For The Love of Plane Spotting

Photo by Mike Karrels:

As the weather has gotten warmer I’ve seen more and more people taking the time to walk to the end of the parking garage and check out the action on the airfield. Some just take a quick peek before heading inside the terminal. Others stick around for quite a while, admiring the airplanes and taking pictures.  Sometimes I’ll stop and chat with them. One man in particular stands out in my memory.  He hadn’t been to the airport in a long time and he had lots of questions about the airlines, the airplanes, airport operations and even the airport’s history.  I gave up my entire lunch break to chat with him.  At the end of our conversation the man expressed regret that he hadn’t come to the airport more often. It got me thinking about the people who DO come to the airport often not because they have to, but because they want to – the plane spotters.

Plane Spotting?

Let’s start with the basics: what exactly IS plane spotting? I posed that question to aviation fans on twitter and here are some responses that I think sum it up pretty nicely:

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Of course some of them had to be smart alecs:

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And pilots have a slightly different take:

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But for me, this tweet really says it all!

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Plane spotters are people who are passionate about airplanes. They look up whenever a plane flies over. They like to visit aviation museums and attend air shows. And they love to spend time at airports. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion.  It doesn’t even have to be a nice day. (Have you watched an airplane take off in the rain? It’s pretty darn awesome!)

So now that we know what plane spotters are and what they do, why do they matter?


Photo by Lew Wiezorek

Airport Ambassadors

I know it seems hard to believe, but airports are often not very popular with the communities that surround them. Among other things, they are thought of as loud and bad for the environment. Having a good relationship with the neighbors is a major challenge for pretty much every airport .  Enter the plane spotters. Guess who loves airports and happens to live in the local community? You guessed it!  Guess who likes to share their pictures and are happy to talk about airplanes and aviation with pretty much anyone who will listen? Yup!  Plane spotters are natural community ambassadors for their local airports.


Photo by Andrew Stricker

An Extra Set of Eyes

Even the best police departments cannot have officers everywhere at all times.  To deal with this, many communities have established neighborhood watch programs which encourage neighbors to watch out for each other and to contact the authorities to report anything suspicious.  Airports face a similar challenge.  Even with patrols and security cameras it is impossible to watch every inch of the airfield 24 hours a day.  As a result it doesn’t hurt to have an extra set of eyes on the airfield in the form of plane spotters. They tend to be familiar with airport operations and are likely to notice if something is amiss.


Photo by Dan Pimentel:

Weather eyes on the sky

My airport recently hosted a weather spotting training for employees which was run by the National Weather Service. Yes, airports have a lot of weather equipment on the premises, but that equipment can only provide information about what is currently happening in the area where it is located. Trained spotters are needed to assess the surrounding conditions and make a determination about whether dangerous weather might be imminent.  Hmmm… who spends a lot of time outside staring at the sky? Ah yes, plane spotters!  I don’t know the percentage of plane spotters who are also weather spotters, but I know there are at least a few who are both.

Photo by Lew Wiezorek

Creating future avgeeks… and pilots!

Ask a pilot how they became interested in aviation and a good number of them will tell you that they loved to watch the planes at their local airport when they were children. These days kids don’t get many chances to marvel at all the fascinating things going on over the airfield fence. Unless, of course, someone takes them to the airport and lets them see for themselves.  The same holds true for a lot of adults as well.  How many people might become interested in aviation if given a chance to get to know more about it?  And if there is one thing airplane spotters like to do (besides watch airplanes) its talk about airplanes and share the plane spotting experience with anyone who is interested.

If you build it, they will come!

There’s no doubt about it – keeping airports safe for travelers is a major challenge. For a lot of airports this means more security personnel and fences, which often does not translate into a very welcoming environment.  Some airports, however, have found ways to be more spotter-friendly.  Charlotte Douglas Airport in North Carolina has an awesome overlook park  located near the center runway. I spent some time there last fall and loved it.  Can’t wait to go back with my camera!  Minneapolis St. Paul recently opened a new observation area and although I have never been, it is on my list of places I’d like to visit – if for no other reason than to thank the airport for creating it! (Oh, and to take pictures too, of course!)

IMG_2975What one little spotter can do

As you may know, I have a reputation for being “the office aviation enthusiast” – the one who actually cares about the airplanes outside the window and who spends time looking at them and taking pictures.  Are my plane spotting ways starting to rub off on my non-avgeek coworkers? Hard to say, but when two T-38s taxied by the department window recently, two of my coworkers ran by me with their phones out saying, “We’re going outside to take pictures!” I’m going to call that progress!

You know you want to!

If you are interested in aviation and aren’t a plane spotter already, I encourage you to take the plunge! If you can link up with other spotters they will happily show you the best viewing areas. Just remember to carry your id with you and be courteous to others, (especially airport security). Want more information? Here are some resources:

NYC Aviation – what is plane spotting

NYC Aviation – spotter guides

SpottersWiki – spotting guides for locations around the world

Flightline Aviation Media – spotter guides and more 

Special thank you to…

I want to give a special shout-out to Andrew Stricker, Cynthia Drescher, Dan Pimentel, David Vanderhoof, Jeffrey Roeher, Lew Wiezorek, Mark Lawrence, Mike Karrels, Owen Hewitt, Rob D and Steve Knopf for contributing quotes/photos for this post.  If you aren’t already following these guys on twitter, do it now! You won’t regret it!


Photo by Dan Pimentel:

The Next Firsts

IMG_2775You may recall a while back I wrote about some of the exciting first experiences I had when I started my job over a year ago – first time hearing the bird cannon, first time walking out on the ramp, etc. Well it has taken some time but I finally have another collection of firsts to share.

Single Runway Operations

At the beginning of April the airport closed the north runway for resurfacing. This is an involved process that is going to take a good six months to complete.  During that time we are a one-runway airport. The closure was timed to coincide with the end of winter and the arrival of spring.  So guess what happened the day after the runway closed?  You guessed it – we got snow!  Snow ops with a single runway can be something of a challenge.  Normally we’d land planes on one runway while the other was being plowed and then switch.  Obviously that isn’t an option when there is only one runway. Fortunately the snow was light and the only real issue was moving everyone through the deicing pads.IMG_2779

Single Runway Operations… and a Bird Strike

When you only have one runway to work with, even routine things become more of a challenge. Obviously you can’t do maintenance on or mow around an active runway, so all that has to be done in the middle of the night when there aren’t any scheduled landings. The operations department did quite a bit of planning to try to prepare for as many potential problems as possible, including what to do if the remaining runway ever has to be closed. The hope, of course, was that the plans wouldn’t be needed.  And those hopes were dashed in the second week when a bird strike forced the runway to be closed for 20 minutes to allow crews to clean up debris.  During that time at least four flights had to divert to alternate airports. In a truly extreme situation, however, the airport could land airplanes at the cargo airport instead.  It is only a few minutes away and more than big enough to handle the traffic.IMG_2736

First Aborted Take-Off

I have seen quite a few missed approaches in the last 17 months, but it wasn’t until just a couple weeks ago that I got to witness my first aborted take-off. The airplane involved was a small business jet.  It came from a hangar located on the northwest side of the airfield, which is about as far away from the south runway as it is possible to be.  I was actually checking out the construction on the north runway when I first spotted the airplane taxing along the length of the airfield and I continued to watch as it made the journey all the way to 28L.  I remember thinking what a hassle it must be for them to have to taxi such a long distance.  At last they were cleared for take-off.  I watched them line up, heard the engines spooling up, saw the plane start to go and then… nothing.  Instead of accelerating they throttled back.  It was incredibly un-dramatic.  Of course then they had to taxi all the way back to their hangar again. Ouch!IMG_2780

A Soldier Comes Home

One afternoon in late March my coworker called out that there was a hearse parked on the ramp next to one of the gates. I got up to look and saw that not only was there a hearse, but also a number of soldiers in dress uniform. This could mean only one thing – a fallen service member was coming home. As we waited for the plane carrying the casket to arrive, I saw the ground crews form a line next to the hearse where they waited in silence.  In the meantime, pretty much everyone in my department had gathered as well.  We stood in a line along the glass hallway looking out at the ramp. Everyone got very quiet when the American MD-88 pulled up.  IMG_2776

The pilots and a military representative disembarked the plane and stood together by the ground crews.  Then the airplane’s cargo hold was opened and the casket was handed out.  During this time, no one got off the plane, none of the ground crew moved and neither did anyone in the hallway.  We all stood in silence, watching as the honor guard lifted the casket and placed it into the hearse.  I have never, ever heard my department so quiet.  Not a single one of us moved a muscle until the hearse pulled away. It was an incredibly somber and powerful thing to witness. Even though none of us had any idea who the soldier was, quite of number of us were in tears.  I was proud to see how many people stopped what they were doing and took the time to honor a fallen hero.FullSizeRender (35)

First visit to the Communications Center

My first visit to the Communications Center happened totally by chance. I had to deliver some papers to one of the admins in the Public Safety department and I brought along my new coworker who hadn’t been to that department before. The admin gave us a quick tour of the offices, the police lockers, the interrogation room and the holding areas.  Then she asked if we would like to see the Comm Center.  Would I? Are you kidding me?!?!  In my mind I had always envisioned a room filled with monitors that were constantly flickering as they switched from camera to camera… and I was not disappointed because that is exactly what it looked like.


One of the airport K-9s

As you know, airports have TONS of cameras everywhere. The Comm Center monitors the cameras for all three of our airports. We recently installed digital cameras at the passenger airport and let me tell you – they are crystal clear.  I asked one of the technicians on duty how well they could zoom in. She proceeded to show me by zooming in on a table in the food court. I could see pretty much every drop of moisture on the table and read the words on a discarded food wrapper.  Wow!

While we were checking out the monitors I noticed a buzzer kept going off periodically. The tech explained that every time someone attempts to open a secure door without scanning their credentials, it sets off the buzzer. The techs then have to check out the situation and follow up if necessary.  The Comm Center fields most of the incoming calls to the airport’s general number so they get stuck answering questions about where to park, how to get to the airport and if flights are delayed. They also field calls from the various emergency phones installed around the airport, as well as handle emergency communications during a crisis.  The most common call they get on the emergency phones? People calling from the parking lot to ask when the next shuttle will be there to pick them up.  Doh!

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This mouse’s last flight

My First Flight

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my first flight, which I wrote about in my last post. It was quite an eye-opening experience for me in many ways.  It occurred to me that there really aren’t that many people in this world who can say they have flown a plane.  For example, neither of my parents have done it, nor any of my grandparents, nor my aunts, uncles, or cousins, or even my brother.  I guess that makes me the first one in my family to give it a try.  I haven’t scheduled that second lesson yet… but I find myself thinking about it.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the next round of firsts, which should include the return of an airline that hasn’t flown out of my airport in a couple of years, two new K-9s and potentially (hopefully!) a visit to check out some simulators.  Stay tuned!