By: Jason Rabinowitz
“Did you catch that China Eastern special earlier?” To the uninitiated, this might sound like a question about ordering some Chinese food for dinner. To a plane spotter, this question takes on a totally different meaning. Catching that special isn’t as easy as calling up your local restaurant. It involves tracking a certain aircraft, being in the right place at the right time, and a little bit of luck.
Plane spotting dates back to World War II, where countries would encourage citizens to be on the lookout for enemy aircraft to warn of an impending attack. Today, plane spotting is not about preventing an attack on a city, but about aircraft enthusiasts looking to snap a picture of the newest and most interesting aircraft.
Just outside of most major airports in the world, you will most likely find what users of Twitter have dubbed an aviation geek, or #AvGeek. Armed with a DSLR camera and a telephoto lens, plane spotters scope out the best location at various airports to view arrivals and departures. When asked “where should we go to watch planes,” a plane spotter will often ramble on for a while about runway usage, tracking winds, and where to go to obtain optimal light in your photograph.
Plane spotters are usually a friendly group of people. On sites like NYCAviation.com and Washbaltspotters.net, enthusiasts plan their spotting trips sometimes weeks in advance. A group of spotters will plan to meet up at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York at dawn, and sometimes stay out until dusk.
Spotters share techniques with others, locations they think are best for spotting, and discuss everything aviation related. At the end of the day, spotters edit their photos, and post the best of the day on various internet forums for everyone else to see.
Plane spotting is a process of learning by doing. In these forums, fellow spotters help out newcomers to the hobby, and provide tips to how to get that perfect photo. Nobody gets it right on day one.
“Photographing Planes Is Illegal!”
In a post-9/11 world, plane spotters walk a fine line between enjoying an odd hobby, and accusations of being a threat to national security. First and foremost, the act of plane spotting and associated photography of airliners is completely legal. The only exception to this applies to private property, where private rules can prohibit such action.
Some airports and local agencies are more accepting of plane spotter than others. For example, Los Angeles openly encourages plane spotting on their social media outlets, asking spotters to send in their best shots so they can feature the. Caribbean airport St. Maarten features videos of landings over the now world-famous Maho Beach prominently on their home page.
Other agencies, however, have taken a hard stance again plane spotting of any sort. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for example, is notorious for being against the activity, with a police force who does not want to hear about the legality of the issue.
Although there is no rule against amateur photography on airport property, contracted security companies and the Port Authority Police have no tolerance for spotting, forcing spotters off airport property.
Tools of the Trade
Plane spotting has evolved from its roots of using nothing but binoculars, to a high-tech, real-time game. Before heading out for the day, some spotters check what’s called ACARS, which alerts users to special aircraft coming in that day. Throughout the day, spotters now rely heavily on their smart phones to airport operations updates, as well as live tracking of aircraft.
For those that do not have a dedicated radio scanner, the application LiveATC provides live audio from hundreds of airports around the globe, letting spotters keep track of runway usage and activity.
One of the newest advances for spotters is the use of live aircraft tracking applications, such as Flight Aware, Plane Finder and Flight Radar 24. These applications connect to a network of receivers which report the exact location, speed, and heading of many aircraft worldwide. This technology is more heavily used in Europe than in the United States, but is slowly catching up stateside. Using these applications, spotters can see exactly where an aircraft is, even on the ground at some airports, making spotting special aircraft a bit easier.
Why Plane Spotting?
When someone is asked “why do you go plane spotting?” you may not get a clear answer at first. Kevin Epstein, who operates aviationphotographic.com, a site where enthusiasts can post pictures from their spotting outings, says plane spotting is simply genetically coded in his DNA. “There’s always something to see. New liveries, new airlines, you could go [to LAX] for months on end and still not see all the planes in the fleets.”
Other spotters attempt to snap a photo of every aircraft in a particular airlines fleet, identified by the registration number on the fuselage. Much like how a collector of baseball cards searches for specific cards, plane spotters attempt to catch every variation of aircraft and airline because they love aviation.
“I go plane spotting because it’s relaxing,” said Phil Derner of NYCAviation. “Aside from the planes, I get to enjoy a nice afternoon with great people, sharing laughs and smiles in what feels like a mini-vacation.”
At the end of the day, plane spotting combine’s peoples love for aviation, great friends, and the challenge and getting that perfect shot.