Why Is Tail Spotting So Thrilling?


I see the tail spotters while I am taxiing for takeoff or making my final approach. They watch from outside the airport’s fenced perimeter or sometimes from hangouts known in the community – places like the top floor of the parking lot in San Diego (SAN), at the gas station by runway 23 at Toronto Pearson (YYZ) and at the Los Angeles (LAX) In–N–Out Burger. In St. Maarten, they watch in their swimwear from the airport–adjacent Maho Beach.

March 25, 2020
An illustration of a camera taking a photo of an Air Canada jet taking off in winter

Most just come to observe, but others snap pictures, soon to be uploaded to online spotting groups frequented by a global community of aircraft lovers. These folks know the airline schedules, specific fleet identification numbers (FIN) or registrations, where the airplanes originated and their next destination – some are even tuned into air traffic control radio frequencies, amplifying the aviation vibe. For the uninitiated, the sheer closeness of the planes, the sound and feel of the engine thrust and the smell of aviation cologne – jet fuel exhaust – can be exhilarating. I’ve been known to give tail spotters a wave and if very young spotters are present I throw in a huge smile.

One great way to feed a tail–spotting hobby is to work for an airline. Erik Ritterbach, an Air Canada cargo manager in Frankfurt, has literally travelled the world capturing FIN numbers. He even visits aircraft graveyards to collect unique aircraft poses. And Air Canada’s photographer, Brian Losito, has captured photos of our fleet for 33 years. When we introduce a new aircraft, he has the lucky job of snapping pics and filming while airborne, from a small jet equipped with special cameras.

A selection of Air Canada photographer Brian Losito’s favourite shots
A selection of Air Canada photographer Brian Losito’s favourite shots.   Photos: Celian Genier (top left); Brian Losito; Patricia Hinojosa (bottom left)

Where to Spot Planes in Canada

  • YVR (Vancouver The new Larry Berg Flight Path Park, at the end of the south runway, is a popular picnic spot. It is located right on the bike path so you can ride over from Vancouver or nearby Richmond.

  • YHZ (Halifax The observation deck at Halifax Stanfield Airport is open to the public and looks onto the apron, right where the two runways meet.

  • YYZ (Toronto In 2016, Toronto Pearson introduced an observation platform four kilometres west of the airport. But you won’t see the serious airplane–spotting geeks here: They’re in a parking lot on Airport Road, instead.

Portrait of Air Canada's Captain Doug Morris
Photo: Reynard Li

Doug Morris is an author, meteorologist, instructor and Air Canada captain on the Boeing 787.