At any given time, at almost any airport in the world, you can find a small group of strangers intently observing – and rapidly photographing – the comings and goings. in fact, if you’re reading this in an aircraft, they may be looking at you.
The picnic area at Imperial Hill rises above the south side of Los Angeles International Airport. A few passers-by sip coffee from a doughnut shop a block away, but the majority of the people here – about eight of them – are leaning on a rail, aiming cameras at a pair of active runways 200 m distant.
As a windowless 747 lumbers into the air, someone calls: “There’s a KLM cargo.” Shutters click. Two minutes later, the process repeats with another plane and a new identification. For the past couple of years, Billy Yeung has been coming here two or three days a week. A software architect in his early 30s, he usually spends a few hours methodically scanning and shooting.
I ask him what equipment he uses, and he’s about to answer when he swivels: there’s something interesting on the tarmac. From cabin door to tail, the plane looks like an ordinary passenger jet. But its nose juts sharply forward, conveying less Boeing or Airbus than great blue heron. “That’s Voodoo One,” Yeung says. He shoots, talks, then shoots again. Raytheon, the defence contractor, has offices next to the airport. The modified Boeing 727 has sensors hidden in the elongated forward cone; it is the company’s private test unit. I think the plane is cool-looking, but Yeung is blasé. He’s shot the aircraft before.
What he’s really after is a Qatar Airways A340 that arrived a few days ago and has been tucked behind a hangar at the airport ever since. The presence of the craft is peculiar. The Middle Eastern flag carrier has announced first-time service to the United States, but only to New York City, and flights aren’t due to start for another two months. That makes seeing the airliner a prize, for both the small crowd here at Imperial Hill and for the global community of like-minded enthusiasts who call themselves planespotters.
Wherever there’s a picnic area, parking lot or hillock with a clear view of an airstrip, chances are someone’s standing there with a camera pointed in its direction. As long as local police accept them as quirky hobbyists, not potential terrorists, planespotters are free to haunt aviation centres, from tiny outposts in Alaska to the huge British hub in Manchester.
Los Angeles’s LAX, the world’s fifth-busiest passenger airport, is a hot locale. About 100 observers frequent it, as well as airports in Long Beach, Burbank, Orange County and Ontario, California. Planespotting is a long-established pastime in Britain, too, where devotees venture out in sometimes appalling weather in pursuit of rare and unusual subjects.
Although the origins of planespotting are murky, most people agree that it began with Britain’s Royal Observer Corps, which trained civilians to identify and report aircraft during World War II. Like trainspotters, who avidly track the movements of railway locomotives and other rolling stock, planespotters these days collect and trade observations with thousands of their peers.
They also share the traits of an even larger and arguably more zealous community: bird-watchers. My father is a “Big Lister” in the vernacular of birders, meaning that he’s seen more than 7 000 of the world’s 9 500 or so avian species. Over his lifetime he’s meticulously recorded every one, crossing the globe in the pursuit of rare finds.
When I met my first planespotter, I felt an immediate flash of recognition. Maybe it’s in my genes, but I’ve got a bit of the spotting bug myself. My job puts me on the road six months a year, and finding a way to pass the time in departure lounges and cramped cabins can be a challenge. I’ve watched planes take off from the observation deck at Tokyo’s Haneda and peeked at military jets aligned on a far runway in Caracas, Venezuela. On one trip to Mexico, I reached into the seatback pocket of a freshly painted Aero California plane and pulled out an airsickness bag with a Continental Airlines logo. I asked the flight attendant about it. She shrugged. Maybe it was a mix-up in provisioning. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I had encountered the kind of mystery planespotters love.
All planespotters belong to the same genus, but their behaviours divide them into different species. Some spotters want to see every plane at a particular airport. Others, known as fleeters, focus on a single manufacturer, type of plane or airline. One of the most popular variations is to collect liveries (paint schemes, to ordinary flyers). Southwest has three Boeing 737s that look like Seaworld’s Shamu the killer whale; bagging the trio is a big deal.
Even a single aircraft can provide a basis for obsession. A plane’s history can span multiple airlines, continents, paint schemes and eras. But to access it, some decoding is required. Every commercial aircraft in the world carries two alphanumeric identifiers. The first, usually painted in large characters on the tail, wing or body, is the registration number. (On South African aircraft, it starts with a Z.) The second, too small to be seen from afar, is the manufacturer-issued serial number. By plugging the registration number into a database, a planespotter can match it to the serial, which is then indexed by airline, aircraft and dates of service and manufacture.
“It isn’t enough to see a plane just once,” Yeung says. “You’re always looking for the perfect shot, the right angle, the right moment.” As a result, spotters amass a deep reservoir of photos, which they post at Web sites such as www.jetphotos.net. The online destination hosts one of the largest collections of aircraft images in the world: more than a million, with contributions from more than 7 800 photographers.
Mark Abbott, an engineer from Denver, has posted nearly 10 000 images. He also keeps a detailed personal Web site, where he records every flight he’s ever taken (552) and the airlines he’s flown (46). “I pretty much travel in order to see planes, and the other stuff I do comes second,” Abbott says. He notes distance, registration numbers and ticket prices, along with miscellaneous trivia: flying from Denver to Los Angeles in 2001, Abbott sat next to Pat Boone.
Even small-scale shooters can gain fame online with the right image. That’s why, on a Thursday afternoon at Imperial Hill, Yeung is looking for the Qatar. If he’s first to snap this out-of-place plane, he’s guaranteed a large audience. He ultimately gets the photos, but decides that they are too overcast to post. The perfect shot is an elusive thing.
Not long after I start visiting LAX, I encounter the most rarefied form of spotter: someone who works inside the airport. Dale Elhardt helps maintain the airport’s electronic systems – from Doppler radar to telephones – and he’s spent much of his life trying to get into the Federal Aviation Administration tower where he now works. On the ground floor of the 19-storey structure are five display cases of model aircraft that Elhardt built by hand. In this job, he says, “I can get close enough to what I’m building to use it as a reference.”
Elhardt leads me into a lift, and we rise to the tower’s 16th floor. There are no offices or cubicles here; just machinery and a wide doorway leading to an antenna platform. We step outside and I almost lose my breath. Night has fallen over LAX, and in the eastern sky I can see the lights of dozens of aircraft strung out in formation, waiting to descend over the crowded, eight-lane Century Boulevard and land on the north and south runways on either side of the tower.
Every two minutes, the queue advances; the distant, flashing lights become 747s and MD-11s, corporate jets and cargo planes as they roar in beside us. Elhardt has been watching this carefully orchestrated choreography for years, and it never fails to excite him.
“This is what I’m here for,” he says.
A security-obsessed world has made spotting more difficult. The most notorious clash occurred in 2001, when a dozen English enthusiasts were arrested outside a Greek air force base. The group was jailed for 37 days, then convicted of espionage and related charges.
The spotters were acquitted on appeal, though even their own defence attorney seemed at a loss to explain why a person would spend a vacation pencilling aircraft registration numbers into a bound book. “We are lucky in Greece,” he told the court. “We do not have this hobby. Here, we have the Sun.”
In the United States, many airports have closed their observation decks. Even on public streets, spotters sometimes receive what they regard as misguided police attention. When I first met Yeung, I asked him for the most important rule of planespotting: “Don’t get arrested,” he joked.
There’s no question that taking pictures in a public place is legal. But if you do it at airports, says a spokesman for the El Segundo police department, which has jurisdiction over Imperial Hill, “you need to be prepared for a little interaction”.
Most planespotters see themselves as security assets. Michael Carter and other California-based spotters were instrumental in helping authorities catch thieves breaking into cars in the Long Beach airport parking lot. This isn’t quite the same as nabbing a terrorist, but it is evidence that spotters, Carter says, “know what should and shouldn’t be there. We’re about the most detail-oriented people you could find at the airport.”
Eyewitness information provided by planespotters has been used to track rogue aircraft and even locate planes believed to have been used by drug dealers. One positive ID that spotters would love to make is Boeing 727 N844AA, which disappeared from a runway in Angola on May 25, 2003. The last known photo of the craft had been taken by a planespotter in Miami 16 months earlier, as a Florida-based firm prepared to sell the jet to an African carrier.
Spotters are also well-positioned to capture close calls on film. In March this year, a planespotter in Germany filmed an Airbus A320 skittering sideways across a runway after encountering strong crosswinds; it grazed the ground with a wing before taking to the air again. The video appeared on YouTube and quickly caused controversy. Some described the pilot as a hero, but others said the recovery – while nearly miraculous – was necessitated by poor airmanship. The footage will help German officials make that determination as they investigate the incident.
After a week of watching spotters spot, I’m ready to delve into my own aviation mystery. I’m thinking about that Continental bag in the Aero California seat pocket. The airline flew mostly DC-9s, a spotters’ favourite with beautiful, sleek lines; many from the 1960s are still flying.
By searching the Jetphotos database, I learned that Aero California had a total of 34 DC-9s. But only six members of the fleet came directly from Continental. What’s more, there was a good chance the plane I flew was no longer in the air. After being shut down for safety violations in 2006, the airline returned with a much-reduced fleet.
As it turned out, that made finding Aero California planes easier. Last June, a spotter posted a photo of 11 jets, arrayed not on tarmacs but on hard-packed sand. The aircraft graveyard at Mojave regional airport, an hour north of Los Angeles, is hallowed spotter ground. One Saturday afternoon I park on the shoulder of a nearby highway and walk through sage and creosote to a chain-link fence.
On the other side, dozens of aircraft sit wing-to-wing in the unrelenting heat of the desert. The logos on the DC-9s have been painted over, but it isn’t hard to recognise Aero California’s former fleet: The carrier’s signature livery – stripes of brown, red, orange and yellow – are visible on every tail. So are the registration numbers.
I stare through my binoculars: XA-CSL, XA-AGS, XA-LMM, XA-RXG. They match the serial numbers I’ve brought with me as reference – I’ve found four Continental purchases. I hoped to see at least one; I am sad to see so many.
As I drive home, I am surprised at the strength of my emotions. Watching planes is a game. But it is also romance. These aircraft travel the world, carrying thousands of people, for thousands of reasons, to thousands of places. Sitting in the desert, they evoke those voyages, and with them nostalgia, even melancholy. But when they’re active, taking to the air, with images of them captured and observations shared, they promise: The journey continues.
* Visit this cool site: www.africaspotter.at.tt
Name that plane!
All you need to watch these birds is an airport and a steady hand with binoculars. here are some common planes ( and a few rarer ones) to help get you started.
1. Boeing 747 (71 m)
The first wide-body airliner flew from New York to London in 1970. Planespotters identify it (and other craft) by looking for these key features.
Livery: The paint job can make for a quick ID if you’re familiar with the planes in an airline’s fleet. International carriers commonly fly 747s.
Fuselage: Aircraft bodies vary in shape. The 747’s cockpit is located on an upper deck, creating a unique hump over the nose.
Engines: The location of engines can give away a plane. The 747 has two 2,6 m-diameter engines under each wing.
Wings: Airlines often attach upturned winglets to a plane’s wingtips to improve fuel efficiency. Many 747s now have them.
Tail: Horizontal stabilisers can be located atop or below the vertical stabiliser. On jumbo jets like the 747, they attach to the fuselage.
2. Airbus A320 (37 m)
The short- to medium-range A320 is a direct competitor to Boeing’s 737, but its fuselage rides higher off the ground when it taxis. Most models have two over-wing exit doors and wingtip fences – winglets that extend above and below the wingtips.
3. Boeing 737 (33 m)
The 737 is the most popular large commercial jet, with more than 7 800 planes, including those on order. Classic 737s sit low to the ground, so their engine casings are flattened on the underside. Operated by SAA, BA and Kulula.
4. Bombardier CRJ200 (26 m)
The CRJ200 looks similar to other regional jets, with its rear-mounted engines and T-shaped tail, but it has a wider fuselage and pointy winglets. It lands with a lower pitch angle than many other aircraft, making it appear to dive toward the runway.
5. Boeing MD-80 (45 m)
The MD-80 is based on the classic DC-9. Its engines are located at the rear of the plane, rather than under the wings, and “eyebrow windows” at the corners of the cockpit curve upward. 1time and kulula operate MD-82 variants.
6. Airbus 318 (31 m)
The A318 is the smallest member of the A320 family; its fuselage appears to be stubbier and the tail taller and wider than those on other Airbus models. Frontier decorates the tails of its A318s with photos of elk, porcupines and other animals.
7. Embraer ERJ 135 (26 m)
The engines of the ERJ 135 – part of the second most popular commuter plane family, after Bombardier – are set deep within the nacelles, or casings. And, compared with the CRJ200, this 37-passenger craft is sleeker, with longer engines and a pointed nose.
8. Boeing 727 (40 m)
The 727’s three engines all sit at the rear of the fuselage. It became the first trijet in commercial service in 1964; since then, many have been converted from passenger planes to freighters. See the 727 in Nationwide livery.
9. Boeing 377 Stratocruiser (33 m)
The bulbous design of the post-World War II Stratocruiser, first flown by Pan American in 1949, is based on the B-29 bomber. Only 56 were built. The most reliable places to spot one today: Oregon’s Tillamook Air Museum and Floyd Bennett Field in New York.
10. De Havilland Dash 8 (22 m)
The twin-propeller Dash 8 has a high T-tail that keeps the horizontal stabilisers clear of prop wash at takeoff. It can operate on 1 000 m runways, whereas an Embraer requires 1 500 m. Dash 8s make regional flights for SA Express.
My magnificent obsession
It’s a chilly winter’s morning, and as I make my way up the children’s slide in a park next to the airport, I can feel the ice-cold railing sticking to my hands. What am I doing in a kiddies’ playground in sub-zero temperatures at dawn, when normal people are at home having breakfast?
Simple, really: I had my scanner on during the night and heard that an Antonov AN124 was descending to 14 000 feet and cleared for ILS approach 03R at OR Tambo International Airport. Knowing how rarely a plane like this landed here, I got out of bed at 4.30 am to catch a glimpse of the big beauty.
My name is Bernard Stander, and I’m a planespotter…
I started planespotting when I was about five years old, at Ysterplaat air force base in Cape Town. I used to visit my uncle, who was in the air force, and would go to the end of the runway with my cousin to watch military aircraft take off and land all day long. My favourite plane was the big old Shackleton… it was so huge and so graceful.
Our house was located along the flightpath of commercial aircraft, so while other kids were riding bikes and playing pinball, I would settle on the lawn with a blanket and a cooldrink and try to make out what kind of aircraft were flying overhead, using my dad’s binoculars.
In 2003, after a long hiatus, I started going to the end of the runways at OR Tambo (then Johannesburg International) with my 6-year-old daughter, who loved watching the big Boeings and Airbuses. The bug bit me again and I used every spare minute over weekends and in the early evening to spot and note. I bought an air band-frequency scanner to pick up the call-signs, which helped me to work out which planes were landing, and where. This little workhorse has served me well for more than four years.
I spot most of my time around OR Tambo and occasionally take a drive to Rand Airport to watch smaller aircraft and helicopters take off and land. My hobby has taken me to Durban, Cape Town and a host of smaller airports and airstrips in places like Springs, Brakpan, Kittyhawk, Bapsfontein, Pilanesberg, Petit and Lanseria.
I started taking photos of aircraft in 2004, using a cheap digital camera, and upgraded the following year. By the end of 2005 I was taking very good photos – so good that I decided to print them and show my family and friends. In 2006, I entered a magazine competition and won 1st prize, following up last year by taking the first three places.
At this point I decided to set up a Web site (planespotter.iteg. co.za) dedicated to the men and women who make our lives a lot easier (the pilots) and to those who simply love flying or building aircraft. If this sounds like your kind of thing. My advice is to join the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association). You get to know the guys who put their life and soul into aviation; most of the members are pilots and small-aircraft owners.
Highlights? One was the arrival of the giant Airbus A380. It was an awesome experience, and one I won’t easily forget. Another was my first sight of ZS-SPC, a Boeing 747-300 that landed at Rand Airport: it was destined for retirement in the SAA Museum. It was incredible to see a 747 land on a runway that was designed for small aircraft. The pilot actually carried out two low-level missed approaches – and that made my day!
For obvious reasons, security concerns can sometimes cause problems for planespotters. The police sometimes want to know why we are taking photos of commercial aircraft, but we generally manage to convince them that it’s our hobby, and they usually leave us alone for a while.
Insider tips? Well, in a small Johannesburg suburb called Impala Park, there’s a children’s playground equipped with swings and a slide. The latter is a favourite gathering spot for planespotters, and on certain days you might see seven or eight grown men holding on grimly as they try to catch a glimpse of a big aircraft as it lands.
Weird? You have to be there…