In a Post-9/11 world, airport security is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, the attitudes and security policies that resulted from that tragic day have had a negative effect on plane spotters and their beloved hobby. Spotter-friendly airports, as loved and appreciated as they are by the aviation community, are few and far in between these days. This website was started with the intent to educate, inform, and promote the hobby of plane spotting as a fun, safe, and harmless activity.

Perhaps you're new to plane spotting? Or maybe you're an experienced spotter with stacks of log books and thousands of photos of flying machines to your name! Regardless, this site has something for everyone. Need help getting started? Fuzzy on your legal rights as a plane spotter or photographer? It's all here. Let's get started!

“What is plane spotting?”

Wikipedia defines plane spotting as:

“... the observation and logging of the registration numbers of aircraft: gliders, powered aircraft, balloons, airships, helicopters, and microlights.”

While that may sound boring and tedious to some, there are thousands (millions?) of plane spotters that enjoy this wonderful activity every day. Some (myself included) choose to take pictures or video of airplanes while other plane spotters merely like to sit, relax, and enjoy the view. All of the above would be considered "plane spotting" in my opinion.

Sounds simple enough, right? It is! There are however, some "Do's" and "Don'ts" of plane spotting.

“Do’s” and “Don’ts”

Do

  • Be polite and respectful.
    • If you’re approached by airport security or law enforcement don’t be defensive, they’re most likely just doing their job. Be respectful and politely explain what you’re doing if asked. Additionally, you may want to call your local airport and ask what their policy is regarding plane spotting (if they have one). Some airports are more spotter-friendly than others.
  • Be vigilant.
    • Report any suspicious activity to airport security or local law enforcement. You might also keep an eye out for wildlife that could potentially be a hazard to airport operations.
  • Bring your ID.
    • Always good to have if you encounter any authority figure(s) while spotting.
  • Bring a camera.
    • Self-explanatory. Another accessory that makes plane spotting more fun is a handheld scanner which will allow you to listen to air traffic control.
  • Bring a notebook
    • Handy for jotting down aircraft registraton numbers (N-numbers,) radio frequencies, flight numbers, etc.
  • Check the weather.
    • For obvious reasons you’ll want to dress appropriately for the weather, but knowing the current and forecast wind speed and direction can also help determine where the best spotting location is, as planes generally land into the wind.
  • Be Patient.
    • Is the airport not as busy as you'd hoped it would be? Not getting the photo opportunities you want? Be patient, over time you'll figure out when the best spotting times are. I can't count how many times I was packing up to leave the airport when a string of arrivals showed up at the last minute. Hint: Use flightaware.com to check the scheduled arrival/departure times.
  • Take a buddy.
    • Sharing the hobby of plane spotting with others can be as fun and rewarding as plane spotting itself!
    • Have fun!

Don't

  • Break the law!
    • Follow, and more importantly, KNOW your local and state laws as well as any airport rules or regulations pertinent to your activity.
  • Get arrested.
    • There’s no reason for this to happen but unfortunately, it does. Be a good ambassador of our beloved hobby.
  • Use a flash!
    • Rather, if taking pictures or video, don’t point your flash or any other light-emitting objects at the cockpit of an aircraft (especially laser pointers, in fact, it's best not to have one on you at the airport, period.)
  • Forget the sunscreen!
    • Unless you’re plane spotting at night, you’ll probably need it. Apply where necessary ;)

Know your rights!

A large portion of plane spotters also double as photographers when out spotting, therefore it is good to know and understand your rights as a photographer. Below are some excerpts from "The Photographer’s Right" by Bert P. Krages II. Download the full .pdf here. I suggest keeping a copy in your camera bag or on your person when out plane spotting.

“The general rule in the United States is that anyone may take photographs of whatever they want when they are in a public place or places where they have permission to take photographs. Absent a specific legal prohibition such as a statute or ordinance, you are legally entitled to take photographs.”

“There are some exceptions to the general rule. A significant one is that commanders of military installations can prohibit photographs of specific areas when they deem it necessary to protect national security.”

“Despite misconceptions to the contrary, the following subjects can almost always be photographed lawfully from public places:”

  • accident and fire scenes
  • children
  • celebrities
  • bridges and other infrastructure
  • residential and commercial buildings
  • industrial facilities and public utilities
  • transportation facilities (e.g., airports)
  • criminal activities
  • law enforcement officers

“On occasion, law enforcement officers may object to photography but most understand that people have the right to take photographs and do not interfere with photographers. They do have the right to keep you away from areas where you may impede their activities or endanger safety. However, they do not have the legal right to prohibit you from taking photographs from other locations.”

“Sometimes agents acting for entities such as owners of industrial plants and shopping malls may ask you to hand over your film. Absent a court order, private parties have no right to confiscate your film.

Law enforcement officers may have the authority to seize film when making an arrest but otherwise must obtain a court order.”

“In the event you are threatened with detention or asked to surrender your film, asking the following questions can help ensure that you will have the evidence to enforce your legal rights:”

  1. What is the person’s name?
  2. Who is their employer?
  3. Are you free to leave? If not, how do they intend to stop you if you decide to leave? What legal basis do they assert for the detention?
  4. Likewise, if they demand your film, what legal basis do they assert for the confiscation?

Additionally, the ACLU has created a website that has helpful information pertaining to photographer's rights as well.

Helpful Resources

Below is a list of helpful resources that aid in planning a plane spotting outing, as well as providing useful information while out spotting.

Weather

  • NOAA's Aviation Weather Center: I use this site quite a bit when I need a good forecast for my local area. It's also where I look up METARs to quickly see what the weather is currently doing. Click here to learn how to read and decode a METAR.
  • Weather Underground: Also a good, reliable site to check weather on. I particularly like their mobile site (m.wund.com) for fast, easy access to METARs and animated radar on my phone.

Flight Tracking

  • FlightAware: Pretty much the go-to site for flight tracking. They also have a nice mobile app for iPhone and Android.
  • LiveATC: Listening to air traffic control (ATC), while entertaining, is also very useful when plane spotting. It increases situational awareness and is otherwise just handy to know what nearby aircraft are doing (so you know which way to point the camera). LiveATC is the best place on the web for tuning in to ATC if you don't have a handheld scanner. Mobile apps available for iPhone and Android.

General

  • AirNav: A very useful site for looking up airport information such as: airport diagrams, ATC frequencies, hours of operation and contact information should you have any questions regarding plane spotting at a particular airport.