The View From the Deck…or the Park: Great Places to Watch Planes (Guest Post)

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 Author with Momdecks, 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, Eastern Spottingalong 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.

Dallas/Fort Worth
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.

Washington National
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 onDCA Gravelly Point 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: chris@brownpolicygroup.com.


40 Responses to The View From the Deck…or the Park: Great Places to Watch Planes (Guest Post)

  1. There are plenty of airports where one can get a decent, semi-obstructed view (spent several hours at LGA term C on Sunday with an ok view of the runway), but I think my favourite spot I have been to recently is ALB. There is a nice observation room, and while Albany isn’t exactly a huge hub airport, if you time it right you see a few mainlines, some RJs, some delightful Cape Air Cessnas and a UPS cargo jet or two. During lulls in the action, there is a nice little art gallery there too. I had a lovely couple of hours there…

  2. Xnuiem says:

    DFW’s old tram system was excellent in this regard, much better than Skylink due to the old system being outside of security. It was a decent way to actually get around the airport, but a great way to spend (i.e. waste) some time airplane and people watching.

    Founder’s plaza is only so-so. It is ok if traffic is coming from the north and some heavies are coming in, but other than that, it really is just too far away, making it marginal at best.

  3. BT says:

    One summer in the late 90s a friend and I, both rowers, took a double to the point just south of DCA, where Four Mile Run joins the Potomac. The jets passed directly overhead and you felt them as much as heard them as they went by — a real rush. Loitering there today would probably be frowned upon.

  4. Sanjeev M says:

    Gravelly Point is amazing, period. It’s where I got my airline dorkiness.

    Although observation decks are gone from many airports, there are still plenty that have them and others that have large windows. NRT and MSP have observation decks, and places like IND, DAL, BWI have large windows to watch the action on taxiways.

  5. SEAN says:

    Just off the grounds of LAX one of the car rental lots is directly under the aproach to a runway. The jets litterally go over your head & are so close that you can clearly read the tail as well as see the underside of the planes.

    Concourse D at LAS with it’s large windows is another good area for plane spotting.

  6. Jorg says:

    I think in general, American airports have long thought that travelers don’t want to see the planes. I’ve experienced them to be pretty closed, as if it were a long hallway. In most other parts of the world, the terminals are more open, more windows and more planes visible.

    After 9/11 many observation decks have been closed in the US. Luckily here in Europe they’re still open. My favorites: Berlin Tegel: a full-size deck all over the terminal. Amsterdam: quite large, featuring an old Fokker 70 from KLM that’s open to the public.

  7. Joel says:

    Tokyo’s Narita has a great outdoor viewing area of a main runway which is good to take in on long layovers or waits for flights. It is inside security, but well worth the visit.

  8. While my mother is in her 80’s and sometimes can’t remember what happen 20 minutes ago, she can still remember when I was a small child and we were at the SFO observation deck and my dad was holding me as I sat on the wall with my legs hanging over the edge and thinking if my dad had a heart attack I would fall to the ground.

    Even enclosed places inside airport where you could sit and watch airplanes coming and going don’t exist at airports that once had them. Oakland used to have a nice large upper level viewing are. Looking down at the gate area and facing the runway. Before boarding gates being able to sit up there and look down at Western 707s/720s, Hughes yellow bananas, etc was a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend some time.

  9. Sean says:

    I used to watch planes in PHX at the northeast part of the airport – there used to be an open parking lot where you could park and watch planes taking off and landing. I used to spend my lunch hour(s) there in the late 90’s. Now, I think that parking lot is enclosed and it isn’t accessible anymore. But most of the takeoffs occur on the South side of the airport now anyways – but it was a great spot.

  10. S*A*A*D says:

    Not sure if it is open any longer but Frankfurt’s observation deck (complex, really), was par excellence. Every plane from every airline from every corner of the world, plus Rhein Main in the background flinging C-5 Galaxies in to the sky? Throw in a snoot full of Jet-A and….whoo…hot flashes!

  11. JayB says:

    Under the tower at the terminal, Dulles. The stubby, little DC-9s parking right under your nose, the bigger planes a little farther out waiting for the people movers, and then, here comes the Concorde.

    No plane has ever done 19L justice since, what with the takeoffs of that beautiful, proud, loud bird.

    One day, roar down the runway, then…quiet, silence. Something isn’t working just quite right. Got stopped, slowly back to the stand, somebody did a quick check-over, and back to the runway she went. Power up, exhaust smoke, and noise for all of nothern Virginia to hear, off she went, up, around to the right in a 270, and gone! Gravelly Point is nice, but to stand under the Dulles tower, watch the Concorde, in all her glory, unforgettable.

  12. I can’t believe nobody’s mentioned the IKEA restaurant across the Turnpike from Newark airport. The only windows in the entire building, and they overlook the runways. I often only come there for the meatballs and planespotting.

  13. james says:

    GRR/Grand Rapids used to have a walkway on the upper level above the A concourse, (cement/gravel if I recall) where you could be outside and watch the activity.

    It’s been long closed off, and I believe there’s a (less than adequate) atrium type bubble.

  14. Gayla Lindquist says:

    Watching the floatplanes land/take off at Lake Hood in Anchorage is best free entertainment since puppies and grandbabies!

    • Same with floatplanes in Vancouver. When I work there, I need to make sure I don’t have a window facing the harbour because I would be watching the planes all day…

  15. You have to pay for a room, but the Renaissance Waverly hotel at Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta offers great views of the runways. I’ve gotten some wonderful photos, particularly at night.

  16. I used to go to Arizona Cardinals games in Sun Devil Stadium. The football usually wasn’t very good, so I passed the time watching airplanes on approach to Sky Harbor. Tempe Town Lake (and the park directly north of US Airways’ current headquarters) is also a good spot, as is the Left Seat restaurant right next to the north runway.

    • Quest says:

      The left seat is a great little place that most people don’t know about. Come to Sun Devil Stadium this fall, there will be some good football!

  17. Jon says:

    Point Woronzof in Anchorage is wonderful during the summertime. Lots of light and plenty of 747s. Always rent a bicycle downtown and then spend an afternoon there.

    At home in ATL, the roof of the South parking deck gets you some very close views. Bicycle security cops usually don’t bother you. A couple have spoken to me, but they were more curious than anything.

  18. Brian Peters says:

    MSP still has a good observation deck above Concourse D. Great view of runway 12L/30R

  19. RDU has a wonderful observation deck on property, with plenty of parking. It overlooks runway 5L/23R, and is beautiful at night. RDU pipes in the control tower to pilot conversations, so you can listen to what’s going on as the planes land. The deck also has a small park with a scale model of the airport runway configuration.

  20. LT_DT says:

    Gravelly Point is undoubtedly one of there best there is. It isn’t what it used to be now that it’s primarily regional jets and higher bypass A320/737s, but every so often a Delta or American MD-80 cruises over and provides a stark reminder of what commercial aviation used to sound like.

    Although not a commercial airport, spotting at Paine Field north of Seattle is pretty cool too. Lots of big jets with liveries from all over the world, along with the occasional Dreamlifter or other unusual visitor. SeaTac itself has that floor to ceiling window in the central food court area that provides pretty cool views.

  21. Al B says:

    I was just in SFO yesterday and had some time to kill as flights were delayed throughout the day because of morning fog and smoke from a distant fire impeding the approach.

    There are superb views of the entire complex from the AirTrain that goes to and from the BART station and parking lots. The new Terminal 2 not only has great floor-to-ceiling picture windows, but several pairs of black rotating chairs around tables right by those windows.

    I also can’t say enough about SFO’s fabulous aviation museum and library located off the south end of the international terminal. It includes a permanent (I believe) display of the city’s role as a base for Pan-Am’s flying boats. The temporary displays are currently about the DC-3 and United flight attendant uniforms through the years.

    There are also changing art exhibits throughout the airport.

  22. Ed Kelty says:

    As a kid on Long Island, NY, it was a Sunday treat for the family to drive to the dock at Port Jefferson on Long Island Sound to watch the arrival of the Pan American Clipper. Today it is hard to imagine an international flight from South America to New York pulling up to an ordinary wooden dock normally used by fishing boats. Later, the Marine Air Terminal was built at LGA.

    My brother and I would also rush outside to see the Zeppelin Company’s weekly dirigible flight over our house–until the Hindenburg’s loss which terminated the service.

  23. I had lunch at In&Out on Sepulveda yesterday. Could touch the wheels of an
    AF 380 as it landed…………..but if you’re from NYC, and are old enough, there was
    (and maybe still is) a road that sits between Jamaica Bay and the touch down of a runway at JFK
    the bay..2 lanes..and the fence. The planes would touch down 50 feet from the fence.

  24. The Pan Am Terminal (in it’s heyday) observation deck at JFK was a summer favorite. Parents and siblings would pile into the car and go there just to watch planes and poke around the airport. We’re talking early 1960’s so there were no “security” constrictions. Funny you should mention a “gateway” into our love of aviation. This place was mine and really did motivate me to seek an airline career. Thanks Pan Am – gone but not forgotten (as they say).

  25. Being a San Diego native, and baby boomer, who grew up in Pt. Loma, about 2 miles from the San Diego airport, Lindbergh Field, I can remember the Convair
    B-36’s (6 engine bomber, props pushing to the rear) and Convair 880’s and
    990’s taking off over my high school, Pt. Loma H. S.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convair_B-36

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convair_880

    The Convair 880 – 990 were late to the party, after the Boeing 707, and DC -8.

    First flight was in January, 1959, of the 880.

    Elvis Presley has an 880 at Graceland, still today, named for his daughter, Lisa Marie.

    Still a great place to watch the airplanes, is at the east end of the only runway,
    along Harbor Drive. There is plenty of public free parking there today, limo’s and cabs hang out there killing time.

    JAL flies a daily (I think) 787 to Toyko, and BA has a daily 777 to London, from
    San Diego.

  26. Quest says:

    There is a cool spot in Las Vegas for watching planes. It is a parking lot on the south side of the airport just for watching. You can even tune your car radio to a station that is posted on the fence and you can listen to ATC also.

  27. dan powers says:

    hot mom!!!….how about the terrace at Schipol where you can walk up to a retired KLM Fokker 100…..

  28. LGB has a great view from the restauarant (pre-rennovation, not sure what its like now)

    Also, the DL Sky Deck at JFK offers great views made only better by a cold beer…Not a bad way to ride out a delay!

    • David M says:

      The view from the restaurant (formerly the Prop Room, now Legends of Aviation) isn’t as good now, because they moved the bar to the bottom of the restaurant closest to the windows, so the windows are blocked by the display of booze behind the bartender. The last time I was there (before the new concourse opened), the adjacent observation deck was still open.

  29. We just reopened the Observation Gallery here at BWI Marshall Airport after about a year of improvements. The Observation Gallery features updated aviation exhibits, a children’s play area, a new cocktail bar, and excellent airfield views!

    The park at the end of Runway 33L along the south side of BWI Marshall Airport is also an excellent spot to watch airline arrivals and departures.

  30. Phil Wu says:

    The bicycle/pedestrian path along Marine Drive in Portland, OR is a great spot to watch planes taxi, takeoff and land at PDX. The path is literally a football field away from the runway and parallels the entire length; so, depending on where you are on the path, you can catch a plane at any stage of the takeoff process. Unfortunately, aircraft volume is more limited at PDX than other larger airports, and half of all flights use the second runway on the opposite side of the airport with limited visibility. But, it’s spectacular when you can catch an A330-200/300 or a 767-300ER.

  31. Jason says:

    Of course the volume is not that of other airports, but SXM gets you about as close to a 747 and an A340 on approach as you’re going to get. And you do it from a beach so you have that while you are waiting on the next flight.

  32. One of my favorite place to watch planes take off and land is from a hotel room in Las Vegas. If you stay at the MGM or Mandalay Bay get a high floor room facing the airport. You can see the whole field and it is especially nice at night.

  33. Mithat says:

    In the meantime you can have a look at some great F-22 photos :

    http://savas-ucaklari1.blogspot.com/2010/07/f-22-resimler-02.html

  34. Laura La says:

    I became an avdork at a very young age. My grandmother’s house was on approach to La Guardia. I’d sit on her back stoop and watch the planes fly overhead. I knew all the early-to-mid 70’s domestic carriers’ liveries. My favorite back then was National, with their orange sun face in profile.

  35. Mark says:

    CLT has a nice observation area overlooking 18C/36C; however, since the new rwy opened (18R/36L), most of the birds land on the new one so you only see takeoffs. Although, since 18C/36C is the longest rwy, US’s A330s and Lufthansa’s A340 usually land/depart on 18C/36C. You also still get nice views of arriving aircraft on 23 and uptown Charlotte when there’s a southern wind.

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