The Planespotters

Fueled by social media and widely shared secrets, the subculture soars in Las Vegas


Room 23112 at Mandalay Bay has garnered repeated mentions on the Internet, but it has nothing to do with pillow menus or plasma TVs. Instead, the room is lauded for its excellent position from which to monitor the runway traffic at McCarran International Airport.

For some vacationers—variously known as planespotters, avgeeks and tail watchers—the highlight of a Vegas visit is a day spent surveying takeoffs, snapping photos, shooting video and maybe even keeping spreadsheets of planes they’ve seen. And as the nation’s ninth-busiest airport, serving 40 million passengers a year via four runways just blocks from one of the nation’s most scenic airport backdrops, McCarran is uniquely suited to the hobby.

Planespotters have probably found their way to the site since the first airstrip was laid down in 1942, says airport spokesman Chris Jones. But there’s a 21st-century twist: The planespotting subculture—long the purview of specialty magazines and chance encounters at airports—now spreads rapidly through social media. Today’s planespotting community is well-connected, well-informed and always “on.” For the uninitiated, the online conversations read like an alphabet soup of planes, runways and tail numbers as users share snapshots and trade tips.

One place to get a glimpse of the avgeek lexicon is, operated by Las Vegan Jim Boone. People often email the retired ecologist asking for spotting tips, and he has facilitated several outings. His interest in aviation was sparked by a stint fighting forest fires from helicopters. “If I’m out and a helicopter is flying by, you can bet I’m watching it,” he says. In particular, Boone says he can’t resist stopping for a spell at McCarran’s viewing area on Sunset Road just east of Paradise.

An asphalt pocket of about 48 parking spaces, the Sunset Viewing Area includes an onsite FM transmitter that broadcasts active control-tower chatter. (Locating the correct frequency is problematic; on either side of the designated frequency, one alternately hears Rush Limbaugh or lively mariachi music.) It’s common to see families with small children here or people eating sandwiches on lunch breaks. One recent day, a man wearing a tan safari hat tracked the takeoff of a Hawaiian Airlines flight, his camera’s telephoto lens pushed against the chain-link fence as the aircraft lifted off 300 feet away.

That fence is a popular topic on online message boards. Some spotters suggest using a ladder to get better pictures, while others stand on top of their cars. (They highly recommend using a rental.) Those in the know, however, also head up to the roof of the McCarran employee-parking garage (accessed through the long-term parking garage), where they can snap pictures of flights with the glistening Strip in the background.

Flemming, a Delta employee who asked to be identified only by his first name, photographs here often. Having worked in the aviation industry since the 1960s, he tries to learn everything he can about the planes he sees. Many of those omnipresent Allegiant jets, he says, are old Scandinavian Airlines planes, ones he used to spot in their original incarnation. “I worked with those planes in Denmark,” Flemming says. “And now, all of a sudden, they’re here.”

If the view is the rooftop’s major selling point for planespotters, its next-best asset may be ease of access. Photographer Chris Parypa, who was used to being questioned about his activity at other airports, was stunned when Transportation Security Administration agents arrived on the scene and paid him no attention. “I asked them what was going on and they said they just came for their lunch break,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable!’ TSA came and stood with me eating their lunch and didn’t even ask me for my ID. McCarran is very open and spotter-friendly; there are no police officers checking your ID every five minutes like you have in New York.”

But what really sets McCarran apart from other major airports, Parypa says, is the chance to see unusual aircraft—especially an infamous fleet, nameless other than its “Janet” call sign. (The word itself is cloaked in mystery; planespotters like to say it stands for “Just Another Nonexistent Terminal.”) These mysterious Boeing 737 jets with the prominent red horizontal stripe are thought to depart McCarran for Area 51, and catching a glimpse of one is an avgeek goal.

“It’s always a top priority when you come to Vegas,” Parypa says. “This is something you might see on the Discovery Channel, you know?”