AS A Class V student, Sahil Patel would love staring out of his classroom window to marvel at the airplanes flying over his school in Kurla. Now 21 years old, Sahil, a resident of Jari Mari, an area in close proximity to one of the boundary walls of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, has turned to planespotting as a hobby. “When I was growing up, many would come to our area with high-end camera equipment, looking for spots to take photographs of airplanes. That increased my curiosity about planespotting,” Sahil says.
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Planespotters, a small but growing community of aviation enthusiasts, throng areas around the airport and other spots to catch a glimpse of aircraft arriving in the city. These can include an inaugural flight of an airline, the first arrival of a jetliners such as the Boeing 747-800, Airbus A380 or an Ilyushin il-76 or a special livery on an airplane. Many begin their passion by spotting planes and identifying them for their makes and other trivia about them and progress to aviation photography to log their sightings.
“Earlier, it required the same kind of patience as it does for bird-watching in a forest as there were no dedicated mediums for information on new fleet or rare airplanes except for the news. Now, with apps like FlightRadar to track real-time air traffic, one can be better alerted to special arrivals and diversions coming to the city” says Vishal Jolapara, who has been planespotting for about 14 years now. He prides on having managed to photograph Air Force One, the US President’s plane, when Barack Obama visited the city in 2010. According to him, other important events in the calendar of a Mumbai planespotter would be the annual Haj pilgrimage, when rare aircrafts are in the city to ferry pilgrims to Mecca.
The hobby, however, comes with its share of running into trouble with the authorities. Planespotters say that while many countries in the western countries have aviation parks on the perimeter of the runway for photography and planespotting, in India the law is not clear. “The rules makes it a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and planespotters since they are ambiguous. Attempts made by aviation enthusiasts to bring clarity have not been successful,” says a planespotter.
The focus on the high quality of images for many websites which publish photographs by planespotters limit many from getting recognition. For many like Sahil, however, who have grown up watching others with expensive equipment coming into areas like his residence in Jari Mari to spot planes, technology has somewhat opened up avenues. With over 4,000 followers on Instagram, Sahil, who has only dabbled in aviation photography, beginning with a humble mobile phone camera with aspirations to buy a DSLR, gets a ready audience. “I still do not earn any money from it. Our neighbours in Jari Mari think I am mad and wasting my time. But, I enjoy it,” he says.