Eye on the sky
Plane-spotting is a nerdy hobby for people who want to know everything there is to know about planes, says Varuni Khosla
Imaging Santanu Mallick
It's a regular ritual for telecommunications professional Uday Krishna. About once a month he makes an early morning trip to a deserted spot near the boundary wall of Delhi airport armed with his camera and his mobile phone. Here he meets with two other friends Sushank Gupta, 25, and Abhishek Gupta, 32, and they scour the skies for incoming planes.
Occasionally, the trio has trouble with the police, but they are utterly law-abiding citizens. They're plane-spotters and their only aim is to photograph the giant birds as they drop gently from the sky and land at the airport. "I photograph each and every aircraft that comes by during our two- to three-hour sessions," says Sushank.
For outsiders, this is a hobby that may seem mind-numbingly dull and even a bit baffling. But plane-spotters get endless thrills from gazing at and photographing the beautiful man-made birds. No detail is too small for a plane-spotter. Some focus on the registration numbers and others keep an eye out for technical details like whether the plane has sharklets (these are wingtip devices fitted on some planes to reduce drag).
(Left to right) plane-spotting buddies Abhishek Gupta, Sushank Gupta and Uday Krishna usually meet about once a month for their early morning eye-on-the-sky sessions near the boundary wall of Delhi airport; Pic: Jagan Negi
The obvious discomforts of heat and cold don't deter the plane-spotters from hanging about near airports with their cameras at the ready. And now technology is also coming to their aid so, for long stretches, Krishna, Sushank and Abhishek stand huddled around Abhishek's iPhone, which is loaded with an app called Flightradar24 that gives them all the details about the flights coming in over the next hour.
Suddenly (and this process repeats itself for about an hour) they make a dash for their cameras and keep clicking away as fast as possible for about 45 seconds. Their shutter speeds are set to 1/1000 — that's perfect to catch a moving aircraft and make it look stationed in mid-air.
Bangalore-based Devesh Agarwal is a veteran plane-spotter, who has been clicking photographs of planes for years. But Agarwal has gone several steps further to get his hobby recognised. Most importantly, he and several others convinced the city's airport authorities in 2008 to put up a platform inside the airport where spotters could go and click pictures. Says Agarwal: "People like us get up on weekends at 4am to take photos of planes at the crack of dawn. That includes finding a spot around a field outside an airport and camping out there for hours on end."
Closer home, in Burdwan, Anindya Banerjee is also trying for a green signal from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to shoot at the airport in Calcutta. Banerjee heads out a few times a year for plane-spotting sessions.
(Plane-spotters in action at Juhu beach in Mumbai; Pic Girish Bhagnari
And in Mumbai, another visitor to the outskirts of the city's airport is Aalok Gaitonde, a student at the IIT. Gaitonde loves the sight of the planes coming in though he's extremely aware that hanging around the airport can never be converted into a paying proposition. But that doesn't stop him from spending heavily on his hobby. He uses a Canon EOS 400D along with three high-powered lenses. Says Gaitonde: "No aviation photographer makes money in India. The hobby is taxing and requires a lot of effort and commitment.
For the outsider, a conversation between two plane-spotters is next to incomprehensible. "There goes a Bombardier Dash 8,"remarks Sushank in a tone that suggests he has just seen the most interesting thing in the world. Then, he slips into a long discussion with Sushank and Abhishek that appears to be about women with unusual codenames like G-VGOA Indian Princess and G-VOGE Cover Girl. Abhishek turns round to clarify: "We're talking about aeroplanes." G-VGOA Indian Princess and G-VOGE Cover Girl are Virgin Atlantic A340-600 aircraft.
For plane-spotters, life perks up when a new craft or one that is unusual for some reason, flies into India. About two years ago, All Nippon Airways made its first flight into India in a Boeing 787 and about 10 spotters spread out over various spots in Dwarka — which adjoins Delhi airport — to shoot the plane (they spread out so that somebody would get a shot of the plane even if the police did object to their activities. Similarly, a group of 10 rose early to catch the first A-380 coming into Delhi.
Just about any craft that goes into the air is fair game for plane-spotters. Although they primarily shoot Indian and other commercial carriers, they also aim their cameras at helicopters, private charter planes and even trainee aircraft that happen to be around.
Bangalore airport's plane-spotting platform is the only one of its kind in this country; Pic Aviation Photographers India
Take Sushank who has been a plane-spotter since 2008. He reckons that he has done anywhere between 20 and 30 sessions and he has photographed roughly about 60 Air India aircraft (out of a fleet of about 110). One of the prized shots in his collection was of Air Astana's first flight into Delhi (Air Astana is a Kazakh airline). On another occasion, he captured an Aeroflot Ilyushin 96 at Delhi airport.
What do plane-spotters look out for when they spot an aircraft coming within photographing distance? All spotters note the type of the plane, the make, size, colours and country of origin. They try to build a database of aircraft. Others turn their cameras to the tail colours and also the name of the plane and the temporary stickers that are plastered on the side (like in 2008 when Air India had Commonwealth Games details painted on the sides of several of its planes).
Air India, incidentally, names its planes after states nowadays and its older planes used to be named after cities. Spicejet, by contrast, lives up to its name and names its planes after spices like fenugreek.
Shots like this one, of a Gulf Air plane taking off, are what plane-spotters hang around for hours to click; Pic Devesh Agarwal
Most spotters nowadays seem to try and get full shots of the planes that can then be sold to websites like airliners.net and jetphotos.net.
The plane-spotters are well networked and keep other informed if any new craft are expected. And Agarwal, has even set up a group called the Aviation Photographers India (API) and he also has a Facebook page with 27 members.
The downside of plane-spotting is unfortunately run-ins with the police who in our security-conscious times are wary of people hanging around airports. Krishna recalls a time, two years ago when he was hauled up in a nearby police station and beaten up and interrogated for nine hours straight. "My parents were called, the CBI was called. It was a horrible day." he recalls with a shudder. "No one understands the law but outside the airport, all photography is legal," says Krishna.
In other parts of the world, plane-spotting is recognised for the harmless hobby that it is. Outside London's Heathrow there's a field set aside for plane-spotters. Except for Bangalore no other Indian airport has provisions for the spotters.
Obviously, plane-spotting isn't likely to ever become a fast-growth hobby, but for aircraft lovers it's a harmless and great way to hang out and keep track of the big birds they love.