I’m spending the week with my new daughter, so we have another guest post today. This one lets a reader wax nostalgic about watching airplanes and gives some suggestions on how you can do the same without needing an official observation deck.
All airline dorks have their gateway into the world of commercial aviation. My first taste came from airport observation decks, particularly at the now defunct deck at Cherry Capital Airport, Traverse City, Michigan. I watched a North Central Convair 580 taxi in and park while sitting comfortably in my mother’s arms. Since that day, I’ve been hooked. Though observation decks are few and far between these days, there are plenty of other more creative ways to watch airplanes.
Because my father loved airplanes, I had the good fortune to spend a lot of time at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) observation deck. This deck was located on top of Concourse C off the old Smith Terminal, and Delta was the main tenant. One of my first aviation memories here was looking down to watch a Delta L-1011 pull into the gate. I turned around and could see an American Airlines 707 and DC-10 at their gates in Concourse B. Unfortunately, along with all these aircraft, the observation deck at Detroit Metro disappeared years ago and never reopened. The deck along with the rest of Concourse C was demolished to make way for the new terminal.
During college, I spent two summers as an intern for Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE). Hopkins had a great observation deck, featuring both an inside and outside area. Many days I would grab my lunch and head up to the deck for a picnic and some plane watching. At that time CLE had a lot of interesting mainline aircraft and there were those fabulous days when Detroit had weather issues and Northwest sent a few 747’s to CLE for refueling. I loved sitting on the deck watching those birds take off! Following 9-11 this deck was also closed and is likely to remain so indefinitely.
While the number of observation decks has dwindled, that doesn’t mean kids today can’t find a good spot to watch airplanes. It just takes a little creativity. Here are some of my favorites.
They say Texas does everything big and the DFW Skylink is no exception. Oh sure, you can go watch airplanes at Founders’ Plaza at the far north end of the field, but the Skylink is a great way to see the entire terminal complex up close. On one visit, I grabbed some breakfast and hopped on the Skylink for an impressive tour of the DFW airport facility. The Skylink operates in a circular path covering all major terminals. During my journey, I saw a Qantas 747 at the gate along with a lot of American Airlines planes. Unfortunately, it is in the secure area of the airport but worth the time if you are traveling through DFW.
Los Angeles International
Los Angeles has its own observation deck on top of the Theme Building in the center of the airport (and the Encounter Restaurant right below it), but any longtime reader of the Cranky Flier is well aware of the excellent plane spotting at the In ‘n Out burger just off the airport property (and the location of a September 28 event!). (Besides, the observation deck above the restaurant is only open on Saturdays and Sundays between 8:00am – 5:00pm anyway.
I’ll save the best for last. One of the gems of watching aircraft at National (DCA) isn’t actually in the airport but a park called Gravelly Point. What is unique is that Gravelly Point is located on the Potomac River directly at the north end of the main DCA runway. You can have aircraft taking off above you or an aircraft following the “River Visual” and roaring over you before touchdown. I spent 15 years in the DC area, and this was my favorite spot. It was a little better when DCA wasn’t infiltrated with all the regional jets…back in the 1990s you would see a lot of 727s, 757s and MD-80s. DCA also has a lot to offer in the airport including a TGI Fridays with a view of the field. In addition, there is a section in the old DCA terminal where you can sit and watch apron and runway activity and check out a nice display of photos of the airport over the years. Added bonus: all of this is outside of security!
While times have changed, there are still plenty of options available to watch planes. These are just a few of the ones I’ve enjoyed over the years. I hope kids today will have those same opportunities. Happy sighting!
Chris Brown is a recovering Washington DC lobbyist and founder of a government affairs and non-profit consulting business based in New Jersey. He got his start in aviation collecting any and all airline timetables, checking out observation decks and bouncing around his home state of Michigan in a Cessna 152 with his father. During his free time he reads about political history and aviation, spends time with his family and dog, and watches professional and college ice hockey. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.