When you fly in and out of Logan International Airport, chances are someone on the ground is watching your aircraft through a camera.
They’re called plane spotters, and it’s a popular hobby around the world, according to Thornton Shepherd, 54, of Revere, who founded the first online plane spotting group in Boston, Boston Airline Spotters Meetup Group, on meetup.com in 2007.
He calls Logan a “phenomenal” airport for spotting.
“Because it sticks out in the water, in the harbor, you can basically spot from anywhere around the airport,” said Shepherd, who works in healthcare IT. “We know all the good spots to go spotting, no matter which runways are being used for landings and take-offs.”
Some of those good spots include the intersection of Annavoy and Bayswater streets and also Black Falcon Pier, Shepherd said. Over in Winthrop, Coughlin Park is a hot spotting spot because “you can literally stand there and a plane flies right over your head,” Shepherd said. At Logan, you’ll find spotters on top of the central parking garage.
“We have an arrangement with Massport that when we want to go spotting and photographing up there we have to get written approval two days in advance,” he said. “We never want to be a security threat or security risk.”
Shepherd’s love of planes took off at a young age.
“I’ve always had a very strong interest in aviation,” Shepherd said. “My grandfather sort of instilled it in me.”
His grandfather accompanied him on his first flight from Jamaica to New York City when he was five years old.
“It was an outstanding experience,” he said. “He made it so interesting. He explained everything. I remember flying by a storm with lightning. The whole thing was just amazing.”
Shepherd was born in Jamaica, and his family moved to the U.S. when he was 13 years old. He was raised in New York and moved to Boston in 1983 to go to college. When he began plane spotting in Boston, he met others interested in the hobby and realized that he wasn’t the only one. His meetup group has nearly 400 members and subsequent groups on social media have grown even larger: Aviation Photography Boston currently has more than 900 members, and New England Aviation and Spotting has more than 600 members.
“Logan Airport has gone through an amazing growth spurt in terms of service, especially international service, and we have been there for every single one,” Shepherd said.
When Royal Air Maroc began service to Boston on June 22, Shepherd and other spotters were there. Shepherd shot video, which he posted online, writing that the plane “looked especially beautiful in the late evening light on arrival.”
He was also one of several spotters watching when Hawaiian Airlines launched nonstop service between Logan Airport and Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in April. Shepherd laughed as he recalled his battery dying, forcing him to watch without looking through a device, “which was actually refreshing,” he said.
Plane spotters track flights on sites like flightradar24.com, Shepherd said. By using the tool, spotters can determine how much time they have to get to their preferred location to see a particular plane, he said.
Shepherd said he especially enjoys spotting the liveries on commercial airlines, while others enjoy watching planes during stormy weather, and yet others strive to spot certain types of aircraft. A spotter might be on a mission to view every Boeing 737 used by American Airlines, he said.
“They will travel all around the country, anywhere they can, to go and see every single one,” Shepherd said. “And they actually have little log books where they write down each plane’s registration.”
This is called “fleeting,” Shepherd said. Online databases will tell you how many of a certain aircraft an airline has, he said, and when spotters finally see them all they can say that they’ve “fleeted all American Airlines 737s,” he said.
Sometimes spotters even buy a ticket.
When KLM Royal Dutch Airlines began servicing Logan Airport on March 31, Shepherd bought a ticket to travel from Amsterdam to Boston so he could experience the plane’s first arrival into Boston, he said.
“Interestingly, it was flight 617,” he said. “Small details like that are really cool.”