Plane spotters get thrill from hobby but they must be wary of the law
DUBAI // The striking colours of sleek new jets, wide-bodied older aircraft, spotting the longest plane or the largest airliner all attract aviation enthusiasts to the UAE.
Equipped with cameras, powerful binoculars and notebooks, local and overseas plane spotters are drawn primarily due to Dubai’s strategic location and emergence as an aviation hub.
However, the arrest of three Britons last month near Fujairah airport on grounds of national security for taking notes and observing planes has hobbyists worried.
“The worldwide plane spotting community is shaken by this incident as it is our utmost goal to cause no harm to anyone while following our passion, but rather spread the beauty of aviation,” said Tis Meyer, a Swiss plane spotter.
He has travelled to more than 50 countries, including the UAE, to pursue the hobby he started 11 years ago.
“You will find friends with the same interest on all continents, and can visit them and take pictures together with them at their local airports.”
Plane spotters Conrad Clitheroe, Gary Cooper and Neil Munro were arrested on grounds of national security on February 22, for taking notes about planes near Fujairah airport.
Mr Clitheroe and Mr Cooper travelled from the UK to Dubai on February 18 and stayed for a day with Mr Munro, an ex-colleague and Dubai resident, before driving to Fujairah to log information about rare aircraft.
All three are detained in Abu Dhabi.
Valerie Clitheroe, Conrad’s wife in Manchester, said collecting registration numbers and getting information about planes has fascinated him since childhood.
“It was a hobby he started with his father when he was a little boy,” she said.
“He likes planes, hot air balloons, helicopters, anything to do with aviation. He wouldn’t have gone to the UAE if he thought it was something that would cause trouble or he could be arrested.”
There have been other cases where the community has run into trouble with the law. In January last year, three Dutch plane spotters were arrested near Fujairah airport and held for 54 days before being released in March of that year, according to Detained in Dubai, a legal charity that has taken up the case of the Britons.
Two British plane spotters were accused of spying in India in 2010 and a group of 12 British and two Dutch plane spotters were arrested on spying charges in Greece in December 2001.
UAE-based plane spotter Sam C, who did not want to give his full name, said the hobby was popular in the West but there was no clear understanding of it elsewhere. “My general message is that although plane spotting is an increasingly popular hobby, people have to be very cautious because it’s not recognised in half of the world,” said Sam, a spotter of 20 years.
“It’s not just the UAE that has issues. It’s the same in Greece, India, most of Africa, China. So spotters need to research before going to countries that are conservative.
“Ultimately, you want to be in a comfortable situation when conducting a hobby, you don’t want to hide to take photos and be questioned by police. In Europe, the US, Australia and Japan they have designated areas and observation decks to take photos.”
Dubai International Airport took London Heathrow’s spot as the world’s busiest for international passenger traffic in December, with 68.9 million passengers, and spotters find it easy to travel to Dubai to watch rare and exotic planes.
“Dubai’s location as the transit point between east and west makes it the place to see an array of interesting planes,” said Sam.
“Planes from more than 100 countries come here and, in particular, planes from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran come here every day.”
Spotters fall into two categories: one group takes note of plane registration tail numbers and the other trains cameras on planes.
Sharing dramatic photographs of planes framed with a city skyline of beaches, snow-capped mountains or dry desert is one reason they enjoy the hobby.
“Like cars have registration plates, each plane has the same,” said Sam.
“Spotters like to complete an airline fleet and distinguish planes in sightings. But it’s also about the romance of the moment, to capture an aeroplane as it ascends, it’s pure magic.”
Updated: March 13, 2015 04:00 AM