Plane People

[Story for the McLean Highlander’s May 23rd edition.]

Plane People

Aircraft spotters make use of local sites

5/18/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

Drive by the airport one day, and you might see a strange group of people in a parking lot with cameras and binoculars. For a second, you may not understand who they are—or why they’re spending the afternoon at Dulles or Reagan National. But then a 500,000-pound airplane roars overhead at 150 miles an hour, and you begin to understand.

Plane spotting has been around for as long as airplanes have, from the curious crowd at Kitty Hawk to modern-day enthusiasts with telephoto lenses and special radios. Even so, it’s not a pastime that the general public readily understands.

“It’s a harmless hobby. People just have a total misunderstanding of what it is like,” veteran spotter Robert Hobbelman said. He had come up to Washington for the Andrews Air Force Base plane show, and decided to stop off at Dulles Airport to watch some aircraft take off for far-off destinations. “For me, it’s more of the international stuff,” Hobbelman said.

Local Washington airports boast a number of prime spotting areas. Baltimore-Washington Airport features a field created especially for aviation enthusiasts. Reagan National Airport, located on the Virginia Side of the Potomac, caters to plane watchers with Gravelly Point—a nationally known location where regional jets roar over boaters and picnic-goers.

The real draw for dedicated spotters, however, are the long-distance flights that land and take off from Dulles International. The airport hosts airlines ranging from Air France to Ethiopian Airways to Saudi Arabian, and a designated observation deck at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum gives photographers a unique point of view. Military and government aircraft also frequent the site.

“The likelihood of getting something exotic [at Dulles] is quite greater than Reagan,” spotter Danny Bridges said. Bridges, armed with a pair of binoculars atop an airport parking garage, said that he enjoys “looking for things that are out of the ordinary,” including military aircraft.

Not everyone sees spotting as a harmless hobby—at first glance, at least. Ever since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, plane watchers with cameras and radios have come under more scrutiny than ever before.

“There was that knee-jerk reaction” right after the terrorist attacks, Bridges said. “It’s much more restricted than it used to be.” Hobbelman said that he had been in “quite a few incidents” with misunderstanding policemen and security guards, but none turned too serious. Nor does he lament the increased restrictions and oversight, saying that the added security is reasonable.

Bridges and Hobbelman plan to keep on spotting, but both admit that public understanding and appreciation of the pastime is still a few photos away. Said Bridges, “Some people don’t really understand what the possible interest could be.”

Of course, one 747 takeoff might be all it takes to turn a skeptic into a spotter for life.

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