A Beginners Guide to General Aviation Aircraft Identification

If you are the type of person who can visit an airport on any given day and accurately identify the make, model, year, and flight characteristics of any aircraft that you happen to see, this article is not for you. This article is for the good-hearted airplane enthusiast who is just starting out, or the student pilot who feels inadequate when their pilot friends rattle off airplane facts like nobody’s business.

I took a poll of my friends at school, asking them how confident they are in their airplane identification skills. The majority of sophomores and juniors said they were extremely confident, and could identify most military or civilian aircraft with ease. Some freshmen had grown up around aircraft, and felt mildly confident. However, I found a surprising amount of new student pilots who felt they would not know the difference between a Diamond and Cirrus, and referred to the majority of single-engine aircraft as simply "Cessna."

This article is designed to give an overview of the most common single-engine aircraft, and to give a new airplane enthusiast a good starting point for their upcoming years of impressing friends with their aviation knowledge. After all, even the most experienced plane-spotter had to start somewhere.

Stepping out onto a busy tarmac, one has a very high chance of seeing any combination of the following aircraft. The hope is that by the end of this list you will be able to easily pick out the subtle differences of each and take your first steps at being an airplane guru.

Cessna - The most popular single-engine general aviation aircraft has to be the Cessna 172. The four-seater aircraft has high wings, and the imaginary line from the bottom of the fuselage to the tail is almost perfectly straight. They are very angular and boxy, but have a classic look that is easily recognized. Cessna also has the 150, 152, 180, 182, and several other models, all of which have the same basic shape. Overall a very recognizable aircraft, and 80% of the time if there is a high winged aircraft on the ramp at the airport or flying around, it is a Cessna.

Diamond -The Diamond DA20 is a low-wing, curvy aircraft with a very large wingspan that could be mistaken for a powerful motor-glider. The fuselage is oval shaped, which flows into a skinny tail section and T-tail (position of vertical and horizontal stabilizers resemble an uppercase T) that makes me think of this aircraft as having a dolphin tail. The canopy opens upward, encasing the pilot and passenger in a bubble with great visibility. This aircraft also has four-seat model, the DA40.

Cirrus - Often confused with the Diamond DA40, a Cirrus SR20 is similarly shaped, but much less curvy and thin. The low-wing aircraft has a roomy interior, and features sporty doors that open upwards with a forward-pivoting hinge. The horizontal stabilizer is positioned similarly on the tail as a Cessna 172. These are not to be confused with a Cessna Columbia, which has a very similar shape but a perfectly straight nose gear.

Mooney - One of my favorite aircraft is the Mooney. These are easily identified by the vertical stabilizer, which appears to have been put on backward. It forms a sharp L-shape in the tail. This is also a low-wing aircraft, known for its speed. Another interesting feature is how the leading edge of the wing is perpendicular to the fuselage while the trailing edge is angled forward, giving it the appearance that the wings have been put on backward as well.

Piper Cherokee – Another popular training aircraft is the Piper Cherokee. They have chunky low-wings, and appear to sit closer to the ground. It seats four passengers and the majority of models have a fixed gear. This is the Cessna of low-wing aircraft. They are sometimes confused with the Beechcraft Bonanza, but are much smaller and less bulky looking.

Beechcraft Bonanza – A popular personal aircraft, this six-seat beast has been in continuous production longer than any other airplane in history. The oldest models have an easily recognizable V-shaped tail, but newer models sport a conventional tail, and all models have a trapezoidal gear leg fairing. They have a rather beefy fuselage, and occupy a lot of space.

I hope that this basic guide to identifying the most widely known and flown aircraft has been helpful. Next time you visit an airport, see how many of these legendary planes you can recognize. The more practice you have recognizing the different models, the better you will be.