Sept. 8, 2011
by Phillip Martin
BOSTON — Since Sept. 11, 2001, much attention has focused on the security of the nation’s airports. By now, most of us know what to expect. Shoes off, computer out of the suitcase, put toiletries in a see-through bag… and walk through the scanner.
That’s inside the airport. But many passengers do not notice what is taking place outside, on the runways and in hangers at many facilities. Plane spotters do.
Like so many who sit along railroad tracks to watch trains go by, plane spotters look to the air. With advances in digital photography, the ranks of aviation enthusiasts have grown, and many are unofficial watchdogs of the sky. But since Sept. 11, the plane spotters themselves are now being more carefully watched.
One of them is Phil Derner. Standing on a park bench in the aptly named Planeview Park along a fenced off perimeter overlooking the highway in Queens, Derner points out passenger planes landing and taking off from LaGuardia in New York.
“I grew up across the water from LaGuardia Airport. When I was little boy I used to sit in my third-floor apartment watching the police trucks and fire trucks go past and watching the planes, like any little boy. Around the time I turned 18, I discovered the hobby of plane spotting,” Derner said.
Today, at age 30, Derner is the founder and President of NYC Aviation, a national news and resource organization for enthusiasts and anyone keen to know what’s going on in the world of aviation. Since Sept. 11, 2001, plane spotters, according to Derner, equipped with high-resolution digital cameras and a reputation for detail, have come to be seen by many as helpful eyes and ears.
“You’re talking about people who spend their free time hanging out at the airport like any security guard would. They can look at a plane and say ‘Hey, that’s not right. Something’s wrong there.’ They can see someone doing something around a perimeter fence. They can see may be something fell off a plane and the next plane may suck it up. Airport management and local management all around the world, they’re slowly starting to realize that spotters are a valuable asset as opposed to a possible threat,” Derner said.
Phil Orlandella, director of communications for Boston’s Logan Airport, agrees. “We ask them to assist us and even if they catch one sometimes, it’s a plus and its worth having them up there,” Orlandella said.
Orlandella is referring to his recent decision to allow a group of area plane spotters to photograph from the upper levels of the central garage, with the runways in plain view.
“It’s my opinion that if the so-called bad guy wanted to take different pictures at the airport then they wouldn’t be so obvious,” Orlandella said.
Orlandella serves as the liaison between Logan, the Department of Homeland Security, the media and the public. For 30 years he has found ways to accommodate folks who love to photograph and track the movement of planes.
On Sept. 11, ten years ago, American Flight 11 and United 175 took off from Logan. “Because of Sept. 11, things have changed,” Orlandella said.
With a camera around his neck, plane spotter John Jauchler recalls how he experienced those changes firsthand in late May, after driving two hours to Logan from Connecticut. “I’d been out there for an hour taking pictures and a Massport police car pulled up and blocked my car in,” Jauchler said. “A police officer asked me what I was doing and I told him I was an aviation enthusiast taking pictures of the airplanes and his response to that was, ‘Wrong answer.’”
Plane spotters, says Jauchler, aren't after classfied or sensitive information.
“We not after the infrastructure, we’re after the airplane, one of the absolute coolest things humans have ever invented. A 747 or an A380 — we like to take pictures of these things,” Jauchler said.
But he says trying to get close enough to get those pictures triggered a tough response from the state troope.
“He ran my ID against whatever data base that they have and comes over and proceeds to ask me to delete the images from my camera,” Jauchler said.
Orlandella is sympathetic, but only to a point.
“Well, at one time there was intelligence around that the so-called bad guy had people going around taking pictures of the airport. Taking the lay of the land,” Orlandella said.
He says it’s important for authorities to fall somewhere in the middle of being cautious and overcautious.
“It’s not good security to have people running around on your roofs not knowing who they are. So what we did is we sat down and came up with a simple plan: Call us. We’ll ask for some simple information: Name, address and stuff, and date and time. We’ll send you a memo, signed by me. If there’s a problem, show them the letter. Give them my number. We’ll take care of you,” Orlandella said.
But whether plane spotters are perceived as the good guys or the bad guys often depends on the airport. Boston’s Logan along with Memphis, Seattle and Los Angeles are generally considered friendly to spotters, while Chicago’s O’Hare, Atlanta and especially Islip on Long Island are considered anything but.
Derner said he was photographing planes from a darkened lot not far from MacArthur Airport one night when a policeman approached him.
“And he said put the cameras down, in the same tone he might as well have said put the gun down,” Derner said.
Derner and a fellow spotter were brought in for questioning.
“And we sat there for about four hours and (were) interrogated by about half a dozen detectives and they would swap out and come back in forth. ‘Why are you taking pictures of places? What’s so special about a 737?’” Derner said. “And I didn’t know exactly what my rights were. We want to be cooperative and helpful. We also can’t allow ourselves to be walked over.”
There was a time in aviation history when there was little ambiguity about the role of plane spotters. By most accounts, spotting took off during the Battle of Britain in World War II when the public was asked to keep an eye on the skies. Civil-defense efforts in the U.S. included handing out playing cards with illustrations of friendly and enemy aircraft.
In recent years, plane spotters in Scotland, Ireland, and Poland were credited with uncovering secret aircraft in hangers and on runways believed to be used by the CIA to transport suspected terrorists to third parties countries for interrogation, a policy known as extraordinary rendition. Such efforts did not make for friendly relations between the US government and aviation hobbyists.
Back at Planeview Park in Queens, in view of one of LaGuardia’s main runways, veteran plane spotter Phil Derner takes note of a man climbing over a fence. He also observes a car driving close to the perimeter.
“There have been times when we called the police on actual suspicious vehicles. Things that happened around the airport perimeter. You always make that call just to be safe. We’re out there, and we’re watching,” Derner said.
And with that, Derner turns his attention to the runway as another MD80 prepares to take off.