Tracking Steve Jobs’s Private Jet Over the Internet

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Steve Jobs's private Gulfstream jet on the runway at TK. Photos reproduced with the kind permission of Rich Snyder.

Jobs has blocked the FAA from officially tracking his jet’s flights (a routine request; some simple paperwork with the National Business Aviation Association). But his 15-seater Gulfstream 5 has a distinctive tail number — N2N — that makes it easy for aviation buffs to track its movements on the Internet.

And while it looks like he flew to Memphis on March 23, possibly for a liver transplant — as CNBC claims to have independently confirmed — his jet made many more flights in April.

Worldwide, there are scores of plane geeks who track messages sent via the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), an automated system that transmits airplane status messages to other aircraft and ground stations.

It’s the same system that investigators are using to piece together the final moments of Air France 447, which crashed off the coast of Brazil earlier this month.

The messages are unencrypted and easily intercepted with an aviation scanner — the aerospace equivalent of a police scanner. Attach the scanner to a PC, and the status messages can be automatically uploaded to internet databases.

A search of Acarsd.org, a database that aggregates messages from hundreds of scanners connected to the Internet, shows that Jobs’s jet was in the air of March 23. It reported its position to the east of Modesto, CA.

“The aircraft could have been eastbound at that point,” says Carl Howe, an analyst with Yankee Group and a former pilot who searched the Acarsd.org database to produce a report of the jet’s movements for the last 6 months (See below).

“If it were the case, the next time the aircraft logs time is on April 5, about two weeks later,” says Howe. “Anything is possible, but that seems like a pretty fast turnaround for a liver transplant; there’s more activity in April though.”

Jobs’ plane was busy in April, logging five flights that month — the most movements the plane has made in the last six months. And it looks like Jobs’s jet made three flights close together in late April, arriving or departing from San Jose on April 21, 23 and 27.

The ACARS records on those dates contain Gear-up messages (Message label 12), and position reporting messages (Message label 15), which include latitude and longitude, as indicated by the N and W markers. For example, on April 21, the jet reported its location at N37.112, W121.444, which is just south of San Jose, CA. There are similar latitude and longitude markers for flight son the 23 and 27.

“Jobs was doing something then,” says Howe. “We just don’t know what.”

In addition, interception of ACARS transmissions isn’t perfect. Only a percentage of all messages are captured by hobbyists.

However, the system makes it hard to keep the movements of planes secret, especially when they’re leaving an electronic data trail. The CIA’s extraordinary rendition program was uncovered by hobbyist planespotters.

“Some of these seemingly obscure hobbies can be pretty good sources of hard data,” says Howe.

Plane buff Rich Snyder, who snapped Jobs’s jet in April, said airplane photographers use flight trackers like FlightAware to see what’s arriving at the airport they’re shooting at.

“N2N has been blocked on Flightaware per request, probably by Jobs,” says Snyder. “So, if you catch his jet, it’s a pretty nice score!”

Here’s Howe’s data for Jobs’s Gulfstream N2N for the last six months:

Data from http://www.acarsd.org/acars_search.html for Gulfstream
5, N2N from 1/1/09 through 6/20/09
CARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: 15 Block id: 8 Msg no: M67A
Flight id: XA0001 []  [General Aviation]
Message content:-
(2N37550W120443281 44300—(Z
———————————————————-[ 24/03/2009 08:22 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: Q0 Block id: 5 Msg no: M25A
Flight id: XA0001 []  [General Aviation]
———————————————————-[ 05/04/2009 07:20 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: _ Block id: 5 Msg no: M54A
Flight id: XA0001 []  []
———————————————————-[ 19/04/2009 17:06 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: 15 Block id: 8 Msg no: M97A
Flight id: XA0001 []  []
Message content:-
(2N37112W121444006 11 37—(Z
———————————————————-[ 21/04/2009 05:55 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: 12 Block id: 2 Msg no: M01A
Flight id: XA0001 []  [General Aviation]
Message content:-
(2AAYAN37212W121555 S3535 L(Z
———————————————————-[ 23/04/2009 16:37 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: 15 Block id: 1 Msg no: M00A
Flight id: XA0001 []  [General Aviation]
Message content:-
(2N37212W121555GRD (K10—(Z
———————————————————-[ 27/04/2009 19:43 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: _ Block id: 3 Msg no: M52A
Flight id: XA0001 []  [General Aviation]
———————————————————-[ 03/05/2009 17:49 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: 12 Block id: 2 Msg no: M01A
Flight id: XA0001 []  [General Aviation]
Message content:-
(2AAYAN37212W121555 D0810 L(Z
———————————————————-[ 10/05/2009 20:49 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: 15 Block id: 0 Msg no: M70A
Flight id: XA0001 []  [General Aviation]
Message content:-
(2N37212W121555GRD 0—(Z
———————————————————-[ 21/05/2009 21:41 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: _ Block id: 8 Msg no: M07A
Flight id: XA0001 []  [General Aviation]
———————————————————-[ 14/06/2009 17:55 ]-

ACARS mode: 2 Aircraft reg: N2N [Gulfstream GLF5]
Message label: Q0 Block id: 2 Msg no: M02A
Flight id: XA0001 []  [General Aviation]
———————————————————-[ 20/06/2009 05:47 ]-