‘I AM NOT A SPY, HONEST’ – MEMOIRS OF AN AIRCRAFT SPOTTER

‘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.

Spotters at Heathrow, back in the good old days.

Spotters at Heathrow, back in the good old days.

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.

The Spotters Handbook. Worth a fortune today!

The Spotters Handbook. Worth a fortune today!

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.

Viewing areas for spotters appeared at most airfields during the 1950's

Viewing areas for spotters appeared at most airfields during the 1950’s

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…

Civil Registration

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.

N292CS - A true 'tail-number' on this American registered Cessna Citation Sovereign.

N292CS – A true ‘tail-number’ on this American registered Cessna Citation Sovereign.

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.

A good example of the British 'G' sequence of civilian registrations with G-BBRV, a civilianised DHC Chipmunk

A good example of the British ‘G’ sequence of civilian registrations with G-BBRV, a civilianised DHC Chipmunk

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.

Sometimes, the lack of space on a tail or no tail means that registration has to be applied somewhere else. Here the Egyptian registration, SU-CBM is applied just under the cabin window of this Bell 412

Sometimes, the lack of space on a tail or no tail means that registration has to be applied somewhere else. Here the Egyptian registration, SU-CBM is applied just under the cabin window of this Bell 412

Confused yet? Well let’s add another dimension to the subject…

Military aircraft Serials.

Comparison shot of two USA registered aircraft. One civilian and one military. Spot the difference?

Comparison shot of two USA registered aircraft. One civilian and one military. Spot the difference?

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.

The military serial on this GD F-111, 72-448, shows that it was a batch procurred in fiscal year 1972. The 'FW' is specially added because it belongs to the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing which is based at RAF Lakenheath in the UK, which is made clear by the 'LN' at the top of the tail.

The military serial on this GD F-111, 72-448, shows that it was a batch procurred in fiscal year 1972. The ‘FW’ is specially added because it belongs to the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing which is based at RAF Lakenheath in the UK, which is made clear by the ‘LN’ at the top of the tail.

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?

The British alpha-numeric serial sequence is obvious on this Panavia Tornado. ZA326 was operated by the Royal Aircraft Establisment, Bedford.

The British alpha-numeric serial sequence is obvious on this Panavia Tornado. ZA326 was operated by the Royal Aircraft Establisment, Bedford.

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.

0125 is an example of many air forces basic numerical sequencing of their aircraft. This is a Dassault Falcon 20 belonging to the Norwegian Air Force.

0125 is an example of many air forces basic numerical sequencing of their aircraft. This is a Dassault Falcon 20 belonging to the Norwegian Air Force.   

German military aircraft are easily recognisable by the insertion of the German Cross between two sets of digits. Here, 16+28, a Hansa Jet, is in the static display at the RAF Mildenhall airshow.

German military aircraft are easily recognisable by the insertion of the German Cross between two sets of digits. Here, 16+28, a Hansa Jet, is in the static display at the RAF Mildenhall airshow.

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.

A screen shot of a tiny section from my own personal 'spotting' log book. It shows, the different types of registrations available clearly.

A screen shot of a tiny section from my own personal ‘spotting’ log book. It shows, the different types of registrations available clearly.

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.

Eddie, still at the 'fence' all these years later! The difference? The McD F-4 Phantom in the background hadn't even flown when I first started 'spotting', now it's a museum piece.

Eddie, still at the ‘fence’ all these years later! The difference? The McD F-4 Phantom in the background hadn’t even flown when I first started ‘spotting’, now it’s a museum piece.

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.

 

10 Responses to ‘I AM NOT A SPY, HONEST’ – MEMOIRS OF AN AIRCRAFT SPOTTER

  1. Captain Thomas says:

    This will be very interesting! From one A/C spotter to another Tally Ho Ole boy we shall need to start the tales straightaway 🙂

  2. Eddie Gold says:

    Hi Captain Thomas or can I call you Tom? I have started with an introduction to the hobby and I know it is quite ambiguous, seeing that the more you get into the hobby you realise the diversity of registration/serial sequences there are, but I would have spent a week putting them all into print, but there is enough to go on and get a taste for spotting. Hope the photos are to your approval…many more to come 😉
    Stories to come? How about being arrested twice in Egypt for spotting? Or maybe being reported as a terrorist to the anti-terrorist squad after a circular spotting trip around Shropshire! Mountain climbing to reach the remains of a crashed Lancaster and being woke at 3am by USAF security asking if we were spies, lol. Many many more of the same to come 🙂
    Eddie

    • Graham Summers says:

      Was the wake up call from USAF security at Mildenhall on the track around the fence by any chance? Myself and a couple of friends camped out in a van there, in the late 1980s and were not bothered by any security. At least we got to see what I wanted, which was the early morning SR-71 launch!

  3. Anthea Samman says:

    I have always enjoyed watching aircraft take off and land and would always look up if I heard something flying overhead. Now, since knowing Eddie, I have caught the aircraft spotting bug and am now compiling my own list of registrations. When I fly back to Cairo, after spending some time in the UK I usually fly KLM. I book flights that would allow me time in Schipol airport to go out of the airport up to the spotters deck to see what new aircraft registrations I can find. I feel a sense of achievement if I can get some registrations that Eddie doesn’t have. Not an easy task as he has over 12,000! I do have though more Chinese registrations and I have seen 3 of the 4 Air France A380s!

  4. Hello Eddie and Anthea, Now you have put a name to it “I know what I are”…. 🙂
    Since I was adopted out of an orphanage home at the age of seven and found myself living near an airport I have been drawn to airports and airplanes like a magnet. I just couldn’t help myself. I am one of those guys who would live on a taxiway or at the very end of a busy runway and sit watching aircraft operations day and night if I could. I would never get tired of it. But the difference is I have never put a purpose to it (like writing down tail numbers) or as you call it being a “Spotter”. Great idea…………. But then… I would be like my old “Bull-Dog” who liked to chase Cars; when he did finally catch one, he looked around as if to ask “Now that I caught it, What do I do with it?” 🙂 🙂 Great idea Eddie !! 🙂
    Spotting seems to give everything a sense of purpous in the whole scheme of things, huh?
    I am so grateful to read about your experiences and it gives (us) the readers and followers of your blog as sense of understanding how it is to be in another part of the world. It also gives our aviation community the adhesive fellowship we need to promote and further the interest general aviation. Thanks so much Eddie and Anthea (may I combine, for this purpose, both names under) Gold? 🙂 or will that get me in trouble Anthea? 🙁 (if so sorry) Your friend and Brother Aviator JR

    • Eddie Gold says:

      Thank you JR, we will have you at the ‘fence’, binoculars and note book in hand yet 😉 You would have to get the ‘collecting bug’ first, as I will explain further down in answer to Diane’s question. But in answer to the Anthea question, she may not have the same surname as me but she does have a heart of ‘Gold’ as well as being a good aircraft spotter 🙂

  5. Diane Alexander says:

    I have watched airplanes forever and never thought about the numbers. Whenever a airplane flys over I look up and watch it until it dissapears into the clouds. I almost wrecked my car watching a plane takoff when I am near an airport, but I never pay attention to the numbers or even the airline it belongs to. I do notice the pretty colors and if it is pretty or ucky 😉 i guess that is the girlie in me. but now that I have read you blog I am now aware of the numbering and may start to understand and watch for these numbers myself. Do you think I should start a log? If so what should I do with the log? What is the point? I am very interested but shouldn’t there be an end reason for doing this? Or have i missed the point? Thanks to Anthea I have seen that women have a place in this mans blog too. Thank you Anthea, I have been reading Eddie’s blog but having you involved has made me feel like you and i have a feminine connection as well and it isn’t just a old boys club. 🙂 thank you 🙂

    • Eddie Gold says:

      Hi Diane and thank you for your comment. Your attraction to aircraft, besides probably giving you a stiff neck from peering skywards, has already made you an aircarft enthusiast and one step away from getting more involved. Spotting is not the only hobby available for enthusiasts but it does seem that most of the others benefit from being a spotter too.
      You asked ‘what is the point’ and believe me, that’s not the first time I have been asked that. Having a ‘finishing point’ would make it redundant as why would you want to stop looking at aircraft. But if there is any point then it may be one of education (at least that is what I say, lol). As you can see from screen shot of a small part of my logbook that the information added to each sighting shows that a certain amount of research went into each ‘spot’ and gaining the information gives you a wider knowledge of the whole subject. But in reality, I also think the British as a nation have a bug for collecting. It doesn’t matter what it is, Brits will collect it. Obvious examples are stamps and coins but they even collect beer mats(coasters), postcards, candy wrappers, wine bottle labels…you name it they collect it. Therefore, the collecting of registrations is just another way to feed the bug. In Britain there are many people who collect Train Numbers and they can tell you everything about locomotives, the same goes for Bus number collectors…and of course, aircraft spotters are the same.
      I suppose this is a hobby that can be done personally and you could get enjoyment out of it, but it is also good to be part of the ‘spotter’ community to share your hobby. This is when the rare find comes in. Bragging is nice, lol…especially if you saw a rare aircraft and the others didn’t. But of course, you would have to know that it was a rare aircraft to start with. That is one of the reasons to keep logs.
      There are some ways to aim for a goal…such as ‘fleeting’. You may try to ‘fleet’ an airline; try and ‘spot’ every aircraft used in an airlines fleet. Sounds easy but there is always one or two that are based somewhere else or are stored in a hangar (which gets you into all kinds of trouble trying to spot it). You may also do the same with military aircraft and try and fleet squadrons or aircraft carrier retinues. Or you just may try to reach a certain number of new spots each month/year, aiming for x amount by a certain date, which will get you out and about trying to see as many new aircraft as possible.
      Spotting a rare aircraft is a high, especially if you get a photo too, but as I said before, without the knowledge how would you know it was a rare aircraft.
      Should you take it up? Well I am biased of course and would say ‘definitely’ every time. If you like looking at aircraft then this would of course give an added incentive to look more closely and then give a name to the plane and much more.
      Generally, as spotters we all take a note book and write down the registrations at the airport or wherever we see the planes, then you can return home and either (if you have them) check your loggings against the registration books or search the registration on the internet. With the concise information at hand then you can add it to your logs. Either in a book by hand with columns drawn or using, like I do, a database document that allows you to search your logs by date, location, registration and type. You can use my example above to make one of your own. You don’t neccessarily need to have a column for constructors numbers (c/n) or alternate ID, but Registration, Type, Location, Date of seeing and notes for the operator and or anything special, would be ideal for a beginner.
      But beware, as soon as you start collecting it will take over your life, lol. Vacations will be taken next to an airport and any car journey will include stops at all airfields along the way and no progress will be made until you have scoured the airfield and logged every aircraft there.
      But whatever you choose to do, keep your eyes skywards as that is where beauty lies 🙂

  6. melissa says:

    OMG how many years of my youth did i have a CAM and MAM in hand, gift for every fathers day, milldenhall, cosford, coventry etc etc . Even now i still look up and see the needle eye smoke trail, sad or what lol xxx

  7. Hi Graham,
    It certainly was the USAF security doing their early morning rounds of the boundary fence in their quadbike thing. They tolerated the spotters and would joke with us during the day, even letting us know if there was something special on its way but I also think they got sadistic pleasure in waking us up in the middle of the night.
    This was when we used to camp at the Mildenhall village end of the airfield, behind an industrial estate. But the we found John Morley’s campsite at the West Row end and never looked back. We even had a permanent caravan based there! And yes, it was a short walk from the pub in West Row after closing time (usually around 2am) to the caravan…via the Blackbird sheds where we could watch the preparations and taxi out of that nights SR-71 flight…arriving back at the caravan just in time to see/hear the take off 🙂
    Good days 🙂

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