“Here she comes!”
It’s 1:37pm on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL/KATL) and a rare visitor is on her way.
As the spotter shouts that she’s near, you see heads turn to the sky, cameras at the ready. Emerging from behind the barrier wall, a China Airlines Cargo Boeing 747-400F (registration B-18706) roars through the skies, plummeting down to runway 9L.
“1,000 feet!” the same spotter calling out her arrival before yells out. The spotters are silent, the only noise in earshot is the roar of the engines and the shutters of the cameras. Looking around, there are spotters of all types. Elderly men who have cameras larger than themselves, young girls who dream of being pilots holding their iPhones, and people in between who use a mid-tier point-and-shoot camera.
The queen of the skies hits the ground at 126 knots (roughly 145 miles per hour), barrelling down the runway with her reverse thrust engaged and her flaps up to help her slow down. B-18706 finally comes to a stop and taxis quickly off the runway towards the cargo hangers. The spotters look back at their phones and check Flightradar24, a live flight tracking app to see if anything that peaks their interest is headed their way. And so the process repeats for hours and hours each and every day.
China Airlines Cargo Boeing 747-400F B-18706 lands at ATL/KATL. Photo: Ian Webb 2018
The Origins of Spotting
Since the invention of human-made flight, people have been watching airplanes. Towards the beginning of the history of flight, spectators were fascinated with the marvel of a human flying through the skies. However, it wasn’t until World War II and the mid-20th century when plane spotting became recognized as a distinct past time.
During World War II, many nations (the United States of America included) encouraged citizens to become amateur plane spotters, but for a reason other than to marvel at flight: to identify enemy aircraft approaching air space in time to launch a counter attack.
One of the most prominent stations was in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii where the United States Army and the American Legion set up observation decks for volunteers to watch out for approaching enemy aircraft. These stations were set up and staffed around the clock by a team of over 1,500,000 volunteers ranging from Boy Scout troops to retirees looking for a daily activity.
These volunteers weren’t just showing up to spot, however. All volunteers were required to pass a rigorous training course, learning what to look at on an aircraft to determine its make, model, and country of origin.
In 1940, the United Kingdom’s Royal Observer Corps published The Aeroplane Spotter, a journal and publication dedicated to aircraft spotting, including a glossary of terminology associated with the art, terms that laid the groundwork for hobby spotting.
As aircraft advanced, so did plane spotting. With the inception of more airlines and jetliners over the course of the 20th century, aircraft spotting became an even more lucrative hobby. Aircraft like the Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde, the world’s only supersonic commercial airliner, brought more people out to the airports than any other aircraft preceding it.
“When I was younger, I remember the Concorde flying and I always wanted to see it. British Airways and Air France were the only two operators, though and they only flew it to New York, London, and Paris. So unless you were lucky enough to spot at one of those fields or you caught it on a charter, the Concorde was always that reach goal for what you wanted to see,” says Katie Park.
Charters, however, have always been a way for spotters to see aircraft that typically wouldn’t their home fields. Like Park stated, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Concorde was the most sought after aircraft to photograph. As it only visited three cities on a regularly scheduled basis, most spotters relied on private charters or wet leases from other airlines to let the supersonic jet visit their home field.
The Progression of Spotting
As aircraft spotting entered the 21st century, like many other hobbies, a technological aspect was added to it. Since 2008, increased technology and accessibility for spotting has caused a global surge of interest in the overall hobby of plane spotting.
Since 2008 and invention of flight tracking tools, there has been an average increase in the searches for plane spotting as the hobby continues to grow and expand.
Certain technologies have made it easier for spotters to locate and track aircraft movements both in the air and on the ground at their spotting fields. The most notable system is that of Flightradar24, a Swedish real-time aircraft tracker. At given point, you can track any active commercial aircraft anywhere in the world. The app will provide information such as registration, photos of the aircraft, current calibrated altitude, speed, and other information such as age, squawk codes, etc. for a paid premium.
The automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) system is installed on roughly 70% of all commercial passenger aircraft in the air today. Using a similar system to that of a mobile mapping application on your phone, the planes have a geo-location based off a satellite that is transponded to a receiver. That receiver then sends its signal to the app and spotters can geo-locate any active passenger plane in the skies.
To those who aren’t familiar with aircraft, standing amongst spotters who can look at a metal machine that’s 3,000 feet in the air and can immediately identify what the airline and plane is might be a little overwhelming. Spotters, however, have trained eyes and brains to see what they should look out for.
Each aircraft type is a bit different from all of the others, and it’s these little differences that allow spotters to quickly identify first the airline, then the type of plane.
The livery is the first piece that a spotter will notice. The livery, while the most important part of plane spotting, is just simply the airline’s paint job of the aircraft. Each airline has a different livery, and some even have variations of their traditional paint job called “special liveries.”
Liveries can be anything. They can range from an intricately painted all over livery such as KLM’s Royal Dutch Blue livery to a simple paint job similar to Air France’s “eurowhite” livery with a French flag-inspired tail.
After the airline is identified, it narrows down the field of the planes it can be. Airlines do not operate every kind of aircraft, so you can get an idea of what it would be. To identify an aircraft ask yourself a series of four questions:
- How many engines does it have?
- How large does the aircraft appear?
- Does this plane have large jet engines or propeller blades?
- Are the engines hanging from the wings or are they mounted on the body itself?
These four questions, though simple can immediately narrow it down to usually one of two aircraft. The two main aircraft manufacturers of the world are the United State’s Boeing and France’s Airbus. Though they make different planes, they make planes in the same size categories that have incredibly similar appearances to an untrained eye.
When spotters first enter the art, they often will reach out to other spotters both locally and from afar for advice on tips and tricks, for safety especially.
While there are some rules and regulations that are put forth by airport authorities or local police departments, there are also some unspoken rules within the community about what you can and cannot do as a spotter.
Whenever you are spotting, always bring your ID card (whether that’s a driving license or a passport). In today’s day and age of security threats near airports, don’t be offended or caught off guard if you’re approached by law enforcement. Always clearly explain what you’re doing and have your ID ready.
Though spotting is legal, sometimes law enforcement will ask you to leave or relocate. Any spotter will give you the same advice.
“Spotting is completely legal, that’s always one of the things that people ask. I know it’s something I asked when I first started. You can spot from literally anywhere that is public land and isn’t a restricted area, but always be careful and be respectful of the authorities. If they tell you to leave, then you leave. Don’t question it, even if you know you’re in the right. You’d rather walk away with your camera than be led away in handcuffs,” Park says.
Being asked to leave isn’t the only obstacle that spotters may face, though. Other obstacles can be things as simple as a fence blocking the view to as grand as a restricted perimeter established around the airport, disallowing you from getting the perfect angle.
Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, airports, police, and plane spotters have been dancing around each other trying to find the perfect balance of allowing spotters to get their photos will also maintaining safety around the airfield at all times.
Some airports have figured out a way to keep everyone happy by creating designated spotting zones, like at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport (AMS/EHAM), or even enlisting spotters to help monitor unusual activity on/around the airfield, like at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD/KORD).
Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines Boeing 737s line up for take off at ATL/KATL. Photo by Ian Webb, 2018
“Spotting is an art. It takes time and patience, and it takes skill. Do you know how hard it is to get a photo accepted into JetPhotos or Airliners? You can’t just track a flight on FR24 and think you’ve got the shot. It might take weeks of shooting and chasing down a flight to get the one.” Katie Park is a self proclaimed plane spotter originally from Orlando, Florida, but now calls Kennesaw, Georgia and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport her home field.
“People see pictures of planes on airline websites and stuff and think that they just magically appeared. That’s most definitely not how it happens. If you’ve seen a picture of a plane that’s pretty clear and nice, getting that picture probably took the photographer about five hours at the field and probably like nine or ten hours at home sifting through the thousands of photos that were taken to find the twenty to thirty pictures that are actually worth a damn.”
For plane spotters, getting the shot takes an incredible amount of dedication. Time and time again, plane spotters will tell you that weekends are dedicated to the art. If you try to tell a spotter that their passion is just a hobby, you’ll get a lecture about how it’s an art that takes hours of work for very little in return. But it all boils down to a simple fact: plane spotters love planes. They love any and all things aviation, and they let their passion drive their sport.
Though all spotters are alike in their love for aircraft, the ultimate goal of spotting is uniquely personal. For some spotters, they focus heavily on tailfin shots. Others will want to capture the engine cowlings or wings. Most spotters will focus on a single kind of shot, however. It’s called the “Sunny Side-on,” and while the shot can be either in the air or on the ground, the sun must always be shining on the side of the plane the photographer is facing.
The sun is the most crucial aspect of snapping the perfect photo as the two most prominent and prestigious databases for aviation photography, Airliners and JetPhotos, will only accept submissions to their database under those conditions. There are exceptions for creative photography, but photos submitted under these pretenses are subject to much more scrutinous procedures and can often take weeks if not months to make it through the intense approval process.
On Airliners, at any given time there can be over 3,500 photos submitted waiting for review. Airliners screening team consists of just over 30 screeners meaning that each photo waits patiently in the queue for approval or rejection as the average queue time is about 10 days. At the end of it all, the vast majority of photos will be rejected. However, that doesn’t stop spotters like Park from continuously submitting photos to the service.
“I’ve had like 5 photos accepted to Airliners and none to JetPhotos, but I literally submit pictures like once a week. It’s an insane process, but yet I still come back and do it every week. It makes me feel good when they accept my photos.”
Cathay Pacific Cargo Boeing 747-8F (B-LJL) lines up for take off at ATL/KATL. Photo by Ian Webb, 2018