What is it about aircraft and aviation that has enthused generations of planespotters? Why do planespotters congregate in viewing areas or near airport boundary fences to watch, film, and photograph routine flights?
You’re sitting in an airport terminal, sipping on a latte and watching the airliners taxi, take off, and land. As you watch one after the other, you note the aircraft type, the variation of that type, the registration, the airline livery, and its destination or point of departure.
For some people, this is more than just a pastime – it’s a passion. Plane spotting is a hobby that involves observing and tracking aircraft as they travel through the sky. With the apps now available you don’t have to be at an airport to do your planespotting. You can identify air traffic wherever you happen to be.
What is plane spotting?
Plane spotting is the hobby of tracking the movement of aircraft, especially civil aviation traffic. It can be done using visual observation, binoculars, photographs, aircraft spotter guides, and in recent years, aircraft-tracking websites and apps.
Plane spotting became popular in the 1920s as a pastime for young boys in the United Kingdom. The growth of air travel in the postwar period led to an increase in interest in the hobby. By the 1970s, there were several hundred plane spotters clubs around the world.
The increased security in and around airports after the September 11 attacks in 2001 may have deterred some or caused them to give up their hobby altogether, but since then the arrival of aircraft tracking software has seen a resurgence in planespotters, particularly in the countries that have the most air traffic, for obvious reasons.
Plane spotting involves noting the aircraft that come and go, their registrations, and the times of arrival and departure. The data that these aviation enthusiasts collect can sometimes be useful or perhaps embarrassing for those who do not wish their activities to be widely known. Take this example from 2005 of a plane spotter at Glasgow airport who spotted a Gulfstream V which was one of those involved in the ‘extraordinary renditions’ of the time.
So why do people do it? For some, it’s simply a matter of enjoyment or curiosity. Others find it a useful way to learn about aviation and aircraft movements. And for some, it’s a way to connect with other people who share their interests. Planespotters can work alone or they can join one of the many aviation enthusiasts clubs around the world.
Why is plane spotting a popular hobby?
Plane spotting is a popular hobby among aviation enthusiasts, not only because it’s easily accessible and social, but also because you can start at any age and on any budget.
For some, the hobby simply involves visiting the local airport or airfield and watching the planes come and go with the naked eye or with a pair of binoculars, perhaps noting down the registration of each in a notebook. Others will also note their details and also photograph them, amassing over the years a collection of tens of thousands of photographs dating back years or decades. Some will invest in all kinds of camera equipment, particularly large telephoto lenses.
Some websites that began as forums in which spotters exchange news and information have become repositories of high-quality photographs of airliners and other aircraft. For example, planespotters.net, jetphotos.net and airliners.net.
Domestic and foreign travel is an option too. As an aviation enthusiast, you have the potential to visit airfields, airports, and aviation museums the length and breadth of your home country, and those of any other country. The world is your oyster and it’s a hobby that can last a lifetime.
Then there are the annual airshows during which you will see all kinds of modern and vintage aircraft on display. If you attend commercial shows like Farnborough International you may be able to see and photograph new prototypes or recently launched airliners.
Where are some of the best places to plane spot?
Larger airports may have viewing areas landside designed and built specifically for anyone who wants to spend some time watching the activities on the apron and the runways. However, this may incur some costs both in terms of getting to the airport and perhaps parking your car there.
Medium-sized regional and international airports and larger airfields may not have a dedicated viewing area, so planespotters sometimes congregate at a suitable location outside the perimeter fence. This spot may or may not be directly under the flight path. It all depends on what’s possible on the roads around the airfield and what land is accessible. The locations of these viewing spots are often shared in forums run by aviation enthusiasts.
These locations can be near airports of any size. Myrtle Avenue, in Hounslow, London, is a well-known plan-spotting location that attracts visitors from all over Europe. Sometimes you’ll be able to watch a live feed from enthusiasts like Big Jet TV being broadcasted from there.
While smaller airfields don’t have the big jet traffic, they have the advantage of being more numerous and more easily accessible. You probably won’t need to travel so far to find one and the atmosphere at such places is more congenial.
How do I start plane spotting?
Plane spotting is done anywhere in the world, although some locations are better suited for it than others. Before setting off, do a little research and check if your local airport not only allows but perhaps also encourages visits by aviation enthusiasts.
Although it is a global hobby, there are some circumstances in which taking photographs of aircraft can lead to a brush with the law. While in the UK, most of Europe, and most of the USA, no one will bother you if you take pictures of aeroplanes, there have been a few occasions over the years when keen spotters have aroused suspicion and even been arrested. Nothing is going to spoil a planespotters holiday more than hours of interrogation and a hefty fine just for taking pictures of planes. It happened in Greece and in Kenya, so do your research before your trip.
There are many ways to get involved in plane spotting, from simply observing aircraft at an airport to joining an organized group of enthusiasts. For those interested in getting started, download an aircraft traffic app and consider taking out one of the affordable annual subscriptions to make the most of it. Using this on your phone and your desktop will make the hobby so much more interesting as you’ll have access to all kinds of data about current and past flights.
If you’re completely new to aviation, then there are many ways to identify aircraft, even if you are not familiar with them and don’t know an Airbus A320 from a De Havilland Beaver. The most basic way is to look for the distinctive shape of the fuselage and wings and count the engines. Are they jet engines, turboprops, or piston engines? Are the wings attached to the top or the bottom of the fuselage?
Use your tracking app to identify the aircraft. The type, airline, registration, and other details will be available to you. With practice, you’ll soon pick it up and you’ll be able to identify aircraft without referring to the app every time.
Plane Spotting Groups
Another way to get involved in plane spotting is to join an organized group of enthusiasts. There are many such groups around the world, both online and offline. These groups often go on field trips to airports, museums, and other locations where they can watch planes up close. They may also participate in events such as air shows and fly-ins.
Whether you choose to go it alone or join a group, plane spotting can be a fun and rewarding hobby. It’s a great way to learn about different types of aircraft and their capabilities, and you might even spot something truly rare or unusual. So why not give it a try?
What are some of the benefits of plane spotting?
Some of the benefits of plane spotting include the following
- It can be a fun and exciting hobby: For many people, part of the appeal of plane spotting is the excitement that comes with it. There is something thrilling about watching a massive plane take off or land, and many people find it to be a very enjoyable pastime. If you’re watching during adverse weather, you can observe as pilots make difficult landings or abort the landing altogether and execute a ‘go around’ as they apply full throttle and fly off to attempt the landing again.
- It can be informative: Plane spotting can also be a very informative hobby. By paying close attention to the planes that are coming and going, you can learn a lot about different types of aircraft and their flight patterns. This can be interesting and educational for both kids and adults alike. It may inspire you or your children to embark on an aviation career.
- It can be social: Another great thing about plane spotting is that it can be a very social activity. If you go to a popular spot for plane watching, you are likely to meet other people who share your interest. This can be a great way to make new friends and connect with others who share your passion.