Your Role in the Hobby of Plane Spotting

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Written by: Phil Derner Jr.
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A group of New York based aviation photographers hanging out at LAX last October, doing what we love. Photo courtesy Maggie Bradley.

A group of New York based aviation photographers hanging out at LAX last October, doing what we love. Photo courtesy Maggie Bradley.

I was stopped at the gym one day by a guy asking “Who said it’s a crime?” referring to my “Airliner Photography is Not a crime” t-shirt. I didn’t get too much into it to prevent boring him, but I explained that many people have this preconceived notion that taking photos of airliners is illegal.

I don’t expect the general public to understand what my t-shirt is referring to. But every now and then I end up explaining it to someone who wants to learn more about why anyone would think it is illegal, want me to clarify what the law actually is, or ask why I’m taking pictures of airliners to begin with (in a curious, non-accusatory way). It ends up educating open-minded, smart people, and also recruits some new members here and there.

Saudi security forces

Saudi security forces storm a hijacked Russian airliner at Medina airport in Saudi Arabia.

With that comes their stories. The same stories that I got after [a June 2006] New York Times article that showcased our site, which brought in a flood of emails from people who were just blown away that this hobby existed. They are people who’d spent time watching planes from parking lots near the airport on lunch hours, people whose Dads were airline mechanics, Moms were flight attendants, who lived near the airport and just grew up around it. They were people who never got over their boyhood enjoyment of the heavy machinery of construction equipment and airplanes, people who are “gearheads” and like planes more than cars because planes are bigger, faster, and heck, they FLY.

Through all of this, you start to see just how many people in the world have what really is a subconscious love for aviation. It’s subconscious for two reasons. One, because people don’t know the hobby exists. Second, because of the mentality that hangs over American society that even as much as looking at an airplane is not the right thing to be doing.

But what caused that? Was it only the events of 9/11? Not at all.

A lot of it has to do with the slow loss of interest in the romanticism of flight. It was common to see planes zipping all over the world by the JetAge of the 1970s. Deregulation in 1978 brought about the option for new airlines with fewer amenities to start flying, and people started caring more about price than about traveling in luxury.

Once luxury was on its way out, the negative connotations that came from flying can be attributed to the hijackings and airline crashes of the 1980s. These events had the impact they did because they were brought into living rooms everywhere by the media and the growth in the amount of televisions (color ones, no less!) in every household in the United States. People turning on the TVs only saw aviation as a tool of death, whether by means of an angry person with a political motive or a flight whose destination fell short of the one on their ticket.

That is what set the stage. No well-made airline commercial or reassurance by Ronald Reagan was going to out-do the images of a pilot sticking out of a window with a gun over his head, or a black smear in a cornfield where hundreds had died. Not to mention the footage of grieving families at airport ticket counters with airline names on the walls behind them.

Twenty years later, the world watched, live, as four planes bearing “American” and “United” on them crashed into buildings, killing thousands. This completely sealed the deal that if you weren’t just getting from Point A to Point B, then having any interest in the airlines is suspicious. Now, a small fight on a plane, an airport diversion or even a petty disaccord with a flight attendant will get you on CNN’s home page in an instant.

Photographer Matthew Smith takes a shot of a Southwest 737 in Los Angeles.

Photographer Matthew Smith takes a shot of a Southwest 737 in Los Angeles.

So one can imagine someone’s excitement when learning that there is a hobby the follows the industry. That people of all ages, genders and ethnicities come together to watch massive beasts of machinery flow through the sky and allow us to maybe take some gorgeous photos of them. Getting some sun while hanging with friends and hearing the engines, smelling the rubber and the jet fuel. YES, IT IS OK TO LIKE PLANES!

This hobby will grow in popularity, no doubt. There’ll be more articles, TV spots, media coverage and exposure until aviation enthusiasm is a known term on this side of the Atlantic. But be careful. The NIMBYs will come out full force.

“Taking photos of planes is illegal!”

“Why are they allowed to track flights the way they do?!”

And worst of all, “Their hobby is helping the terrorists.”

Politicians, airport managers, law enforcement, community boards and the media will speak up. What side will they take? Will we emerge with more freedom to practice our hobby? Will we be squashed and limited to leaving the cameras at home and sitting in parks with a book so we can act like we’re reading instead of watching runway 4 arrivals at Planeview Park?

The answer lies on YOU, the enthusiast. Your behavior, your conversations, and even your facial demeanor when being seen by the public will affect their perception of you. Your message board posts read by the masses, by the media and how you present yourself will all be turned into the first impressions that will make Charles Schumer decide whether we are tax-paying citizens who have a right to practice our hobby, or a team of eccentrics who are a detriment to airport security.

This isn’t just a moral about sporting your smiles, being kind to police and cleaning up trash when spotting, but about remembering why we do what we do.

Though “Airliner Photography is Not a Crime” it also is not about getting photos accepted on, getting lots of hits on your photos, or when MaxJet Emirates arrives at Kennedy. It’s about that love for aviation, whether it was because your Dad walked you into the cockpit to meet the pilot when you were 8 years old or because you love the rush of heavy metal zooming past you at 200 miles per hour.

See the smile you just made? Remember that and keep it there. It’s contagious, and you owe it to your hobby to spread it.

(Editor’s note: this week for Throwback Thursday, we fired up the Wayback Machine to revisit one of NYCAviation’s oldest articles. Even today, nearly 8 years after it was originally published, all of the points made still stand strong. How the public perceives plane spotters still largely depends on how the group as a whole presents itself. While some remain suspicious (and may never change their minds), most others understand that plane spotters are harmless hobbyists who are truly passionate about aviation.

A great example of this occurred during 2013’s UN Week, the annual gathering of the world’s leaders in New York City. Early in the day, a large group of plane spotters were approached by an individual who was convinced that none of us belonged in a public park. Later that morning, in the parking lot of a major retailer, another individual approached us. They had noticed the large group of us, and knew that “something good must be coming.” It gave us the opportunity to engage that person and to quickly explain the significance of the week to us.

Every spotter has their stories of good interactions with the public and bad ones. Stories of all the times that the cops drove by and waved and that one time that they put you through the wringer. And while we all like to think that the tides of acceptance are moving in our favor these days, we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent. It is just as important as ever to show that you are there, hanging out by the airport for hours on end, because you love aviation. ^BG) 

About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



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  • Phil, this is terrific. At 26 years old, and eve after choosing photography as a career, I still take the odd weekend and drive down the 405 to LAX for the day with my camera. Same as I did when I was 10 or 11 at the Customs Building at JFK or Planeview Park at LGA with my parents.

    After all of those post-9/11 years in which we collectively dealt with constant visits from NYPD (and most of those visits had positive outcomes, but the negatives were BAD), I would still harbor this eery feeling I was being watched. It changed when I moved to L.A. last year; I quickly realized that the hobby is more widely-accepted here. Most of the major airports in the LA Metro area (LAX, BUR, VNY) have dedicated observation areas that become PACKED on the weekend. Some folks have cameras, some have logbooks, and others just watch. These experiences these past years have eliminated the worry and reinstated the joy of this hobby. It’s understandable why New Yorkers aren’t as open-minded, but would the establishment of some “official” observation areas bring better awareness to the public? I know it’s a long-shot, but it’s worth thinking about.

    I rarely post to the databases anymore: partly because as a professional photographer I have to deal with enough rejection, and partly (like you said) because I’ve gone back to the root of why I like taking pictures of airplanes. Back in early April I stopped by Imperial Hill for a few hours after shooting in Santa Monica. A man who couldn’t have been much older than myself walked up with his son. I was listening to parts of their conversation from behind my viewfinder. I felt a huge smile creep up on my face when I heard him ask, “Dad, can we just wait for that FedEx A300 to leave? I know I said we could go after the A340-600 but I really want to see that one, too.” He could not have been older than 10. Half of me smiled because I was once that 10 year old boy begging his parents to stay for one more Delta Shuttle 727. The other half of me smiled because I realized our hobby can stand the test of time.

    Didn’t expect to write an essay! Thanks again for this post.

    • I once knew a young kid with the same name as you. 😉

      Thanks for your kind words and I am glad you still get to go out there and enjoy the airplanes 🙂 -Phil

      • Mike Shulman

        I once wrote a letter to the NY Daily News about 2 decades ago after being harrassed at JFK. I was seen taking photos by a security guard. It was printed in Voice of the People. I got nasty responses to my article back then. I forgot the year as I have been spotting since 1977. Sadly, those I currently speak to, are of the same mind. I refuse to quit but I spot much less often as I am now a senior and don’t have the energy anymore. I support and admire those still spotting. I requested that the Port Authority issue spotters ID cards so there would be no hassle, but they refused.