Flight mode: Why these Mumbai planespotters are obsessed with aircraft

04 December,2022 10:31 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Jane Borges

They can spend hours staring at the sky, clicking away on their cameras. Aviation geeks whose only guilty pleasure is spotting unique aircraft, continue undeterred despite authorities discouraging the hobby

Utkarsh Thakkar says one of the places to spot planes is the Western Express Highway, when Runway 09 is operational. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

In February this year, when a 21-year-old was apprehended by the CISF, while climbing up a wall near Crash Gate No. 27 of the Mumbai international airport, aviation photographer Vishal Jolapara took to Twitter to point out that it was the Bombay planespotters who had first noticed the breach. "This absolutely invaluable set of keen eyes & ears that is never given its due, instead treated with disdain or worse," he tweeted.

The man was reportedly unstable, but 38-year-old Jolapara tells us over a phone call that anything could have happened if this person had escaped the watchful eyes of the authorities - he could have landed on the busy runway, causing a mayhem, or worse, been sucked into a jet engine. The planespotters who alerted officials on time, saved everyone a lot of trouble.

A picture of Etihad Airways F1 livery (Airbus A340-600) taken by Sahil Patel

Jolapara is a crusader of sorts for this fast-growing community of planespotters in the city who watch and photograph the movements of unique aircraft. Many of them are passionate about it, but in India, it*s a clandestine hobby, he says, because authorities look down upon camera- and mobile-wielding aviation enthusiasts.

While in India, planespotting took off only after the social media boom, according to an article published in the aviation publication, Simply Flying, the term first came about during the Second World War, when "countries encouraged civilians to observe aircraft for public safety". The activity gave rise to a publication called The Aeroplane Spotter that was started to help this community with the identification of different aircraft. This led to a spurt in groups and publications that encouraged the hobby.

Sahil Patel

Ajay Awtaney, founder-editor of LiveFromALounge.com, an aviation website focussed on India, says, "This was more of an underground community." For the longest time, aviation geeks would share their photographs on JetPhotos, founded in 2002, and Airliners.net, started as early as 1995. "Back in the day, people would compete to get their photos published on these websites. Once they were, the hope was to get it on their front pages. The rarer the aircraft or [aircraft] livery, the greater the chances you had to have it out there. With Instagram taking off, many of them have now moved to social media."

Globally, there is a whole community of them, says Awtaney, "but in India, unfortunately, authorities do not encourage this hobby... though, they don*t discourage it either. At the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, for instance, they*ve created terraces and ramps, just for planepsotters." Nothing of that sort exists in India. According to Section 13 of the Aircraft Rules, 1937, no one is allowed to take pictures at airports or from an aircraft, except in accordance with and subject to the terms and conditions of a permission in writing granted by the Director-General, a Deputy Director-General, the Director of Regulations and Information or a Controller of Aerodromes of the Civil Aviation Department.

A photograph taken by Jolapara of the Air Force One carrying Michelle & President Barack Obama as it departed for New Delhi from Mumbai on November 7, 2010, after paying tribute to the victims of 26/11 Mumbai Terror Attacks

In fact, when we meet planespotter Utkarsh Thakkar on a weekday afternoon at the Western Express Highway, a little ahead of the Vakola junction, he isn*t carrying his DSLR. It*s hidden inside his satchel, he informs. Thakkar, 27, goes by the Instagram handle @vimanspotter. His one eye is on the Flightradar24 app, a flight tracker that shows live air traffic, notifying him about flights arriving on the Runway 09, which he says is operational only during the winter months. There are almost seven to eight of them in queue, he says. When he sees one hovering above Girgaum Chowpatty, he alerts us. Three minutes later, a plane flies right above us, with Thakkar pulling out his DSLR, and getting a few clicks during the fleeting seconds. These days, he prefers making Insta reels; they are a hit among his 67.4K followers. Thakkar*s fascination for airplanes began when he was a three-year-old and took his first flight, Gulf Air, to Muscat, Oman, to meet his aunt. "I started taking aircraft photographs, because I wanted wallpapers for my laptop," he recalls. "But since I would click decent photographs, I started sharing them on Instagram. One thing led to another, and the hobby turned into an obsession." This was nearly five years ago. The Ghatkopar East resident would visit a secluded spot at Jarimari in Kurla, or take pictures from the footpath at WEH, all the while trying to elude authorities. "Sometimes, I*d go to my terrace. I did this all through the lockdown, when there were restrictions on travel. In fact, during that time, because special repatriation flights were being arranged, I managed to click some very rare aircraft, which airlines are now retiring, like South African Airways* Airbus A340-600." Though he has a family business, Thakkar*s fascination secured him a job with Go Air, where he handled their social media. He quit in 2021 after a three-year stint.

Vishal Jolapara who started documenting airplanes nearly two decades ago, has coached many young planespotters

For planespotters like Thakkar, Jolapara is their "guru". Jolapara, who grew up in Mumbai, says his fascination was the result of a childhood dream to become a pilot. "At the time, my family didn*t have the means, and I had to work my way up. But, I always wanted to be close to planes. Finally, one day, sometime in 2003-04, my dad took me to this hillock in Jarimari, from where you could see airplanes up close and personal." A year later, he bought himself a point and shoot digital camera, Casio Exilim EX Z750, and this opened a completely new world for him. "After my photos got published on Jetphotos.net and Airliners.net, they blew-up overnight in terms of popularity and with it the fanmail from pilots and AvGeeks of India and around the world - this was still pre-social media era," he recalls. Jolapara went on to buy himself a Canon 400D, upgrading to a high-end DSLR: Canon 7D (100-400mm lens) in 2012. Unlike today, where there are apps like Flightradar24 to track flights, back then, there were only rudimentary websites that weren*t accurate about flight details, says Jolapara. "I would check the Mumbai airport website*s departure and arrival boards. But it was unreliable." Later, pilots and enthusiasts, whom Jolapara and other planespotters had befriended, would alert them over instant-messaging services online. Today, there*s a whole community globally and in India, connected over WhatsApp groups. "Social media has changed planespotting both for better and worse. The purists prefer uploading on reputed websites where you can see the photo in high resolution on a large screen. I personally prefer to tell a story with a meaningful caption which requires time and research. A lot of it is lost on the younger audience for whom you*re just a one second blimp, a fleeting scroll on their Instagram feed. Tasteful photography has given way to banal videos with coarse soundtracks as reels. Sadly, it is what the world is consuming and the content creators provide it. There are still some very talented spotters producing great photos and videos but they*re in a very small minority. To end on a positive, the best camera is the one on you," he feels.

Air India (ATR72-600) pilots waving at Soni*s camera; (right) Bhavya Soni*s passion for planespotting inspired him to become a pilot

Jolapara recently became a certified pilot, and now works as manager (marketing, corporate communications and customer experience) at Star Air. He has also coached many a young planespotting enthusiast, including 25-year-old Sahil Patel, who publishes on JetPhotos and also runs the popular Instagram handle @airbombay. The resident of Kajupada, near Jarimari, remembers spotting planes from the window of his classroom at St Jude*s High School. "I would write the names of the planes in my book." When he was still in school, he once saw Jolapara taking photographs from a secluded spot. "We soon became friends. In the beginning I would shoot from my father*s mobile phone, but then Vishal lent me his point and shoot camera," he says. Patel remembers seeing the new Runway 27 being constructed. Today, Patel who shoots on his iPhone 12, says this particular runaway offers spectacular views of planes arriving and departing. The Airbus Beluga, which looks like a whale, and which arrived last month, for its return departure to Cairo, made for a prized picture. Thakkar shares the sentiment: "It took my breath away."

There are those like Bhavya Soni whose love for planespotting led him to become a pilot. The aviation geek says his Ghatkopar home was on the approach path of Runway 27. "So I was used to seeing planes since childhood," says 25-year-old. "When my sister began pursuing the IATA [International Air Transport Association] course, she*d bring home booklets, which I would read from start to finish," he says. Soni, who started posting on @bhavyasoni.in, says he*d count the number of engines, try to make sense of their sounds, and also the different sizes in which they came. Simultaneously, he began networking with pilots who*d reach out to him after seeing his work. "Some of them would meet me when they visited Mumbai." Soni says he was mentored by an IndiGo airline pilot, who motivated him to fly planes. The Air Visara pilot adds, "The truth is that the best views of planes are visible from inside the cockpit. I may not able to take a photograph now, but I am at the centre of this action."

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