“We couldn’t give a fuck about Obama," Luke Amundsen says as he stares through a car windshield toward a taxiing Qantas jet. "We just want to take photos of his airplane.”
It’s a horribly windy Friday morning in mid-July at Brisbane Airport, situated 10 miles northeast from the third biggest city in Australia. Amundsen and Simon Coates are sitting in the cabin of a silver Holden Commodore while commercial aircraft alternately take off and touch down. “If there was a private jet due in, we’d come out here just for that,” says Coates. “We don’t care who’s on it — we just want the jet.”
He switches on a dashboard radio unit, which picks up staccato blasts of aviation jargon from the nearby control tower. “...Qantas 950 two-five-zero degrees, three-zero knots — cleared to land,” says a calm male voice. Amundsen exhales, impressed. “Three-zero knots!” he says. “That’s a decent wind.”
Amundsen is a tall 28-year-old, with facial stubble and short, spiked brown hair. He’s the more enthusiastic of the pair. Coates, also 28, plays it much cooler: His eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, and his responses are more measured. He maintains the Brisbane Airport Movements blog, while Amundsen helps run a Facebook page, Brisbane Aircraft Spotting, which has around 6,000 fans. Together, the two have also invested tens of thousands of dollars and a year of their lives in the development of a new website, Global Aircraft Images, which seeks to challenge established spotter-friendly communities such as Airliners.net and Planespotters.net.
While we sit facing the tarmac — the second busiest single airport runway in the world, after London's Gatwick — a news van glides past. “They must be out here for the Malaysian thing,” says Coates, before turning to me. “Did you hear about the Malaysian that went down?” It’s July 18, 2014, the day that news breaks of MH17’s wreckage being scattered across the Ukrainian countryside. Amundsen reveals that he has flown on that destroyed Malaysia Airlines plane, while Coates has flown on MH370, the one that went missing in March. They know this because they both keep records of every flight they’ve ever taken.
“We’re pretty serious about it,” Amundsen continues. “At home, Simon and I have got ADS-B receivers; with those, on our computer screens at home, we can virtually see exactly what the air traffic controllers can see. If something unusual pops up on our radar screen, that’ll usually give us half an hour to get out here and catch it.” (Neither of them can recall what ADS-B stands for, so Coates googles it: Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast.) A plane-tracking website named FlightRadar24 feeds off these receivers. Coates opens the app on his phone, which shows a bunch of tiny yellow icons overlaid on a map. “You can see all the planes buzzing around," he says.
“This app runs off people’s home feeds,” Admundsen explains.
We meet at what’s known as "The Loop" — one end of Acacia Street, which borders Brisbane Airport and offers the best runway-side sight lines for spotters, including a raised concrete viewing platform. At age 15, Amundsen began learning to fly at flight school; a year later, he was flying a skydiving plane for fun and profit, and by 19 he had obtained his commercial pilot license. He has clocked over 3,000 hours in the cockpits of airplanes and helicopters. Coates is employed by the Qantas Group too, as a ground handling agent here at Brisbane Airport — a job that, he says with a smile, involves “passenger marshaling, boarding flights, standing out on the apron, getting high on aviation fuel every day.” He jokes that he has logged over 800 “backseat hours” on commercial flights.
Through the windshield, we watch a red-tailed Boeing 747 take off. “See, there we go, he’s off to Singapore,” says Amundsen, pointing. “He’s up nice and early.”
“Very early variation,” says Coates, admiring the steep ascent.
“That’s, like, a QF8 rotation. He’s got awesome headwind. The wind’s coming from the south, and going over the wing.”
They know the Qantas jet is heading to Singapore because it ascended so sharply. “There’s two [Qantas] 747s,” says Amundsen. “One goes to L.A., one goes to Singapore. The L.A. one goes out a hell of a lot heavier; it would have over 100 tons of fuel on board. That would only have about 60,” he says, pointing again at the now-distant aircraft, growing smaller by the second.
Amundsen knows these routes and schedules particularly well, as he lives nearby. “If I could live closer, I would,” he says. "I can be lying in bed at midnight and hear the Emirates 777 come over, and know exactly what it is, straightaway. I don’t even have to look up.”
Amundsen’s comment about the presidential plane arises as the pair discuss the upcoming G20 summit in November. These two will be among the crowd attempting to gather somewhere near this airport, cameras in hand, searching the skies for Air Force One in the hope of capturing a once-in-a-lifetime event: the president of the United States of America landing at their home airport. An intense Australian Federal Police presence surrounding the miles of wire fences day and night for the duration of the summit mean that shooting Air Force One is an unlikely event indeed. But still, the possibility is there.
And possibility is what drives planespotters — otherwise known as “jetrosexuals,” “aerosexuals,” and “cloud bunnies” — a niche group of obsessives whose intense interest in flight paths, travel schedules, and colorful jet livery occasionally overlaps with the concerns of the general population.
When Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 vanished on March 8, 2014, planespotting had its best chance at making a mainstream impact. While millions combed satellite images online to look for signs of wreckage, a 32-year old designer and filmmaker based in Jersey City, New Jersey, named Michael Raisch had a different approach: to collaborate with global planespotters and create a visual tribute to the aircraft. Raisch searched MH370’s tail number — 9M-MRO — and emailed around 80 spotters who had photographed the plane. Raisch says, “I had the simple thought, ‘You captured this little thing that’s gone, it’s not coming back, no one can take this picture again — how do you feel?’”
Ultimately, 22 spotters from around the world replied and offered Raisch shots they had taken from 2004 to February 2014. His tribute functioned as a kind of eulogy for the physical aircraft, and it struck a chord, attracting 120,000 visitors in the month after its publication on March 30. “The planespotters gave us a human connection to this missing plane, and I think that’s why it went viral,” Raisch says.
To seasoned sky spies like Amundsen and Coates, such headlines are viewed as sideline attractions rather than the main event. Rather than chasing the loudest sirens and smoldering wreckage, theirs is a process of passion — they show up day after day, week after week, and cast their eyes toward the runway. But since September 2001, any pastime involving the close scrutiny of commercial aircraft cannot be seen as wholly innocent.
In front of our parked car are a father and son, lying in the back of their four-wheel drive to escape the wind, doing exactly the same thing as we are. Later, Amundsen says, “I just broke up with my missus, mate. That’s a good thing, you know? I reckon spotting was more important than her!”
Coates cackles. “Amen to that!”
While modern planespotting may appear to some as a rather strange and tedious way to spend free time, the hobby has its roots in the serious business of wartime watchfulness. During World War II, British and American governments distributed cards to citizens that included illustrations showing the differences between Allied and Axis aircraft, so that those with their eyes to the sky could determine whether to wave patriotically or seek cover from incoming ordnance.
Nowadays, a search for planespotting on YouTube returns over a million results, and the most popular video has been viewed over 7.5 million times. It was uploaded in August 2013 by an account named TheGreatFlyer, run by Demetris Gregoriou, who lives in Nicosia, the capital of the European island nation of Cyprus. He is 17 years old.
Titled "Low Landings and Jetblasts – A Plane Spotting Movie," the four-minute clip was filmed on the small Greek island of Skiathos, where enormous jets land on a beach-approach runway that spans the entire width of part of the tiny tourist paradise and allows spotters to get unusually up close and personal. Gregoriou makes a pilgrimage there every year. “People cannot believe I spend eight days [on] such a beautiful island, all of them by the end of the runway,” he says. The young filmmaker describes Skiathos as “the second St. Maarten,” in reference to another famously low-altitude runway at Princess Juliana International Airport, on the Caribbean island, which acts as a magnet for the global planespotting community and curious tourists alike.
Near the beginning of the video, a sign warns DANGER: PLEASE KEEP AWAY FROM AIRCRAFT BLAST, yet Gregoriou captures on film plenty of sandal-wearing enthusiasts attempting to hold onto a steel fence while they’re buffeted by high-speed winds, sand, and debris. At one point, a man attempts to let go, only to collapse on his knees in the middle of the road as the wind roars through his hair. At another, a slow-motion replay of an Air Italy 737 seems to show its wheels missing the fence by inches. “Many consider planespotting a rather boring sport,” Gregoriou says. “They always get impressed after watching my videos.”
One of the most popular videos uploaded by a user named Dantorp Aviation is a 31-minute "wingview" video of a British Airways 747-400 taking off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The footage is taken from a single camera, filming the aircraft pushing off from the aerobridge and taxiing to the runway, while passengers and crew chatter in the background. The video essentially shows modern air travel in all its minutiae, including the standard in-flight warnings that smoking is not permitted, and that passengers are required to switch off their phones.
“When I talk to the average person about my YouTube channel, they’re like, ‘What, people actually watch that?’” says Dantorp, the alias of 17-year-old Daniel G., who is based in Gothenburg, Sweden. (He requested that his surname not be used.) Since being uploaded in September 2013, that video has received over 630,000 views, and, all told, Dantorp's 290-odd aviation videos have been viewed nearly 10 million times. But…why? “I wish I knew,” he says with a laugh. “Apart from the airport, YouTube is the closest to aviation you can get.”
Brian Futterman compares the adrenaline rush of planespotting to what a hunter might feel while stalking a wild animal, or what a groupie might experience when chasing their favorite band. “It’s hard to explain to those who haven’t felt it,” explains the 26-year-old commercial pilot based in Charlottesville, Virginia, who grew up in Queens, New York, and whose ideal weekends as a teenager involved spotting takeoffs and arrivals at LaGuardia or JFK. “It took me a while to realize that I had a different adolescence — less clubbing and underage drinking and trying to be mischievous, [and more] waking up at 5 a.m. and taking $2,500 in camera gear with a 35-year-old friend to watch the new Thai Airways A340-500 arrival at JFK.”
Yet despite the hobby’s innocence, Futterman is aware that those who choose to spend their time along airport fences naturally attract wariness. “The plight of the community for the past 13 years has been to insist our value and our benign nature to the authorities and the public,” he says. “If there’s a team of 20 guys at an airport pointing these big lenses, sometimes people think they’re RPGs [rocket-propelled grenade launchers]. They’d make up some laws about trespassing, tell us it’s illegal to take pictures of airlines.”
He recalled one particular incident as a teenager when, a few hours after his dad dropped him and a friend off for spotting, an airport security officer shooed them into his office, demanding they be picked up.
“Looking through the pictures on my camera, including one sweet shot of a Delta 767-400 — like, the biggest airplane to come into the airport — I was told to delete everything and advised to 'get a real hobby, like baseball cards or something,'" Futterman remembers. “[My] friend cried. I was pissed. Cocksuckers.”
This kind of intense suspicion isn’t unique to the United States. In 2001, 12 British and two Dutch planespotters visiting a military base in Greece were imprisoned by Greek officials for five weeks on charges of espionage, causing a protracted and tense diplomatic dispute in the European Union. “Planespotting must be one of the most eccentric hobbies known to mankind, but it is not an indication of ill will or a threat,” fumed one British foreign minister.
Even as a licensed pilot, Futterman says there have been occasions when he has been admonished by airport security for taking pictures of planes during his downtime. “It's kind of like not being allowed in a restaurant to look at the menu unless you're definitely going to eat there,” he says. "And you're the chef."
Phil Derner, an air traffic dispatcher for a major airline, knows this well, having been detained by police twice in his life while photographing planes at airports. “Around here in New York, it’s 50-50. If someone walks past and looks at you, smile and give a wave, and a ‘Hey, how are you?’ They’ll usually think, OK, that’s a weird person."
Like Futterman, Derner grew up in Queens, across from LaGuardia, and his upbringing was filled with views of smoky 1980s jetliners from his third-floor window. Now 33, he has owned and operated NYCAviation.com, one of the world’s most popular aviation enthusiast hubs, for over a decade. By coincidence, when we speak, it’s Aug. 19, the 75th National Aviation Day — a significant event on the annual calendar of a plane-centric website like NYCAviation. “It’s not a holiday,” says Derner with a smile, “but it’s where I feel we can actively celebrate aviation, and raise a glass and toast to it.”
He regularly spends 16 hours a day working on the website, which has a staff of 11. On the wall behind his desk are two large global navigation charts, which show international airways, as well as a photo of his partner in NYCAviation, Matt Molnar, who died of a cardiac arrest in January 2013. Derner has also posted handwritten index cards of inspirational quotes, including one from JetBlue CEO Dave Barger (“What got us here won’t get us there”).
“The more that I learn about everything that goes on behind the scenes," he says, "the stronger the appreciation that I have for the technology that allows flight, the people who spend their time to make aviation safe and who celebrate the fact the human species can defy gravity like that. It’s the craziest way to transport yourself, yet it's the safest."
NYCAviation covers what Derner dubs “aviation enthusiasm” in its broadest sense, in the name of demystifying air travel to those who primarily think of it as stressful, or dangerous, or annoying; planespotters are its most enthusiastic subset. And that enthusiasm manifests itself as a bunch of people standing along airport perimeters, waiting.
"In a lot of ways, it’s like fishing," Derner says. "A lot of it is about the people in the fishing boat with you, and shooting a certain plane is like catching a big fish.”
Catches don’t come much bigger than the one landed by 54-year-old Spaniard Josep Manchado one day in late January 2000 while spotting at his local airport, Palma de Mallorca. Manchado snapped a few frames of a Boeing 737 jet that was unattended. Upon returning home, he uploaded his best image to Airliners.net, and forgot about it. Six months later, Manchado received an email from a reporter at a German television station, ZDF, asking to corroborate a story described by a source, who alleged that he was kidnapped on this particular aircraft. “They wanted to count the steps on the stairs to the plane,” says Manchado, “because the Arab man counted the steps into the plane while he was wearing a blindfold.”
This “Arab man” — actually a German citizen named Khaled el-Masri — alleged that the plane took him from Skopje, Macedonia, through Palma, Spain’s third largest airport, to a CIA black site in Afghanistan, where he was then interrogated, beaten, strip-searched, sodomized, and tortured by the United States government as part of what was later known as its extraordinary rendition program. The program began in the mid-1990s but intensified following the 9/11 attacks. Josep Manchado’s photograph of the aircraft was a crucial piece of the puzzle that allowed investigative journalists to corroborate details of el-Masri’s story, and thus provided the first concrete proof of this practice.
“On one side, I was very proud to help discover all these military flights of the CIA, because I think it’s a terrible action,” says Manchado. In the years between publishing that seemingly innocuous photograph and the rendition program coming to light, the Spaniard received plenty of media requests for his fortuitous photograph, as well as some shady-sounding questions from people in the United States asking for his identification and Social Security number, which Manchado refused to provide.
Some of his friends in the tight-knit spotting community surrounding Palma de Mallorca airport warned Manchado that he might be disappeared by the CIA for his actions. He admits having some anxiety when he next visited the United States. “I was worried when they put my name in the computers, but I got in no problem,” he says. However, Spanish authorities subsequently revoked runway access to planespotters.
In April, a New York Times journalist, Thomas Erdbrink, happened to look out the window at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran and notice a tiny American flag on the tail of a corporate jet. Despite President Obama’s warnings that the central Middle Eastern hub was not open for business, here was evidence to the contrary, it seemed: The Bombardier jetliner powered by two General Electric engines was owned by the Bank of Utah, which is listed as a trustee for 1,169 aircraft, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s database.
Although a follow-up report solved this mystery by showing that the plane had been leased by a Ghanaian mining company owned by a brother of the West African country’s president, Erdbrink’s canny smartphone snap was a fine example of the unwritten credo of being in the right place at the right time, to which many amateur spotters adhere.
While Manchado's and Erdbrink's discoveries were accidental, some planespotters intentionally seek out this kind of intrigue. "Eugene," who has asked not to be identified, is in his late fifties, and works as an engineer in the Bay Area. He has no interest in the comparatively pedestrian, civilian efforts of men like Luke Amundsen, Simon Coates, and Josep Manchado. “There are people that go to the airport and photograph everything,” he tells me via email. “Imagine sitting by the side of the road and photographing cars: Chevy, Ford, Chevy, Toyota.”
Eugene contrasts this against his preferred type of spotting, which involves photographing military air traffic: For example, from Coyote Summit, a favorite spot of his in Nevada. A page on his website features remarkable photos of Air Force hardware captured from the summit in midair, including a B1-B Lancer in steep ascent. “First of all, there’s no landing gear showing,” he writes. “This is the difference between photographing animals in the zoo — the airport — versus in the wild. When the B1-B was flying by, I was the only person on the hill. But go to the fence at Nellis [Air Force Base, south Nevada], and there are probably two dozen photographers all taking the same shots.”
I ask what constitutes "big game." “They have to be test aircraft,” he replies. “I'm more into black projects, and Groom Lake stuff," referring to the home of Area 51, the highly secretive military base in Nevada.
Nuisance plays some part in Eugene’s motivations, as despite the fact that the U.S. military would probably prefer that its prototype aircraft were kept hidden, he maintains that photography “is not a crime. Hence if they are annoyed or not is irrelevant.”
On a Saturday morning at Brisbane Airport’s spotting base, I meet with three more aircraft enthusiasts: Lance Broad, 31, who manages a supermarket, and his partner Sarah Duggan, 25, as well as Beau Chenery, a 26-year-old freelance IT contractor. Broad and Chenery are co-administrators of the YBBN Spotters Group on Facebook, which has nearly 4,500 fans. Broad, who has a shaved head, dark eyes, and a blue Boeing jumper, used to be into surf photography. “A friend brought me to The Loop five years ago, and I was hooked,” he says. “Now all I shoot is aviation. This is harder; it’s all got to be preplanned.”
As we talk near the fence, a small group of spotters — all men — are taking photos from the concrete viewing platform. A couple of them have brought stepladders, so that the wire fence isn’t in their shots. A Qantas Boeing 767 with colorful cartoon livery based on the Disney film Planes taxis past for takeoff. Duggan waves at the pilot, who returns her gesture. Broad smiles and asks how she feels; beaming, she replies, “I feel special!”
I ask whether she was interested in planes before she met Lance. “No,” she replies, laughing. During the hour that we spend at The Loop on this bright morning, I spot four women, including Sarah. All of them are here with their partners.
“Brisbane Airport Corporation sees us as stakeholders; we know what’s right and wrong,” says Chenery, arms crossed and wearing sunglasses to fend off the glare. “The Australian Federal Police views us as a legitimate community group.”
“We embrace them,” echoes Leonie Vandeven, media and marketing communications manager at Brisbane Airport Corporation. “There’s no harm in watching planes. They’re extra eyes, they’re considerate, and they’re essentially advocates for the airport. They’re part of the family.”
Last year, BAC threw a "plane party" for the local spotters here at The Loop, which was attended by nearly 100 people. BAC provided free tacos and invited a few guest speakers, including the Australian Federal Police. Vandeven, 41, gives a cheeky smile. “Spotters are committed, man. They’re out there with their flasks of soup and tea.”
The symbiotic relationship that Brisbane Airport has with its small group of local spotters is atypical, but not an anomaly. “Miami International even set up several holes in the fence by the runway specifically to fit lenses,” says Futterman. “That’s a planespotter’s utopia, where hassle is nil and access is unfettered.”
Since 2011, Brisbane Airport has existed as a suburb in its own right. As airside operations manager, it’s Peter Dunlop’s responsibility to oversee everything that goes on inside the fence — 16 miles of bitumen roads that his staff patrols 24/7. The airport averages 600 plane "movements" per day, of aircraft either arriving at or departing from its domestic and international terminals, which together service 26 airlines flying to 67 destinations.
“We have a good relationship with our spotters,” Dunlop says, while steering a white utility vehicle onto one of the airport’s many taxiways. “It’s not like we’re inundated with requests every day; there’s a community of around a hundred people, and you might only ever see 30 or 40 of them at one time. We try and help them where we can." They take some of the local spotters on occasional airside tours — like the one I’m on — to offer them unique photography opportunities, to thank them for their unceasing devotion. In exchange for access, the airport reserves the right to use any particularly striking photos in its own marketing materials. It’s a quid pro quo that many of the spotters seem to view as a great honor. After all, it’s better to be inside the fence than out.
Dunlop steers the vehicle toward the maintenance hangars, which are hidden away from public view. He edges us toward a hangar that’s usually closed. Through a crack in the door, we see a private helicopter and jet in repose. His curiosity sated, we return to the taxiways. “Keep an eye out for FOD,” he says. “That’s 'foreign object debris.' We don’t want anything that can be sucked into an engine.” He smiles, then something catches his eye. He brings the vehicle to an abrupt stop, pulls on the hand brake, and steps outside, returning with a grin on his face and a small metal screw. “That could cost somebody hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to an engine,” he says. “They’re not always that easy to see.”
We pass the waterfront overlooking Moreton Bay and motor up Concorde Road, heading back toward the terminals. During my time with Lance Broad and Beau Chenery, the pair told me that one of their favorite spotting locations is right beside the airport’s sewage treatment plant, which smells exactly as you’d imagine. If grown humans are willing to voluntarily subject themselves to those conditions purely in the hope of capturing unique, original photographs of airplanes, Brisbane Airport Corporation doesn’t really have to do anything at all to keep them happy.
On our winding route back to his office, Dunlop and I pass The Loop. It’s a stunningly clear Friday morning, and gathered on the concrete viewing platform on the other side of the fence are six young men with stepladders and camera lenses. Dunlop and I give them a wave as we drive past, and they wave back enthusiastically. By the time we round the corner and I look back over my shoulder, though, their eyes and lenses are already fixed on the next plane taxiing for takeoff.
In the months since starting work on this story, I flew 12 times between the Australian cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Hobart, and my home base of Brisbane. One of these flights was the single most hair-raising airborne experience of my life: It was a chilly evening at Hobart International Airport when I boarded a mostly full Boeing 717, one of the smallest Qantas planes in the airline’s commercial fleet. We taxied out to the airstrip and I watched another plane, headlights blaring, effortlessly touch down before us. To my right, the engine began buzzing like an insistent hornet. We left earth and immediately encountered turbulence, thanks to a strong headwind. As the plane ducked and bounced between invisible pockets of resistance, I resisted the urge to grip my armrests and instead sat grinning to myself. In those tense minutes, before our aircraft broke through the cloud cover into clean air and bathed in the last moments of a setting sun, I finally got it. Mundane or ubiquitous as it can seem, every flight is a remarkable, noteworthy achievement; every flight is worthy of record. And I wondered who was standing at the airport perimeter below, watching.