How I Became an AvGeek in a Week: Plane Spotting 101 at SFO’s Bayfront Park

Oct 2, 2017

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The fare meter was rising, the other cabbies were honking and still San Francisco‘s least flexible taxi driver was refusing to move. “Why,” he demanded, his thumb jerking at a narrow stretch of green on my iPhone’s map, “do you want to go there?” “The planes,” I told him. I held out my camera, hoping it might explain why I wanted him to drive to an unremarkable park less than a mile from the arrivals terminal. “I’m going for the planes,” I insisted, finally convincing him to move.

We eventually did arrive at Bayfront Park—but to be honest, at the time I was just as clueless about my true purpose as he. Only a day earlier, at TPGHQ in Manhattan, I had been given a telephoto lens, a fat stack of plane ticket printouts, and instructions to get myself to the airport. In five different cities, three different states and two different countries, over just seven days, I was going to turn into an expert at the geekiest pursuit of hardcore AvGeeks: plane spotting.

I was to sit outside for long hours with little oversight, and diligently, unceasingly, take pictures of planes. I hadn’t been chosen for my knowledge — I could not tell a Boeing from an Airbus — or my photo skills, or anything, really. But here I was in a California park, with a camera lens more valuable than myself, on the wildest intern project I’d ever heard of.

I was going to become a plane spotter quickly and from scratch, and then tell the story of how that happened. AvGeek in a week, if you will. Actually, maybe it was my ignorance that got me selected: the idea was that armed with something like this TPG guide to plane spotting for beginners and serious tools, even a clueless newbie like me could do it.

A fellow spotter at SFO and a KLM Boeing 747. He was the real deal, complete with tripod for his camera.

This is the first of the five posts resulting from that adventure, one that I can say has been successful. I can now not only tell Boeings from Airbuses, but I’m getting the finer points of aviation-geeking too: Is that an A320 or A321? Easy! Just count the doors.

Taking photos of SFO arrivals on runways 28L and 28R — see, I had already learned how to number airport runways correctly! — was going to be my first brush with that new world. In terms of plane-spotting locales, mine was nearly unbeatable; I had a clear view of final approach and a full shot of the landing strip as well as a good view of some of the taxiways. And the planes did not disappoint: a steady parade of jets and international airlines streamed into view. There were baby-blue 747s, stark-white 777s and the occasional, absolutely massive A380. Even I could tell what the big planes were after a little observation, and seeing these gigantic people-movers lumber past ant-sized private planes was really something to behold.

And like a true spotter, I was there photographing it all. I couldn’t necessarily tell what exact models of planes I was looking at, but I was just getting started. This United jet was unmistakably a 747, for example.

A United 747-400 lands while a Singapore Airlines A350 taxies to takeoff.
A United 747-400 lands while a Singapore Airlines A350 taxies to takeoff.

I would also quickly learn that heat haze is the number one enemy of AvGeeks with cameras; see more on this below.

About an hour into my first plane-spotting adventure I eyed a man with a camera even bigger than my own — a fellow spotter! I ran over to him, eager to hear firsthand a spotter’s secrets for SFO.  He did not disappoint: within minutes I was swamped in more information than I knew what to do with. Emirates will land at 2pm and take off at 5pm, right around British Airways‘ scheduled arrival time, which, I must not forget, is about two hours after Air France and Lufthansa depart. And where to stand? About a mile down the Bayfront trail and past the Marriott hotel, or, if I had a car, in a park down by the San Mateo bridge. Even at full-speed scribble I couldn’t keep up with the apparent Spotting King of the Bayfront.

Still, I even managed to land what I would later find out was a classic SFO shot—the “kiss” between a plane landing on the far 28R and another taxiing to takeoff from 28L. (AvGeeks really like airplanes. To the point of anthropomorphizing them.)

747 vs
A 747 and an A320 nearly kiss as the smaller jet lands on a parallel runway.

The King wasn’t the only spotter I saw in Bayfront Park, though he seemed to be the most attuned to timetables. Near the Marriott I ran into another man staking out the runway. I made small talk with him, asking if he, like the King, was waiting for the mega-jets to land. No, he told me, he was waiting for a specific Delta flight. And then I began to realize how broad plane spotting can be. There is no one way to spot planes—it’s entirely what you make of it. Some spotters try to capture an entire airlines’ fleet; others record every registration they see; still others come for the liveries. I was stepping into a world with many facets and many fans. And on my first outing of this five-part adventure, I had come away with a few important lessons. Potential spotters: listen up!

Lessons learned from my first day in the field

  •  It’s hard to shoot in the heat: The cold bay water didn’t play nice with warm air—the temperature differential combines to produce a “heat haze” that slightly distorts far-off planes. That’s a problem at many airports in the warmer months.
There was no mistaking this one: my first A380! But beware the heat haze, which ruined my shot.
There was no mistaking this one: my first A380! But beware the heat haze, which ruined my shot.
  • Sunscreen is a must: I left Bayfront Park with a nose as red as Rudolph’s. If you go out to shoot in the summer, be warned.
  • Air Traffic Control is your friend: By listening to ATC tower chatter through my handy LiveATC iPhone app I was able to track what planes were coming and when.
  • Keep your camera at hand: Even when you’ve left the spot you had your sights on, you might bump into some unadvertised location where the photos are good. Or, in my case at SFO, even better than what I had come for. I got the best image of the day when going back to the terminal to catch my flight out.
I wouldn’t necessarily have known this was a Boeing 787 Dreamliner unless it had been written on the fuselage, but I did know this was my best image of the day.

My crash course in AvGeek education would continue after this first episode, with stops in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Miami and in the world’s top spot for plane spotters, the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, known to every AvGeek on the planet as SXM, which only weeks after my visit would be devastated by Hurricane Irma.

Stay tuned for the next installment, from Los Angeles. But, wait, I’m an AvGeek now—so I’m going to have to remember to call it KLAX.

All photos by the author.

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