Virtual plane spotting

Are you a plane spotter? I’ll never be enough of one to park myself just outside the fence of a local airport to watch them takeoff and land. But watching these metal behemoths landing and taking off with such regularity virtually is a bit mesmerizing, and enough to keep me watching various plane spotting channels on YouTube once or twice a day if time allows. I do it in my comfy chair in front of the TV, using the YouTube app, and often with a cat on my lap.

Joshua and Peter plane spotting at LAX (Google Street view)
Joshua and Peter plane spotting at LAX (Google Street view)

These live channels popped into my feed a month or so ago, part of a theme on YouTube to help insomniacs. I’m not an insomniac, but I am sixty plus. So at my age if time allows (and it usually does, since I’m retired), it’s not hard to take short naps. Live plane spotting channels, along with YouTube videos of hours of crackling fireplaces or stormy nights with rain falling, seem to be part of plan by YouTube to lull insomniacs to sleep.

I used to travel regularly for business. It got old pretty quickly. Navigating airports and dealing with plentiful flight delays and cancellations made business travel more of an annoyance than a pleasure. But I still find something briefly magical about flying, usually on takeoff as you are pressed into your seat and rapidly move into the stratosphere. I prefer window seats if I can get them, and usually find the view out the window more interesting than watching a movie or listening to a podcast. I find geography interesting. Landing can also be fun, although it’s usually not a big deal. Landing is definitely the riskiest part of the aviation experience which overall is incredibly safe.

So part of the appeal of virtual plane spotting may be that I can enjoy aviation’s upsides without its downsides. Mostly I watch LAX (Los Angeles International) and the LA Flights channel. With four runways there is rarely a dull moment at LAX, but it really cranks up around late afternoon. The channel focuses on runways 24-R and 24-L, the north (and shorter) runways. Maybe it should concentrate on the south runways because they tend to get the behemoth jets like the A380s and the 747s that need extra-long runways.

It appears though that the two brothers Peter (narrator) and Joshua (cameraman) who plane spot live at LAX four to 5 days a week get much better views of the runways when they are on the north side. Generally they are either on the top level of an economy parking garage at the end of the runway or next to an expressway with a great view of the tarmac. There they typically spend ten to 12 hours recording as much as they can and never stop, or even change positions. I figure they have bladders of steel because no one ever seems to take a potty break. The parking garage may have one, but there’s clearly only some bushes nearby when they spot on the north side. Maybe they can do their business discreetly there. In any event, Los Angeles is most often sunny and hot. I don’t know how they do it and I often wonder if they should be doing it. I hope they stay well hydrated and use plenty of sunscreen.

But it’s also a business of sorts. There are typically a couple of thousand viewers watching at any time and people make regular contributions to their channel, which get highlighted live when they occur. Peter and Joshua also have competition. Mainly they compete with the Airline Videos channel, which is usually at LAX, but sometimes goes to Phoenix or San Francisco.

There are plenty of other channels covering other airports out there. I generally find that LA Flights more than satisfies my plane spotting itch because LAX gets so many flights and such a variety of aircraft from both far flung international airports and domestic airports. Also the weather is almost always sunny and Peter and Joshua are more in it for the fun than the money. Their video feed is also high definition and has no lag, problems with other channels I’ve tried. The Airline Videos channel spends a lot of time on promotion which may be working as they seem the more successful channel. When I watch these channels, I don’t want advertising. I just want to see the planes.

These channels can be both mesmerizing and routine at the same time. You quickly discover that the Boeing 737 rules. It’s a modest aircraft but it’s the world’s work horse aircraft, mostly for paying passengers. You get an occasional turboprop, but mostly you get 737s and larger aircraft. At LAX the coming and going is just constant. It’s an amazing orchestration of aviation technology and process. Perhaps it’s just watching this all work somehow which I find to be the most interesting part of it all.

Still, I think you have to be a bit nuts to do this for a living. With so much competition and the grueling hours, it looks like a tough business to prosper in. But I’m grateful these channels exist as they fill a curiosity itch I didn’t know I had. And sometimes, if I see just one too many 737 taking off and landing, me and the cat will snooze instead. It’s ironic that the sounds of coming and going aircraft can often lull me to sleep.

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