If you’re visiting the UK and hoping to do some spotting, or already live here and want some inspiration, this list of the 10 spotting highlights in the UK should give you some ideas of the best places to go.
Heathrow Renaissance Hotel
Arguably the best spotting hotel in the UK, the Renaissance at Heathrow even makes it clear on their booking website which rooms offer runway views, such is the popularity of the place. Situated on Bath Road, along the northern perimeter of Heathrow Airport, the correct rooms have a grandstand view just above the fence line looking on to the north runway. Any aircraft using this runway pass very close by, and within easy reach of camera lenses. Movements on the other runway and elsewhere around the airport can be monitored, too.
Manchester Runway Visitor Park
Manchester is one of the only airports in the UK to go out of its way to provide facilities for the aviation enthusiast. This goes back a long way to when its terraces were incredibly popular, and were much lamented when construction work saw their removal. However, the purpose-built Runway Visitor Park alongside the airport’s two runways was set aside as a local attraction, with mounds built above the fence line to make photography possible, and a nice collection of historic airliners on site, as well as an aviation shop.
Some argue other locations at Manchester are better, particularly for photography, but the Runway Visitor Park is certainly a good place to visit where you’ll see any movements easily and have good facilities close by. If only more airports provided locations like this!
Duxford Imperial War Museum
Arguably the best museum collection of aircraft in the United Kingdom (and there are many other great museums, too!). Duxford in Cambridgeshire has something for everyone, which is why it’s on this list. As well as military aircraft from all major conflicts, and an excellent American Air Museum, Duxford is home to plenty of historic civil airliners, including a Concorde prototype, Vickers VC-10 and Viscount, Trident 2E, BAC One-Eleven, Bristol Britannia and Short Sunderland.
What’s more, Duxford has many great flying displays and air shows throughout the year with aircraft rarely seen elsewhere.
Crosswinds at Birmingham
There have been some fantastic videos of scary crosswind landings going viral on the Internet in recent years. If you’ve seen any of these, chances are you’ve seen some taken at Birmingham. Like Dusseldorf and Madeira, Birmingham’s main runway is prone to crosswind conditions, which are challenging to pilots. For the perfect perspective, a path running behind the threshold of runway 15 is a great spot to see this and even take your own videos.
The Runway 15 viewing area path is reached via road by parking at Hazeldene Road (postcode B33 0QB), or by getting the train to Marston Green station and walking a few minutes.
London City Airport
The docklands airport is one of the success stories of UK aviation; a logistical marvel which has turned a derelict dock into a busy international airport at the heart of London. For enthusiasts the fun is in watching the aircraft approach and take off, and in seeing aircraft not necessarily seen elsewhere in the UK, from the based fleet of BA CityFlyer Embraers and BA’s standalone Airbus A318 fleet, to commuter types from airlines across Europe.
The dock opposite London City is a good place to watch the action and take photographs, and is easy to reach via the bridge to the west of the airport terminal.
RAF Brize Norton
I don’t often cover military aircraft or airfields on this website, but I think most of you at least have a passing interest in the larger military transport aircraft. Brize Norton in Oxfordshire is the Royal Air Force’s biggest base for transport and refuelling aircraft movements, and also sees lots of paratrooping flights. It is also home to the passenger air link between the UK and the remote Falkland Islands and Ascension Island. The air base actually has its own passenger terminal for these flights.
Although the days of L1011 TriStars and Vickers VC-10s are gone, today you’ll see the latest fleet of Airbus A330 Voyager tankers and troop transports, plus C-17s, C-130 Hercules and lots of supporting cargo and airliner movements. The best place to view the action is at the end of runway 25; park in the nearby village and walk there.
Most of the remote Out Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney Islands around Scotland’s coast have small airports which act as a vital link to these outlying communities. They are usually served by a link to Glasgow with Flybe/Loganair, or a link to a neighbouring island with a Loganair or Hebridean Air Services BN Islander. Highlights include the unique beach runway at Barra, off the west coast. Daily DHC-6 Twin Otters land here when the tide is out and park up outside the terminal on the sand dunes. Another highlight is the world’s shortest commercial flight, between Westray and Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, which can take less than a minute on a good day.
East Midlands Cargo Hub
During the day East Midlands in Leicestershire is a fairly busy regional airport with low cost and holiday airlines, however the presence of huge warehouses for DHL and other carriers hints at what happens when the sun sets. Each night during the week (and on Sundays), the airport becomes a hub of activity as cargo flights arrive from across the UK, Europe and North America. As well as DHL and its associated carriers, you’ll see Jet2, Star Air, AeroLogic, Etihad Cargo, West Atlantic, Swiftair, UPS, Kalitta Air, ASL Airlines and many more.
The main cargo rush happens between 9pm and 2am, so it’s good to find a place to stay warm and watch the action (the Radisson Blu hotel is good), and use flight tracking software or websites to help tie up what you’re seeing.
Luton’s Biz Jet Hub
Most British spotters know that if they’re driving to or from London along the main M1 motorway, a stop at Luton Airport is an easy and essential stop-off point, only 45 minutes north of the capital or Heathrow. Luton is the main point of entry for private jet owners when visiting London and it is home to a number of important FBOs who handle, operate and carry out work on biz jets and props. On any visit you can usually see up to 50 aircraft – this can be more or less depending on whether there are any important events occurring.
The best way to see them is to park up in the Holiday Inn Express car park, or airport car parking, and walk the roads which lead all the way to the long stay car parks. Aircraft park in many different locations, so you’ll need to find as many vantage points through the fence as possible.
Kemble Cotswold Airport
There are rumours that this airport in rural Gloucestershire is to be closed and turned into a housing estate. However, while the good times last this is the best place in the UK to go and see retired and stored airliners awaiting their fate. Surprisingly many aircraft come here for scrapping from all over the world, so there’s a good chance you’ll see something not seen anywhere else in the UK. Recent examples have included Embraer 145s from Mexico, Airbus A319s from Brazil and China, and Boeing 747s from Saudi Arabia. In addition, there’s a facility which works on BAe 146 and Avro RJ airliners, which are stored, maintained and prepared for new customers.
You can see the stored aircraft at Kemble by driving to the control tower and adjacent cafe, or by driving along the A429 road out of the village.
We maintain a list of stored airliners at Kemble Airport here: http://www.airportspotting.com/storage-lists/kemble-uk/
Airport Spotting Guides UK & Ireland
All of the spotting highlights listed on this page and many more are in our new book, Airport Spotting Guides UK & Ireland.
This book details the best spotting locations at over 80 of the UK’s airports and airfields. It lists the best places for photography, driving and public transport instructions, and gives an indication of what aircraft and airlines you’re likely to see at each location.