‘I AM NOT A SPY, HONEST’ – MEMOIRS OF AN AIRCRAFT SPOTTER
This page, as you may have guessed from the illustrative title, is all about the wonderful world of Aircraft Spotting!
Amongst all my aviation activities, Spotting has been the one thing that I have done from day one, whenever day one was. As mentioned elsewhere, I was like most children, amazed by aircraft, especially back in the 1950’s when air travel and private flying was only for the rich and something we working class kids could only dream about.
But not every wide-eyed child would or will go on to be an aviation enthusiast and even less become pilots. But this is where aviation hobbies come in. If, for whatever reason, you can’t become a pilot then there are many hobbies to keep your love of aviation alive: aviation photography, model making, Flight Simulations and of course aircraft spotting. But what is Aircraft Spotting?
Back during the dark days at the start of the second World War, when the United Kingdom was regularly being bombed by Luftwaffe aircraft, it became necessary to set up a corps of civilian volunteers who would be trained in aircraft recognition so that they could man lookout stations around Britain to be able to recognise incoming aircraft as friend or foe and alert the waiting squadrons of fighters to scramble to meet the threat. This body was named ‘The Royal Observer Corps’ and the book that became their bible was called ‘The Spotters Handbook’ written by the famous circumnavigator, pilot and yachtsman, Sir Francis Chichester.
Now this book was also available to the general public and became a ‘must have’ for all the young pilot’s to be, who would congregate, wide-eyed, around the perimeter fences of R.A.F. bases during the 2nd World War. A copy of Spotters Handbook at the ready they would cross off all the different types illustrated and in a way similar to bird watching, would brag about seeing a ‘rare bird’ but this ‘rare bird’ would be a new mark of Spitfire or the latest American transport on loan to the RAF.
As is the way, what started as a pastime to fill in the time during those long dangerous years, became a full-blown hobby activity as more and more books and magazines on the subject started to appear on the bookshelves and the young (and old) aviation enthusiasts lapped them up.
Now spotting a different type or mark of aircraft was all well and good but could become repetitive when there were only so many different types around and especially if your local airfield had maybe just a few different marks based there. But as these early spotters soon started to realize, every aircraft is an individual with its own identity and each one is recognizable by its identity serial or registration.
So what is a registration or serial?
Each individual aircraft that is constructed is given a constructors number (c/n) and this stays with the aircraft forever. The wording or sequences of these numbers are different for each aircraft manufacturer but generally have a basic sequence of numbers and letters that identify the aircraft and where it stands in the batch of aircraft of the same type. But the aircraft will move on from the factory and will either be sold to a customer or sent to the manufacturers test facility. This is when it gets its registration/serial. The authorities that run world aviation insist that every aircraft must have a visible identity marking in the form of a registration or serial to fly in the worlds skies. These are added in the painting stage of construction and come in one of the following forms…
I was asked by a reader of this blog why only American aircraft have tail numbers. True, American civil aircraft have what appears to be a tail number but this is the rarity in civil aviation with the vast majority of countries using a sequence of letters and not numbers to identify their aircraft.
If you check the tail number (a misnomer as most registrations are located on the rear fuselage and sometimes under the port wing) of an American airliner for instance, you will see a range of letters and numbers, always starting with an ‘N’ followed by numbers and sometimes a letter or two at the end. This is because the USA was allocated ‘N’ as its registration prefix and all US civil aircraft start with N and because of the large amount of aircraft flying in the USA it was decided to have numbers after the N to allow for this. The vast majority of the rest of the world uses letters following a letter prefix. For instance; Great Britain uses G followed by 4 letters (G-BOAC is one of the Concorde’s), France uses F (F-WTSS was a French test Concorde), Germany uses D (D-ABEA is a Lufthansa Boeing 737) and so on…a slight change comes when a country has been allocated a double letter prefix, for instance; Switzerland has HB as the prefix with just 3 letters to follow (HB-JMG is a Swissair Airbus A340) and the same goes for many smaller countries or countries with fewer aircraft on the register.
There are idiosyncrasies as would be expected in such a diverse subject. Sometimes a certain type of aircraft will have a different registration sequence for its group; sailplanes and ultralights for example and it is quite possible that some countries will not register a certain type of aircraft that will be required to be registered in other countries; mainly in the homebuilt Ultralight or sailplane categories.
Confused yet? Well let’s add another dimension to the subject…
Military aircraft Serials.
Having an identifying mark on military aircraft is still a necessity under international aviation law but each country’s military are allowed to decide what format this will take. In the case of the US military then each service (USAF/USN/USMC/USCG) will put its own version of a serial on its aircraft. Generally though, they are all a sequence of numbers, sometimes including the batch number (or Fiscal Year number –f/y) as part of the serial.
In the UK they have used an alpha numeric sequence since the start of military flying starting with A1000 and then so on until Z9999 when they started again with two letters, AA100 and are very close today of reaching ZZ999. What happens next we will have to wait and see?
All other countries have similar serial number allocations but they may differ for each service or in fact, for each aircraft type…the French use a basic number sequence for each aircraft type in service, 1, 2, 3 etc for Mirage 2000,s and then 1, 2, 3 etc for Mirage F-1’s. I have oversimplified that a bit but basically you get the idea.
So, to recap, each aircraft has an identifying mark, either a civil registration or a military serial; there are other markings to identify aircraft, unit codes and squadron numbers or airliner fleet numbers or names, but these are not ‘the’ actual registration/serial that spotters look for.
The hobby is now worldwide and many countries, especially European countries, have massive followings of spotters, with organized tours, spotter’s organizations and clubs thriving everywhere. The knowledge these hobbyists have about aviation is beyond par and can put some professionals to shame in some sectors. With the internet becoming part of everyone’s daily life, so to it has become a valuable tool for the spotter and the ‘registration’ sites are everywhere and there are even online ‘log books’ and spotter software available to the keen enthusiast.
So, when you see those guys (and girls) at the airfield fence, binoculars, cameras and notebooks in hand, don’t worry, they aren’t spies…they are aircraft spotters and possibly tomorrows pilots.
And me? Well, once a spotter always a spotter is my motto. I can’t see an aircraft without checking its registration to see if I have seen it before and although G.A.S.E. takes up most of my spare time I still have the binoculars handy, ready to ‘read off’ the ‘reg’ of the airliners departing or arriving on 05left at Cairo International. But that is now and not what this page is about. The stories found here will be tales of the adventures I got up to whilst following my hobby. Adventures? Oh yes, when you are as passionate about aircraft as I and other spotters are then you will get into situations that are well worth retelling. Dangerous, risky and downright comical, the life of a spotter is far from banal. I hope you enjoy reading these tales and maybe even take up spotting too.