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Aircraft spotting or plane spotting is the observation, photographing aircraft, and logging of the registration numbers of aircraft: gliders, powered aircraft, balloons, airships, helicopters, and microlights.
When spotting aircraft, observers notice the key attributes of an aircraft. They may notice a distinctive noise from its engine or the number of vapour trails it is leaving. They will assess the size of the aircraft and the number, type and position of its engines. Another clue is the position of wings relative to the fuselage and the degree to which they are swept rearwards. Are the wings above the fuselage, below it, or fixed at midpoint? Perhaps it is a monoplane, biplane, or triplane. The position of the tailplane relative to the fin(s) and the shape of the fin are also clues to its type. If it is an antique or light aircraft it might have a tail wheel. Some aircraft types have a fixed undercarriage while others have retractable wheels.
Other features include the speed, cockpit placement, colour scheme or special equipment that changes the silhouette of the aircraft. Taken together these clues will enable the identification of an aircraft. If the observer is familiar with the airfield being used by the aircraft and its normal traffic patterns, he or she is more likely to leap quickly to a decision about the aircraft's identity - they may have seen the same type of aircraft from the same angle many times.
Spotters use equipment such as ADS-B decoders to track the movements of aircraft. The two most famous devices used are the AirNav Systems RadarBox and Kinetic Avionics SBS series. Both of them read and process the radar data and show the movements on a computer screen. Most of the decoders also allow the exporting of logs from a certain route or airport.
Some spotters will note and compile the markings, a national insignia or airline livery or logo, a squadron badge or code letters in the case of a military aircraft. Published manuals allow more information to be deduced, such as the delivery date or the manufacturer's construction number. Camouflage markings differ, depending on the surroundings in which that aircraft is expected to operate.
In general, most spotters attempt to see as many aircraft of a given type (i.e.: Boeing 747), a particular airline (American Airlines for example) or a particular subset of aircraft such as business jets (a.k.a. Biz Jets), Commercial Airliners, Military and/or general aviation. Some spotters attempt to see every airframe and are known as "frame spotters." Others are keen to see every registration worn by each aircraft.
Ancillary activities might include listening-in to air traffic transmissions (using radio scanners, where that is legal), liaising with other "spotters" to clear up uncertainties as to what aircraft have been seen at specific times or in particular places. Several internet mailing list groups have been formed to help communicate aircraft seen at airports, queries and anomalies. These groups can cater to certain regions (North American Spotters), certain aircraft types (The Biz List) or may appeal to a wider audience such as the Civil Spotters group. Many of these groups originated from the original Oxford.vax group which pioneered this type of communication. The result is that information on aircraft movements can be delivered worldwide in a real-time fashion to spotters.
The hobbyist might travel long distances to visit a different airport from their usual one, to see an unusual aircraft or to view the remains of aircraft withdrawn from use. Some aircraft may be placed in the care of museums (see Aviation archaeology) - or perhaps be cannibalized in order to repair a similar aircraft already preserved.
Aircraft registrations can be found in books, with online resources or in monthly magazines from enthusiast groups. Most spotters maintained books of different aircraft fleets and would underline or check each aircraft seen. Each year, a revised version of the books would be published and the spotter would need to re-underline every aircraft seen. With the development of commercial aircraft databases the spotter was finally able to record their sightings in an electronic database and produce reports that emulated the underlined books.
During World War II and the subsequent Cold War some countries encouraged their citizens to become "plane spotters" in an "observation corps" or similar public body for reasons of public security. Britain had the Royal Observer Corps which operated between 1925 and 1995. A journal called The Aeroplane Spotter was published in January 1940. The publication included a glossary that was refined in 2010 and published online (see http://www.aeroplanemonthly.co.uk/glossary/).
Air shows usually draw large numbers of spotters as it is a chance to enter airfields and air bases worldwide that are usually closed to the public and to see displayed aircraft at close range. The world's largest military airshow is the Royal International Air Tattoo in the United Kingdom.
The legal repercussions of the hobby were dramatically shown in November 2001 when fourteen aircraft spotters (twelve British, two Dutch) were arrested by Greek police after being observed at an open day at the Greek Air Force base at Kalamata. They were charged with espionage, and faced a possible 20-year prison sentence if found guilty. After being held for six weeks, they were eventually released on £9,000 bail, and the charges reduced to the misdemeanour charge of illegal information collection. Confident of their innocence they returned for their trial in April 2002 and were stunned to be found guilty, with eight of the group sentenced to three years, the rest for one year. At their appeal a year later all were acquitted.
Fight against terrorism
In the wake of the targeting of airports by terrorists, enthusiasts' organizations and police in the UK have cooperated in creating a code of conduct for plane spotters. By asking enthusiasts to contact police if spotters believe they see or hear something suspicious, this is an attempt to allow enthusiasts to continue their hobby while increasing security around airports. Birmingham and Stansted pioneered this approach in England and prior to the 2012 London Olympics, RAF Northolt introduced a Flightwatch scheme based on the same cooperative principles.
The organization of such groups has now been echoed in parts of North America. For example, the Bensenville Illinois Police Department have sponsored an Airport Watch group at the Chicago O'Hare Airport. Members are issued identification cards and given training to accurately record and report unusual activities around the airport perimeter (members are not permitted airside). Meetings are attended and supported by the F.B.I., Chicago Department of Aviation and the T.S.A who also provide regular training to group members. The Bensenville program was modeled on similar programs in Toronto, Ottawa and Minneapolis.
Following the events of 9/11 information collected by planespotters helped uncover what is known as extraordinary rendition by the CIA. Information on unusual movements of rendition aircraft provided data which led first to news reports and then to a number of governmental and inter-governmental investigations.
- "Plane Spotters at Dublin Airport" Austrian Aviation Net, 30 April 2011. Retrieved 2 Mai 2011. The video shows a spotter who is observing the movements at Dublin Airport, including a screenshot of a SBS Box
- Half a century of thrilling displays began at RAF Fairford in 1964, Wiltshire Times, 20 November 2013.
- "Plane-spotters 'ignored warnings'." BBC News, 25 April 2002. Retrieved 14 March 2007. Quote: "Note-taking in conjunction with other activities may be detrimental (to Greek security)."
- "Greek court convicts plane-spotters." BBC News, 26 April 2002. Retrieved 14 March 2007. Quote: "The verdict bears no relation whatsoever to the evidence given."
- "How did plane-spotters end up as spies?" BBC News, 26 April 2002. Retrieved 14 March 2007. Quote: "I would warn that spotting in Greece is still not particularly liked by the authorities and without our contacts at the Greek Ministry of Defence, which helped on a number of occasions, the trip might have been a little longer than anticipated!"
- "Plane-spotters join terror fight." bbc.co.uk, 4 May 2004 Retrieved: 16 September 2007. Quote: "Police and BAA are recruiting aviation enthusiasts to help fight terrorism at London's Heathrow Airport."
- Torture Taxi, Trevor Paglen and A.C.Thompson, Icon Books, UK 2007
- Eden, Paul and Dave Windle. Civil Aircraft Recognition. Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK: The Crowood Press Ltd., 1992. ISBN 1-84037-253-2.
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