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It’s a bird…

Plane-spotting is an exercise in child-like wonder....

February 27, 2010 3:53:35 am

On the face of it,Stephen Hampton and Steven Ayres — the two Britons arrested last week from Delhi’s Radisson Hotel for listening to air traffic control (ATC) communications — were simply unlucky. In the UK,as in India,listening to ATC communications is an offence. But this has not deterred aviation enthusiasts across the world from standing alongside runways for hours photographing and documenting airplanes and monitoring their radio frequencies. For most,this is an incomprehensible hobby and the Radisson’s staff cannot be accused of overreacting to a situation that lends itself to suspicion rather easily.

A few decades ago,when airlines and pilots and stewardesses epitomised glamour,plane-spotting was an understandable hobby. Each country’s national airline did more than ferry people overseas; they represented that country abroad. In the late ’80s,for instance,when Ethiopia was in the midst of famine and conflict,their national airline was remarkably successful. In major airports around the world,Ethiopian Airlines aircraft jostled for space with the big European and American carriers. I remember a group of Ethiopian women break into proud applause in a waiting room in Dubai when their airline touched down in front of them.

I often used to travel to Tanzania,and from the windows of African airports I watched planes from little known cities land and depart,each one a colourful embodiment of their countries. I was fairly young when I learned to identify aircraft. There is something unforgettable about sitting in the rear of a Boeing 727,with the third engine screeching overhead,as the pilot makes the last broad turn over the Red Sea before landing in Aden. Or the steady whine of the Boeing 757’s two engines barely 30 feet above the water,where Entebbe airport’s runway juts out like a promontory into Lake Victoria.

For many of us,planes are just a quicker way of going on holiday or commuting to work. But for me,they have never been so banal. Before terrorism came to India’s cities,Bangalore’s old airport had a narrow road running alongside its single runway. At some points,this road was less than 30 feet from where the planes touched down,separated from the airport by a wooden fence. Only one plane used to come in at night,an Air India Boeing 747 that landed at half past midnight a few times a week. On one rainy night,it landed in a howling spray of jetwash that nearly uprooted the fence and sent me reeling backwards. A landing plane is an overwhelming display of scarcely controlled power; it is only understood at close quarters when the scale of the aircraft,the roar of its engines,the force of air and the shuddering ground together engulf the human senses.

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It is this fascination that drives plane-spotters across the world,to foreign airports and alien hotel rooms,in search of planes. You do not need much to be a planespotter,just patience and a keen eye. Some spotters photograph their planes: this is not an easy thing to do,even with good cameras and equipment you need a steady hand and an exact understanding of the plane’s next move. One of the best places in India to plane spot is at the southern edge of Mumbai’s airport,standing atop the rocky outcrop that overlooks the planes queuing up to take-off from Runway 27. Delhi,too,is quite sublime,especially on late winter nights when the fog muffles the sound of engines and leaves you startled when an Uzbekistan Airlines,with one of the most colourful liveries I have seen and a regular in Delhi,thunders into view overhead.

But photography does not give you a feel of how a plane is flown. Short of sitting with the pilots,the best way to track a plane’s journey is to listen to its communication with ATC. In the USA,and in many other countries,monitoring ATC frequencies is permitted as long as you do not transmit and jam the frequency. There are websites dedicated to broadcasting live ATC feeds. When there is time,I listen to the progress of any one plane from Ireland across several trans-Atlantic controllers until it is finally handed to a Tower controller in New York who issues landing clearance. Air traffic controllers perform a complex and thankless job. From a single screen with several moving blips,a controller must construct a three-dimensional awareness of her airspace that is constantly moving and in which thousands of lives are always in play.

A few months ago,I stumbled across a recording of a lengthy exchange between a Delhi radar controller and the pilots of at least 35 different aircraft. It was rush hour in the sky and the stress was palpable. In a calm voice,the controller issued back-to-back instructions to about 20 planes,asking them to descend,climb,turn,increase or reduce speed and intercept the ILS. The last instruction went to the pilot of a landing Lufthansa flight. In line with safety protocols,the pilot acknowledged the controller by repeating her instructions. “Thank you,Madame”,he said quietly at the end. The controller issued instructions to ten other aircraft before coming back to Lufthansa: “It is my pleasure,Sir. Welcome to Delhi.”

The writer,a plane-spotter,is based in Bangalore

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