But when Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) recently invited us to the launch of the Anjung Spotter, a platform at KLIA specially designed to watch airplanes, we were pretty surprised. Apparently, watching airplanes (plane-spotting) for fun is a legit hobby in Malaysia, and according to Raja Azmi Raja Nazuddin, CEO of MAHB,
“Plane spotters and aviation aficionados will be delighted to know that they will now have a perfect view of aircraft arriving at Runway 32L, allowing them to take great shots… The Anjung Spotter will definitely be the next Instagram-worthy spot,” – Raja Azmi, as reported by the Straits Times.
Judging by the comments on our Facebook post on the matter, it would seem that some were just as flabbergasted as we are. After all, last year a politician in Kelantan had implied that watching planes at the Kota Bharu airport is the sort of thing that desperately bored people do in the absence of proper recreational facilities.
“Kelantan is the only place in the world where its residents regard an airport as a recreational attraction, and nowhere else in the world would parents bring their children to the airport just to watch planes land and take off,” – excerpt from Dr Md Alwi Che Ahmad, as reported by The Star.
So… real hobby, or backwater entertainment? As it turns out, there’s a quite sizeable international community of people who watch planes, and the really enthusiastic ones are known online as aviation geeks (#AvGeeks). We’ve talked to some local aviation enthusiasts to know more about the hobby, and one of our questions was…
What’s so fun/interesting about watching planes, anyway?
Apparently, the allure of plane watching is not that different from other hobbies like stamp collecting or bird watching: passion and the depth of the hobby. And when it comes to passion, most of the plane spotters we talked to fell in love with airplanes from a very young age, and never looked back.
KS Ong, a plane watcher of 30 years, remembered asking his parents to take him to the airport just to see airplanes landing and taking off, being attracted to the sights and sounds of the machines, and later, the beauty of the physics that allowed them to fly. Like some in the community, he collects model airplanes in addition to taking photos of them.
Abah Atok, a plane photographer since the 1980s, also started out collecting model airplanes, and later their pictures. He started his plane photography hobby even before the age of digital cameras.
“At that time it was too hard (it was the film age). My collection was kept in the form of postcard albums (3R or 4R). Unfortunately, my photo collection from KUL and Subang from 1980 to 2008 had been ruined/gone missing during a flood.” – Abah Atok, to Cilisos.
Juwita Anne, whose aviation Instagram boasts 23.4k followers, had liked airplanes for as long as he remembered, and Avgeekmy, also an aviation Instagrammer, turned to plane spotting after his dreams of becoming a pilot didn’t work out.
“It has been my interest to be a pilot since I was young. But financial concerns became an obstacle to my ambition. In 2015, I found out that there’s a public place to see planes landing, and from there I started getting into this hobby,” – Avgeekmy, to Cilisos.
The second part of this hobby is the depth. For many, it can be said that it’s a quest to see and document as many different airplanes as they can. To that end, some, like Anwar, who left a broadcasting job to work at an airport, uses an app to check the schedule of planes coming in every day, and prepares accordingly when a rare one comes in.
For example, he told us that when the Antonov An-225 Mriya (dubbed the world’s biggest airplane, the only one of its kind) was scheduled to land at KLIA at 7 in the morning sometime in 2018, he woke up early and waited at the airport hours beforehand in anticipation.
But it’s not just the world’s biggest plane that gets the attention of plane spotters. Besides highlights like Barrack Obama’s arrival in the Air Force One back in 2015 and KLIA’s first Airbus A380 in 2012, plane enthusiasts can learn the details and history of almost every plane they see by spotting its registration number (like a car’s license plate), often painted near or on the tail. We can probably go into more detail, but as Kevin Epstein, an operator of a US-based plane image hosting site puts it,
“There’s always something to see. New liveries, new airlines, you could go [to LAX] for months on end and still not see all the planes in the fleets.” – Kevin Epstein, as reported by Airways.
Even if you’re not planning to catch ’em all, plenty of Malaysians have enjoyed just watching airplanes with their families on airport perimeters. So if you’re thinking of giving it a go…
Here are some tips and tricks to get you started
In some countries, you can get into trouble for plane spotting, like when two British spotters got their pictures confiscated and put in jail for spotting in Dubai. But will you get into trouble in Malaysia? Abah Atok did mention getting into trouble quite often in the past, but for specific reasons.
“I’m already used to being arrested by the authorities at KLIA. I was once interrogated for 3 hours at IPD Sepang and got my photos deleted (I was confused to its relevance at the time) during the MH370 case. In Bandung, Indonesia, I was arrested and disposed of my photos on account of taking pictures of military aircraft,” – Abah Atok, to Cilisos.
Today, as told by Juwita and Avgeekmy, you’ll probably be fine as long as you stay out of restricted areas and follow the rules. KS Ong told us that with the advent of social media in recent years, airports in Malaysia have been more accepting of plane spotters, even holding events involving them and providing spaces like the Anjung Spotter.
So if you enjoy watching airplanes and want to take your passion to the next level, how do you start? Anwar recommends making friends with other plane spotters you see at the airport, and Abah Atok recommends joining the many aviation groups on social media, both being great sources of information on the matter.
As for the equipment, most would agree that you don’t need fancy cameras and lenses to enjoy the hobby: Juwita started out with her phone camera before moving on to DSLR, and he mentioned that many spotters new to the game can still produce breathtaking pictures with those. The important thing, according to him, is interest in the matter. This notion is shared by Avgeekmy.
“Special equipment? It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you’re using. Start with your phone (like me) and get to know other spotters on the runway, and you’ll see the whole story. It starts small, but with great impact.” – Avgeekmy, to Cilisos.
Apart from cameras, Abah Atok mentions another equipment that might be useful: a simple aluminum ladder for airports without a viewing platform, so that your line of sight clears the fence.
Avgeekmy shares that you can see different kinds of airplanes at different airports: commercial planes from all over the world often land at KLIA, and for military aircraft, Subang Skypark is the place to go as it shares a runway with our Air Force (TUDM).
There is a wealth of resources online for you to learn more about it, but other things aside, Anwar advises plane spotters to watch their behavior during the activity, as it reflects on the community as a whole. And there’s no need to be competitive about it: Avgeekmy reminds people that it’s just a hobby, and people should be sincere about it, and be a good fellow plane spotter.