Saturday, November 21, 2009

Aircraft Spotting and Photo Story / USA Today November 12, 2009

My recent column highlighting some of the observation decks inside some North American airports prompted many readers to send along their favorite locations for spots outside airport terminals that offer great views of aviation activity. Many suggestions came from dedicated plane spotters, aviation enthusiasts and professional photographers, but some tips came from frequent travelers who just get a thrill from getting a good close look at jets as they take off and land.

Al Mueller, a retired travel agent from Guerneville, Calif., believes that "the very best close-up observation points are no longer accessible," perhaps because many spots near airports were declared off-limits after 9/11. Still, he's discovered that Bayfront Park in Millbrae is a great place to watch planes coming and going from San Francisco International Airport.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport doesn't have an official viewing area, but Joel Lesser, an Internet developer from Johns Creek, Ga., shared the locations of what he believes are "the best plane spotting locations at ATL that are legal to access." In addition to heading to the recycling center or sewage treatment plant near ATL, Lesser says many folks pay the hourly parking fee ($1/hour for the first 2 hours) just so they can plane-spot from the top floors of the airport's south and north parking garages.

Garage rooftops seem to be popular viewing spots at many airports around the country, but in Washington, D.C., the hands-down favorite spot to watch airplanes is at Gravelly Point, a park area about a mile from Reagan Washington National Airport. The park is officially part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Jesse Reynolds of the National Park Service explains that Gravelly Point is such a big draw because one side of the park is adjacent to the northeast boundary of the airport and "planes essentially fly right over the top of your head." That's the part that thrills Troy Barbour from Fairfax Station, Va. who works as a project manager for a global defense contractor. "After the planes pass over, you can hear the whooshing sounds of the wing vortexes swirling above you."

You may not be able to get that close to the airplanes at some of the other official and unofficial viewing spots listed below, but you should be able to get close enough to snap some great pictures.


While the reopening of the official outdoor viewing area on top of the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport has been pushed back to at least the end of 2009, an unofficial airport viewing area at nearby Imperial Hill (officially Clutter's Park) remains open and as popular as ever. Located in the neighboring city of El Segundo, the park offers picnic tables and a great view of the southern portion of the airport. The In-N-Out Burger, at 9149 South Sepulveda Blvd., is also a popular LAX viewing spot (and while you're there you may as well sample the legendary burgers).


In addition to the observation gallery inside the terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport there's the outdoor Tom Dixon Aircraft Observation Area on Dorsey Road, along the airport's southern edge. The park has a playground, picnic tables, bicycle racks, and access to the 12.5 mile BWI Trail that encircles the airport.


At Raleigh-Durham International Airport's Observation Park, visitors can listen in on communications between the control tower and pilots from an elevated deck that looks out to the airport's longest runway, the new terminal and the general aviation area. Located near the air traffic control tower, about three-quarters of a mile from the terminals, the park also has a playground and a picnic area and is a popular spot for birthday parties and for people waiting to pick up arriving passengers.


Mike Lewis, a media planning supervisor in Chicago, has fond memories of the observation area alongside the main runway at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich. "It's more or less a parking lot with some picnic tables, but the proximity to the airport is great. I still try and go there any time I'm in Grand Rapids visiting family." Located about two and a half miles from the airport entrance, the observation area has portable restroom facilities, picnic tables, and air traffic control communications that can be picked up on the AM radio dial. But the real appeal? The viewing area is just 600 feet from the airport's main runway.


In Las Vegas, it's a sure bet you'll get a great view of planes taking off and landing from the Sunset Viewing Area at McCarran International Airport. It's just south of the airport, off Sunset Road, and looks out to the airport's busiest east/west runways. Here again, visitors can dial up air traffic control chatter on the radio.


At Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the airplane viewing area is officially called the Family Viewing Area, but you don't need to have kids in tow to enjoy the one-acre spot just east of the airport entrance. Located near the 9,000-foot east runway, the observation area has picnic tables and, according to airport's website, recommended viewing hours: mornings from 6 until 11 a.m.; mid-afternoons from 1:30-3 p.m.; and in the evenings starting at around 7:30 p.m.


At the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport you'll find the Ron Gardner Aircraft Observation Area on the west side of the airport, on the opposite side of the airfield from the terminals. Many people watch aircraft activity here from their air-conditioned cars, but if you roll down the windows you'll get to hear the communications between the pilots and the air traffic control tower from speakers installed at the site.


In 2008, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport relocated its popular Founders Plaza observation point to a new and larger spot on the northwest quadrant of the sprawling airport grounds. The new location offers some spectacular views of aircraft traffic on the airport's west side and provides amenities that include picnic tables, telescopes, canopies and covered seating, display panels with historic information, parking for tour buses, and speakers broadcasting air traffic control communications.

Did we miss your local airport or favorite plane spotting spot?

There are loads of great airport viewing spots around the country and you'll find many of those official and unofficial locations listed in informal but information-packed "Spotting Guides" on the Web. Many of these sites are put together by individuals and clubs and offer detailed maps and directions, tips about parking, security and nearby amenities, and even helpful advice on what time to show up and what lens to use in order to take snap the best photos of the planes that will roar by.

(Harriet Baskas - USA Today /

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