How I Became an AvGeek in a Week: Plane Spotting at the In-N-Out in LAX
"Seventy-four. Order number seventy-four." The cashier's call rolled over the hungry patrons of the crowded In-N-Out as another wave of Angelenos poured through the doors. It wasn't my burger, and I was getting impatient: there were places to be, and airplanes to see. Looking up at the sound of a jet engine roaring, I caught a fellow patron's gaze, gawking at my massive camera, probably wondering why I needed a lens longer than a child's forearm to take burger photos.
But it was not the burgers I wanted to shoot: it was the planes. I was on day two of a weeklong quest to become an experienced plane spotter from scratch, a crazy but fun intern project that we're calling "AvGeek in a Week." I had come here from San Francisco, where I had begun learning the basics of plane spotting, a hobby that consumes many AvGeeks, and I immediately realized why the experts on the TPG staff had sent me here, of all the burger joints in the world.
This In-N-Out, just a thousand feet from the runway at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), is a prime spot for both burgers and jets. AvGeeks arrange their Southern California vacations specifically to come here, one of the best places in the world to photograph airplanes.
The restaurant and adjacent, aptly-named "Airplane Landing View Point" park were swarming with people, even on a grey day that wasn't at all conducive to good photography. Families lounged on the grass while cars lined up for the drive-thru and kids played catch with their parents. Some pointed expensive-looking cameras at each landing plane, but most just seemed to have come to enjoy the afternoon.
It's only a short walk away from the edge of LAX runways 24R and 24L, and a steady stream of arrivals keeps things interesting. There's plenty of regional and international jet variety to appease the hardcore AvGeeks. And for those with weak bladders and needy stomachs, the In-N-Out has all you need. Few other spotting sites come close to matching this one's many perks.
Of course, there are maps online telling you where to stand.
Landing jets pass almost directly over the park, making it tricky to shoot anything but their belly from the grass. But once they clear the trees and close in on the runway its easy to shoot some quality photos. For side-angle photos I had to camp near the back of the In-N-Out parking — the planes pass too close overhead to take those shots from anywhere else. The parking lot rear is also a great place to shoot from if you're looking for an In-N-Out sign/airplane combo — I was able to get both in frame from the lot. The resulting pictures are hardly breathtaking; I blame a depressingly overcast sky and my overconfidence shooting in manual mode for that.
Towards the end of the day I walked about 2,000 feet to the west down Lincoln Boulevard and up a small hill adjacent to the road. There was a fence at the top, behind which an array of radio towers sat. I had a feeling that I wasn't technically supposed to be here, but given no signs telling me to clear out I set up shop for what turned out to be an excellent lookout. Finding such places can an important plane-spotting skill; sometimes the best locations are the ones you discover yourself.
I half expected police officers to pay me a visit. I read online that at some airports law enforcement keeps an eye out for overly ambitious spotters and may ask them to leave, sometimes even detain them. Although I saw no sign indicating I was somewhere that I shouldn't be, I was prepared to move on if asked to do so. Thankfully, I was able to shoot for about 40 minutes without anyone bothering me.
Lesson of the day: As every practiced plane spotter knows, cloudy days are not your friend. Airplane photography sites like airliners.net and jetphotos.com, the two biggest names in the plane spotting world, are very particular about photo quality and routinely reject a vast majority of reader-submitted images. On a seriously overcast day like the one I unfortunately had at LAX, your chance of taking decent airplane photos is essentially zero.
I was hoping for better weather on the third stop of my five-episode AvGeek education, Washington's Reagan airport, or National, or DCA. There, I wouldn't find big jets from distant nations, but all domestic traffic nearly all the time, and most of it on smaller regional jets. This would turn out to be good for my budding aircraft-recognition skills.
All photos by the author.
A previous version of this post misidentified LAX runways 24L and 24R as runways 7L and 7R. It has since been corrected.