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.
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:
Of course some of them had to be smart alecs:
And pilots have a slightly different take:
But for me, this tweet really says it all!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!)
What 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:
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!