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Photo: Magnus Glans
Photo: Magnus Glans

Behind the scenes of plane spotting

You may have noticed them when you’ve been heading out on a flight. They can be found at airports all over the world and they have a fanatical interest in aircraft, which they’re keen to capture on camera. They’re plane spotters.

It’s a bleak December day and snow is in the air. Jan Wästlund and Thomas Woxberg, cameras at the ready, are just a few hundred meters from the perimeter of Arlanda’s main runway, known as 01L in aviation lingo – which means that the planes are coming in from south to north. There’s a good view of both the approach and the touchdown point and the snow adds a certain amount of drama as it swirls up after takeoff and landing.

Today, plane spotting has grown into a hobby that’s popular all over the world. Many airports have special sites designed for spotters. Copenhagen Airport, Oslo Airport and Stockholm Arlanda Airport all have such areas and there is information online about where the best viewpoints are for each runway.

The hobby is thought to have begun with the first flight of a powered ­aircraft, made by Orville Wright in 1903, a flight that was also carefully documented on camera.

The early military role of aircraft also helped, as it became important to be able to identify enemy planes, something that was aided by the printing of special airplane cards to help with identification. And who doesn’t remember the old viewing terraces at the terminals?

Sharing tips on viewing angles, aircraft and equipment adds to spotting’s sense of community.  Photo: Magnus Glans

The evolution of modern plane spotting is linked to the development of the internet and social media. They provide the opportunity to create a kind of public archive of the pictures taken and to create Facebook groups, for example, where people can compare and discuss their observations and pictures.

Apps such as Flightradar24 also make it easy to quickly obtain facts about the particular plane you can see in front of you. Today’s modern digital cameras also help since they make it easy to put your freshly taken pictures straight online.

Defining plane spotting is not so easy, though. “Plane spotting is actually an umbrella term for a variety of interests,” Woxberg says. “Some people log aircraft registrations, others want to keep track of individual aircraft, even when they change hands or are repainted, while some just want to photograph airplanes.”

For many, plane spotting is also an oppor­tunity to combine two interests, and the challenge to develop their photography skills spurs on both Wästlund and Woxberg.

“We’re both interested in photography as well as aircraft, so it was entirely natural that we’d become plane spotters,” Woxberg explains.

So it’s difficult to pigeonhole plane spotters. It’s an interest shared by everyone from professional photographers to young children, women, men and seniors, and there’s no doubt they all enjoy it. It also helps to form a community, as people spend long days standing next to eachother, providing tips on viewing angles, aircraft and camera equipment, Wästlund explains.Mobile apps have helped the evolution of modern spotting. Photo: Magnus Glans

Some plane spotters invest significant time and money in traveling the world to view and photograph new aircraft. One classic destination, which had a spectacular approach, was the now-defunct Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong, where large aircraft flew very close to the Hong Kong skyscrapers.

Another example is Norway’s Trondheim Airport where there’s a beautiful fjord at one end of the runway and fabulous mountains at the other. Others head for the major airports in Amsterdam, London or Frankfurt so they can see the larger intercontinental aircraft. Wästlund and Woxberg also have clear ideas about what they want to photograph.

“Large civil and military transport aircraft are my favorite subjects,” says Wästlund, who started plane spotting in 2007 and has launched a Facebook group for Swedish plane spotters. “When I get wind of one of these visiting Arlanda, I head straight out there.”

Woxberg faces more of a challenge to find what he wants, as the airplane at the top of his wish list has not even been delivered yet. “When SAS takes delivery of its new Airbus 350, I’d be very happy if one or more of them were painted in a selection of old SAS liveries,” Woxberg says.

And who knows – perhaps you’ll be there when they get their dream shot!


Text: Staffan Erlandsson