Plane spotters: eyes to the sky

Dedicated plane spotters regularly line the fence at Melbourne Airport to record and admire each new arrival.

Story: Nick Place. Photos: Andrew Haysom.
June 2018

Patrick Schnaars, a 21-year-old from Berlin, was recently in Australia for five days and spent four of them standing on top of a big green box just outside the fence of Melbourne Airport (the other day was spent doing the same thing in Sydney). 

He didn’t once visit Melbourne’s city centre. Instead, he walked six kilometres around the perimeter fence from an airport hotel to this box and filmed planes all day, every day. Patrick’s YouTube channel, planespottingberlin, has 23,000 subscribers.

Patrick and his tripod were stationed by the side of the main runway, which lies parallel to Operations Road, on the far side of the airport to the terminals. Around him, a dozen cars were parked. Mostly men sat, talking on the phone or just watching. One car contained two 20-something women, chatting between landings.

'Sometimes there's a wind gust or something and you see them abort the landing and come in again.'

Reading the paper in another car was Geoff Marsden, who admitted he used the excuse of driving his daughter to work to make the trip from Hampton Park to the city and then on to the airport so he could take up his semi-regular station. 

“I’ve been coming for five or six years,” he says. “I’ve always loved planes. I’ve got my laptop and can chase things up.”

Two scanners in Geoff’s car pick up the radio transmissions from the nearby control tower, just to our left, and the incoming planes. “Sometimes there’s a wind gust or something and you see them abort the landing and come in again,” Geoff says. “Of course, you don’t want anything to happen, but it’s interesting to see them react.”

According to Geoff, between 4pm and 6pm is the peak hour for spotters. Melbourne Airport’s capacity is 55 movements (takeoff or landing) per hour and it’s at that kind of churn in aerial peak hour. Even better, the big planes – the monster A380s, 747s and others that fly across the world – tend to arrive in the morning and then lift off in the evening. 

Aircraft arrive in formation, starting as points of light to the north, then grow and grow in size, becoming louder until they roar overhead, filling the sky.

As they do, an ever-present group of planespotters record their movements on cameras and smartphones, watch from their cars, point to the sky for the benefit of distracted kids, or buy snacks from the ice-cream van that is a near-permanent feature at the Sunbury Road observation area. Kangaroos graze in the fields just off to the east. 

Aircraft arrive in formation, starting as points of light to the north, then grow and grow in size, becoming louder until they roar overhead, filling the sky. Then they land behind the flashing white lights and stringy trees just inside the airport fence. 

One planespotter watches all of that happen and then starts his car. “That’ll be the missus’ plane,” he says. “She was landing at 10 to six.”

He nods and drives off, headed for the usual traffic snarl at Arrivals. Everybody else turns their cold faces back to the north. Another bright light is on its final approach.