MIAMI – You don’t have to be a spotter to be fascinated by planes – at least that’s how the UK-based aviation writer, Matt Falcus, sees it.
Falcus, a private pilot who became fascinated with aviation at a young age, runs the popular website airportspotting.com. The website caters to “plane spotters” – aviation enthusiasts who enjoy photographing planes, recording tail numbers or both. They also provide routes of popular aircraft and prime spotting locations at major airports across the globe.
“I think it always existed as a localized community around each airport,” Falcus said, noting that in the past, it was likely more about meeting other spotters at the local airport on weekends. “Then, with the advent of the internet and social media, it has truly become global, with large online forums and mailing lists providing places for spotters to talk about their hobby, share tips and report on what they’ve seen recently and share their photographs of new and interesting aircraft.”
And suddenly, this hobby has blossomed into a global network where plane spotters in Tokyo could give spotters in Seattle an inside look at aircraft they don’t often see in the Pacific Northwest or allow people to learn about airlines they may have never even heard of. Airports started catching on and many began to cater to these self-described AvGeeks by building aircraft observation or “viewing” areas.
Many years ago, nearly every airport had a viewing area of some sort, but according to Falcus, security threats and the building of new facilities led to the demise of many of them. But as this international airplane-loving community continues to grow, viewing areas have once again become a fixture at a number of airports throughout the U.S. and throughout the world.
“I have definitely noticed an increase in airports providing facilities for spotters,” Falcus said. “The most recent one I heard about was at San Francisco International (SFO), which is developing the old control tower building to include a viewing area. Other great ones include Baltimore-Washington (BWI), Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and Houston Hobby (HOU).”
But even though the viewing areas are making a comeback at a number of airports, Falcus says it could be better. “In many places, security is overly sensitive and unwelcoming, but we’re getting there.”
And with spotters continually sharing their photos of aircraft on social media, the airports were suddenly being cast into the limelight in a way they hadn’t been before. In recent years, Falcus has noticed both airports and airlines using spotters to promote their services.
“They love to share pictures of new operators, new airport developments, and water cannon salutes.”
Dulles Greets Its Spotters With Open Arms
Zavier Cordova, 15, has been taking photos as a plane spotter at Washington Dulles International Airport for nearly two years. Cordova credits his mom for sparking his interest in aviation, as she works for Delta Air Lines and was previously with Northwest Airlines before the merger.
“Having the chance to fly multiple times a month has been part of my life and it’s simply what I want to do,” he said.
While Dulles is an airport widely known for embracing its spotting community, oddly enough there isn’t a designated viewing area. But that hasn’t deterred plane lovers from coming out to spot. Cordova’s favorite spotting location is Parking Garage 2, near Runway 01C/19C.
“It’s common to see the European internationals use that runway. They pass right by you at a nice close range.”
And to Cordova, the magic is in the fact that each one of his photos tells a story. “It’s more than just a plane landing or taking off, it’s an artifact… a time capsule.”
Kimberly Gibbs works in media relations for Dulles and Reagan National airports and suspects that people have been coming out to watch planes at Dulles since the airport was built in 1962. Today, just as Falcus alluded to, she sees the spotters as a great asset to the airport as they help promote the breadth of its international carrier activity.
“When plane spotters post photos of the various international carriers, they assist in delivering a message that you can go anywhere from Dulles International Airport,” she said.
Recognizing the value that the spotters add to the airport, the Dulles staff have found ways to cater to the aviation enthusiasts and give back in a way. When unique or newer aircraft fly into the airport, they’ll provide updates via social media, informing the public of the runway, direction, and arrival or departure time of the aircraft.
Dulles additionally hosts two events to draw in aviation enthusiasts of all ages. The airport’s “Discover Dulles” event allows winners of an online raffle to go out onto the airfield, see a plane land and take photos near it.
The event was first introduced when the Space Shuttle Discovery landed at Dulles in 2012 before its induction into the National Air and Space Museum. And each September, the “Dulles Day Plane Pull” charity event lets people enter a portion of the airfield near an active runway, where they can view aircraft as they taxi by.
It’s Not Called “Love Field,” But DFW Sure Has A Lot Of Love For Its Spotters
Even though he lives in the UK, Falcus thinks most spotters across the pond know of Dallas as an incredibly important aviation city. With the pioneering Southwest Airlines hailing from there, and the huge Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport – he says it’s an airport most European spotters would want to visit.
Andrew Jones, 15, has been spotting at DFW for seven years and also cites his family ties to aviation as giving rise to his interest in airplanes. Jones’ uncle was the CIO for America West Airlines, which merged with U.S. Airways in 2005.
That connection allowed him to shadow current American Airlines CEO Doug Parker twice – once at America West and again at U.S. Airways.
His favorite part about plane spotting is taking photos of the landings. “There is nothing like seeing a plane land, touch the ground, and deploy its spoilers and reverse thrust right in front of you,” he said.
Jones has a few favorite locations to plane spot at DFW including Skylink (the airport’s train system) and the Grand Hyatt DFW. He also frequents Founders’ Plaza, the viewing area that has become a favorite spot for aviation enthusiasts and even airport employees. Similar to Dulles, DFW saw an opportunity to please their fans and did so by building the monument and its surrounding observation area.
Founders’ Plaza was dedicated in 1995 as a tribute to those who founded the airport. The plaza has picnic tables, telescopes, historical information, and even broadcasts the air traffic control audio through an onsite radio.
Jones sees himself and the rest of the spotting community as an asset to the airport, noting that some reputable spotters have been there. DFW, like many airports, will post spotter photos to its social media accounts with appropriate credit, which not only gives the airport another way to showcase all that it has to be proud of but seems to “thank” the spotters in a way.
“DFW has a great marketing and PR team, which only adds to the experience,” Jones added.
DFW Media Relations Manager Cynthia Vega agrees that there just seems to be something magical about seeing that huge hunk of metal go up into the sky. “People are just mesmerized by the whole wonder of it all,” she said.
And with the way the spotting community at DFW is flourishing, it’s evident that visitors and employees alike take great pride in their airport.
“I’m very proud to be at an airport that seeks to connect people to friends and loved ones… for doing business better all across the world and helping people meet face-to-face and build relationships, I truly feel honored to be a part of it,” Vega said.
So… Why Plane Spotting?
“I think most people are still thrilled by the idea of flight, and wowed by the fact that these huge machines are able to climb into the air, defying gravity,” Falcus said. And Gibbs agrees, noting that you don’t necessarily need to be a plane spotter to be fascinated with aviation.
“I would like to believe that being up close when an aircraft takes flight is an awesome sight for most people,” she said.
And everyone has to start somewhere, so for plane spotting newcomers, Falcus has advice: get some good books that explain different aircraft types and where to spot at different airports. “Also, decide whether you want to log aircraft tail numbers, photograph aircraft or both – you can then tailor your visits to airports to best suit what you want to do,” he said.
There’s a reason it’s called the “miracle of flight,” as it seems the consensus is that flying is just that: miraculous. And with today’s technology, this passion shared by so many, both young and old and all across the world, isn’t just connecting people with unique, novel aircraft, it’s connecting people with different cultures… it’s connecting people with one another.
And to think that these flying machines have the power to do that is pretty awesome in and of itself.