The Ultimate Aviation Enthusiasts

Nearly two decades in aviation have blessed me with the opportunity to immerse myself in many corners of the industry, flying aerobatics, formation, sea planes, gliders, antiques, experimentals, turboprops, and jets. As a pilot, I’ve been a student, instructor, coach, judge, competitor, volunteer, corporate/charter captain, crop duster, aircraft owner, and more. I’ve given seminars, written countless articles and blog entries, organized fly-ins, camp-outs, and flown around the world.

And yet the more I do, the more it seems is out there waiting to be discovered. In that vein, there’s always been one particular segment of aviation aficionados who’ve piqued my interest. Perhaps you’ve noticed them, those random folks who spend hours hanging out around the airport perimeter for no discernible reason. When accompanied by binoculars, a camera, and perhaps even a notebook, they can appear rather suspicious. More than one individual has called the authorities to report them.

It’s understandable. We live in a see-something-say-something era where pretty much anything out of the mainstream is viewed with suspicion. Alas, these folks actually harmless, polite, intelligent people from all walks of life who have one thing in common: an advanced case of “aviation enthusiasm”. In other words, they simply like to hang out at the airport and watch aircraft come and go.

They are plane spotters.

One spotter with whom I’m personally familiar is Matt Birch. If that name sounds familiar to any of my readers, it’s probably because he has appeared here before. More than two years ago, I wrote a very popular post about the retirement flight of the first Gulfstream jet ever built. Matt was invited by the captain on that aircraft, Joe Miller, to join the airplane for its last trip to Charlotte, SC where it was to be donated to a museum.

“That is the one experience I will never be able to better,” Matt says. “To be on the last flight of the first Gulfstream II was the ultimate expression of being an aviation enthusiast, an incredible and immersive experience, and a significant day for both Gulfstream and the corporate industry. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to enjoy that historic occasion.”

I’ve kept in touch with Matt since that post was written, and have become fascinated by the depth of his love of aviation. He’s worked for United Kingdom air traffic control service provider NATS for over thirty years. Matt’s father was an aircraft engineer and took his son to airports and airshows in his youth, fostering a life-long interest in airplanes and aviation which lead to him seeking a career in the industry. Air traffic control was the first opportunity that came up, and he’s been there ever since.

During his teenage years, both his family home and high school were below the flight path of Manchester Airport in northwest England. Outside of London, this was the busiest airport in the country and aircraft used to fly overhead all the time. Some of Matt’s new school friends introduced him to the world of “plane spotting”, and soon he was hooked.

Meet a Spotter

Matt spoke to me about the hobby on a recent visit to Southern California. “Back in the late 1970s, it was a common hobby among many of my friends. We’d visit the airport and collect the registration (or “tail number”, as it’s called in the USA) of each airplane. We used make a log book of what planes we saw on what dates, and where. School holidays were great — I could spend a whole day on the spectator terrace with my friends and a box of sandwiches. I was always bugging my parents to drop me off there for the day when they went out to work. Books were published which listed all the airplanes which the major airlines operated. A common aim was to try and tick off all the planes in each fleet.”

If you haven’t guessed by now, this was a different era. Today, many folks — especially the younger set — are mystified by the idea of wanting to hang out at an airport at all, let alone copy down the aircraft equivalent of license plate numbers. “This was before what I call the ‘PlayStation generation’; I considered it to be a proper boy’s hobby,” Matt says with a slight air of nostalgia.

He soon acquired a pair of binoculars, a radio to listen to communication with ATC, and started to go on organized trips to spend the day at other airports and airshows. Many major airports published timetables for purchase, so you knew when particular flights were arriving and departing.

Matt continues, “London airports were the busiest and offered the most variation. Airlines from all over the world would fly into Heathrow or Gatwick. The regional airports had less variety, so catching certain airlines required visiting the places they flew to.” A few family holidays to Spain and Portugal added the interest of travel abroad, as aircraft that didn’t visit the UK could be seen on overseas trips.

This is one of the first shots Matt took when his father bought him his first camera as a teenager. This is Grumman Gulfstream II serial no 74 and registered N111AC, and was taken at Matts local airport Manchester UK in July 1981. A little grainy as it is scanned from a 35 year old slide.

This is one of the first shots Matt took when his father bought him his first camera as a teenager. This is Grumman Gulfstream II serial no 74 and registered N111AC, and was taken at Matts local airport Manchester UK in July 1981. A little grainy as it is scanned from a 35 year old slide.

In his mid-teens, Matt’s father bought him his first camera. “It was a clunky, Russian-built Zenit SLR — 100% manual. It had screw mount lenses and weighed more than my pushbike. But as well as enabling me to start taking picture of airplanes, it also helped me learn the basics of photography — exposure, f-stops and so on. SLRs these days are so capable and do everything for you, but a grounding in the basics helps you understand the art and how to use the technology of today to your own advantage.”

In a strange twist of fate, during the last couple of months whilst Matt was preparing his contribution to this article, he paid a visit to Dodsons airplane scrapyard in Rantoul, KS to take photographs and collect historical data “As I was running through the list of airplanes I had photographed at their facility, I discovered this very airplane was now in their back yard. Since re-registered as N74HH, it had been withdrawn from service and is now being stripped of useful parts in order that other G IIs can keep flying"

In a strange twist of fate, during the last couple of months whilst Matt was preparing his contribution to this article, he paid a visit to Dodsons airplane scrapyard in Rantoul, KS to take photographs and collect historical data “As I was running through the list of airplanes I had photographed at their facility, I discovered this very airplane was now in their back yard. Since re-registered as N74HH, it had been withdrawn from service and is now being stripped of useful parts so other G-IIs can keep flying”

Matt left high school in 1983 and within 6 months landed a job in ATC, based at the London control center just outside west London. “This was great for my hobby and I couldn’t believe my luck – I was working just north of Heathrow, and what was more, because of my job I had access to a lot of flight plan information which meant I had first hand knowledge of what airplanes were flying where in UK airspace. On top of that we had discounted opportunities for travel with many airlines, and we also were entitled to take familiarization flights where we’d join an airline crew and accompany them in the cockpit on a commercial flight. This was to help our understanding of what the crews do and to appreciate the kind of pressures and responsibilities they have. I still enjoy this part of our job 30 years later.”

You’ve be forgiven for thinking Matt was a kind of geek, but to him, nothing is further from the truth. “Like any hobby, some people become obsessed and it becomes all they do. It can take over your life. There’s no doubt that some can be classed as ‘geeks’, but then it depends on your perspective.” Some people are just focused on effectively ticking boxes, he says. They’ve got to see the entire Southwest Airlines fleet of over 400 737s, for example, and will sit at Phoenix or Las Vegas all day reading the tail numbers until that elusive last one comes in and they can check it off in their book (or more likely a computer database these days).

“I do understand there is a certain sense of satisfaction in getting that last one in the book – I have done it myself, but the only people who might understand that satisfaction would be your fellow spotters. Most others would probably ask, ‘What’s the point?’ You could question whether the folks just ticking boxes are actually interested in airplanes as such, or are suffering a case of OCD, which could of course apply to anything. But ultimately, as in any hobby, you get out of it whatever interests or satisfies you. It’s a very personal thing.”

As Aviation Changes, So Does the Hobby

Matt’s interest in aviation has evolved over the years, from simply reading and writing down tail numbers in the beginning to more photographic work and travel these days. “I actually quite like just watching the airplanes come and go, and taking some nice photos, without worrying too much about what the tail numbers are. And over the last few years, I’ve made more effort to travel on many different types of airplanes whilst I can. In my younger days, I didn’t always appreciate the significance of some aircraft. I never made the effort to fly on some types, and that is one regret I have from my many years in this hobby”.

For example, earlier this year Matt took a trip on an organized aviation tour to Minsk in the former Soviet state of Belarus. This gave him a final chance to fly on some Russian-built airliners that he had never been on before. The Tupolev TU-154 in particular is being withdrawn from service in less than a year and it was pretty much a last chance to experience the Soviet equivalent of the Boeing 727. “The thing is that these jets used to fly into Manchester all the time when I was in my youth, operating for several Eastern European charter airlines, and I never thought ‘I really ought to get a trip on one of those’. But at least now I have, and so that is one thing I won’t regret.”

Matt feels that while the “number crunchers” have it better then ever with the sheer volume of airplanes in service today, for the purer enthusiast, the aviation world offers less than it used to. “My approach to the hobby has evolved over the years, and that has a lot to do with the way aviation itself has changed. When I started, there was a far more diverse range of both airplanes and airlines in existence. Any major airport was a fascinating and colorful place to visit. But most of the classic aircraft from my formative years have been withdrawn – the Boeing 707s, Douglas DC-8s, BAC 1-11s and Vickers VC-10s are now just fond memories. No piston engine airliners fly any longer. All the charismatic smoky, noisy jets have almost completely gone. Smaller airlines have been endlessly subsumed into ever-larger majors, and everything we see at a big airport seems to be a Boeing or Airbus model with ‘airline.com’ painted on the side. It certainly isn’t what it used to be.”

Matts favourite airliner was the Vickers VC-10, built in the 1960s and an all British design, including the Rolls Royce Conway engines. Just 54 were made as the type suffered political interference and lost out against for airline orders to the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. But it was hugely popular with both pilots and passengers, being smooth and fast, and very quiet inside due to its rear mounted engines. They left airline service in the early 1980s, but many soldiered on in military service with the Royal Air Force as tanker/transport airplanes until September 2013 when the type was retired, over 51 years after the VC-10 first flew. “The airplane had an incomparable grace and character, and those hugely thirsty Conway engines had a unique howl that was both very loud and very endearing, whilst trailing smoke as far as you could see when they took off” The phrase “they don’t build ‘em like that any more” was never more apt. I’d go and watch these airplanes all the time at their base at RAF Brize Norton, When they were doing their monthly base training they would be in the circuit for a couple of hours doing touch-and-goes and it was the best airshow I’ve seen"

Matts favourite airliner was the Vickers VC-10, built in the 1960s and an all British design, including the Rolls Royce Conway engines. Just 54 were made as the type suffered political interference and lost out against for airline orders to the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. But it was hugely popular with both pilots and passengers, being smooth and fast, and very quiet inside due to its rear mounted engines. They left airline service in the early 1980s, but many soldiered on in military service with the Royal Air Force as tanker/transport airplanes until September 2013 when the type was retired, over 51 years after the VC-10 first flew. “The airplane had an incomparable grace and character, and those hugely thirsty Conway engines had a unique howl that was both very loud and very endearing, whilst trailing smoke as far as you could see when they took off” The phrase “they don’t build ‘em like that any more” was never more apt. i’d go and watch these airplanes all the time at their base at RAF Brize Norton, When they were doing their monthly base training they would be in the circuit for a couple of hours doing touch-and-goes and it was the best airshow I’ve seen”

As the air transport scene has changed, Matt’s interest has become increasing focused on corporate aviation. “Even in my earlier years, my favorite airplanes were the Gulfstream II and Lockheed JetStar, and though sadly these have dramatically reduced in number, mainly due to noise restrictions, the world of the business jet remains the most varied and interesting. There are many more airframe suppliers, very few aircraft wear the same colors, and some are painted in striking liveries that reflect the taste (or lack thereof) of the owner. Along with that is a casual interest in military aviation. This still offers the noise and excitement, unrestricted by chapter X, Y or Z. The downside is that the airplanes are predominantly in drab grey markings, which aren’t always the most photogenic if the light is less than ideal, and military airbases offer more security challenges if you wish to legitimately get photographs.”

Post-9/11 Spotting: A Perception Problem

Matt explains that one of the biggest drawbacks of the hobby is perception, particularly since the seismic events of 9/11. “Plane spotting is a harmless pastime of those who enjoy a healthy interest in the world of aviation, whether it is collecting numbers, taking photos, travel, or just watching the jets go by at the end of the runway. However there are parts of the world where the hobby is not understood, even before 9/11 happened. The Middle East for example, is one place where there is always a risk of your hobby landing you a night in jail – longer in some cases. Some cultures just don’t get the motives for this kind of activity.”

Matt concedes, “If you are challenged by someone in authority in the UAE, for example, who isn’t familiar with the hobby, and inquires as to why you have a book full of airplane data and are looking at the jets through binoculars, it’s actually pretty hard to offer a plausible explanation. It certainly wouldn’t make sense to a normal police officer on patrol near an airport. Of course, you aren’t up to anything sinister, but you have to understand why he may not share that point of view.”

The events of 9/11 changed the world, and plane spotting unfortunately came into into suspicion because of it. Just standing by the fence at an airport was suddenly a crime. No laws were being broken, people weren’t any place where they shouldn’t be, but they became instant suspects in the wake of the war on terror.

“It took a long time for the hobby to feel safe again, especially in America,” explains Matt. ”The U.S. has always been a popular destination for enthusiasts – partly because there are simply more airplanes there, and partly because the U.S. laws encouraging business and commerce mean there are more corporate aircraft as well. The U.S. has many military bases and plenty of excellent aviation museums. It’s an interesting place to be if you want to look at airplanes.”

A group of UK plane spotters engaging with local law enforcement in Arizona. This shot was taken at Scottsdale airport, in Phoenix, in February 2008, and was during the weekend that the city hosted the Superbowl. Significant sporting events such as this attract the wealthy and famous, and local airfields are crammed with private jets, parked row upon row. Naturally an attraction for spotters and photographers alike, many enthusiasts will arrange vacation plans to attend this kind of event. In this case the police used the ideal approach - they came along and said hello, they checked out who we are, what we were doing and politely set the boundaries. In this case, we were asked not to go right up to the fence - keep a little distance so as not to alarm the locals or passengers. So the other side of the road where I was stood was perfect for landing shots and watching the action, and provided a situation where every one was happy.

A group of UK plane spotters engaging with local law enforcement in Arizona. This shot was taken at Scottsdale airport, in Phoenix, in February 2008, and was during the weekend that the city hosted the Superbowl XLII. Significant sporting events such as this attract the wealthy and famous, and local airfields are crammed with private jets, parked row upon row. Naturally an attraction for spotters and photographers alike, many enthusiasts will arrange vacation plans to attend this kind of event. In this case the police used the ideal approach – they came along and said hello, they checked out who we are, what we were doing and politely set the boundaries. In this case, we were asked not to go right up to the fence – keep a little distance so as not to alarm the locals or passengers. So the other side of the road where I was stood was perfect for landing shots and watching the action, and provided a situation where every one was happy.

“You have to accept that different countries and cultures see things differently and plan your activities accordingly. At the end of the day it’s just a hobby, but you would be surprised at the risks some people will take simply to get a good tail number or two in their book!”

The U.S. remains a fairly friendly place to the hobby in Matt’s experience, but it does vary. “In Florida, many airports have purpose-built viewing areas and generally accept what we do. But stop too long by the fence at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and the local law will be on your case quickly… and they don’t take kindly to back chat. You may not be doing anything wrong, but that won’t stop them from ruining your day by insisting you come to their office for a chat if your don’t heed their advice to clear off.”

Matt can see both sides of this, but still finds it frustrating. “You can understand to a certain extent, because the effect of 9/11 was deeply felt in the New York area.” But he feels there ought to be more room for some common sense as well. “In some places I have been taking pictures from a public road and told what I am doing isn’t allowed, even though I am not breaking any laws. It’s nonsense. In other places the police may come by and just check your ID, maybe show an interest in what you are doing, and wish you a nice day as they leave you to it. It should be possible to accept peoples interest and curiosity without automatically assuming it to be criminal activity. What is needed is more consistency.”

The Best Places for Plane Spotting

Switzerland, Germany and Japan are some of the friendliest countries for plane spotters. Most airports have excellent viewing facilities, an embracing attitude towards the hobby, and an understanding of exactly what people are doing. I’ve long been a fan of Matthias Haenni’s video work at the Bern Airport in Switzerland. Here’s one of my favorites from his collection, a head-on, high-def clip of a Gulfstream G550 landing at Bern:

Matt (Birch) says, “I go to Geneva every year for the EU equivalent of the U.S. NBAA convention and never has there been any question that we’d be approached by police and asked what we are doing. They know who we are, they understand us, and as long as we behave responsibly then it remains that way. There are some great photographic spots at Geneva and it’s nice to know you can spend the day there without any problems.”

Plane spotting as a hobby isn’t specific to the UK, but is probably most prevalent there. Germany and Holland are also strongholds for the spotters, and there are some in the U.S., including some ex-pats from Europe.

“I think as time has moved on, it is perhaps a generational thing,” says Matt. “A lot of people I know within the hobby are in the same kind of age bracket as me, or perhaps slightly older and retired. But you rarely see the younger generation involved. Maybe there are other things which catch their imagination now. The variety of airplanes and the character isn’t there anymore. Like automobiles, it’s all CAD and energy efficiency driven now, and everything tends to look very much the same. In my father’s day — the 1950s and 60s — some airliners started out as a drawing on the back of a cigarette box. If it looked right, it probably was right. That was a common mindset in those days. None of today’s airliners can come anywhere the grace or character of a 1962 Vickers VC-10 in my eyes.”

The term “plane spotter” has come to apply to many facets of being an aviation enthusiast, and it has its own sub-groups. Some just collect the tail numbers, some just take photographs, some just like to fly in different types of airplanes. Some do it all. Some are only interested in military airplanes, or airliners, or corporate aircraft.

When Matt needs a change of scene, he often heads up to the mountains in North Wales. From a number of known vantage points, its possible to get some action shots of military jets as they roar through the valleys on low-level training sorties. “It usually involves sitting on a mountain side for 8 hours, staring into the distance looking for movement at the entrance to the valley. When the jets appear they’re past in a few seconds and if you’re not quick you’ll miss the shot. If you see half a dozen in the day you’ll have done well, though it does vary and they never stick to a schedule, and it’s very weather dependant. But there is no better way to practice your panning technique and the results are jaw dropping when it all works out, as you can see…"

When Matt needs a change of scene, he often heads up to the mountains in North Wales. From a number of known vantage points, its possible to get some action shots of military jets as they roar through the valleys on low-level training sorties. “It usually involves sitting on a mountain side for 8 hours, staring into the distance looking for movement at the entrance to the valley. When the jets appear they’re past in a few seconds and if you’re not quick you’ll miss the shot. If you see half a dozen in the day you’ll have done well, though it does vary and they never stick to a schedule, and it’s very weather dependent. But there is no better way to practice your panning technique and the results are jaw dropping when it all works out, as you can see…”

“That’s part of its popularity” says Matt. “You can basically pursue the elements that interest you, and to whatever degree of intensity you see fit. One of my friends loves his military fighters, and has been known to fly from the U.K. to Las Vegas and back in 2 days so he can go look at the airplanes taking part in an exercise at Nellis AFB. His friend told him that three of the fighters present were ones he hadn’t seen before (out of maybe 60 or so airplanes that were taking part in the exercise). So off he went – thousands of miles and hundreds of bucks to get three serials from some F-18 fighters in his logbook!”

But Matt does sympathize. “That’s what I would consider real hard-core stuff. You cannot possibly justify that kind of effort or expense to anyone who doesn’t understand the hobby. But back in the early 1990s, I extended a U.S. vacation by flying from LAX to Japan. The reason? Of the 256 Grumman Gulfstream IIs built, the only one I had never seen was based in Nagoya as a research airplane. I had arranged with the company to go and photograph it, so I flew half way across the world to see this one airplane. Tell that story to anyone except a plane spotter and they just say ‘Are you crazy? WHY?’”.

In October 1999, Matt made a pilgrimage to Nagoya, Japan in order to take pictures of this airplane. This was the only Gulfstream II that he'd never seen. The airplane was in use as a flying research laboratory and hardly ever flew outside of Japan, although ironically it was at Gulfstream's maintenance facility in Las Vegas for several weeks earlier this year for some kind of heavy check, which will seem to indicate it will continue flying for some time yet.

In October 1999, Matt made a pilgrimage to Nagoya, Japan in order to take pictures of this airplane. This was the only Gulfstream II that he’d never seen. The airplane was in use as a flying research laboratory and hardly ever flew outside of Japan, although ironically it was at Gulfstream’s maintenance facility in Las Vegas for several weeks earlier this year for some kind of heavy check, which will seem to indicate it will continue flying for some time yet.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Matt’s wife thinks of all this. “She doesn’t like to fly, though she will if she has too. She has no real interest in airplanes – basically they frighten her. But she accepts it is a passion of mine and is happy for me to do as I do, as long as she doesn’t have to get too involved. She understands my desire to take photos and go to airshows. What she doesn’t get is why grown men sit around airports and write down the numbers, and I admit that’s a difficult one to explain to anyone really. It’s something that we enjoy but just can’t put into words. I used to get people poking fun at me being a ‘spotter’, but it didn’t bother me. It’s up to me how I spend my time.”

The Future

Matt says it isn’t the hobby it used to be. “Things have moved on. The books have turned into data bases on a tablet, and apps on your phone can tell you the tail numbers of Heathrow arrivals as soon as the airplanes lift off from an airport 10 hours away in the far east. The surprise element has gone in many ways,” he says. “In what I call the good old days, we’d just sit at the airport in Manchester and see what came in and out. We knew the normal schedules but something else would always turn up to surprise us, and a day trip to Heathrow was even better as we had no idea what to expect to see in the early days. It’s more efficient time-wise and saves hanging around, but there was a certain thrill to it which is long gone.”

With the state of the aviation industry now, for Matt it’s a question of finding the niche subjects that retain their appeal. “I love the classic older stuff, and to be honest the newest commercial aircraft are a bit boring now. I’d rather be trekking around Alaska or Canada looking for DC-3s that still carry cargo to remote outposts for example, or in Mexico where noise rules are less stringent and the older Gulfstreams, Hawkers and Learjets can still roar around freely. Even when I fly to the U.S., I still look to fly on a 747 rather than some newer twin which feels devoid of character by comparison – but of course that’s just my view. I still find it all fascinating… it’s just a bit too clinical, that’s all.”

One thing plane spotting has in common with flying is how male-dominated the activity is. “In nearly 40 years, I only recall meeting a few ladies who are even remotely into this kind of thing. There are certainly female pilots and ATC controllers, but plane spotting isn’t the same thing – it’s a pastime, not a career. In the groups I engage with, guys are from all kinds of backgrounds and day jobs. Usually there is something starting it off – a family history or living near an airport as a child for example, and many of them work within the industry. I suspect the interest or hobby came first and was a motivational factor in their career choice in the majority of cases,” he smiles.

“I consider myself a normal person, if there is such a thing. I have a professional career, a happy marriage, two dogs. I play guitar, go to the gym, watch sports and travel with my wife. My main hobby outside of that is an interest in airplanes. It’s partly from my childhood, partly because of my job, and the rest is an indefinable fascination with things that fly.”

Matt stands beside a 1961 vintage Lockheed L-188 Electra freighter of Atlantic Airways at Jersey airport in the UK Channel Islands, in August 2011. “this is the kind of airplane I really miss these days - and one of the few I flew on which was actually older than I am !” he says “shortly after this they were sold on to Canada, and until then were the last to be operating outside of North America. I’m not even sure if the two they sold are still flying in Canada now"

Matt stands beside a 1961 vintage Lockheed L-188 Electra freighter of Atlantic Airways at Jersey airport in the UK Channel Islands, in August 2011. “this is the kind of airplane I really miss these days – and one of the few I flew on which was actually older than I am !” he says “shortly after this they were sold on to Canada, and until then were the last to be operating outside of North America. I’m not even sure if the two they sold are still flying in Canada now”

So what — if anything — remains on Matt’s ‘bucket list’? “I’m lucky enough to have done most things I could have wished to do. But there is one airplane I would give anything to get a ride on: the Lockheed JetStar.” With only about half a dozen privately-owned examples remaining, the chances are slim. “I can’t even find one for charter. If anyone reading this thinks they can help with that, then I would be pretty pleased to hear from them!”

So there it is: the life of a plane spotter. A hobby that is a personally significant extension of being an ordinary aviation enthusiast, built around individual interest and preferences, and with goals and ambitions whose significance is only apparent to those who share the same passions.


(Ed.: I’d like to thank Matt for taking the time to talk about plane spotting and for allowing me the use of his photographs. If you’d like to follow him, check out his web site and/or Facebook page.)

  18 comments for “The Ultimate Aviation Enthusiasts

  1. Jenn_Niffer
    January 9, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    What a great post! I sympathize with the post-9/11 challenges of plane spotting. My airport did away with many of the decent spotting locations, I believe partly as a result of construction and partly out of security concerns. Even as an airport employee I don’t always feel comfortable plane spotting. For example, the employee lot is a great place for it, but I feel like I need to stay in my car and not be obvious that I’m lingering to check out airplanes. I’d love to wander up to the fence by the FBO because there are often interesting planes there, but scrutiny from the guards usually keeps me away. As the airport looks to build a new terminal I’m hoping to find a way to suggest including some spotter-friendly locations. It is in the best interest of the airport to engage with the community and build support. Besides which, spotters can be another set of eyes watching for suspicious activity on the airfield. (I believe spotters at ORD have some kind of partnership along these lines.) Obviously this is a subect near and dear to my heart – thanks for writing about it and for sharing the experiences of such an accomplished spotter!

    • January 9, 2016 at 9:23 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Jen! Boy, it’s sad commentary that you feel uncomfortable watching aircraft at your own airport! If you were questioned, I’d imagine showing your airport ID ought to explain everything police or security personnel would want to know. Perhaps if you went over to them to say hello and introduce yourself, it might make things more palatable for both parties. As a known quantity, I bet they’d actually welcome your presence.

      The private FBOs don’t always like people hanging around the airport fence because the customers flying those business jets like to keep their movements under the radar. They don’t want their competitors knowing where company executives are going or who they’re meeting with because it can put them at a disadvantage from a business standpoint. That’s the same reason they block their registrations so that the airplane cannot be tracked on sites like FlightAware. But standing at the fence and watching airplanes? You shouldn’t have to feel awkward about that.

      You’re right on the money with the benefits of a sanctioned area for spotters. You mentioned O’Hare. There’s an awesome one at DFW. It’s got sculptures, plaques with history and facts about the airport, beautiful landscaping, and so on. Anything you guys can do to involve the community with the airport will pay huge dividends in increasing support for the airport and reducing complaints about noise and such. Ironically, one of the closest and best “official” spotting areas I’ve ever seen at an airport is at Santa Monica (SMO), which the city is trying to shut down. Check out the video folks get from that area: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_A_mQpsXwgo

  2. January 9, 2016 at 11:05 pm

    Yay! I love anything that makes me feel slightly less like a lonesome freak!

    I am just old enough (factoring in the New Zealand time difference) to remember when Auckland International had an open air viewing deck on top of the terminal, right over the gates. It was magic. I know from my my reading the London-Heathrow had a similar viewing area back in the day, which was quite the family destination on a Sunday afternoon.

    Needless to say, those days are long gone now. Of course, security threats are largely in the eye of the beholder, but I always feel like my hanging around the YPAD fence is adding to the surveillance rather than testing it. No shame here: I’m quite happy to stand on the tray of my ute (ie pickup) to take photos with less barbed wire in them. We’re also blessed with some excellent vantage points at the southern end of the main runway, as well as a dedicated viewing, provided by local government, abeam the most used touchdown point.

    It’s no plane spotter’s dream, but a lot better than some.

    • January 11, 2016 at 8:02 pm

      That viewing deck above the gates must have really been something! It’d be hard to get photos from that perspective without a drone these days.

      Plane spotters could — perhaps should — be airport security and law enforcement’s best friend. They know the airport layout, aircraft, schedules, and overall operations probably better than anyone. Oh, the folks on the inside may know their own piece of the puzzle because of their job, but aside from the airport manager, who knows the perimeter, sights, sounds, and such more intimately than the ones spending hours observing airport ops simply because they love it? Who better to detect something abnormal? And most of all, who better to know the other plane spotters and be able to tell a genuine aficionado from a terrorist collecting information for an attack?

      If they were smart, the security folks would bring you the coffee and doughnuts, say hello, and give you a business card or two. They’d stop by every now and then, get to know you, and make the local plane spotting community an extension of their own eyes and ears. When they got to know you well enough, they’d arrange a tour of the tower, really make you a part of the airport fraternity rather than someone who, simply by virtue of looking through a fence, must be up to something nefarious.

      • January 12, 2016 at 2:36 pm

        Absolutely. Talk to any country copper (or a good number of their metropolitan colleagues) and I’m sue they’d agree you just gave the perfect definition of “good policing”.
        And anyway, I, for one, intend to keep doing my bit whether the airport’s people appreciate it or not.

  3. Joe Hosteny
    January 10, 2016 at 6:22 am

    Very nice article. I remember watching Viscounts, DC-6’s and 7’s, Constellations, Electras and others going into and out of KMDW. The variety was fun to see. We lived (and still live) on the approach to 31C, and you could also sit on top of the old terminal, too (the one in North by Northwest).

    • January 11, 2016 at 4:09 pm

      Wow, you rattled off some true classics there. Slower and less capable than today’s designs, sure, but they more than made up for it with elegance and panache. So many phenomenal (and sanctioned) viewing locations have fallen by the wayside, many of them immortalized in film. The LAX Theme Building, the Windsock Bar & Grill at Lindbergh Field, etc. My local field, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA had a great one right next to the runway at one time (photo). It’d be great to get some prime viewing locations opened again, don’t you think?

      The large commercial airports are locked down pretty tightly, but you can still find official viewing areas around many GA airports. Sometimes they have the more interesting hardware anyway. Santa Monica (ironically) has one of the best. Even Van Nuys, a busy charter and corporate field, has a sanctioned area for viewing with holes cut into the fence for photographers combined with a kid’s aviation themed playground. If you ever get out to Camarillo (CMA), they just installed a miniature airport right in front of the restaurant, complete with windsock, runway, control tower, the works. So there are some bright spots out there, but you definitely have to search for ’em.

      • Maharani
        January 12, 2016 at 6:28 am

        EMT has a good viewing spot from the patio of Annia’s restaurant. It is my “home” airport.

  4. Maharani
    January 10, 2016 at 7:30 am

    A great post! Thanks for mentioning the Vickers VC-10. I grew up in the UK and both my parents worked in aviation-BOAC and air freight. I recall flying in VC-10s as a child in the 60s-what a beautiful plane! We could routinely chat with the pilots on the flight deck-things were quite informal, and I will never forget those first views of the clouds and skies!! On a slightly different note, my parents emigrated from India to the UK in 1955, when I was 3 months old, and I am convinced my FIRST FLIGHT was in one of those large passenger taildraggers because at that time I believe Air India only flew taildraggers. I wish I had a photo of it! They are, to my mind, the most beautiful planes of all! When we were kids we would occasionally go to LHR to watch planes from an observation area. It .was great fun and a very different time

    • January 11, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      A different time indeed. I too remember the service and civility, dressing up to fly, having the captain walk through the cabin to chat with passengers, being able to visit the cockpit in-flight, and the whole experience of airlining being something everyone looked forward to. I hope the next generation will be part of their own golden age of aviation rather than having to experience it through stories and photos from a time which recedes further and further in the rear-view mirror with each passing year.

      • Maharani
        January 12, 2016 at 6:11 am

        It was wonderful! One year, probably 1969 or 70, on our annual trip to India, my mother, who made all our clothes, made matching white lace sheath dresses, LINED!, for my sisters and I to wear on the plane. There were 3 of us! You coldly buy clothes like that today! We dressed up and were expected to behave like ladies. My dad wore a suit and my mother her best sari. The food was excellent, as was the service. Because flights were not long haul, they stopped every couple of hours, for us Zurich, Frankfurt, Cairo, Tel Aviv and occasionally Beirut (I remember being delayed on the runway by a sandstorm….). You got out and went to the Transit Lounge to stretch your legs while they refueled. Much healthier and more fun as you got to see airports in other countries. I am glad I am old enough to remember those days. Long haul flights are a disaster!

  5. R Bud Fuchs
    January 11, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Just wondering if you’ve ever flown the staggerwing beech, and what your thoughts were about the experience?

    Capt. Rrfuchs
    1507987 CFI ATP A&P

  6. January 13, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    A wonderful article he reminds me of myself only I never was a fan of taking aircraft numbers I just like take photos and watch . It so sad there so few viewing spaces now I was born in the UK and I have lived in New Zealand twice in the 70s and I moved back here in 2004. One of my fondest memories of my childhood was of Heathrow and the Queens building viewing terrace watching Concord take off and being able to stand at the end of runway and watch 727s and other aircraft land which I am sure you can’t do anymore.
    LAX has to be the best place to watch aircraft land in the US In & Out burgers on a summer evening watching a A380 on finals is amazing. In New Zealand we just don’t get the same amount of air traffic as a place like LA.
    Anyway a wonderful post Ron the VC 10 was a wonderful aircraft I have flown in them a few times when I was in the British army.

    • January 14, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Glen. I’ve seen the crowd of people at the In-n-Out on Sepulveda Blvd on multiple occasions. Of course, the restaurant itself is quite popular, so you never know who’s there for what reason until you get close enough to see what they’re paying attention to: the menu or the airport. 🙂

  7. Doyle Frost
    January 14, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    Just wish I could do that again. Politicians have all but closed down our local airport to any aviation enthusiasts, in favor of tourist commercial aviation, with two “charter” airlines. What really bugs me, outside of having a PPL I can’t use there, as there are no local GA rentals anymore, and the local law enforcement groups, (local city police, outside their district, county sheriff’s deputies, state police,) will only be too glad to have you in one of their offices for some kind of “informal investigation.” The thing about it, I was the airport ground ops supervisor before the county took over as sponsor, and now feel as if I, and any other aviation enthusiast, are not at all welcome at this airport.

  8. January 25, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Love this article! I came to love flying and aviation at a young age flying on 727s, L-1011s and the old Beech prop regionals. It grew into photographing planes at Bangor and posting them to my blog and on Facebook. Cool liveries, random planes, whatever, I don’t care if it’s a Cessna 182 with a cool paint scheme or the Queen of the Skies the 747. I’ll be there with my camera, FlightAware and FlightRadar24 app on my phone. My fiance has embraced my inner plane geek and has actually picked up on things here and there. I live just off the end of runway 15 at Bangor International in Maine. While the majority of the scheduled flights are CRJs, we’re also home to an air refueling base so we get some cool military stuff(B-1s, C-5s, C-17s, E-6s, P-8s, etc) but also some cool business jets and commercial airliners on delivery from Europe. Oh and the Antonov AN-225 about 1-2 times a year. The airport management embraces our hobby and has set up a spotters group. Not everywhere is like this, which is sad, but as you said, Post 9-11 America. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

    • February 2, 2016 at 10:07 pm

      Wow, living off the end of the runway at Bangor! I bet you do see many unique things flying through there. It’s sort of a “last stop” before heading off to the nether regions on the way to the Continent. Most of the “classic” stuff doesn’t have the range that the new airplanes do, so you get access to things the rest of us probably rarely — if ever — see anymore.

      It’s so nice to hear Bangor is spotter-friendly. Often we only hear the bad news; it’s important to remember there are many places where aviation and those who love it are celebrated rather than eyed with suspicion.

      • February 12, 2016 at 6:42 am

        Thanks! We get quite a bit as you said with the last stop before heading across the pond. The KC-135s are usually up and around but a lot of the military traffic is in the form of C-17s and an occasional C-5. When Red Flag is going on at Nellis, you really never know what country is going to pop in with a tanker and fighters. One of the best shots I got recently was an Airbus A400M. Rare bird in the US for sure, but we’ve seen it 4-5 times in recent months.

        The airport management is great with the spotters coupled with the Maine Air Museum and their new spotting platform on taxiway Alpha just across from the piano keys on 33, it provides a great spot to catch the rare birds, and an occasional cool regional jet.

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