Move over trainspotters, there’s a new breed of transport stalker about — planespotters.
Visit just about any major airport and look for signs to the observation deck where you can gaze out over a balcony at the airport apron and see the runway where planes are landing and departing.
You can also look at something far more interesting — the people watching the planes. They range in age from eight to 80, and even entire families are drawn into the pastime. So serious is the business of planespotting that several magazines dedicated to the pursuit are sold in the United Kingdom and the United States.
I visited the observation decks at Cape Town International airport, Lanseria, north of Johannesburg, and OR Tambo International. At Lanseria we came across our fi rst spotter, Walter Emmett. It turns out he’s a visitor from Leeds in the UK and has been planespotting for seven years.
Armed with an airband radio and a pair of binoculars, he’s quite happy to spend hours watching the comings and goings of aircraft. Airband is the band of frequencies used for radio communication in aviation. “Wherever I go in the world, I can get a taste of aviation action by visiting the airport, choosing a spot and settling down,” he says.
Emmett says planespotting is probably not one of the great South African pastimes but that legions of planespotters can be found at airports in Europe. “Like birdwatchers, planespotters often carry notebooks to jot down the aircraft they see. I suppose, like birds, aircraft are migratory and it’s interesting to plot the patterns that emerge.
“Observation decks can get pretty crowded and even bad weather doesn’t keep dedicated people away. Some airports are better equipped than others for planespotters and first prize is always a spot at the end of a runway where the jets roar low overhead as they take off or land.”
Locally, planespotters tend to be people just having a casual look while they wait for arriving passengers. Some were genuinely perplexed when we asked them if they were planespotting. At Cape Town International, the tell-tale airband radio gave away civil engineer Ray Tame as a serious spotter.
“It’s relaxing and interesting, especially during the World Cup when we got to see aircraft that don’t usually appear here. I come to the airport about once a month for a few hours but I know some people who do it at least once a week. It doesn’t cost anything and it gets you out of the house,” he says. Emmett’s favourite sighting? “That’s easy — Airforce One. It gets me every time.”