My new Aviation Challenge after 50 years of Plane Spotting – Deja vu with John Madden
Welcome to our World
If you are reading this article, then we both live in the same universe. A domain consisting of endless airport perimeter fences, Flightradar24, runway facing hotel rooms, the lesser spotted airport viewing terrace (pun intended), collections of in-flight safety cards, sick bags, in-flight cutlery, used boarding passes and not forgetting a bedroom wardrobe bursting with reams of forgotten aviation memorabilia. I am unashamedly excited when I see commercial and military transport aircraft, take great pleasure in travelling out of my way to see them, and very proud of the strange world I live in. Hi, it’s a real pleasure to meet you.
The Air-band radio
Before I explain what constitutes my ultimate Plane Spotting challenge, I should explain how I ended up falling in love with Aviation and in particular “Plane Spotting”. Inhabitants of our Universe each have their own unique explanation and mine starts when I moved to Secondary school.
Up to that point I didn’t really have a hobby, like most boys growing up in the early to mid-60’s I enjoyed football, aircraft model making and Action Man. I remember my father giving me a train set complete with diorama for my 5th birthday, but it didn’t really float my boat and it was soon sold. So was the unwanted Meccano set the following Christmas; clearly I was not destined to become an engineer.
Like all Secondary Schools for Boys at the time, mine boasted many after school clubs. Having flown on an aeroplane for the first time the preceding summer holiday (a World Airways Boeing 707 from Manchester to Toronto), I was attracted to the school “Aviation Club” and quickly signed up to attend my first session. Boom, were my eyes opened? To my astonishment the Club had a device I didn’t even know existed. You guessed, an Air-band radio!
Even better, it was a hand held Air-band radio. Every morning, lunch and afternoon break we would huddle round the device in the playground and each Club member would be allocated a segment of the sky to search for overflights. For those sighted in our segment, we would be given the call sign and the task of writing to the airline to secure the aircraft’s registration number.
How cool was that?
Really cool actually, because this was Liverpool in 1968, complete with an airport that boasted single digit commercial aircraft movements per day. I was only 12 years old and too young to travel with the Club to far way airports, so Spotting and logging Pan-Am, TWA, Sabena and Lufthansa long range aircraft heading towards the Atlantic was just out of this world.
Ringway, Heathrow and Gatwick would have to wait a few years, but for now the Air-band radio connected me to the wider aviation world and opened the door to the splendid Universe I have wandered ever since.
The Ford Cortina
The airlines at the time were truly magnanimous and my log books soon filled with registrations from aircraft and airlines that are sadly no longer here. The years passed quickly too, and soon I was able to travel with other Club members and see aircraft at an airport other than Liverpool Speke!
Our parents would take it in turn to drive us to Ringway (Manchester), Yeadon (Leeds Bradford), and Squires Gate (Blackpool). The sound of Dart, Tyne and Conway engines at Ringway was music to our ears and added to the memories saved in our log books. Thank you Rolls-Royce for naming such wonderfully sounding engines after iconic British rivers, keeping the memory of such aircraft alive every time I traverse one of their bridges.
Incidentally, Speke airport had (and still does – although now part of a hotel), a stupendous set of viewing terraces above a 1930s Art Deco terminal. Sadly it lacked the aircraft movements at the time to grace such a wonderful setting.
A new boy joined the Club, and his father was the proud owner of a Ford Cortina 1.6 GL. Accustomed to driving long distances as a Salesman, he soon took us South, and South meant Heathrow and Gatwick. These visits included 5 of us living in the vehicle for up to 3 days at a time, sleeping at the Hotel Cortina in airport car parks and eating prepacked sandwiches for the duration of our spotting trip.
The array of different aircraft types and airlines proffered by the London airports was truly intoxicating and often overwhelming for us provincial boys. Plane spotters do pride themselves on their aircraft knowledge; after all it is a science, but on my first visit to Heathrow I must confess that I couldn’t identify a strange looking French registered aircraft that had two passenger decks and four engines. A quick team discussion soon identified this odd looking aircraft as the Breguet 763 Deux-Ponts, used that day by Air France on the London to Paris route. I often wonder if the Airbus engineers in Toulouse ever took inspiration from that aircraft when designing the A380.
Good bye Speke airport
Although I took a cheap shot at Speke airport earlier, my Spotters book was graced with exciting entries resulting from the many horse racing, European football, and car industry related charters. Aer Turas Bristol Freighters and DC7s delivering horses for the Grand National (later Air France with Parisien pundits on Concorde), Air Inter F27s, Martinair and Sata Convairs with match night football fans, Catair Constellations and Fred Olsen C46s keeping the car industry ticking were amongst the many varied visitors.
It wasn’t all Propliners either. I recall seeing my very first Airbus aircraft, a European Air Transport Airbus A300B1 (MSN 002) bringing in Belgian football supporters to Anfield. The aircraft was huge and had such presence on the apron next to other visiting jet aircraft of the era, would such large jets of the future really just have two jets, I pondered!
By the way, I would very much recommend that you visit the old forgotten Speke airport building. It is easily accessible from the hotel car park that now occupies this magnificent listed building. You can walk around the former apron where you will find an almost complete Bristol Britannia, HS 748, Percival Prince and the prototype Jetstream 41 G-JMAC all cared for by the local Aviation Group. Don’t forget to gaze up at what must be one of only a few surviving Art Deco airport terminal buildings complete with multiple viewing terraces, plus the clock face that my father helped tile as a 15 year old apprentice in 1937.
I moved to Essex in the early 1980s where Southend and Stansted airports became my local Spotting refuges. These two airports were very different then compared to today. They are testament to the massive impact that low-cost carriers have had on the industry and travel in general. At Southend airport I would spend many a Saturday afternoon looking at the abandoned aircraft that littered the easily accessible apron, including a hand full of Heavy Lift Short Belfasts, a BAF Carvair and an RAF Beverley. Unfortunately both the Carvair and resident Beverly were later broken up for scrap and I did feel at the time that a terrible and unnecessary crime had been committed.
Stansted was a haven for the unusual, with the unexpected very much the norm. I had popped over one evening to catch a Busy Bee F27 and out of the blue a Turkish Airforce Viscount 749 dropped in on a maintenance visit. The last 25 years have been spent living in and around the Windsor/ Ascot area, providing me with such a privileged Plane Spotting environment both on and off the tarmac.
Fifty or so years on from discovering the Air-band radio, it is 2020, and I can honestly say that I have never lost my passion for Aviation and in particular Plane Spotting. There have been periods when the hobby has been a little more passive than engaging, but certain careers and overseas holidays have kept the flame burning throughout. I have lost some girlfriends along the way, and unfortunately some extensive aircraft spotting slide collections with them too. Thankfully my wife is aviation tolerant, particularly so if it involves a sunny destination with plentiful beaches.
So I entered this New Year pondering where my spotting trips might take me in the next 12 months. Could I go to or do something different this year? Perhaps I should I focus on an aircraft niche such as Propliners, Regional Airlines, or Freight only carriers? How could I possibly choose a favourite child, and to make matters worse the plentiful supply of aircraft both to see and hear on my doorstep only delayed the decision making process.
A Rum and Coke moment
Early February arrived and my wife and I set off for a break in Barbados. I did say that the beach and tropical sun helped the Plane Spotting cause!
The aviation related events that unfolded during the ensuing 10 days resulted in deciding the future direction of my Spotting addiction. To niche or not to niche, but it did take until the end of the holiday to see the light.
Actually it took a Rum and Coke, or was it a couple, for the light bulb moment to happen. Amongst the many Dreamliners, A330s, Triple 7s and LIAT aircraft that frequented the island during our stay, I managed to see such aviation delights as the NOAA WP-3D Orion, Meteo ATR-42, the British Antarctic Survey Twin Otter (some serious weather related stuff clearly going on), a Beech B99, and an Ameriflight Swearingen Metroliner. It struck me that it had been such a long time since I had seen these aircraft types and wouldn’t it be really interesting to go and see other classic aircraft still flying or stored at remote airfields and breaker’s yards? In fact wouldn’t it be better if I wiped the 50 year old spotting slate clean, pretended I had never seen a commercial aircraft in my life, and go spot every aircraft type ever built?
Sitting opposite my Rum and Coke my wife protested that it all sounded rather insane, impossible, and totally unnecessary as we lived so close to Heathrow and its’ many aircraft movements. I quickly chewed this over with my dear friend Mount Gay and decided, very selfishly, that my Plane Spotting Challenge would be …
… Go spot every aircraft type built since 1939 capable of carrying 9 or more passengers or equivalent freight.
So that includes everything from the Cessna Denali through to the Miyria and everything in between? Yes, all Airbus, Antonov, Boeing, Bombardier, Dassault, De Haviland, Douglas, Fokker aircraft for example and their many derivatives. Sea Planes, Soviet aircraft, Military transports and many sole survivors in remote locations including the last complete Breguet Deux-Ponts at Evereux! The list is daunting but truly exciting, actually drawing up the list of aircraft has proved to be a challenge in itself.
How long will it take? Hopefully not too long but it will be great fun along the way. Will the frustration get the better of me when I am down to the last elusive few aircraft types? Will my wife leave me, or will I simply run out of time?
So there you have it. I returned home with a clearly defined Plane Spotting Challenge and ready to start ticking off the low hanging fruit with some carefully planned UK airport visits. Plane Spotting is such an exciting hobby, I do wish someone had introduced it to me before.
Covid-19 and Lockdown
As you know the sky fell in a few weeks later and we all landed in the middle of a painful pandemic. Few words can adequately describe what has happened during the last three months to the hardships endured by many. I will allow this image of a Maleth-Aero Airbus A340-600 used on Saturday May 23rd 2020 to delivery PPE into Bournemouth airport to do the talking.
I love both the aircraft registration and the rainbow heart, Chapeau, Maleth-Aero.
The “Virtual Airport” Viewing Terrace – Chasing Swissair flight LX18 & the Vodka Burners
What Lockdown did give me, however, was the gift of some extra free time at home.
With clear blue skies for almost 8 weeks, I was able to turn my rear garden into a “virtual airport” viewing terrace and inadvertently kick start my spotting challenge whilst staying at home.
Living in Ascot allows me to catch the majority of aircraft either on approach to or departing from Heathrow, although it does require considerable patience and regular consultation with my trusty spotting companion Flightradar24.
The first weeks or so went well, very enjoyable and some great spotting to be had despite the 90pc plus drop in passenger traffic.
So what’s the big deal regarding Swissair flight LX18 from Zurich to New York? I have always had a soft spot for the much maligned Airbus A340 family since it was launched in the 1990s. I might have a different view if I was the Finance Director of an airline, but I think they are great looking aircraft, fabulous to fly on and quite a rarity to spot these days. My affection even stretches to having a key fob crafted from the original fuselage skin taken from Swissair Airbus A340-300 HB-JMK after being broken up in Holland!
With the Virgin A340 fleet grounded and South African Airways flights almost non-existent to the UK, spotting an A340 was becoming quite a challenge despite flying examples out there. Swissair had regular flights to the USA, but invariably they would track North over the Thames Estuary before turning West over North London, or they would track over Northern France and along the English Channel. Only once did I manage to track LX18 flying directly over Ascot, but frustratingly I missed it due to a very thin 8/8ths layer of evening cloud. And to rub salt in to the wound, I could hear it directly overhead as I stood in the garden quietly cursing!
With a mainly blue sky available each day from horizon to horizon, I was intrigued to work out how near to Ascot would flight LX18 need to be for spotting purposes. Surely science could provide an answer to my conundrum and I enthusiastically delved into the mystery of line of sight propagation. I discovered that from an eye-sight level of 5 feet 7 inches, the horizon is a mere 2.9 miles away. From the top of a 98 feet high ridge the horizon is 12.2 miles away, and for a U-2 pilot flying at a published service ceiling of 69,000 feet it is an astonishing 324 miles. The U-2 example made me quickly realise that I was approaching this from the wrong angle, it’s not my line of sight that matters but that from the over flying aircraft. I had to determine the line of sight from an aircraft flying at a given height and establish if Ascot would be in its’ line of sight. Bingo, this made life so much less stressful and I soon became adept at the science! I do wish though that I had persevered with the Meccano. I am no technician.
A few weeks after this bath tub experience, an Air Belgium A340-300 flew directly over Ascot en route from Amsterdam to Paramaribo airport in Suriname and totally ruined the hunt for LX18. On a positive note I could finally remove the elusive aircraft type from the list. All wasn’t lost as the following weekend the Maleth-Aero A340-600 appeared on Flightradar24 and was tracking towards Bournemouth from the East and would soon be over Guildford just 16 miles south of my virtual airport viewing terrace. Taking the live decent in to consideration I nervously consulted my spreadsheet and established that I would get a good view of the aircraft and another type was dutifully removed from the list. This was a really special spot though, you would agree?
And on to the Vodka Burners. I do wish I had thought of this phrase, but I first heard it used in a YouTube video posted by an Australian Air Traffic Controller filming a departing IL-76 at Canberra airport. It is hilarious and well worth watching if you haven’t already had the pleasure.
My early use of Flightradar24 during Lockdown indicated that Volga Dnepr were using IL-76 and AN-124 aircraft on flights across the Atlantic, very often via Shannon and Gander, with routings to and from Continental Europe over the South East of England. I am sure you would agree that there is a certain je ne sais quoi about Soviet aircraft for Spotters, and I spent many an hour disappointingly searching from the Urals to the St. Lawrence Seaway to catch one headed towards my virtual viewing terrace. Then on Sunday April 19th 2020, a London Bus moment happened, I located two examples and they were both expected to track directly over Ascot.
The first to appear was en route from Athens to Shannon, and then less than hour later the second appeared heading from Gander to Maastricht. I cannot remember when I last Spotted one of these sublime looking aeroplanes and here were two gracefully plodding over my house at 30 something thousand feet. Having successfully Spotted the first aircraft from Athens, I followed it Westward to see if it would pass close to its’ sister ship tracking in the opposite direction. The two aircraft passed each over South Wales just a few miles apart, one at FL 35, the other at FL34. Call me sentimental, but I felt quite touched by this virtual meeting experience. It reminded me of a flight I took in 1990 on board a Japan Airlines Boeing 747-300 from Heathrow to Tokyo. Fortunate to spend several hours on the flight deck whilst cruising over Siberia, I witnessed the flight crew politely greeting their fellow Company pilots as each Japan Airlines aircraft passed within sight of our aircraft en route to Europe. I could visualise the IL-76 crews waving to each other through their spacious flight deck windows and greeting each other on their headsets. The photograph above captures this magic moment, eastbound IL-76 RA-76511 highlighted, sister ship RA-75503 just to the north heading west towards Shannon.
A few weeks later I spotted a Motor Sich AN-12 over Ascot trundling south from Doncaster en route to Hassi Messaoud airport in Southern Algeria. I didn’t know there were any airports this deep in to the Sahara but quickly established that it the most prosperous oil drilling and refining area in the country. An obvious destination for a 56 year old freighter to visit!
To add to my depleting list of Vodka Burners, I was blessed a month later with a Volga Dnepr AN-124 en route from the Dutch industrial city of Emmen to Shannon, clearly a refuelling stop on its way to the USA. Spotting this aircraft wasn’t without its challenges, and although the aircraft was predicted to track directly over Ascot the weather forecast suggested intermittent cloud cover right at the moment of over flight. Combining Flightradar24 with the sound of the aircraft engines, I was thankfully able to spot the gigantum between sporadic clouds. An occasion suitably celebrated that evening with a few Vodka shots.
The Log So Far
So what have I actually spotted from my garden during the past 3 months? The aircraft have ranged from the obvious national carrier fleets through to the unusual, and in some cases very unusual. I really did not expect to spot a Boeing 767-200 or an Airbus A310 without having to venture far afield.
Here is a list of aircraft types spotted from the garden and dutifully removed from the list. I am logging aircraft types as I spot them for the first time, so in some cases they may appear fairly mundane such as the British Airways A350-1041, but no less important for the purposes of this challenge.
Sadly my first A380 spotted was a British Airways A380 en-route to Chateauroux, one of 5 examples that day to be shipped off for storage in Southern France. We all sincerely hope not for too long. The table below is a list of aircraft types spotted from the garden.
|Airbus||A300 600||DHL, D-AEAG||18-Apr-20|
|Airbus||A310||Jordanian AL Cargo, JY-AGQ||21-Apr-20|
|Airbus||A318||Air France, F-GUGE||20-Apr-20|
|Airbus||A320||WIZZ Air, G-WUKE||09-May-20|
|Airbus||A320 NEO||BA, G-TTNE||18-Apr-20|
|Airbus||A321 NEO||Aer Lingus, EI-LRD||18-Apr-20|
|Airbus||A330||200||Qatar Cargo, A7-AFF||04-Apr-20|
|Airbus||A330||300||Air Canada, C-GFAJ||19-Apr-20|
|Airbus||A340||300||Air Belgium, OO-ABE||26-May-20|
|Airbus||A350||900||Ethiopian AL, ET-ATY||19-Apr-20|
|BAE||146||100||RAF CC2, ZE701||20-Apr-20|
|BAE||146||200||RAF CC3, ZE708||04-May-20|
|BAE||Avro||85||Jota Aviation, G-JOTR||01-Jun-20|
|BAE||Avro||100||Jota Aviation, G-JOTS||01-Jun-20|
|Boeing||C-17||Globemaster III||Quatar Emiri Air Force, Reg TBC||20-Apr-20|
|Boeing||737||400||ASL Air Lines, EI-STL||20-Apr-20|
|Boeing||737||500||Oryx Jet, 9H-VOX||14-May-20|
|Boeing||737||800||Enter Air, SP-ENG||20-Apr-20|
|Boeing||747||400||Cathay Pacific, B-LIF||07-Mar-20|
|Boeing||767||200||Omni Air International||19-May-20|
|Boeing||777||300||Korean Air Cargo, HL8005||18-Apr-20|
|Boeing||787||10||United AL, N16008||18-Apr-20|
|McDonnell Douglas||MD-11||Lufthansa, D-ALCC||18-Apr-20|
|Antonov||AN-12||Motor Sichi AL, UR 11819||16-May-20|
|Antonov||AN-124||Volga-Dnepr AL, RA-82043||27-May-20|
|Ilyushin||IL-76||Volga-Dnepr AL, RA-75503||19-Apr-20|
I do hope you agree that there were some very unusual aircraft spotted from my virtual airport viewing terrace, but there are a lot more to spot yet and I can imagine you naming them right now?
Here are a few photographs of some of my favourite first sightings during this strange moment in time. The Irish Air Corps PC-12 was en-route from Liege to Dublin, and the Jota Avro RJ85 on a very short positioning flight from Southend to Heathrow. Incidentally she was followed moments later by sister ship Avro RJ100 G-JOTS tracking the same route. Both aircraft departed several hours later for Sarajevo and Kiev respectfully.
The National Airlines Boeing 757 was en-route from Iceland to Luxembourg, and the Omni Air International Boeing 767-200 N207AX had originated from Baltimore. Nice to Spot two operational classic Boeing aircraft without modifications to their original wings!
For all the right reasons we hope for a swift end to the Lockdown. During the next few uncertain months surrounding international travel, I will hit the road and carry out several sweeps of airports on home turf in search of further aircraft types on the list.
This will be an eclectic mixture of Britain’s fabulous contribution to aviation, sadly found largely today only on display in museums, plus the unexpected visitors to UK airports as airlines try to re-establish their networks.
My first outing will include Blackbushe, Southampton (both airport and Solent Sky Museum), Bournemouth and Boscombe Down. The Solent Sky Museum will provide the opportunity for me to reunite with an aircraft type that I haven’t seen since 1993 and first spotted in 1982. After my visit to Southampton I will also include (for amusement sake only) a photograph of the author in 1982 standing in front of the aircraft in question wearing what was fashionable then, thankfully the background is legend.
Further UK airport visits are planned for the summer months and then on September 8th I will be off to Madrid on my first overseas trip to commence Spotting those aircraft types not likely or no longer capable of visiting our shores. Madrid should be a relatively easy but still very rewarding spotting excursion and will include the sole surviving CASA Aravo, an aircraft type that avoided me in my entire previous spotting life. I intend visiting Barajas airport along with Torrejon and Cuatro Vientos air bases (the latter housing the Museo del Aire). Not by coincidence the return flight is scheduled to be an Iberia Airbus A340-600, but we shall see if that actually happens with all the decommissioning noise surrounding this aircraft type. Having said that, Covid-19 may give the type a new lease of life as some carriers look to re-purpose their fleets for freight duties.
Spotting in 2020 will conclude with a trip to Antigua in December, when I expect to spot an Air Cargo Carriers Shorts 360, Seaborne Saab 340, Beech 18, Air Flamenco Trislander and possibly some Boeing 737 MAX variants. If the new norm allows, I am prospecting plane spotting trips for 2021 that include Moscow (via Tallinn), Skiathos, Paris, Canada, Arizona and Bodo for 2021.
I will buy a rum & coke (in Ascot) for the first person to guess what airliner type beckons a visit north of the Arctic Circle to an Aviation museum in Bodo.
I do hope this article has been of interest to you. I have really enjoyed sharing my experiences and ambitions with you. I am fully committed to fulfilling my crazy spotting challenge and I do hope to reengage with you in the not too distant future and give you an update on which aircraft types have been removed from the list during my airport visits.
Please excuse me, I have some serious spotting to do!