A feature story for BuzzFeed; excerpt below.
Things Are Looking Up For Planespotters, The World’s Most Obsessive Aviation Geeks
Nearly 8 million people have watched a single YouTube video of airplanes taking off and landing. Welcome to the world of planespotters — or “jetrosexuals,” or “cloud bunnies” — air travel’s biggest fans.
“We couldn’t give a fuck about Obama,” Luke Amundsen says as he stares through a car windshield toward a taxiing Qantas jet. “We just want to take photos of his airplane.”
It’s a horribly windy Friday morning in mid-July at Brisbane Airport, situated 10 miles northeast from the third biggest city in Australia. Amundsen and Simon Coates are sitting in the cabin of a silver Holden Commodore while commercial aircraft alternately take off and touch down. “If there was a private jet due in, we’d come out here just for that,” says Coates. “We don’t care who’s on it — we just want the jet.”
He switches on a dashboard radio unit, which picks up staccato blasts of aviation jargon from the nearby control tower. “…Qantas 950 two-five-zero degrees, three-zero knots — cleared to land,” says a calm male voice. Amundsen exhales, impressed. “Three-zero knots!” he says. “That’s a decent wind.”
Amundsen is a tall 28-year-old, with facial stubble and short, spiked brown hair. He’s the more enthusiastic of the pair. Coates, also 28, plays it much cooler: His eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, and his responses are more measured. He maintains the Brisbane Airport Movements blog, while Amundsen helps run a Facebook page, Brisbane Aircraft Spotting, which has around 6,000 fans. Together, the two have also invested tens of thousands of dollars and a year of their lives in the development of a new website, Global Aircraft Images, which seeks to challenge established spotter-friendly communities such as Airliners.net and Planespotters.net.
While we sit facing the tarmac — the second busiest single airport runway in the world, after London’s Gatwick — a news van glides past. “They must be out here for the Malaysian thing,” says Coates, before turning to me. “Did you hear about the Malaysian that went down?” It’s July 18, 2014, the day that news breaks of MH17’s wreckage being scattered across the Ukrainian countryside. Amundsen reveals that he has flown on that destroyed Malaysia Airlines plane, while Coates has flown on MH370, the one that went missing in March. They know this because they both keep records of every flight they’ve ever taken.
“We’re pretty serious about it,” Amundsen continues. “At home, Simon and I have got ADS-B receivers; with those, on our computer screens at home, we can virtually see exactly what the air traffic controllers can see. If something unusual pops up on our radar screen, that’ll usually give us half an hour to get out here and catch it.” (Neither of them can recall what ADS-B stands for, so Coates googles it: Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast.) A plane-tracking website named FlightRadar24 feeds off these receivers. Coates opens the app on his phone, which shows a bunch of tiny yellow icons overlaid on a map. “You can see all the planes buzzing around,” he says.
“This app runs off people’s home feeds,” Admundsen explains.
We meet at what’s known as “The Loop” — one end of Acacia Street, which borders Brisbane Airport and offers the best runway-side sight lines for spotters, including a raised concrete viewing platform. At age 15, Amundsen began learning to fly at flight school; a year later, he was flying a skydiving plane for fun and profit, and by 19 he had obtained his commercial pilot license. He has clocked over 3,000 hours in the cockpits of airplanes and helicopters. Coates is employed by the Qantas Group too, as a ground handling agent here at Brisbane Airport — a job that, he says with a smile, involves “passenger marshaling, boarding flights, standing out on the apron, getting high on aviation fuel every day.” He jokes that he has logged over 800 “backseat hours” on commercial flights.
Through the windshield, we watch a red-tailed Boeing 747 take off. “See, there we go, he’s off to Singapore,” says Amundsen, pointing. “He’s up nice and early.”
“Very early variation,” says Coates, admiring the steep ascent.
“That’s, like, a QF8 rotation. He’s got awesome headwind. The wind’s coming from the south, and going over the wing.”
They know the Qantas jet is heading to Singapore because it ascended so sharply. “There’s two [Qantas] 747s,” says Amundsen. “One goes to L.A., one goes to Singapore. The L.A. one goes out a hell of a lot heavier; it would have over 100 tons of fuel on board. That would only have about 60,” he says, pointing again at the now-distant aircraft, growing smaller by the second.
Amundsen knows these routes and schedules particularly well, as he lives nearby. “If I could live closer, I would,” he says. “I can be lying in bed at midnight and hear the Emirates 777 come over, and know exactly what it is, straightaway. I don’t even have to look up.”
Amundsen’s comment about the presidential plane arises as the pair discuss the upcoming G20 summit in November. These two will be among the crowd attempting to gather somewhere near this airport, cameras in hand, searching the skies for Air Force One in the hope of capturing a once-in-a-lifetime event: the president of the United States of America landing at their home airport. An intense Australian Federal Police presence surrounding the miles of wire fences day and night for the duration of the summit mean that shooting Air Force One is an unlikely event indeed. But still, the possibility is there.
And possibility is what drives planespotters — otherwise known as “jetrosexuals,” “aerosexuals,” and “cloud bunnies” — a niche group of obsessives whose intense interest in flight paths, travel schedules, and colorful jet livery occasionally overlaps with the concerns of the general population.