Watching Airplanes: Crossing Generations to Foster the Aviation Dream

Some people would say that I lead a bit of a boring existence. Long hours at the office and a commute that takes the better part of an hour greatly reduce the amount of free time I have in the evenings. Most nights it behooves me to wait out the evening exodus from Portland by watching the evening push at Portland International Jetport (PWM) from the observation area.

watching airplanes2The observation area is actually very nice. It’s a small paved lot across the field from the terminal ramp, offering a commanding view of airline operations and, if you’re there at night, the FedEx ramp activities. The area has come a long ways from the raggedy dirt lot it once was. I suspect that being under the watchful eye of the adjacent control tower is a huge deterrent to any vandalism or illicit activities.

After a chaotic day in the office I once again decided to wait out traffic at the observation lot. When I pulled in I saw an older gentleman with two young boys around the ages of 3 and 5. I parked and leaned on my hood, watching a distant CRJ make the curvy, noise abatement inspired approach to the business end of the runway. With each approaching aircraft the older boy would yell “plane ahoy!” and his younger brother would screech excitedly and jump up and down.

The boys were having so much fun pointing at all the different aircraft across the field, so I took a moment to introduce myself to them and their grandfather, Bob. Then, I added another element of fun into their adventure: binoculars. Admit it, when you were a kid the first time you latched on to a pair of those babies the world became a whole lot cooler.

During a lull in the push, the boys would be firing off questions about the planes and where they were going. Much to my surprise, Bob would not only fire off the answers, but also a good guess as to who may be flying. As it turns out Bob is a retired Customer Service supervisor for Delta. He started at PWM in the mid 1970’s, having first worked for a small regional airline. By the mid 1990’s he moved to a different area with Delta before retiring and returning to Maine.

Bob and I spoke of the early days of PWM and he recalled fondly the time before regional jets, when the common push would contain 727’s, DC-9’s, and MD-88’s. Bob also confirmed for me that I wasn’t crazy in thinking that I used to see 757’s in Portland, that they used to use them in the lineup for one of the four daily direct flight to Cincinnati. We both lamented that the heaviest equipment we see now is the FedEx 757 across the field.

It wasn’t long before we heard the JT8D engines of the MD-88 at the gate spool up and get ready to push back for the flight to Atlanta. It was clear that this was the boys favorite aircraft as they began to giggle and point excitedly exclaiming that the “Mad Dog” was leaving.

As it taxied to the departure end of the runway Bob and I chatted about his career spent in the business. Bob is a very proud Delta retiree and clearly enjoyed his career with the carrier. Bob’s only disappointment that we discussed was that young people don’t have the access to aviation they once did. He recalled a time when they had school groups come and tour the jetport, being able to be on the tarmac, and even when pilots could give flight deck tours while in flight. Yes, we agreed, many pilots were born on those cockpit visits. However, we recognized that the tragic events of September 11th forever changed that.

After what seemed like an eternity to the two young boys, the sleek “Mad Dog” finally got departure clearance, made a graceful swing to the centerline, and brought the throttles up. The sound of a JT8D engine at takeoff power gives a joy to aviation enthusiasts that transcends all generations. It is the last hold over from the early jet age, just like the MD-88 itself. The boys watched in awe with big smiles as the jet rocketed into the air, leaving behind a dark exhaust trail in the sunset.

The MD-88 was the last big departure for a while, so I decided I had let traffic die enough to head on home. Bob decided it was time to round up the boys and bring them to supper. I headed off on my way, a little less disconnected than my usual lonely evening.

One day the boys will probably have a fuzzy memory of the crazy guy who let them use his binoculars while he and grandpa blabbed on about things they didn’t understand. I am fairly certain though, that they will vividly remember the roaring jets and wafting smell of burnt Jet A. But every time I smell, I think of my dad and I at that airport fence, and I smile.

Michael Lothrop is a lifelong aviation enthusiast and writer from Maine. Mike grew up around the airport and has a professional background in public safety and business. Follow him on Twitter @lothroplothrop

About the Author

Michael Lothrop
Michael Lothrop is a lifelong aviation enthusiast and writer originally from Maine. Mike grew up around aviation and is currently the director of operations and safety for an aviation related company.



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  • DenManF35C

    The similarities of my local airport and the airport described above are so very close. At least there is an observation deck which I doubt will ever happen at our local airport. This article is why it is so important we keep our hobby going forever. As a child my dad would bring me to the airport and those times stuck with me to present day. At our local airport, myself and a large group of spotters are trying to get the Airport Authority to loosen some of the restrictions that have put a stranglehold on so many who love airplanes. We all want kids that can still be able to watch the aircraft I once watched as a kid but if we all remain strong we continue the tradition. Thanks for the Story

    • Thank you so much. I’m glad that you enjoyed the story. When I saw this unfolding I felt that it would ring true with so many of us that join in here at NYCAviation.com, or for anyone that loves aviation. I’m glad it got so many people thinking of aviation and their childhood.

  • FriendlySkies

    Great post! I lived in Maine for 7 years and spent many hours spotting at PWM. Living in Kansas now, so this post surely makes me miss being out there..

    • PWM is certainly a unique place to do some spotting. The fact that the spotting area has been paved and marked is a testament to the fact that Maine is a friendly state still. With that being said, the wind whipping in off the water is still bitter cold in the winter! Don’t miss that while your’e out there!

  • Kathleen Kristiansen

    Randomly reading this to find a photo of the sign at the PWM lot and this brought tears to my eyes! It’s a gorgeous piece.