September 17, 2014

UN Week: New York’s Greatest Plane Spotting Week of the Year

Every September, just after the middle of the month, the leaders of the world descend on New York City. Road closures, particularly in Manhattan snarl traffic. The police presence in the city is heavily beefed up, with officers from a multitude of agencies providing increased security. The term “frozen zone” becomes a buzzword and a warning that your commute is about to become much longer. In short, life as a New Yorker becomes just a bit more difficult. Of course not everybody views this whole experience as a negative. For plane spotters, it is one of the best weeks of the year

The leaders have arrived for the General Debate at the United Nations on the east side of Midtown Manhattan. This event is more commonly known as the ‘General Assembly’ (which actually refers to the body of diplomats and the year-long session) or UN Week. The General Debate gives each nation the opportunity to present a short speech on the issues currently affecting it. These speeches may be given by the ambassador or a secretary or minister. However, it is often the nation’s leader making the presentation, and they usually prefer to arrive in style.

Most people are familiar with the aircraft that are commonly known as Air Force 1: the pair of modified Boeing 747-200s (SAM28000 and SAM29000) that the President of the United States travels the world in. While these aircraft are among the largest used by a head of state, the US is far from the only nation to have an dedicated executive transport aircraft for its leader. These aircraft can range in size from a mid-sized business jet such as the Gulfstream V all the way up to the aforementioned Boeing 747. Of course not every nation wants or can afford a dedicated aircraft for its leader. Some of these countries use chartered airliners, some of which belong to their nation’s flag carrier.

Where to Go for UN Week Air Traffic:

While each of the New York City area airports may see VIP flights for UN Week, the vast majority use John F. Kennedy International Airport as their arrival and departure point. This is primarily due to the logistical and security considerations of such a large scale and high profile event. As a result, the plane spotting locations around JFK see a large number of spotters during UN Week.

However that doesn’t mean that JFK is the only airport worth visiting during UN Week. Because of space limitations at JFK, nearly all aircraft are ferried to one of several outlying airports for storage. Stewart International Airport (SWF) in Newburgh, NY sees a fair number of aircraft ferried in for parking. Long Island MacArthur Airport (ISP) in Islip also sees some. Others choose Dulles International Airport in Virginia. And the aircraft with the highest security risk go to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Spotting at these outlying airports can yield some fantastic shots and present unique opportunities. Because these aircraft arrive and depart from JFK at all hours of the day, sometimes the only opportunity to capture them in daylight is to go elsewhere.

Stewart Airport is relatively close to where I live. Although I devote several days to spotting at JFK, I make sure to visit SWF at least once a year during UN Week. Here are a few photos from Stewart last year:

SWF 2013 Collage

Clockwise from the top right: A State of Kuwait A320 arrives at SWF; The Gambia’s IL62M sits on the ramp; The Congo’s 707 and a Chilean Air Force 767; A lineup of tails from The Gambia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Zimbabwe, and Chile; A Pakistan Air Force Gulfstream 450 in front of a State of Kuwait A340-500; The Gambia’s IL-62M taxis for departure.

What There is to See:


The Swaziland MD-87.

There is a tremendously wide variety of aircraft that are seen during UN Week. Many would be classified as business jets. While Gulfstreams and Falcon jets are not uncommon, many nations opt for something a little bigger. The most common types to visit are the Boeing Business Jets (BBJs) and Airbus Corporate Jets (ACJs) that are used by many nations. South Africa, Tunisia, Italy, Senegal, and Brazil, among other nations, used BBJs or ACJs as their transportation of choice last year. Pakistan and Uganda arrived in smaller business jets in 2013, while Swaziland brought their MD-87.


UNGA Charters 2013

Top: the Mid East Jet 767, operating for Chad.
Bottom: The MEA A330 with the Lebanese delegation.

Another popular option for VIP travel during UN Week is chartered aircraft. These come in a couple of varieties. Some are chartered airliners, typically from the nation’s flag carrier. Lebanon’s delegation historically arrives in a Middle East Airlines (MEA) A330. Zimbabwe uses an Air Zimbabwe 767-200, while Vietnam uses a gorgeous Vietnam Airlines 777-200 ER. Others charter privately owned aircraft. These may provide luxury transportation without the costs of owning such an aircraft. Last year, a 767-200 owned by Mid East Jet flew in under the callsign ‘Chad 001’.

UNGA Bigger Birds

Top to bottom: The Chilean Air Force 767, the Libyan A340, and the Gabon 777-200.

Some nations don’t need to charter a larger aircraft to bring their contingent, because they already own one. Airbus A330s and A340s as well as Boeing 747s, 767s, and 777s are in the fleets of many nations. Sometimes they are in typical air force colors, such as Chile’s 767-300ER. Other nations, such as Libya, paint their aircraft in a striking scheme. Their A340-200 features the Libyan flag prominently on the tail. Japan’s pair of 747-400s are a more subdued livery, with a large ‘rising sun’ on the tails, a wide, red cheatline down the length of the fuselage, and ‘Japan’ written in English and Japanese near the nose. And then there are nations such as Gabon, who fly in on a 777-200 with no identifying markings other than the registration.

And then there are countries such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. The royal families of each own a small fleet of airliner-size luxury jets, ranging in size from an A319 to a 747. A typical UN Week will see multiple arrivals from multiple different aircraft for each of these countries. Last year, I was even surprised at SWF to catch a State of Kuwait A320 which flew there directly from its transatlantic crossing.

All of these aircraft are special in their own right. And each is a rare visitor to JFK that are not usually seen outside of UN Week. However to a plane spotter, there is a much bigger catch to be had. These are the aircraft types that are extremely rare to catch anywhere. These are aircraft for which there is no guarantee that they will arrive. However when one of them does show up, it is something to talk about for days. They typically fit into one or both of two categories: Old planes and Russian planes.

The first category of rare planes are the old ones. These are aircraft that were once very common at JFK, but which are now only seen very rarely. One of these is the Democratic Republic of The Congo’s 707-100B. This four engined beauty was painted in a Dreamliner-inspired livery a few years ago, complete with a large ‘707’ on the tail. When that aircraft is around, there is no mistaking what it is! Another uncommon visitor is the 747-SP. Both Iran and Yemen have brought their SPs in recent years, though only Yemen did in 2012. And then there are the 727s. A few nations still operate them including the Ivory Coast which brought their -200 last year.


The Russian IL-96 arriving in 2012.

And then there is the Russian metal. Only a few nations other than Russia still operate old Ilyushins and Tupolejvs as their VIP transports. The Gambia brought their IL-62M last year, and it was easily the highlight of the week. Unfortunately, both times that it stopped at JFK it was after dark. However it was parked at SWF for the week in a location that made for some easy photos of it on the ground. Photos of its departure just after sunset one evening were not quite so easy to get, but it was worth the wait to see that marvelous old bird fly.

Another Russian aircraft to visit during UN Week last year was an IL-96-300 belonging to the Russia State Transport Company. While it too arrived at JFK only at night last year, 2012 saw an afternoon arrival at JFK. Finally, Slovakia brought their TU-154 in 2013, just like they do most years. The beauty of the IL-96 and the TU154 is that they surprise you when they get close. From a distance, they look like an A340 and a 727 respectively, but when they get close, you realize that they are much more than that.

When to Be There

Plane spotting during UN Week is all about timing. Some aircraft are already starting to trickle in, such as this BBJ belonging to the UAE which arrived at JFK on Tuesday and then repositioned to ISP:

While some aircraft will arrive over the next few days, much of the action will take place this weekend. Saturday and Sunday will see spotters out from dawn to dusk and sometimes even longer, waiting to see what arrives. Some even plan their vacations for next week, since there will be a fair number of flights arriving all week long. And historically, the Friday after they all arrive is when many of them go home. However there are no guarantees of this, especially this year when there is a special summit being held on what would normally be the first 2 days of the General Debate.

As you can see, the next week or so is a great time to be plane spotting at JFK, as well as at other airports where the UN dignitaries park their planes. It is a week which rarely disappoints, and which plane spotters in New York look forward to each year. For more information on plane spotting in New York during UN Week, check out our primer from 2009 and our tips from 2010. And check out the thread on our forums for this year’s UN Week. When you ignore the petty bickering (because deep down, all of us New York spotters are good friends), it is a great resource for learning most of what you need to know about spotting this event.

Ben Granucci, Associate Editor, is an aviation enthusiast and plane spotter based in New York City. Growing up in Connecticut, he has had his eyes toward the sky for as long as he can remember. He can be reached on Twitter at @BLGranucci or through his blog at Landing-Lights.com.

About the Author

Ben Granucci
Ben Granucci, Senior Editor, is an aviation enthusiast and plane spotter based in New York City. Growing up in Connecticut, he has had his eyes toward the sky for as long as he can remember. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.



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