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Plane spotters keep their eyes on the sky

In an age of tight airport security, it can be hard to find a place to watch jets come and go at close range. But devotees say it's worth it.

August 06, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • Plane spotter Douglas Thompson watches jets from the aptly named Planeview Park outside LaGuardia Airport in New York.
Plane spotter Douglas Thompson watches jets from the aptly named Planeview… (Tina Susman / Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — Most people can't wait to leave the airport once they've reached their destination. Douglas Thompson can barely tear himself away, which explains why Thompson, a visitor from Glasgow, Scotland, was perched happily on a bench in the aptly named Planeview Park one recent afternoon, watching jets roar into the sky from LaGuardia Airport's Runway 4.

The bench is one of the few amenities in this park, a triangular acre where the roar of traffic on the adjacent Grand Central Parkway competes with the thunder of jet engines on the taxiway abutting the expressway.

A few trees offer slivers of shade. Buses belch as they pick up passengers on a busy street behind the park. Jets pass so closely overhead that signs on the Grand Central Parkway warn of "low-flying aircraft," lest drivers fear an incoming Boeing, Airbus, Embraer or other flying machine is about to crash into traffic.

Bucolic it is not.

But in this age of tight airport security, Planeview Park, which is run by the city, is a blessing to those whose idea of fun is watching planes take off and land in startling proximity. They record their registration numbers, snap pictures of the bellies, and sometimes witness an anomaly: a go-around to avoid another plane on the runway, a rarely seen aircraft carrying a foreign leader, or the worst-case scenario — a crash.

Twice in the last month, aviation nightmares have unfolded in view of runway watchers. An Asiana jet crashed on landing July 6 in San Francisco, killing three people. Less than two weeks later, a Southwest Airlines jet slammed nose-first onto Runway 4 here, skidding thousands of feet in a spray of sparks before stopping. Several people suffered minor injuries.

Devoted plane spotters say the last thing they want to see is a catastrophe.

"I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that's why they're out there," said Jason Rabinowitz, associate editor of the online magazine nycaviation.com and a longtime plane spotter. "Any crash is a terrible tragedy. It's not anything you hope to see, ever."

Thompson, who developed an affinity for plane spotting as a boy growing up near Glasgow's airport, agreed.

"You either do this to take pictures — which I don't — or you do it to collect plane numbers, which I do," said Thompson, who had a pair of binoculars and a notebook. As each plane reached the end of Runway 4 and turned its rear toward Planeview Park to take off, Thompson jotted its alphanumeric registration in his notebook.

When Thompson and his family — who were taking in the sights of New York City — get home, Thompson will enter the numbers into his personal database to see how many of the planes he has spotted in the past. There is no competition involved, no prize if he spots the same jet a certain number of times. There's just the joy he derives from his hobby, which is far more popular in Europe than in the United States.

"I guess the Americans don't get it," said Thompson, who visits the United States regularly and always sets aside a few hours for plane spotting. He has never seen an accident, "which is really good," he added. "I'm not sure I'd want to see one, especially since we're getting on an airplane Saturday to fly home."

He has seen many airplanes multiple times, including a Boeing 727 that was parked to the side of Runway 4 on this day. Thompson recognized it as an executive jet. "I've seen that in Spain before, when we were on vacation there." Like most plane spotters, he has his favorite airports. "In America, you won't get much better than Phoenix Sky Harbor. It's superb," he said, crediting the runway layout and the location of parking lots.

Planeview Park, though, is unique because of the view from its location on a bluff overlooking the airport, and its proximity to the planes. When the wind is right, Rabinowitz estimated, they are just 80 to 100 feet overhead before touchdown on Runway 4.

That closeness is a rarity since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Rabinowitz, whose website has a forum full of accounts of plane spotters confronted by officials concerned about people taking pictures of aircraft. Perimeter fences with high-tech security systems now line most runways.

"If you even get near to one, you'll get a SWAT team dispatched to you," Rabinowitz said.

So plane spotters work around the problem. Some pursue their hobby from a Costco parking lot near John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. In Los Angeles, people gather at a spot dubbed the In-N-Out Location. "You'll often see that park packed with people eating burgers and watching planes," said Rabinowitz, who ranks LAX as his favorite U.S. plane-spotting airport for the "wild variety of planes using it."

Not all airports try to push plane spotters away. Miami put holes into the top of a metal perimeter fence to hold spotters' cameras. Fort Lauderdale has a loudspeaker that plays audio from the air traffic control tower for plane spotters in a designated viewing area.

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