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How to avoid getting pranked during college football coach flight-tracking season

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Here are five ways to make sure you don’t fall for a fake meeting between a coach and a team.

Tracking flights is a favorite pastime during college football coaching carousel season. And while there have been some hits, there have also been plenty of misses. After all, when tracking flights, it’s possible to see where a flight takes off and lands, but not much else. It’s a lot of circumstantial evidence.

Which is why these types of screenshots are so fun this time of year.

These are some of 2016’s first flights to start popping up on college football message boards and Twitter, and would seem to indicate that someone from Notre Dame is going to Oregon and someone from Western Michigan is going to Baylor. When you consider that Brian Kelly is exploring options, P.J. Fleck is one of the hottest coaching carousel names, and both Baylor and Oregon are looking for coaches, it all makes sense.

This, however, is next-level flight tracker trolling. Neither tail number is registered with the FAA. FlightAware pulls from filed flight plans, and a number of online services will let you fill out and file a flight plan. FlightAware used to do this itself.

Someone filed a flight plan to bait college football fans and made it just obvious enough to catch folks refreshing flight trackers for tips on coaching searches.

Here are some helpful tips to figure out if you’re tracking the right flights.

Don’t just look at takeoffs and landings. Look at all the information provided by FlightAware (or the site you’re looking at) about the flight you’re tracking.

1. Make sure it’s a jet.

Crop dusters probably aren’t going to be involved in wooing candidates. Make sure it’s one of the standard private jets, usually a twin-jet, and most often one of a select few manufacturers (Cessna and Gulfstream are popular). Rule out anything with prop engines.

2. The route has to make sense.

Would Western Michigan let Fleck take a university plane to go interview for other jobs? Same with Kelly and Notre Dame (okay, maybe that one would make sense right about now).

But odds are, schools aren’t handing over keys to coaches so they can lobby for new jobs elsewhere.

More likely: a plane will pick up the athletic director or intermediaries and go to where the coach is, or to some intermediate meeting point. So if you see someone from Oregon flying to Kalamazoo, then maybe you’re on to something.

3. Check the registration.

There’s no registration on the above aircraft, so that’s your first giveaway. The planes don’t actually exist in the FAA’s records and are thus probably made up. Check the registration — linked on each FlightAware page — to make sure the plane exists.

(These particular planes also happen to include “WMU” and “ND” in their supposed tail numbers, which is a bit too on-the-nose.)

This is also helpful in narrowing down if it’s the right plane. Commercial airliners aren’t what you’re looking for. Instead, look for planes belonging to holding companies owned by boosters or charter/leasing agencies.

There was that time the internet figured out a plane belonging to Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was headed toward LeBron James, whether Gilbert himself was or not.

4. Check the flight history

Does it exist? Where does the plane usually fly? If it’s chartered, you’ll usually see a flurry of activity, with it stopping to return to its home base. If there is no flight history, as is the case above, then it’s probably not real at all.

There are also regular flights between college towns, which look more suspicious during coaching carousel season. See what the regular movements of the plane are and if it’s visiting a handful of college towns.

5. Remember that this is still only partial information.

You won’t know who’s on the plane or the purpose of the flight. It’s fun to guess, but more often than not, you’re going to be wrong. The use of intermediaries, both in terms of people and cities, also makes this all more difficult. Sometimes reporters stake out an airport to greet a family returning from vacation.

And once in a while, fans can see a coaching search play out in front of their eyes, through the magic of flight-tracking.