Fringe Hobby Spotlight: Plane Spotting

I’m a birdwatcher. I get out of a perfectly good bed well before normal people. I drive long distances to visit locations as inviting as sewage treatment plants. I seek birds that are a range of sizes (most often small) and a flurry of colors (most often brown). Set my iPod to shuffle and you’ll find songs by Tool and Jurassic 5 intermixed with short interludes by Clay-colored Sparrow and Virginia Rail.

As a birdwatcher, I am intrigued by other hobbies that are a little off of center. On a train trip to London for the Olympics, my friend Mike and I sat with a gentleman from Quebec who collected Olympic postmarks. Not just stamps mind, nor Olympic stamps, but the circular cancelation stamps post office employees place over postage stamps. He showed us a binder—one of twenty-four in his collection—bulging with envelopes and postcards with postmarks for every Olympic competition since 1896.

On a weekend trip to Zurich Switzerland in late October, I met a gentleman who was well respected amongst followers of another esoteric hobby: plane-spotting.

I first learned of plane spotters several years ago; how they positioned their long lensed cameras near airports to capture images of commercial airliners of different makes, models, and carriers.

I periodically thought of my fellow peripheral hobbyists whenever I watched an airplane fly overhead. While I’ve trained myself to identify the subtle differences in flight profiles of Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, I couldn’t tell you what separates a Boeing 747 from the equivalent Airbus though I know it must be obvious to the trained eye. The parallels with my beloved hobby birdwatching, including similar tools and techniques, nonetheless intrigue me.

[Editor’s Note: Adam promises to all his friends and family to not pursue another hobby that will alienate him even further from mainstream society.]

None of this was on my mind when I stumbled across Buch Air Center, a model plane store across the street from our hotel near the Zurich airport. I was drawn through the doors because I had never seen anything like it: hundreds if not thousands of model planes of different makes, models, carriers, and sizes. A pocket-sized Thai Air Boeing 737 to a four-foot long Airbus A340 donning the Swiss Air logo.

I asked the nice Swiss store owner behind the counter who’d collect such models. Some people only collect models of a certain size, he said, while some collect every make and model flown by a specific carrier. Some people just want a personal memento, for example the exact plane a couple flew on their honeymoon. Model companies are mostly British and German with some emerging from China, where he estimated 98.5% of the models are already manufactured. Carriers, like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, will allow companies to use their logo if they are able to give one to each of their employees for free.

I asked if he had many customers who were plane spotters. “Of course!” he responded, “I am one as well.”

This was a rare opportunity to better understand what drives the plane spotter so I identified myself as a fellow fringe hobbyist and proceeded to ask a bunch of questions. It turns out plane-spotting and birdwatching are quite similar.


Spot planes, helicopters, gliders, balloons …

No two birdwatchers are the same: some prefer scoping open water for birds while others specialize in birding by ear. Some only keep a list of birds they’ve seen in their backyard while others fly to each corner of the continent to build their “ABA list” (the American Birding Association list for continental United States and Canada). In plane spotting, some enthusiasts chase only commercial airliners, while others prefer military aircraft. A smaller and more … umm, enthusiastic subset chase any manmade object in the sky, including helicopters and business aircraft as well as gliders, drones, and even hot-air balloons. It is believed that plane spotting started in England and, like birding, the British have a reputation for producing the most manic participants.


Plane spotters keep life-lists

Armed with digital cameras and telephoto lenses, plane spotters grow their life-lists by successfully capturing images of their quarry, whether it be World War I German aircraft, or every make and model flown by a specific carrier. To an even greater extreme, some plane spotters collect images of every plane flown by a carrier (identified by unique serial numbers on their fuselage). The Swiss gentlemen with whom I spoke hadn’t tallied his list recently, but he estimated to have images for around 35,000 different commercial, military, and business aircraft in his collection.


Plane spotters employ similar strategies to birdwatchers

Every spring, birdwatchers flock to birdwatching hotspots like the Texas coast and the Florida Keys to tally scores of songbird species as they are migrating north from their tropical wintering grounds. These coastal areas are the first opportunities for birds to land after long flights over the Caribbean, thus serving as bottlenecks for dense flocks of birds you’d otherwise have to travel great distances to see. For example, a fortuitous bush could host both a Swainson’s Warbler and a Blackpoll Warbler, two species that, to see just weeks later, would require travel between the floodplains of southeastern United States and the boreal forests of Canada, respectively.

Similarly, plane spotters make efficient use of bottlenecks in the distribution of planes. Large airports that serve as hubs for multiple international carriers are effective targets as well as production facilities where planes can be “captured” as they come off the assembly line before they are delivered to more distance locations like Germany and Singapore. This Swiss gentleman had just returned from a trip to the Seattle where he visited Sea-Tac, Boeing Field in south Seattle, the Boeing production facility in Renton, and Payne Field in Everett.


Plane spotters have specialized field guides

No self-respecting birder goes in to the field without their trusty field guide, whether it be Sibley, Audubon, National Geographic, Peterson, Kauffman, or any combination thereof. Claudio Müller’s Airplanes of the World is an illustrated publication that provides short profiles on over 150 types of planes, including illustrations of its profile from above, side, and head-on. It is published annually to include all the most recent models, but with each addition, an older model is dropped, thus requiring a multiple volumes if a comprehensive reference is desired.

Source: (Germany)


Plane spotters go on field trips

Every year, the World Economic Forum is held in Zurich and financial leaders arrive from all over the world to attend. This summer, the local chapter of plane spotters requested permission to access the tarmac where the planes were parked. Far from a small event, buses were used to transport well over a thousand international plane spotters to and from the airfield.

A recent field trip that made waves in the international plane-spotting community was a chartered flight into Pyongyang North Korea. Different from birdwatching, they are no professional guiding companies. Plane-spotting field trips are typically organized by individual hobbyists (perhaps inspired with the incentive of having their expenses covered by the group). Need help organizing a trip? You can purchase up-to-date catalogs of aircraft manufacturers, including detailed information on models names and serial numbers.


Our conversation was broken by the sound of the door opening. A gentleman with a spectacularly curled moustache entered the store and the two made a quick friendly exchange in German. A friend from a nearby plane-spotting chapter, the owner confided.

After monopolizing the storeowner’s time for nearly thirty minutes, I was happy to purchase the 2012 airplane field guide in my hand, even though it was in German. He threw in a small desktop calendar of commercial airliners for free.

Provided with free time, I’ll still opt to visit a verdant wetland over, say, Payne Field, unless the grassy perimeter holds a Sprague’s Pipit.

But I may learn the flight profiles of a few jetliners … and maybe a jet or two. Just a couple.

One Reply to “Fringe Hobby Spotlight: Plane Spotting”

  1. It seems only natural, if you are looking into the sky anyway why not identify birds and airplanes? Maybe you will see a Corsair, like your grandfather flew in WWII? – Or Blue Angels that flew over your childhood home? MOM

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