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Aircraft, Airlines and Air Forces: Eyeing Flying in Plain Language

Updated on June 5, 2014

Viewing Aircraft

Air Shows

The most obvious and relaxing place to go to view aircraft is an air show but these are few and far between nowadays and can be rather expensive. Although, depending on where you live, there are sometimes local air shows, open days or fly-ins that are free or only ask for a small cash donation.

Air Shows are the best place to see aircraft close up, usually military and sometimes aircraft from rarely seen countries, and depending on the crowds excellent photographs can be taken.

Military Airfields

If there is no dedicated viewing area or known place where people gather to watch the comings and goings then stay away from military airfields.

If you are planning a visit to a military airfield sometimes a polite e-mail in advance to the base commander can result in an unexpected tour of the base. It can also be a way of finding out how receptive they will be to you observing aircraft from the area outside the airfield.

Civil Airports

Dedicated viewing areas at civil airports have mostly vanished. The authorities no longer encourage non-flying customers to hang about their terminals and definitely not anywhere near the perimeter fencing.

This is a shame as they were extremely popular and where they remain they still are. In fact the main viewing terrace at Frankfurt Airport was the second biggest tourist attraction in Germany, until it was closed.

Where an airport doesn’t have an authorised viewing area there are usually many open areas well away from the airport, where locals gather, which provide views of aircraft on the ground or the arrivals and departures.

Civil Airfields

Civil Airfields are usually small privately owned places where leisure and private flying takes place.

They are normally, but not always, friendly places that encourage people who show an interest in flying and aviation in general.

If you go to a civil airfield ask for permission to look round or even take the opportunity to have a meal and a drink in the clubhouse which are sometimes open to non-members and usually have views over the airfield. An e-mail in advance asking for information will usually allow you to find out how receptive they are to non members.

Aviation Museums

These are great places to view and photograph all types of aircraft. They are normally reasonably priced to enter and many are free.

The reason they are so good apart from the variety is that the aircraft don’t move so you have all day to relax and wander about taking as long as you like to enjoy the atmosphere.

Storage Areas

Storage Areas or Desert Boneyards as they are also known are mainly found in the USA. Apart from the most well known Boneyard, Davis Monthan in Tucson, Arizona which is mainly for storing military aircraft there are also storage areas filled with civil aircraft at places like Mojave Airport California, Kingman Arizona, Roswell New Mexico, and Marana also in Arizona.

Be aware that seeing these aircraft is another matter. Driving around the perimeter may only allow limited views of the stored aircraft. Some do tours which you can pre-book and another way of seeing the aircraft can be to hire a small plane and then get the pilot to do a fly-past of the area.

Civil Aircraft Variants


Nowadays there are only a few manufacturers of civil airliners the main ones being Airbus, Boeing, Canadair and Embraer.

You will also find that due to the technological advances in design and aircraft engines there are very few propeller driven aircraft at airports.

Airbus manufactures a whole family of aircraft to cater for short haul airlines (generally short flights up to 2,000 miles) and long haul airlines (flights over 2,000 miles). They also build the Airbus A.380 which is the largest commercial aircraft in the world holding up to 853 people depending on the cabin layout.

Boeing competes with Airbus by also offering a wide range of aircraft specifications. They have declined to try to out do Airbus by building anything as large as, or bigger than, the A.380. Probably because of the development costs which for the A.380 was around eleven billion euros.

Canadair (Canadian) and Embraer (Brazilian) build short haul aircraft which are normally smaller than Airbus or Boeing aircraft and are used on shorter less busy routes.

Executive Jets/Business Jets

There are a number of competing manufacturers who sell a lot of executive jets. The main ones are Gulfstream, Dassault, Embraer, Cessna and Beechjet.

Normally they are twin engined but occasionally you will see one of the two three engined variants that Dassault build the Falcon 900 and the Falcon 7X.

They come in all sizes from four seaters upwards. I don’t give an upper figure as there are also many privately operated business jet airliners the most popular being the Boeing 737 Business Jet (BBJ).

Light Aircraft

There are thousands of light aircraft and if you only take one manufacturer, Piper as an example, they alone have built over 140,000 aircraft since 1927.

Civil Airlines

Gone are the days when the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), Trans World Airlines (TWA) or Pan American World Airways (commonly known as Pan Am) ruled the skies. Swallowed up over the years by mergers and buy-outs there are only a few individual large airlines left.

So nowadays in America you will see many aircraft in American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines corporate colour schemes while in Europe, although there is slightly more competition, big named carriers still dominate such as Air France, British Airways, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Lufthansa.

Other large carriers providing competition on international routes to see at the main airports are Emirates Airlines, QANTAS (Queensland and North Territory Aerial Services) and Singapore Airlines.

You will also see numerous aircraft operated by the low cost carriers (LCC) which have grown over the years. In America, Southwest Airlines dominate and in Europe easyJet and Ryanair are frequent visitors to many airports.

Military Aircraft Variants

Manufacturers are numerous and build everything from fighters, trainers, tankers, to transport aircraft.

There are also vast numbers of military aircraft in service and stored. For example the USAF has over 5,000 aircraft in service and at the main storage centre in the USA, Davis Monthan, there are over 4,000 military aircraft cocooned, waiting to be broken up, delivered to new owners, or re-called to service.

Important: A Legal Warning

In many countries it is illegal to listen to aviation communications or record details of or photograph aircraft, especially military aircraft.

People have been arrested for watching aircraft. In Greece aircraft enthusiasts from the United Kingdom and Netherlands were jailed for three years for recording “tail numbers” at an Air Force base even though it was an open day. Although they were eventually acquitted on appeal they did go through a lengthy legal process.

Even in more open and relaxed countries anyone taking an interest in aircraft activities at or close to an airport or airfield will eventually attract the attention of the authorities particularly at military airfields.

If you are not at an official viewing area, or do not have permission from the proper authorities, politely ask before you do anything. If you are told “no”, then leave the area.

You can also help, by reporting anyone you think is acting suspiciously at an Airport or Airfield to the local police or authorities.

Further Information

There are many general and specialist aviation websites and publications which provide a vast amount of information. Whether you are an amateur or professional there are many books published by established companies that cover all areas of aviation and flying.

Most of the more informative websites are run by enthusiasts where the content reflects their target audience. Amongst other things they contain a lot of details on where to go to view aircraft and what you can see at a particular airport. There is even a website which provides live air traffic control communications and some which concentrate on aviation photography.

Other interesting websites are those which provide on-screen live aircraft movements from around the world. These can be set up to show your local area and details of flights in your vicinity whether at an airport or over flying. They display most civil airliners providing details of the type of aircraft, its height, and the departure airport and destination.

Finally there are also Google and Yahoo groups which you can join and then receive the latest aviation news or ask for advice or information.


@ 2013 Brian McKechnie (aka WorldEarth)


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