This tool allows you to see either a static map of all the flights that left and arrived during a specific period, or to see the flights in motion. There are settings to see the flight number, which you can cross reference with the airline website and see where the flight is going or where it is coming from.

  4. Submitted by Bob Collins on 12/05/2012 - 10:20 am.

    I think those CRJ 900s are also being used to provide non-stop service to cities in the Northeast, too… like Albany NY and Hartford. I believe they’re operated by Pinnacle, which is a whole ‘nother issue.

  5. Submitted by Jim Greg on 12/05/2012 - 11:22 am.

    non-stop vs. direct

    Nice read. I do take issue with this statement: “Very likely, a craft like this would also be coming in from overseas as well. Dublin, Frankfurt or Heathrow, for example, all of which have direct Delta flights”

    Delta only has non-stop flights between MSP and Heathrow, AMS, CDG across the Atlantic. None to Dublin or Frankfurt. If there are “direct” flights, (i.e. a single flight number) to Dublin or Frankfurt they aren’t non-stop and the plane you see is really coming from or going to Atlanta or New York most likely…

  6. Submitted by Jeff Radford on 12/05/2012 - 11:47 am.

    Another flight tracker

    Another good flight tracker is the search engine Wolfram Alpha. Just use the term “flights overhead” and you’ll get tons of data. Can be a little klutzy, though.

  7. Submitted by Crystal Brakke on 12/05/2012 - 04:13 pm.

    I have found my people!

    I used to live in South Boston years ago, and would walk around there running into things because I was so busy trying to identify the planes coming in overhead. We don’t have quite as much variety here, at least what I see from my yard in Richfield, but I still love and am fascinated by the planes themselves and the stories they carry.

    Great piece.

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