Aviation News

September 14, 2016
 

It’s Back! New York’s Greatest Plane Spotting Week of the Year Returns for 2016

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It has been called “the Super Bowl of plane spotting.” Every September, leaders of the world descend on New York City for the United Nations General Assembly. Others simply refer to it as “UN Week.”

More accurately, the ‘General Assembly’ is the name of the largest organization of the United Nations. Each year in mid-September, the General Assembly begins a new session. This year will be the seventy first session. As part of the start of a new session, a General Debate is typically called. At these debates, heads of state and government are invited to speak on the issues facing their nations. And those leaders typically arrive in style.

From around the world, a wide variety of aircraft flock to New York City. And they come in large numbers, too. Last year, dozens of aircraft arrived during the week or so of arrivals. The list included at least 5 IL-96s and an IL-76 supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with aircraft representing 5 of the 6 inhabited continents. For plane spotters, the huge numbers and great variety make the time surrounding the General Debate easily the best week of the year in the New York City area. For that matter, it is probably one of the best world, too. Still curious? Check out this short video NBC News did in 2014 on plane spotting during UN Week:

Where to Go for UN Week Air Traffic

If you are a first time UN Week visitor, your best bet is to hang out at the popular plane spotting locations around John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). Due to various logistical considerations and security protocols, the vast majority of visiting aircraft pass through JFK on their way to and from New York. Check out our spotting guide for tips on where some of the best locations around JFK are. If you are in the right place, there will typically be at least a few other spotters there at any given time during this week. And its not unheard of for there to be upwards of 30 spotters at the same spot during peak times!

However some aircraft do fly directly to other area airports. On more than one occasion, UN Week spotters have been frustrated as a VIP aircraft they had been tracking on Flightradar24 flew right past JFK and landed at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). And I have personally witnessed secondary aircraft (those related to UN Week but not carrying a head of state) fly directly to airports such as Stewart (SWF) or Islip (ISP).

The Iraqi 777-200LR taxiing at Stewart.

Speaking of Stewart and Islip, lets talk about where all those aircraft park. JFK isn’t a small airport by any means, but it also doesn’t have the space to park upwards of 50 aircraft for a week without seriously impacting normal operations. Because of this, certain rules have been put into place. Typically, UN Week aircraft are given a two-hour window at JFK to offload their VIPs and be on their way. After that, some hefty parking charges kick in. So where do all those aircraft go?

Last year, no fewer than five airports saw aircraft ferry in for parking. Some like Bradley International Airport (BDL) only saw one or two. Others saw many more. Stewart International Airport, Dover Air Force Base and Dulles International Airport (IAD) each were recipients of several aircraft. In the case of Stewart, close to 20 aircraft from around the world parked there during the middle of the week.

20140922-IMG_9443And then there’s Andrews Air Force Base. That facility serves as parking area for aircraft that need additional security precautions taken. That is where aircraft from nations like Iran and Russia end up for the week.

These parking areas away from JFK give plane spotters from other areas an opportunity to catch at least some of the week’s traffic. Even some of the local spotters in New York will make the drive to Stewart or Dover in an attempt to grab a photograph of those aircraft they may have missed. They also provide people in the New York City area a second chance to spot what they might have missed the first time. Towards the latter half of the week, the aircraft will begin to make ferry flights back towards NYC to take their important passengers back home.

What There is to See

There is a tremendously wide variety of aircraft that are seen during UN Week. Many would be classified as business jets. While Gulfstreams, Falcons and Global Expresses 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. However there are other aircraft types of similar size that are used by some nations. When the occasional 727 or MD-80 shows up, you can bet that everybody’s shutters will be clicking.

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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. Recent years have seen aircraft from Tarom, Air Zimbabwe, Vietnam Airlines, and Garuda Indonesia. The Israeli delegation typically arrives on an El Al 767, typically the only time of the year that those fly to New York. Ditto for the Air China A330 or 747-400 that is used for the Chinese dignitaries. Other nations charter aircraft from operators such as Mid East Jet or Comlux.

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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 executive transportation fleets of many nations. Nations as diverse as Egypt, Chile, Turkey, and South Korea have their own VVIP (very very important person) aircraft. Even the Sultan of Brunei has been known to show up in his flying palace disguised as a 747. And then, of course, there is the perennial visit by Air Force One.

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Japan flies a pair of 747-400s, as one of only a small number of nations that still fly matching pairs of aircraft on international tips by the head of state. That fleet is soon to be replaced by a pair of 777-300ERs. That isn’t to say that they are the only nation to send more than one aircraft to New York City during this week. Several nations have been known to arrive with multiple aircraft. Sometimes there is an airliner size aircraft and a business jet, like the A310 and Falcon 7 that Spain has sent in the past. Other times, a military transport such as a C-130 accompanies the executive transport.
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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. Qatar alone has been known to send 5 aircraft for the various members of that royal family. And most of these are rare visitors to JFK that are not usually seen outside of UN Week.

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Perhaps the biggest draw to UN Week for a plane spotter are the rare aircraft. These are those planes that are an uncommon site at airports today, at least Western ones. Some of the rare aircraft are the old ones, like 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. Because of its age, it is difficult to track, and it has a reputation for showing up when people least expect it. Another uncommon visitor is the 747-SP. Both Iran and Yemen have brought their SPs in recent years, though both are now out of service. Iran retired theirs in late 2014, while Yemen’s was destroyed in 2015 during a civil war.

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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 has brought their IL-62M for the past few years. Slovakia and Belarus both often arrive in TU154Ms. And Mr. Putin himself arrives most years on a Russia State Transport Company IL-96-300.

When to Be There

For 2016, the General Debate is taking place during the traditional third full week of September. The majority of the VIP movements are expected to occur between September 17 and 24th. A few early arrivals are already here, including the first 747-8i off the production line. Only have a day or two that you can spend? Historically, the Saturday and Sunday preceding the start of the General Debate (September 17th and 18th this year) have been among the busiest days of the week. However, that entire week will see flights arriving and departing every day. Flights can arrive at any time of the day or night, so you can expect that you will see spotters out from dusk to dawn pretty much every day.

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As you can see, UN Week is a great time to be plane spotting at JFK, as well as at other airports along the East Coast. 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 information on this year’s UN Week. There, you can ask any questions you might have, and share tips on what arrivals are expected in and when, and even share your photos.

 

Portions of this article were originally published in 2014 and 2015. It has been revised and updated for 2016.

Ben Granucci, Standards 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.