Plane spotters, from left, Mark Ollier, Endaf Buckley and Julian Elnasser shoot photos of a jet taking off from LAX from a vantage point Clutter's Park in El Segundo, CA on Sunday, January 3, 2016. Clutter's Park offers plane spotters a vantage point of the southern side of LAX. Everyday, plane spotters gather near local airports photographing all types of airplanes ...
A distant speck in the sky approaches Los Angeles International Airport on a cloudy Sunday afternoon.
From his vantage point overlooking the runway, Julian Elnasser knows exactly what’s approaching.
“There’s EVA (Air) right there. That’s on the northern downwind. That’ll be landing on the north side,” he says in an authoritative tone that makes it sound as if he’s in the control tower directing air traffic.
“It’s an airline from Taiwan. They operate Boeing triple-seven 300 ERs into here. They do three daily flights,” explains the San Fernando Valley resident, who isn’t near the control tower at all.
He’s just 18 years old. With camera in hand, he stands at an observation deck on a small hill at Jim Clutter Park in El Segundo, which overlooks the fenced runway from across Imperial Highway.
He’s not alone. There are a few others with cameras and similarly encyclopedic knowledge of planes and airports. Like Elnasser, they’re all plane spotters.
Plane spotters are aviation enthusiasts who observe, photograph or track flying aircraft as a hobby. For many, their love of planes is a lifelong passion that developed as young kids watching planes fly above.
“You just like aviation, just like planes,” said 46-year-old Mark Ollier, a retired businessman from England who runs the popular SoCal Spotters website, where he offers tips on places to spot planes and other information for spotters.
“It’s just a hobby. Like people like playing golf, but we find golf boring. We just like taking pictures of planes.”
They gather in various viewing spots at airports like LAX, Long Beach Airport, Burbank Bob Hope Airport, Van Nuys Airport and Santa Monica Municipal Airport.
They all love aircraft, but their preferences in planes vary. Some spotters like the big commercial airliners or smaller private jets. Others look for rare or unusual aircraft that don’t often fly into the area. Or they search the skies for planes that have unusual paint schemes, which is known as livery. And a few write down or photograph the tail numbers to help them track where the planes have been.
Most take pictures of the planes in flight and post the images on online forums like Instagram, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook groups for other enthusiasts to admire.
It’s a hobby that’s been popular in Europe for years and is now growing in the U.S., spotters say.
“When I moved here in 2001, at Long Beach Airport, there was only me, but in the past five years there’s this whole community out there,” said 40-year-old Endaf Buckley, another plane spotter who moved here from Wales.
And despite the beefed-up security at airports in recent years, the enthusiasts who point their cameras at passing planes and have intimate knowledge of flights and airport traffic are generally welcomed by airport officials.
“LAX is a public place, and plane spotters can take photos anywhere a boarding pass is not needed,” said LAX spokeswoman Katherine Alvarado, via email. “Plane spotters are considered aviation enthusiasts, and they definitely help foster a love for travel and aviation. Many plane spotters have perfected their photography skills and capture breathtaking photos that ignite the interest of individuals who end up becoming plane spotters themselves.”
The airport even gears some of its social media toward plane spotters with tagging such as #TuesdayTakeoff and #LAXphotoweek campaigns, where spotters can tag and share their photos with LAX so they can be featured on the official airport galleries.
And when airlines hold events, like a recent unveiling of Air New Zealand’s all-black livery, a rare color scheme, airport officials reach out to plane spotters. About 150 enthusiasts attended the New Zealand event, Alvarado stated.
For spotters like Elnasser, the love of planes began while he was a child. He lived on the flight path of Bob Hope International Airport in Burbank, and his mother would take him out on the backyard to watch planes go by.
“I would just watch them go over, and she saw my interest and took me to my first air show, and I pointed out every single plane there. Before I could talk, I was into airplanes,” he said while watching planes land from the parking lot of the Proud Bird restaurant on Sunday, another popular LAX spotting location.
He was spotting planes there with Ollier and Buckley shortly before heading to Clutter Park.
For Buckley, who now lives in Long Beach, his love of planes also started as a child. He remembers seeing the Royal Welsh Air Force flying their planes by his home in Europe.
“The fact that you could have this piece of metal fly up in the air fascinated me, and it still does today,” he said.
As planes flew by the Proud Bird, Elnasser quickly identified each airliner.
“That’s a Delta Airline 757 300. It’s pretty common here,” he said, and then added as another flew by. “That’s a JetBlue Airbus A321.”
Then another aircraft caught his attention.
“It’s American, it’s new. It’s definitely new, it’s got the flexed wings,” he said as he got a better look once it got closer.
“American 78,” he shouted out to other plane spotters who rushed to take a picture of the airline’s new Boeing 787, which just started flying to LAX in October.
When they’re not trying to get the perfect picture, the spotting community connects online.
They belong to several Facebook groups, such as the 656-member strong SoCal Spotters News Group, and the 559-member Long Beach Aviation Spotters, where people post pictures of planes.
Recent posts on the SoCal Spotter group included photos of departing FedEx flights and Air China cargo flights at LAX.
There are also websites like the Aviation Photographers of Southern California, co-founded in 2007 by 41-year-old Lomita resident Damon Duran. The group has more than 1,000 members.
“For me, I just like anything that flies,” Duran said. “I like to capture it, get a good image. I like to capture the motion of an aircraft.”
The passion for flight is something plane spotters share with aviation officials such as Bryant Francis, the executive director of Long Beach Airport.
“I think it’s a great thing. It shows that there are people out there who are passionate about aviation, who love to be in this environment and generally love the wonder of flight,” Francis said.
While they’re welcoming of plane spotters, Francis noted that Long Beach Airport security will patrol the perimeter and at times question people who hang around near the airport. However, he also sees the spotters as extra eyes and ears when it comes to security.
“Spotters are typically friends of aviation,” he said.
Back at the Proud Bird restaurant, Elnasser recalled some of his recent standout spots as the group waited for more interesting flights to land.
“The other day, All Nippon Airways sent in their 787 with their ‘Star Wars’ livery. They were sending the actors from London to here back from the premiere, and we were all out here. There was a big group, and we took videos and photos of that,” he said.
“For me, it’s just the satisfaction of seeing something you normally wouldn’t see, and then I also come to hang out with friends. You also have a lot of great times here.”
For tips on where to spot planes, go to www.socalspotters.net.
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