At the In-n-Out Burger on Sepulveda Boulevard across the road from Los Angeles International Airport, groups of people routinely gather on a small patch of grass next to the line of cars waiting for drive-thru orders. Families recline on picnic blankets, watching their kids run around the park. Dog owners and their best friends move about enjoying the sun. Restaurant patrons with take-out burgers pack picnic tables to watch planes landing while they eat.
Scattered amid the sprawl are a number of people carrying professional cameras with telephoto lenses and heavy-duty tripods. Each points his camera toward the sky, waiting patiently for a glimmer to appear on the horizon that signals the arrival of an airliner coming in to land.
Who are these mysterious people? Are they shooting a movie? Are they spies for some foreign country gathering information on the West Coast’s leading transportation hub? They do have a suspicious amount of technical equipment. Fortunately, no espionage is occurring here. The earnest photographers documenting every airliners arrival are “plane spotters.”
Birdwatchers stroll through forests hoping to catch a glimpse of an elusive bird. Plane spotters do the same, only their birds are bigger, louder and arrive on schedule. This isn’t some small group. Plane spotters have an extensive network of members from all over the world. Their Facebook Group LAX24R, the official LAX Plane Spotting Community, is over 4,200 members strong, and that’s just one group for one airport.
At any given hour of the day or night, it’s possible to see the spotters work. But early evening is the best because the marine layer of hazy clouds present most mornings disappears by the afternoon.
In ‘n’ Out probably is the most popular place for them to convene, but there are always some spotters at Jim Clutter’s Park on the other side of the airport. The park is further away but higher in elevation and provides a sweeping view of the entire runway. You’ll need a longer lens if you take pictures from here.
If you want to watch planes flying overhead while having fun on the sand head to Dockweiler State Beach just west of LAX, where you can see A380s and 777s ascending to cruising altitude before flying across the Pacific. At all of these places, you’ll see a couple of plane spotters with their cameras pointed skyward, and I was able to speak with one of them.
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t into aviation.” Says Luca Flores, one of the biggest plane spotters in Los Angeles. His Instagram page (luca_at_lax) has over thirteen thousand followers, all eager to see the photos he takes of big metal birds flying overhead. “My father always said he missed out on his calling to be a pilot, so he did his best to expose me to aviation from a young age. Now he jokes that it worked a little too well.”
Even though he was exposed to plane spotting by the time he was seven years old, it wasn’t until 2018, when Flores received a camera from a friend, that the hobby really began to take off for him.
“It wasn’t a hi-tech camera,” he confides, “but to me it was the coolest thing. I spent about a year shooting with it, learning how digital cameras work, finding new spots at LAX, getting into the Instagram aviation community, and saving the money to travel to other airports.”
Hobby or Profession?
For most people, plane spotting is just a hobby, something they do for pleasure. It’s mesmerizing to watch 330 tons of metal inbound from an exotic destination gliding gently toward a runway, and being able to capture that feeling is immensely satisfying. “People that really love it will spend a day at the airport on the weekends and just hang out at different spots for eight hours or so. It’s calming and therapeutic to some,” says Flores.
But for many people, including Flores, plane spotting comes with a financial upside. Airlines, aircraft manufacturers, flight websites such as Simple Flying, magazines or photo databases such as Airliners.net and Jetphotos.com all need current photos of airplanes taxiing down the runway or flying past a mountain range. They all have to purchase these pictures from somewhere and that’s where plane spotters come in. “The unfortunate reality is it’s very hard to make plane spotting your career.” concedes Flores. “There’s no real mainstream demand for aviation photography. The few that are lucky enough will have some sort of partnership with a particular airline and be contracted out by them. Others will join media or hospitality companies but those don’t really pay more than what you’d expect from a side hustle. It varies greatly.
Social Media Complements Aviation
“There are websites you can upload photos to but risk losing the rights to those photos. That’s something that’s really important to me. Others, mostly travel bloggers and pilots, take it upon themselves to build a social media company out of their content. But it’s very hard to get to influencer status where you’re making decent money. For all these reasons and more, it’s mainly a side hustle.”
Plane spotting is not a cheap hobby. You have to spend money to make money aviation enthusiasts admit. Aviation photography requires expensive photographic lenses, helicopter tours over airports, and constant travel to new places. Turning a passion into a profession is difficult.
But again, it’s not just about the money for plane spotters. Most of them just enjoy planes and spending time with people who share the same interests. The group is big, very social and connected. Flores has become close friends with other spotters because of aviation listservs, social media and their shared love of flight.
A Global Passion for Planes
Plane spotters in Southern California are extensive but their numbers pale compared to the thousands of people around the world who share their passion.
Zachary Sheinman is a plane spotter in New York who does most of his work at JFK. “I started in 2016 because I was interested in photography and think aircraft are fascinating to photograph. JFK is great for spotting because of the vantage points and nonstop traffic. I also love spotting at LAX, YUL (Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International), ATL (Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International), FRA (Frankfurt International in Germany) and LHR (London Heathrow).
“I don’t sell my photographs so for me it’s just a hobby,” he says. But Sheinman has 38,500 followers on Instagram and earns enough to travel to airports around the world.
There are many airports that are great for plane spotting and groups of plane spotters are scattered around all of them.
International airports like Amsterdam’s Schiphol (AMS) and Tokyo’s Haneda (HND) and Narita (NRT) in Japan are very spotter-friendly because of viewing terraces positioned much closer to the runways. These purpose-built platforms not only provide great comfort but also great access, as photographers are able to get as close to the action as safety permits.
Photo Safaris to Airports
If you’re interested in the assembly of planes, two areas to check out are the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and its surrounding airfields and the Toulouse-Blagnac Airport (TLS) in the south of France. Boeing and Airbus are the biggest aerospace companies in the world and at these locations, you can see them put together their birds in real time.
Though officially headquartered in Chicago, many of Boeing’s design and manufacturing operations occur around Seattle. SeaTac is an excellent location to see new airliners, but spotters also travel to nearby Boeing Field (BFI), five miles south of Seattle, and Everett Paine Field (PAE), 30 miles north of Seattle in Snohomish County, where new Boeing airframes such as the 777, 767, 748 and 787 are assembled and tested.
There really is no doubt about the best place to watch and photograph aircraft. It’s Princess Juliana Airport (SXM) on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. This airport is famous for having its runway right next to Maho Beach, a strip of sand on which tourists can stand and feel the power of big international jets whooshing overhead. Separated by a narrow path and a wire fence, the beach is only 200-ft. from the end of the runway.
Hard Decision: Take a Photo or Finish your Margarita
If you’re looking for a nice, quiet beach this isn’t the place. Up until five years ago, plane spotters clinging to the fence would be hurled into the air by the vortex caused by ascending planes. Today, most stay on the sand and party until the next jumbo passes over. But if you’re a plane spotter, St. Maarten is a slice of heaven.
Initially, I didn’t understand the appeal of plane spotting. It just seemed like birdwatching, but louder. But every time I saw – felt, actually – an enormous jumbo jet thunder overhead and then taxi down the runway I found myself in awe of the pilots and crew it takes to achieve a safe landing.
Jordan Geelhoed is a journalist studying Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas Moody College of Communication.