The Evolution of Plane Spotting: From Wartime Necessity to Beloved Hobby

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One of the unsung heroes of WWII were known as plane spotters, people who were dedicated to observing and logging aircraft through forms of photography and videography. 

The term was coined during the start of WWII, when the Royal Observer Corps (U.K.) encouraged civilians to become spotters and document airplanes from observation posts throughout coastal defense areas to prevent Axis sneak attacks. As the need for plane spotters grew internationally, programs like the American Civil War Service recruited women and men who were unfit to serve the military.

One of the easiest ways to differentiate between different aircraft is through livery and unique markings, but how could one tell the difference between aircraft types that share the same livery scheme?

Expert plane spotters would then be able to differentiate between different generations/editions of aircraft through factors such as fuselage length, the shape of the nose, the type of engines used, the winglet shape, placement of the engine nacelles, etc. To go the extra mile, some would even tune into air traffic control radio transmissions to confirm aircraft spottings they were unsure about.

To spread the message amongst the common folk, public notices were often issued out on bulletins with resources to inform civilians how to differentiate between aircraft belonging to the homeland versus the enemy forces.

Example of a 1915 civilian plane spotter guide

As the hobby increased in popularity during the 1960s, one of the most common observation decks/popular watch spots was at JFK International Airport. Another popular spot was at Friendship Airport, now known as BWI (Baltimore/Washington International) Airport. In the 1970s, it would cost 25 cents to enter the observation deck.

Plane spotting observation deck at BWI Airport, formerly known as Friendship Airport

During the pandemic in 2022, modern-day plane spotting regained interest from civilians when natural disasters such as Storm Eunice had people sheltered at home and tuned into livestreams of airplanes struggling to land at Heathrow Airport. Some livestreams had record-breaking visitor counts of 230k viewers. Due to the popularity of the hobby in recent years, some airports such as Instabul Airport built an observation desk for visitors to have a scenic view of the air control tower and runway. Denver International Airport, another popular location for plane spotting, has 3 observation decks equipped with amenities like fire pit lounges, pet relief, and dining services.

Scenic view from population plane spotting observation desk in Instanbul Airport

One of our account managers at Pacmin, Nadya Hernandez, grew up with a love for plane spotting while tagging along with her family as a little girl. Her most fond memories of the hobby involves grabbing freshly made donuts and milk at the crack of dawn to watch aircraft land and takeoff at LAX. Some of their favorite spots are Clutter’s Park in El Segundo and In-N-Out at S Sepulveda Boulevard.

Nadya and her mom at a plane spotting observation deck located near LAX.
Nadya’s daughter, Lyla, going plane spotting for the first time.

Sources

  1. A Popular Hobby: The Evolution Of Planespotting. URL: https://simpleflying.com/the-evolution-of-planespotting
  2. The day plane spotting took over the UK. URL: https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/big-jet-tv-jerry-dyer-storm/index.html