Around the back of Dublin airport, along the old airport road, there is a small layby with a mound of grass behind it. It’s an unassuming little spot and easily missed. Yet, if you park here and stick around for a while, you’ll soon notice that it’s one of the busiest patches of gravel in Dublin, a place that sees quite a cross section of the city’s life. From hatchbacks crammed with kids high on sugar, to sleeker (somehow sadder) cars singularly occupied by business types drinking coffee, to white vans containing men who snooze behind Evening Heralds folded over the dashboard – it’s all here. Everyone comes for the same reason, to watch the planes. And it is for the planes that the little layby’s true custodians, the planespotters, come. They are hard to miss, these men (for they are mostly men), who stand still as herons for hours on end, observing every take-off and landing from the elevation provided by the grass verge, and recording things by pen and lens.
I first found out about the planespotters through my work with an eleven year old boy with autism. As a weekly treat for completed school work, he’d get to visit somewhere in Dublin of his own choosing. That place invariably turned out to be the layby along the old airport road. The boy, his teacher, and I, would sit in a car, eating crisps and watching the planes land one after the other. Each plane would appear from the exact same spot in the clouds over the city, a tiny cross shape that slowly took on the familiar form of a jumbo, before finally becoming astonishingly huge as it landed, yards from our car, behind the airport fence. It’s a thrilling thing to see, something so big, up so close, and hanging so impossibly in the air before its wheels hit the tarmac. Indeed, Niall Moran, one of the planespotters to whom I’d later talk tells me that it is this very thrill that first got him into planespotting. As a young lad he’d marvel at “how the hell the things get up in the air in the first place?” and even now, as a man in his forties, he is taken aback by “that feeling of noise and power you get sitting at the back of the airport watching them taking off”.
The boy I used to work with with could identify planes by their livery (the colours on the fuselage and tailfin) and, I soon suspected, by the very shape of their silhouette against the clouds. “That’s an Airbus A380” he’d chirrup, and whenever his teacher and I checked an iPhone app that pinged the details of every flight coming into Dublin we’d see to our disbelief that he had correctly identified the tiny speck in the sky. Later on when he returned to school, the boy would spend some time looking at videos on youtube that were very similar to his own camera phone creations. These videos were minimalistic, even banal, affairs - just planes (named in the clips’ titles) moving across tarmac in a roar of ambient noise and taking off into the sky. Yet there appeared to be an entire community of people prepared to watch them thousands of times and leave approving comments. It was a window into a somewhat alien world to me. This was a place where people seemed to be obsessively devoted to recording and observing for themselves something that could be predicted by a simple phone app. I asked myself “what could possibly be the point?” After discovering that many of Ireland’s planespotters and aviation enthusiasts communicate with each other on boards.ie, I decided to make contact with a few in order to find out.
I put it to Colm (a softly spoken planespotter from Co. Clare) that advances in computer technology must surely remove any vestige of mystery the hobby might have once had. “I suppose it does” he says, though his tone of voice betrays that he probably doesn’t suppose, or at least that a mystery element isn’t that important to him. “Of course it is nice to be out somewhere and hear something interesting on the scanner that you mightn’t expect…” I do a double take. Scanner? “Most planespotters would have a radio scanner, yeah”, he tells me. Later, Niall (who comes from Dublin) tells me about owning a “scanner that tells you everything up there within a radius of two hundred miles”. Never mind stereotypes of solitary men with yellowing notebooks and pens, these lads are pulling up beside international airports with what can only be described as spying equipment in their vehicles. Surely this constitutes some sort of security concern? I find myself wondering how being close to airports with this stuff could possibly be legal? “It’s not illegal in Ireland”, Colm says, “In Ireland it is legal to record what you hear on the scanner too. But in the UK it is not legal to record even though it is legal to listen”. However, he tells me that the Gardaí don’t always realise this and that “there have been incidents in the past where the Gardaí have wrongly confiscated equipment”. “So the guards were getting the law wrong”, I chuckle. I’m half-tempted to launch into an anecdote about a friend once getting a going-over about a packet of magic mushrooms that he brought to the Electric Picnic when they were legal, but then Colm tells me that “planespotters are reputable people”, and I worry that my anecdote might tank.
To my mind, any hobby based on cataloguing things needs to have an element of the unexpected to work. For example, I used to watch the birds that visited my garden very keenly as a youngster, making little sketches of them and identifying them in a field guide. While I could derive no end of pleasure from the comic antics of crows, it was the chance of seeing something extraordinary and unpredictable that truly kept me glued to the garden, something like a bullfinch in his fire-engine red livery landing among the dun coloured masses of sparrows. But that’s just my mind. There is perhaps an equivalent type of joy to be found in the mere noting of something expected and predictable, a sort of tick-the-box reassurance, and there is a simpler joy again in the acquisition of beautiful things with your own eyes. Niall communicates something of the former sort of joy when he tells me that when he first got into planespotting it was “like a competition” for him and the other planespotters. “You’d get very competitive comparing yourself to the next person. It’s like ‘how many 737s have you seen? I’ve seen 800. Oh, well I’ve seen 1,100’. You’d always want to see more than the next person”. But then he tells me “now I’m different. I used to be like that, but now I like to take photos more. I like to look at them to appreciate them for what they are” and he gets at the latter sort of joy.
Although unexpected things don’t feature heavily in planespotting, unusual things surely do. According to Niall, a huge part of the hobby’s appeal is in getting to see rare planes or unusual combinations of models and airlines, and travelling to see them is another part of it. “You are always looking to see a rarity”, he says. “but at the same time, you take what you get. A lot of people won’t go to Dublin if they want to see a rarity. They’ll go somewhere different.” I ask him if he travels to see planes himself. “Last year I was around the world spotting”, he says, before his voice drops to a hushed awe, “I saw many rare things last year, thank God”. He elaborates and tells me that he went to Sydney to experience one of the last “remaining airworthy Lockheed Constellations in the world”. I later look this plane up on Wikipedia. It is a magnificent thing with a curvy 1940s shape that makes it look straight out of a World War II movie. I can understand the fascination. Colm travels too, and tells me that he goes to Lanzarote to see planes, explaning that “it is a great spot because the approach is right over the beach and there is a great selection”. A holiday where you can simultaneously sit on a sunny beach and enjoy your hobby? Who couldn’t see an appeal in that?
All this sounds quite a way from the stereotypes of planespotting being a hobby for loners in anoraks. I ask both men what they think of this stereotype. Colm says he’s aware of the “anorak” stereotype but can’t see what is strange about a hobby that is not that different from many others when you think of it “lots of people like looking at things, cars, trains, or soccer matches. We just like looking at planes”. Niall, when asked, laughs and says “listen, if you want weird, there are guys out there who stand out along the road and take down the registration of buses. Look, for every weird hobby there is one weirder”. I make a surreptitious note – potential Totally Dublin article.
Most people (if they don’t live near airports, that is) are used to seeing planes in their natural habitat, where they appear very small, sometimes so small that you can only see the vapour trails they leave. As I’ve already mentioned, and as any planespotter will tell you, this is no way to see a plane. Up close, they are marvellous. They are like huge toys - shiny, noisy, and best of all, capable of flying. That is why if you visit the layby behind Dublin airport to see the planes, you will notice not only the faces of children in cars filled with simple glee, but the faces of their parents filled with it too. And I strongly recommend that you do visit, because it is one of the best free shows in Dublin. Bring a packed lunch and a flask of something to drink and remember to say hello to the planespotters. They’re an interesting bunch.
MP3: The Byrds-242 Foxtrot (The Learjet Song)