On Location: Trains, planes and terminal anoraks

WHAT WILL be the next television programme about airports? TV executives love to copy winning formulas, so maybe it will be "Terminal Decoration". The format will be that, while the boss of an international airport is away for the weekend, a team from Carlton - led by Gary Lineker - wallpapers the terminal and re-Tarmacs the runway. Or "Who Wants to Be a Long-Haul Pilot?", in which members of the public try to fly a jumbo across the Atlantic, and if they go into a tailspin they're entitled to "phone a friend".

But there's one group, ever present at any major airport, that's never likely to be filmed. At Gatwick, you find them by going round the back of Thornton's chocolate shop, then along a corridor that looks as though you're not allowed to go down it: the sort of corridor in which you expect to overhear whispering criminals plotting to kidnap an ambassador. Then up a lift and past a bloke who apologises for charging you pounds 1.50, and there they are: the plane-spotters.

There may seem to be a peculiarity at the heart of this hobby. Bird-spotting, for example, offers a challenge. If a species can be found only on the Faroe Islands, and you have to take a boat there and then crawl through the woods at 5am to catch a glimpse of this rare bird through the undergrowth, that represents quite an achievement. It doesn't carry quite the same glory to succeed in spotting a plane at an airport.

But next time you're on a plane that's landing, remember as you're thinking "Phew, still alive then", or "I'm about to see my son for the first time in 20 years", that a line of blokes are ticking you off as the second DC166 since Thursday. "All day yesterday I was waiting for an AH," said Simon. "Then five minutes after I left, it arrived." Isn't that always the way?

But this is the point.As with their more famous trainspotting cousins, the first aim of plane-spotters is to collect numbers. They divide into two groups: those who collect all numbers, and those who collect one particular plane. Which is why you'd be hacked off if you were a collector of AH numbers and the bastard didn't turn up. So specialised is this group that if a spaceship hovered down, they'd throw their arms up in exasperation about poxy aliens blocking the runway, and complain that now there was nowhere for the AH to land, they might as well go home.

So they wait for their plane, and then they write down the number. All day. "I normally come here first, and then go to Heathrow," said Derek, who's been coming since 1978.

The coffee-shop staff know them all personally, although the spotters don't drink much coffee. Instead, they bring zip-up bags carrying binoculars, notepads covered in numbers, Tupperware boxes of sandwiches, and bottles of diluted orange squash they've prepared earlier. Which makes them look quite cute, like 40-year-old cub scouts on an outing.

As this dedicated line of around 30 spotters rubs its hands to keep warm, the uninitiated can't help but wonder why. I began to wonder whether they'd think I was weird if I told them that I preferred to go dustcart-spotting. And that there was a B6578 that I'd seen every Monday for eight years, even after it was moved from Lambeth to Croydon because it didn't suit the wheelie-bins. Would they think I was at all odd if I said I had a mate who went to fairgrounds all over the country to go dodgem-spotting?

Yet you can't help feeling, as each plane roars off the runway to a flurry of felt pens on exercise books, that there is a rationale to this pastime. For deep down, the spotters do sense that with every take-off and landing, they're recording a momentous event.

By comparison, last year I was on a plane about to take off from Barbados and destined to land at Gatwick, where no doubt it would be spotted. As the captain was doing his opening routine, he announced that owing to the wind flapping the wrong way, we'd be landing 25 minutes later than scheduled. "Oh!", belched the woman in the next seat to mine, throwing her arms in the air, "Isn't that typical."

Clearly, the fact that she was about to cross continents gave her no sense of occasion. Instead she was probably thinking, "I was hoping to nip back from Bridgetown and get home in time for Heartbeat."

Whereas plane-spotter John was as captivated as ever by the importance of the events he was witnessing. "The marvellous thing about an airport," he said, "is looking at everyone in the departure lounge, and wondering what they'll all be doing tomorrow. You look at a queue of people, and maybe the first one's a dodgy geezer who'll be in Thailand buying drugs; she'll be at a funeral in Turkey; and he'll be having a bunk-up in Norway."

Every plane that passed overhead, he said, fascinated him because it contained a hundred stories. Why this led him to write down the number of the thing in a book, he wasn't sure. It's a pointless pastime, but then so is everybody's, unless your hobby is something like road-sweeping or mending the ozone layer.

In pursuing this pointlessness, John had been arrested twice. "The first time was in northern Greece, when we broke into an airfield. That was a laugh." Though, for all we know, they were suspected of being Turkish spies. The numbers they'd written were handed to a crack team of codebreakers, and the orange squash was delicately buried underground and blown up in a controlled explosion. "Then I got arrested for breaking into RAF Mildenhall with my mate. He was obsessed with this plane that could only be spotted at this American air base. So we slipped under the fence, but they caught us. But he spotted the plane, so we could tick it off.".

They were kept overnight, he said, but once the Americans accepted that they were plane-spotters, they gave them a big breakfast and showed them round the whole airfield.

So could you really write this hobby off as boring? How many DIY enthusiasts would take on the most powerful military machine in history, for a glimpse of their favourite Rawlplug? How many gardeners would risk solitary confinement for a chrysanthemum?

Every hobby is pointless. The trick is to recognise your own as such, and then pursue it with ludicrous dedication.

So, a banker of a TV series would be a drama about a plane-spotter and his assistant, breaking into top-security establishments and uncovering conspiracies to hide the truth about the whereabouts of their favourite plane. It could be called "The AH Files" and subtitled "The bloody thing must be out there".

Maybe Saddam's a plane-spotter specialising in Stealth bombers. And the only way he could tick it off was to kick out the weapons inspectors. So on the first night of the bombing, he was on the roof of his palace screaming "Got it at last."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence