The Sublime Obsession of Plane Spotting

1-1Rose Lichter-Marck at VQR:

Plane spotters—or “avgeeks,” as some call themselves—travel around the world in order to hang out near airport runways so that they can watch and document planes as they take off and land. Before the advent of the internet, spotters would meet up at conventions or connect in the back pages of enthusiast magazines in order to trade mounted film slides of their best shots. Now they post pictures on online forums such as,, and, as well as on Flickr and Facebook groups dedicated to the art and practice of aviation enthusiasm.

The details they collect provide an open-source trove of data about global commerce and politics, which has been invaluable to journalists and whistleblowers (not to mention various intelligence-gathering agencies) seeking to identify planes and their passengers. When Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s private plane flew to Florida in the summer of 2014, his visit was documented by spotters at Miami International, which allowed reporters to predict the return of LeBron James to his hometown. In December 2014, spotting data helped analysts track unlisted flights between Tel Aviv and the United Arab Emirates, despite the fact that Israel had a limited diplomatic relationship with the monarchies of Persian Gulf states. In the fall of 2015, Israel announced it would be opening it’s first diplomatic mission in the UAE. In 2007, Tunisian blogger Astrubal searched plane-spotting sites for Tunisia’s presidential plane. His crowdsourced effort revealed that although the president had made only three state-sanctioned trips, the plane had left the country more than ten times, with visits to European capitals where there was no record of official business.

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