The afternoon chatter dissolves as a Delta jet lands at LAX. Someone whispers “ooh,” but otherwise the only sounds from the small crowd of aviation buffs are camera shutters whirring. Everyone tilts long lenses at a Boeing 767 wrapped in a pink rainbow honoring the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Hiro Masuda, wearing an Air Force Thunderbirds jacket and rotating a 120-400 mm lens, nods with excitement: “This is what I’m into—planes with special markings.”
Masuda and the planespotters, as they’re known, frequent a half-dozen places around LAX to ogle aircraft, but their nexus is this one: Called the Hill, the El Segundo park overlooks the south side of America’s second-busiest airport. It’s so well-known, Issac Mohr and Ryan Fesenmeyer, both 16 years old, flew in for the day from Evergreen, Colorado, just to photograph airplanes. “This is incredible,” exclaims Mohr as an Air China cargo plane lumbers skyward. “That’s a 747—sweet,” he adds, before turning his attention again to the FlightRadar 24 app that monitors incoming flights and to LiveATC.net for an audio feed from the control tower.
While many planespotters photograph aircraft with special livery, other guys—almost all are male—fancy wide-body jets or luxury private jets. There is a Coke-versus-Pepsi-style division between Boeing and Airbus fans, too. “Give me a break,” cracks Mark Munoz. “The Boeing 757 looks like a flying bowling alley.” Everyone within earshot laughs. Munoz, who says seeing the Emirates A380 covered with Dodgers logos is his present grail, cradles a Canon 7D Mark II with a 70-200 mm lens. He estimates that he’s spent at least $4,000 on equipment. “So far, that is,” he jokes. “I’m not saying I’m done.” Like the Colorado teenagers, Munoz is into apps and special livery; he zipped to El Segundo because he’d been tracking the breast cancer plane and saw it was coming this afternoon.
Not all spotters are digital devotees. John Linder, who lives in Palos Verdes, refuses to use apps on principle. “I like the element of surprise,” says Linder, who posts his best shots with a Facebook group of L.A. spotters and likes to photograph “the big ones—A380s and 777s.”
Sitting nearby is Steve Morgan, a “reg spotter” who logs the registration of every plane he sees. Armed with a Nikon spotting scope, image-stabilizing binoculars, and a Canon EOS 70D with a 400 mm lens (“only for something special like a Dreamliner”), he flies out to LAX from his home in Maryland a couple of times a year because of the sheer variety of planes; he says only JFK is comparable. His preferred area for viewing was Encounter restaurant in the Theme Building. “For what I do, that was the best spot in the world,” he says. “When they closed, it hurt.”
The crew of planespotters is smaller but just as devoted on the roof of the QuikPark lot, on a bridge near the airport’s parking lot C, and at a park across from the In-N-Out on Lincoln, where Jose Quezada of Bellflower cradles a scanner in one hand. The banter of air-traffic controllers is interrupted every minute as jets scream overhead, moments before touching down on the north runway. “I like this spot because you have them right on top of you—and it’s a great place to get a snack, too,” says Quezada, who has been into airplanes since he was 12. (“I don’t just take pictures of planes,” he insists. “I like to take pictures of flowers, too.”) He posts his best photos on airliners.net and especially loves colorful belly shots—Hawaiian Airlines and Korean Air are favorites. “I often bring a book and try to read when I come here,” says Quezada. “But I find watching the planes so relaxing.”
The park may be popular with planespotters, but it’s no Hill. As the golden hour (and dinnertime) there approaches, Jonathan Harper, an automotive photographer who recently moved with his girlfriend from New York to West Hollywood, toys with a vintage Canon 300 mm lens (“I got it on Craigslist for $100!” he says). “Man, this is such a cool spot,” he exclaims as an Alaska Airlines Bombardier Q400, emblazoned with the logo of the University of Washington Huskies, lifts toward the Pacific. “I can’t wait to come back—and next time I want to come at night and bring my girlfriend,” he says, gazing at the airfield. “This seems like a good make-out spot.”