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plane spotting

Need a new hobby? Are you good with numbers? See you at LAX.

September 28, 1997|Michael Scofield

One cold, rainy afternoon on the roof of London's Heathrow airport, I cam upon 20 men (and one woman) carefully noting the tail numbers--the unique registration painted on the empennage of all commercial aircraft--of each jet that took off and landed. (On a holiday, I was later told, there can be as many as 200 people.) Their hobby is the aviation equivalent of train-spotting, for years the pastime of grown men in Britain who fervently stake out railway tracks and take down the numbers on locomotives. Like train-spotters, plane-spotters are usually armed with binoculars and note pads, although the laptop computer is becoming popular.

The ultimate pilgrimage for these obsessive Brits is a "holiday" tour of America that includes the Boeing and McDonnell Douglas aircraft plants and the observation decks at John F. Kennedy and Los Angeles International airports. LAX is especially attractive because it teems with smaller aircraft used by North American and South American carriers that do not travel to London's Heathrow or Gatwick airports.

At LAX, the spotters can most often be found atop the Theme Building. Which is where I recently encountered Paul (he wouldn't give his last name), a laconic chap with a thick but understandable Yorkshire brogue, who allowed, after some prodding, that he has been plane-spotting 20 years.

Constantly scanning for aircraft, he made little eye contact and stopped mid-sentence to scrutinize a Reno Air jet landing on the north runway. "I already got that one," he announced. How did he know? He had, he said, logged the tail numbers of all but one of the 30 planes in the Reno Air fleet--and this one wasn't it.

What, I asked him, was the attraction of seeking out plane after plane only to record an arcane bit of data most people don't know exists? I realized there was in plane-spotting a drop or two of the bird-watcher who compulsively travels the world to see a beige dolorosa, but still....

"I do it," Paul said firmly, "for the satisfaction."

And with that he terminated the conversation and turned to scan the airport's south complex, jotting down numbers in his dime-store note pad.

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