Very few of us can resist watching and taking in the sound of raw power as a jet liner makes its take off run and claws its way into the sky. Plane spotting or plane watching is a pass time enjoyed by many. You don’t have to be a plane spotter as such but just someone who has a few minutes to spare as you head past the airport, or a parent giving your kids the thrill of the beauty of flight. The planes themselves are a marvel to watch as they make their precision landings and powerful take offs. But this also stirs the imagination around where they are going and where they are coming from, conjuring up images of far-flung places.
Access to airfields for plane spotting
Every airport is different, some are easily accessible for plane spotters, while others present quite a challenge. With the extra security around air travel these days, airfield operators are keen to keep as much distance between the public and operating aircraft as possible.
The first thing to do is to familiarise yourself with the airfield. If it is your hometown you may already know all the locations that are appropriate for getting good views of the runway. If you are not familiar, then Google Maps is a good way of getting a feel for the best places to try. It may be a little hit and miss at first as you might find some of the roads indicated on the map are private access roads and not for public use. Be sure to comply with all access rules as security is taken very seriously today and heavy fines could apply.
Best views for plane spotting
As I said, some airfields offer more choices of locations for plane spotters due to the nature of the topography of the countryside in which they are located. Maybe they are surrounded by industry with warehouses blocking the view, or maybe they protrude out into the water with no way of getting close. Whatever the situation, there is usually some location that offers the opportunity to catch sight of air traffic coming and going.
When you do have a choice of locations, you need to decide which phase of the landing and take-off phase you want to see. Do you want to be in the middle where you can see taking off aircraft rotate and begin to climb out as well as landing aircraft completing their landing roll. Do you want to be at the end of the runway where you can either having taking off aircraft climbing over you or landing aircraft descending over you? Each time you go and plane spot, you can choose a different experience and if you are so inclined, add to your photo collection.
Conditions to help you choose your plane spotting location.
As we know, aircraft operations are very weather dependent. Aircraft fly in almost all weathers, however, it is how they fly that changes. The wind plays a critical part of how the airfield is used due to the fact that aircraft must take off and land into the wind. This reduces the length of runway they require, as the air is already moving over their wings before they even start their take-off roll. This will perhaps affect the location you choose to plane spot. For instance, if you stand at the upwind or windward end of the runway on a windy day, you may possibly not see many aircraft up close. The arriving aircraft will stop more quickly as their speed across the ground is slower on landing. Taking off aircraft may be quite high by the time they cross over you, as their rate of climb will appear much steeper. A location closer to the downwind end of the runway would be better.
The angle of the sun is also another aspect to consider. Even if you are not photographing the planes, you will be more comfortable with the sun behind you than having to look into it. Aircraft rise into the sky and as you follow them with your eyes you will likely look directly into the sun. Be aware of the orientation of the runway you want to visit. If it runs north/south then try to be on the east side in the morning and the west side in the afternoon. If you are photographing the aircraft then you will ensure that the detail and colourful liveries of the airliners are nicely represented instead of that disappointing shot turning out to be little more than a silhouette.
Plane Spotting Photography
Like any kind of photography, the sky is the limit on what you could spend on getting the best equipment. This is great for those who live and breath aircraft and perhaps make an income through flight photography. These are the enthusiasts who have huge telescopic lenses, tripods and all sorts of other paraphernalia.
For most of us, this is not the case. We love to watch aircraft and even like to build up a nice collection of photos of the aircraft we have seen. So long as your camera has a reasonable zoom lens on it and you are not 5 kilometres from the runway, then you have a reasonable chance of capturing some great snaps.
The other thing that can help you is to be sure your camera has a good megapixel rate. I will be honest, many of my earlier pictures were done on my phone which sports 13 megapixels. How this helps is that even if you zoom can’t get you close enough, the density of the picture can go some way to making up for it, in fact quite a long way. Once you have your picture on screen you might find your aircraft occupies a quarter or maybe even less of the picture. By cropping it and zooming in you may find that you still end up with quite a nice picture.
The picture below of the QANTAS A330 was such a picture. It was quite a long way off, but because the megapixels were quite high I was still able to crop and zoom in to feature this aircraft. To do this I simply used the default Windows Picture viewer which as an edit function. Not rocket science, nor in any way costly.
You might also notice that I didn’t adhere to my own advice as relates to the sunlight. The colours would have been more vibrant had I been on the other side of the aircraft. On this occasion I been there very early to capture dawn pictures, which put me on the western side of the airfield in the morning.
Alternative places for plane spotting.
It may sound a little strange, as where else would you go to spot planes other than an airfield? As nice as it would be to get some good views of aircraft in level cruise, it is not really possible. Any land formation high enough would be avoided by aircraft like the plague.
There are other locations you can consider though when looking to snap or just watch aircraft. Sometimes these locations can be near the airport and will give you the ability to watch these aircraft in a slightly different phase of flight. For example, I went to the car park of a well known Swedish furniture store which is on the flight path of aircraft departing to the north. As the crow or aircraft flies, it is less than a kilometre from the runway threshold and a little to the west.
This enabled me to capture aircraft in the post takeoff climb configuration during and just after landing gear retraction. Being slightly to the west of the runway centre line meant that I was able to get a bit of a side view rather than just seeing the underbellies of the departing airliners.
Perhaps in your location, there might be a hill or building that can give you a bit of elevation alongside the approach or departure track of aircraft into and out of your local airfield.
When should I go plane spotting?
The object of the exercise is to go to the airfield at such a time when there will be a lot of aircraft movements. Your location will determine how challenging or easy this is. If you live near London Heathrow for example, then you would be hard pressed to go when it isn’t busy. If you live somewhere that is a little more off the beaten track then it may take a little more research before you go out.
Like any kind of movement of people, airports often have peak and quiet times. Obviously, you want to go in the peak time if possible so you can view the most number and biggest variation of aircraft. Most airfields these days have an online arrivals and departures information website. Use this to get a feel for the best times to go and do some plane spotting.
How can I monitor air traffic once I am at the airfield?
It used to be that the only way to monitor air traffic was by the use of a multi band radio scanner. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a great way to monitor where the air traffic is as you listen to communications between air traffic controllers and aircraft flight crews. As well as the information on where the aircraft are. It adds a bit of a human touch as you can actually listen to the pilots of the aircraft you are watching.
Today we have access to mobile phone apps that allow you to track all the aircraft as if you were an air traffic controller yourself. Using such an app you can monitor the aircraft as they approach the airfield and line up for landing. This way you can be prepared for aircraft that you hope to capture on film. Examples of these include; Flightradar24 and Flightaware.
I hope that this item on plane spotting has helped you in some way. I would love to hear your plane spotting experiences, perhaps you have favourite spots that you can recommend to others.
Thank you for stopping by.