Like most 22-year-olds, Sushank Gupta would like to have a girlfriend. But finding one is proving difficult since he spends most of his time standing by the fence of the airport, looking up at the sky. Gupta is a plane-spotter, a small but growing tribe of people who are obsessed with watching, hearing and photographing aircraft. Being the “hard-core” spotter that he is, Gupta is looking at the positive side of being girlfriend-less. “Ideally, I would like to have both—a girlfriend and lots of free time to spot planes—but not having one is great in a way because there is nothing to distract me from spending all my time looking at planes,” he says.
Organized plane-spotting is a relatively new phenomenon in India and has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. In February, the Delhi Police arrested two British nationals, Stephen Hampston and Steve Martin, who were here to plane-spot. They had a room in Radisson hotel with a clear view of the runway and they had crammed it with equipment—powerful binoculars and high-tech recorders to capture conversations between the pilots and air traffic control. Not surprisingly, the hotel staff reported to the police that the duo was indulging in “suspicious activities”. Plane-spotters around the world were outraged, but concede that the limited awareness about their hobby is part of the appeal—it is an exclusive club of the extremely obsessed.
Though all spotters start with “reggers”—registration numbers of planes—they have individual obsessions. For some, it is spotting all the planes of a particular fleet; for others, it is spotting as many different kinds of aircraft as possible. But ask any spotter when he began this hobby and you will get the same answer—as a child, when I ran out of home to look at the sky on hearing the sound of a plane overhead.
Shoot at site: Sankalp Sinha and Mayank Khanna (in red) have earmarked spotting locations along NH8.
Sean D’Silva, 30, works in a business process outsourcing unit in Mumbai. When we spoke, he was in Hyderabad, attending an air show. “Can you hear the sound of that? Isn’t it awesome?” he asked as the deafening roar of a plane taking off or landing filled the phone line. “I started plane-spotting when I was 5. Just watching planes, sitting with a notebook and a pair of binoculars, and writing down registration numbers. About four years ago, I got my camera and from then I have been hooked to taking photographs of planes. I have shot civil airlines, business jets and propeller planes. But my favourites are cargo airlines of Russian vintage, as they are very rare,” he says. D’Silva knows his planes and is articulate about them. He is stuck for words only when I ask him why he is so obsessed with planes. He finally stutters, “It’s an inexplicable love.”
If the spotter was once an isolated geek with a notebook and a camera, today the Internet has brought his ilk together, and to an extent pulled the group into some kind of mainstream existence. Websites such as www.airliners.net and www.jetphotos.net are where spotters from around the world congregate. They share information on planes, spotting locations and equipment and are the sources for any kind of aircraft information you need. These sites have also taken the spotters’ notebooks to a global audience, so registration numbers and plane data can be uploaded and shared with other enthusiasts.
The resources for spotters featured on these sites range from the obvious to the ridiculous. Not only can you find the details of the ideal hotels for spotting in cities across the world, you can even find out the specific room numbers that give you the best view of the runway. A website dedicated to listing ideal hotel rooms for the hobby, www.plane-spotting-hotels.com , recommends rooms 415-428 at Orchid Hotel in Mumbai. Hampston and Martin had insisted on room 464 in the Radisson on the recommendation of a fellow spotter, who was previously a guest at the hotel.
In Delhi, Mayank Khanna and Sankalp Sinha have earmarked spotting locations along National Highway 8 depending on the runway that is in use. Even when the plane is barely more than a speck on the horizon they know what it is. “This one is Air-India’s A777 and is coming in from Tokyo. There are crosswinds, that’s why the plane is coming this way,” Khanna explains before the plane is fully visible. They know the schedules of all arriving flights.
Mayank Khanna’s miniature airport. Priyanka Parashar / Mint
But the real thrill is in spotting unusual flights. “The Delhi Metro coaches are carried in by these huge Antonov aircraft. We get tipped off whenever they are expected and we leave everything else to come and spot them,” he says. Khanna flew from Dubai to London only because he wanted to experience an A380.
Though most spotters are men, some women are now getting initiated. Annapoorani Shanmugam heard about spotting from some of her colleagues and on Republic Day this year, woke up early and went to the Bengaluru International Airport. She took her eight-year-old daughter along. “I was curious about what this was that people were willing to wake up so early on a holiday for. But it’s amazing how much the spotters know about planes,” she says. “The experienced spotters can tell you which flights are heavy and which are light. And they are so passionate about the hobby and so welcoming of people that it didn’t matter that I was the only woman spotter there,” she says. In case you are wondering, a heavy plane takes off from the end of the runway, while a light plane does not have to taxi all the way. Shanmugam is now a committed spotter and is in the process of augmenting her equipment and buying more powerful camera lenses.
Collecting miniatures is another branch of spotter obsessions. The only models that mean anything are exact replicas of aircraft built to a scale of 1:400. Khanna owns a host of them, including a miniature airport with aerobridges. David Morel, a UK-based plane-spotter, not only plans his annual holidays based on his spotting goals, but throws dinner parties at home with the theme of an airline. “I have eight sets of trays, cutlery and crockery of three airlines—British Airways, Qantas and Emirates. I throw dinner parties only for groups of eight or less and serve the food wrapped in airline-style foils on these trays,” he says.
Internationally, most airports have specific spotter points that offer the best location for watching and photographing. In India, plane-spotting is not an easy task. Spotters are seen as a security threat and are routinely chased away by the police. It is not against the law to watch or photograph planes. But accessing the radio frequency used by air traffic control without permission is an offence. It is in fact for “listening” that Hampston and Martin were arrested (they were released on bail on 23 February).
India is not the only country to be suspicious of this hobby. The most notorious clash between spotters and the authorities occurred in 2001 in Kalamata, southern Greece. Twelve British spotters were arrested and jailed for 37 days. They were held guilty in the first verdict, but 11 were acquitted on appeal. Their own lawyer was at a loss to explain why anyone would spend a vacation writing down registration numbers in a notebook. “We are lucky in Greece,” he told the court. “We do not have this hobby. Here, we have the sun.”
Local spotters also frequently fall foul of the police. Gupta was once taken to the police station where he was made to delete all the photos he had shot.
In Bangalore, spotters led by aviation enthusiast Devesh Agarwal have managed to gain some sort of official approval for their hobby. The Aviation Photographers of India (API) has 35 members who are allowed access to a spotting area within the airport premises. “It was initially difficult to register spotters. But the Bangalore airport authorities played a proactive role. We understand the dilemma of the security officials because they really won’t be able to distinguish between a genuine spotter and someone with evil intentions,” Agarwal says. Genuine spotters (who can be vouched for by someone in the spotting community) will be given a letter of recommendation by API and they can take this along with proof of identification and address and submit it to the airport security office in Bangalore. “Spotters bring tremendous benefits to airports. They work as extra pairs of eyes. We have at several times alerted the airport officials on security breaches,” says Agarwal.
Bird’s-eye view: A spotter’s shot of the Mumbai international airport. Sean D’Silva
Plane-spotting’s origin, in fact, was to augment security. During World War II and especially the battle for Britain, civilians were assigned the task of watching the sky and warning of the approach of enemy planes. It’s only in recent history, after 9/11, that spotters began to be viewed with suspicion. “Recently in Sweden, the engine of a plane was on fire and it was the spotters’ group which warned the airline about it before take-off,” Khanna says.
This has not made it easier for spotters to get permission at other airports. Mumbai and Delhi airports are the most difficult and despite several attempts, security officials have evinced no interest in registering spotters.
“It’s difficult but spotting is worth this difficulty,” says Gupta. “Each time I see a plane, I think of it as a special moment. Once, I saw this A380 try to land in extremely bad weather. It came very low, almost hit the runway and then took off again. The rain, the sound of the plane, the sight of it flying so low, it was incredible. I don’t mind any trouble just to see a sight like that,” Gupta says.
Registration numbers, collectibles, binoculars and full-fleet goals keep them going
• Registration Number: Indian registrations begin with VT—Viceroy Territory. Located at the rear of the aircraft, next to the fuselage, the registration number is a source to access the history sheet of the plane. By plugging the registration number into a database, a plane-spotter can match it to the serial, which is then indexed by airline, aircraft and dates of service and manufacture. You can get all the information—where the plane has been, who its previous owners were, among others—based on this.
• Livery: It is the paint and design on the aircraft. Spotters watch out for new colours and designs. Some airlines sport a different livery for a short term—as a promotion. Shooting these is high priority for the spotter.
• Airline shots: Spotter websites have strict rules for photographs that can be uploaded. Reasons for rejection include bad angles, window reflections, photos showing an aircraft far in the distance or just a part of an aircraft. The real thrill is when pilots who were guiding the aircraft get in touch with the spotter to ask for a copy. This happens often enough.
• Collectibles: Spotters collect most things plane-related—baggage tags, boarding passes, cutlery, crockery, napkins and miniatures.
• Goals:Full-fleet goals are most common internationally. Spotters travel the world so they can spot all the planes of a particular airline. The first flight of a new plane is a major event. As are last flights of planes that have been sold or are going out of commission.
• Equipment: Notebook, binoculars—the more powerful the better—and cameras with telephoto lens.