In 1967, Charlie Chaplin composed these lyrics for the score of the new theatrical release of his 1928 silent film, ‘The Circus.’ This score accompanied the United Artists’ re-release of the film in 1969, with a recording of Chaplin singing the song’s lyrics himself.
Rainbows, the multi-colored spectrum created by an arc of colors, and the refraction and dispersion of the sun’s light by rain droplets, are a wonder to behold. French philosopher Rene Descartes called wonderment the first passion of all. The colors of a rainbow bending over the horizon is a commonplace phenomenon, but the sight of one is almost always greeted with astonishment and joy. While a rainbow is an optical illusion that does not actually exist as a physical structure, there is an almost ethereal wonderment about it when viewing its magnitude and spectrum of colors from the ground.
The same may be said of this wonderment to the extensive community of plane spotters who must look skyward whenever they hear flying engines in the distance or who earnestly await the sight of a vintage airplane at an airshow or an airliner’s arrival or departure at an airport, so they can capture its image through a lens, or just enjoy the aircraft’s design and colors of its livery.
Plane spotting is most often defined by viewing or tracking an aircraft’s movement in all stages of flight, although primarily up close and usually at or near an airport. Watching airplanes has been a hobby of aviation enthusiasts since the very beginning of their invention. The term’ Plane Spotter’ was first used during World War II, when several countries encouraged civilians to spot and document airplanes in observation corps for reasons of national security and public safety.
Plane spotters have a passion for aviation, and they range in age and hail from countries throughout the world. As a hobby, it can be as simple as going to a local airport to observe airplanes on the weekend or as extreme as traveling the world to view aircraft. It may include photographing and documenting airplanes, their unique markings, or their livery. A livery is a paint scheme (most often seen on commercial airliners) that is comprised of color, graphics, and typographical identifiers or insignia, applied to an airplane’s fuselage, tail fin, wings, nose, and even underbelly.
NYCAviation is a worldwide news and resource organization for aviation enthusiasts and industry professionals alike. It specializes in publishing breaking news, insightful commentary, and stellar photography, covering all that happens in the world of commercial aviation and the entire aerospace sector, including general aviation, military aviation, and space. A comprehensive guide of plane spotting locations throughout the U.S. and the U.K. can be found at: www.nycaviation.com/spotting-guides
Brian Keene is an aviation professional and plane spotter, as well as a designer and builder of historically authentic airport dioramas. His 1:400 scale replica of JFK International Airport reminds him of a time in his life when he was first bitten by the aviation bug and began spotting airline liveries. When he first began to travel by air as a kid, he noticed the colors of the aircraft he flew on, the two-tone blue of Eastern Airlines, the orange sun of National, and the big blue globe of Pan Am. They appeared both whimsical and sophisticated to him.
Living in West Islip on Long Island, along the approach path of JFK Airport, Brian began spotting airplanes from the roof of his house with binoculars and a simple air-to-ground radio. He wrote down the airline and aircraft type of every arrival that rumbled overhead, noticing that each one had a different look. He started to wonder, “Who were they, where were they coming from, why did they have call signs like ‘Clipper’ and ‘Speedbird’? He was curious to see them up close, as they were still up about 4,000 feet.
He couldn’t wait to get to JFK Airport, so when he did, he was like a kid in a candy store, running around to find an elevated vantage point where he could best see the aircraft. When he discovered the Pan Am Worldport parking deck, he knew he had found heaven on earth. It was the ideal spot to view all the runways, taxiways, approaches, and acres of airplanes. He learned that the Official Airline Guide (OAG) was a great source of information for a plane spotter, giving up-to-the-minute schedules, destinations, and equipment, and it became essential if you wanted to spot a specific aircraft. Today, plane spotters have FlightRadar24, which is a further advanced web-based method to follow airlines and aircraft.
For Keene, liveries often reflect the excitement of travel, as well as a country’s national identity. TWA’s iconic Twin Globe and red ribbon cheatline (a decorative horizontal stripe applied to the sides of an aircraft fuselage) of the 70s and 80s conveyed a sense of speed and worldwide exploration. “Liveries are also a source of national pride, often reflecting the colors and history of the country they represent. A good example was Alitalia with a heavy dark green cheatline on a white background with accents of red, all the colors that embodied the Italian flag,” said Keene, adding, “an example of a great livery design for a large carrier is American Airlines. They boldly reflect the American flag’s red, white, and blue along with the iconic Eagle symbolizing strength, power, and flight.”
Plane spotting helped to inspire Keene’s JFK diorama and the aircraft displayed within it because it allowed him to create images on film or video that he translated to the building of its actual layout.
Plane Spotters Are a Whole Community!
Once you start to study liveries, you begin to appreciate a few things. As we entered the Jet Age, countries began to realize this was how we could advertise our strength and expansiveness. Those new to the world stage were careful with how they designed their liveries, the names of their airlines, and what they meant. They started naming their planes after aviation pioneers, artists, rivers, and emperors. These liveries were not just somebody throwing paint on a plane. They spent a lot of time on them, and of course, liveries are constantly changing with the times. They’re always trying to modernize it. One of the things we noticed in the 1970s is that most airlines had an unfinished aluminum underbelly. With grit and rocks coming up on the plane, they wanted to keep them free of paint. In the late ’70s, everybody wanted to have a clean white plane called Euro White and just had the airline’s name on the side and tail. It added a lot of weight to the plane, so some airlines didn’t go that route and just polished their planes’ aluminum (like American Airlines). Everybody took a different tact. With the advent of graphic design and digital decals, you can get even more granular and beautiful with shapes, pictures, and photographs. Brian Keene
Aviation historian Shea Oakley cannot recall when he was not a plane spotter and commercial aviation enthusiast. He thinks his interest probably started when he was old enough to lift his head and look at an airplane flying over his family’s home.
“There are few things better than watching a three-quarter of a million-pound product of 120 years of development in human flight do, well, just about anything. Airliners in motion can be sheer poetry, and even if they are parked at a gate surrounded by ground equipment, they still catch my eye,” said Oakley. A classic livery buff, he favors the color schemes of the 1960s and ’70s, both of which he grew up with, and if the old livery has window lines, a bare metal belly, and a black-painted radome, he usually either likes it or loves it. His top-five favorite liveries of that era are Eastern, National, BOAC (now British Airways), Pan Am, and TWA.
“The late 1960s was an incredibly exciting time in commercial aviation. Annual traffic growth was still in the double digits. A huge variety of airliners were in use, unlike today, and spotters assumed that large numbers of Supersonic Transports (SSTs) like Concorde and the ultimately canceled Boeing SST were coming soon. Then there was also the prospect of the new ‘Jumbo Jets’ entering the scene. Huge aircraft such as the Boeing 747, Lockheed L-1011, and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 were just around the corner then. So, the feeling was likely that there were already great things to see and great things to look forward to,” related Oakley.
In the 1960s, the public enjoyed spotting planes at what was once the largest observation deck at JFK International Airport for over a decade. It encompassed the International Arrivals Building (IAB) and its East and West Wing. In the days preceding the threats of terrorism, both the Eastern Terminal (the site of the current Terminal 1) and the BOAC Unit Terminal (Terminal 7) had open-air decks. There was also an enclosed viewing area just beneath the cab of the original control tower, open to the public until the early 1970s.
In the post-9/11 age, there are no dedicated viewing areas remaining at JFK International; however, you can still watch jets take off from the TWA Hotel’s rooftop Infinity Pool and observation deck for a fee as both guest or non-guest. In addition, there is an open-air section of the Delta Terminal 4 extension, but it is located post-security and only open to Delta Sky Club members.
As airline spotting and photography were already discouraged at airport facilities even before the horrific crime of September 11, since that day, the atmosphere toward airline spotters at large metropolitan airports has become increasingly limited. Hence, locations away from airport property are often the best for plane spotting, and there are several online resources to locate the best places to plane spot.
Vincenzo Pace is a lifelong aviation enthusiast, plane spotter, and a published professional aviation and aerial photographer. While growing up around JFK Airport, aviation was always a part of his life. Airplanes on the Canarsie visual approach flew by his house in Howard Beach and soon became part of his ‘extended family.’ As a child, his parents would bring him to the observation deck of the old IAB on weekends.
Vincenzo’s father got him into photography at a young age, and in 2005, when online aviation social media was in its infancy, he connected with local plane spotters via Airliners.net. After career priorities took him away from aviation photography, he returned to it five years ago and has since worked hard to improve his photography skills. As a result, his work has been published in numerous print and online aviation media outlets.
With the encouragement and mentoring of close aviation photography friends, Pace has developed as an aerial photographer taking air-to-air and air-to-ground photos of aircraft over airports across the United States. Over the years, Pace has become known for ‘banking shots’ of aircraft departing from JFK on the Canarsie departure. He and his fellow spotters shoot from a location in Broad Channel, Queens, near the North Channel Bridge, which he says is an excellent location on Jamaica Bay, offering a tranquil setting to take pictures.
Today, as a longtime member of the plane spotting community, Vincenzo enjoys mentoring the next generation of spotters and hopes to serve as a role model for them to thrive and enjoy their passion for aviation and plane spotting.
Julia, well-written article! Especially like the bit about Shea. He classes me as one of his no.1 stalkers!
Thank you, Simon. This was a very captivating subject to write about!