Rare Bird (The New Yorker)

Up In the Sky Department

(NewYorker.com link)

For all its eccentricities, bird-watching is a respectable hobby, practiced by psychiatrists, kings, and forty-six million Americans. But plane spotting—which also entails tramping around swamps to watch flying objects—somehow lacks the same cachet.

Phil Derner, Jr., the president of the Web site NYCAviation.com, estimates that there are fifty active plane spotters in the New York City area. At noon last Monday, nearly all of them were gathered, telephoto lenses in hand, in North Woodmere Park, which is situated at the head of Jamaica Bay and beneath the flight path to Runway 22 Left at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The occasion: the maiden arrival, from Frankfurt, of the double-decker Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in the world. (It was on a promotional and “route-proving” trip organized by Airbus and Lufthansa.) During its development, the A380 had been trouble for Airbus, with production delays resulting in cancelled orders and layoffs. But the Airbus is big and she is rare, and that is more than enough to bring out a crowd of plane geeks.

A tenth grader named Matt—he asked that his last name not be used, since he was skipping school—had travelled from Westchester with his father, a lawyer. “I think the A380 is a landmark in aviation,” Matt said, explaining why he had come. “My mom was really against the idea.”

“It’s his passion,” his father said. “We were struggling for a while, because he wants to be a pilot, and we want him to be an engineer. We have only one kid, so a pilot seems kind of, you know.” Matt recently started taking an online course in Danish, to prepare himself for a job with Scandinavian Airlines. “They have a really good fleet, a lot of long-range A330s and A340s,” he said, before excusing himself to watch a Singapore Airlines 747-400 on its final approach.

The spotters had been nervous for days. J.F.K. has four runways, some as long as fourteen thousand feet, which can be used in either direction. That means dozens of spotting sites, some miles apart, and it wouldn’t be possible to know in advance which runway the Airbus would use. “The thing that will suck is that if we are at N. Woodmere, and they decide to send him to 31L or 31R,” someone had written on the group’s message board.

But Monday dawned cold and clear, with a steady south wind, making Runway 22 Left nearly a sure thing. At least the spotters would be spared assembling near 31 Right, behind the Costco on Rockaway Turnpike, whose manager had recently been clamping down on the aviation enthusiasm in his parking lot.
When Lufthansa Flight 8940 Super finally checked in, from somewhere above the Hamptons, the crowd at Woodmere roared in delight. Over a radio scanner, the German pilot pronounced it “zooper.”

At twelve-ten, the plane was cleared to land. John Toomey, a retired Catholic-school principal from Howard Beach, chewed on a cigar and reminisced. “The Concorde used to leave a mist of jet fuel,” he said. “I wouldn’t smoke for a couple of hours.” Then a white speck appeared low on the horizon, with four engines and a telltale curve to its wings, like a child’s drawing of a bird.

“That’s it—the super jumbo!” Andy Lomasky, a consultant from Long Island, yelled. The giant white plane passed across the sky from right to left. There were giggles, then silence. A pair of geese took off from the reeds, and an oven-size piece of ice floated by. Then the A380’s massive blue tail—five stories high—sank behind a few trees, onto the runway and out of view.

The spotters were quiet for a moment. “I don’t want to be Mr. Damp, but it was a bit anticlimactic,” said Geoff Cook, who had driven down for the day from Rhode Island, and who grew up beneath the approach path to Luton Airport, outside London.

“It’s a prettier plane than I thought it would be,” Lynda Smith, a flight attendant from Long Island, said. “This is just one of those events that you’ve got to watch. It’s so simple. We came, we saw, we went home.”

A little later, Bob Lieber, the president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, greeted the A380 on behalf of Mayor Bloomberg, at a press conference in Terminal 1. He had heard nothing of the other welcoming committee. “What’s a plane spotter?” he asked. “What are they looking for?”