The view from the mound: a day with the plane spotters of Dublin Airport

Spotters look for ‘specials’ and the busy summer is peak season

Plane spotting folk out watching planes land at Dublin Airport.Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Before dawn breaks on a clear Tuesday morning in Dublin, a handful of cars are parked at a lay-by on the old airport road, facing the runway. Engines running, lights on, the occupants are here for the arrival of transatlantic flights from the United States and the Ethiopian Airlines service from Africa.

These will glide in over the airport and touch down on runway 10/28 before the sun rises over Dublin Bay and the conveyor belt of Ryanair and Aer Lingus departures cranks into motion.

"Aah, the smell of aviation fuel," Gerry Ward says. "Get that into your lungs." As lines go it could rival Robert Duvall's in Apocalypse Now – "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" – but then the Donegal man is nothing if not serious about planespotting.

At Dublin Airport enthusiasts spend hours perched on mounds at the perimeter fence, equipped with cameras, binoculars and flight-tracking technology. In many respects planespotters are similar to birdwatchers: all want to see something rare.


Early risers are rewarded. “Normally you’d try to get up early,” Eddie O’Brien says. “The earlier you get here the more of the big ones you see.” O’Brien is from Arklow, in Co Wicklow, so this is a bit of a day out for him and his young son, Donagh, who has also brought a friend along.

The two boys are listening to air-traffic control over a handheld radio as O’Brien explains how he monitors and tracks flights at home using the seemingly indispensable Flightradar24 app. “It’s basically like real time,” he says.

Next best thing

Like many who come here to watch the planes, O’Brien has fostered dreams of flight in the past. “I always wanted to be a pilot when I was young,” he says. He had the brains for the Aer Lingus training programme but not the eyes, so “this is the next best thing. It’s one of the only airports where you can get so close to the planes.”

Spotters here look for “specials”: unusual types of aircraft, rare liveries, unscheduled flights, that sort of thing. Summer is peak season, because more charter flights come in during these months. By lunchtime more than 30 vehicles will be packed into the lay-by at the viewing spot.

If there’s a complaint it’s that the activity has become a bit repetitive – or more repetitive, at least – in recent years. “Too much Ryanair,” says one man, shaking his head. “Too much Ryanair. Jeez, every second one is Ryanair.”

Lists of arrivals and departures are easy to find online, but insider contacts and tips are more valuable. “Dublin Airport Spotting and Movements” is a private Facebook page, and “a lot of people on that work in the airport”, says O’Brien. “If they know something is coming in, they’d put it up.”

Air Force One

At about 8am a group turns up at the mound after receiving a tip that a US air-force jet in the familiar livery of Air Force One will be landing this morning.

“This is going to be a blocked flight, because it’s a government jet,” Kevin Mahon, a student from Dublin, says. “It won’t show up on the radar. We’re only standing here now because we don’t know what time it’s coming in.”

After a few hours one of the party spots some activity near the runway, indicating that the aircraft is nearby. The arrival of a bus, unmarked vehicles with flashing blue lights and a few Garda cars heralds the arrival, about half an hour later, of the Boeing C-32, the aircraft that usually acts as Air Force Two for the US vice-president. On this occasion Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is aboard. The sighting is a coup for the spotters and the highlight of the day.

“It’s a super pastime,” says Ward, a member of the Irish Defence Forces who always tries to fit in a visit to the airport when he’s in Dublin with work. His favourite aircraft is the Boeing 747, but Dublin doesn’t see many of those any more. If one is scheduled the mound will be packed with spotters. Everyone has a soft spot for the original jumbo jet, it seems. “It’s majestic,” Ward says.

The Airbus A380, which surpassed the 747 as the world’s highest-capacity passenger aircraft, engenders less affection. “It’s just a huge flying sausage,” Mahon says.

Be that as it may, in the past month DAA, which runs the airport, submitted a planning application to Fingal County Council for an airbridge capable of handling the giant. All going to plan, A380s should be landing in Ireland by about March of next year. Ugly or not, that should ensure the mound is packed for at least a few weeks, as spotters try to get a look at the huge aircraft before it becomes a routine sight at Dublin Airport and ceases to be a “special”.

Dan Griffin

Dan Griffin

Dan Griffin is an Irish Times journalist