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Adventures in plane spotting in the post-9/11, social media age

Travelers stream from the covered asphalt lots to the main terminal, fussing with their luggage and monitoring check-in times on their iPhones, hardly noticing the two men.

The pair of millennials don't seem to have a destination.

The taller one wears a crisp Chicago Bulls ball cap and a grey hoodie over his cargo shorts. The shorter one has on his usual worn blue Tampa Bay Lightning T-shirt with Steve Stamkos' name and number on the back, a cheap pair of plastic sunglasses jutting out from the pocket of his dark shorts, and everyday Chuck Taylors on his feet.

They're racing around Tampa International Airport, bouncing from the long-term to the short-term to the economy parking garages in between the two major runways, conscious of the security personnel who occasionally pass through the rows of cars.

The shorter one, Adam Juriga, squints at the Flight Radar app on his phone, looking at the flights headed inbound in the next hour. He and Wes Bencon Rodriguez dart back and forth from the east to the west ends of the rooftop deck, watching the planes taxi at the main terminal and keeping an eye on the time.

Eventually the men reach into their cars and take out bulky Nikon 3200 DSLR cameras with long lenses.

Adam checks the weather again. He's checked it every day for the past week. It will be sunny and clear for the next eight hours. Perfect for photographing airplanes.

"Don't waste your battery on Southwest," Adam says over the dull drone of faraway jet engines.

Southwest Airlines is Tampa's largest domestic carrier, so dozens of Southwest planes stream in and out all day. They all look the same. Adam leans over the concrete wall, seven stories up, waiting for a more interesting flight to appear on his iPhone screen.

Wes keeps snapping photos anyway. He's found something near the hangars in the distance, not on the runway.

Silently, they each hope they'll have the better shot and the rare-enough plane that will impress judges and bring international recognition.

The only obstacle in their way is each other.

We've all had that dream before, the one where we're levitating over the earth, weightless in the sky, in awe over the fantasy of flight. Some of us can't shake it after we wake up.

When Leonardo da Vinci imagined fantastic designs for human flight in the 15th century, he had to record them in sketches. Once the Wright brothers took off in the early 1900s, crowds followed every new development, eager to see each innovation.

Adam has a hard time explaining why plane spotting is so important to him. But he equates it to baseball superfans who travel to see their team during spring training just so they can scout up-and-comers for future seasons.

"They think it's weird that this is my hobby," said Adam, 28. "But for me, I don't see how you could not enjoy seeing something that big take off."

It's tough to nail down when plane spotting became a distinct hobby. During World War II, the government signed up civilians to scan the skyline day and night for aircraft and report in if they matched one to a chart of silhouettes of enemy planes.

About that time, a magazine dedicated to the community was published in 1940 in England under the name "The Aeroplane Spotter." It was among the first to showcase glossy photos of planes in flight.

Some plane spotters have a must-see list of insignias and logos. Others do it to track and follow the paths of specific aircraft. Some specifically study and watch military jets and cargo planes.

Most of the time Adam spots by himself before and after his shifts for JetBlue at the Tampa airport. He's in ground operations, which means he's the one with the bright orange vest and matching batons, guiding the planes on the tarmac.

Sometimes he travels to Orlando or MacDill Air Force Base with his friend Wes. Every couple of months, Adam uses his JetBlue points to fly to bigger international airports in cities like Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., or New York, to watch more exotic planes just for the day. Come air show season every spring, he travels to as many shows at military bases and along Florida's beaches as he can — from Key West to Jacksonville.

"I fly standby so it doesn't cost anything," Adam said. "The biggest cost was the equipment."

Equipment drives the evolution of plane spotting. The walkie-talkies that allowed plane spotters to communicate with one another from different airports or runways gave way to texting and Skype. The Internet and social media allow spotters to share their photos and experiences with other spotters around the world. Websites and smartphone apps track flights, study flight patterns and give aircraft specifications.

"For a long time, plane spotters were mostly middle-aged or senior men. Now that the hobby has expanded to combine photography and social media, it seems to attract all kinds of aviation enthusiasts," said Stephen Pope, the editor-in-chief of Flying Magazine. "The Internet era has made it very competitive, in a fun way. But it's changed the way people enjoy the hobby — there's a social aspect to it, too."

As a teenager, Adam frequented blogs and websites to talk about planes with other fans and to look up pictures. He dreamed of being a military photographer, where he could take photos of his favorite jets from the air. Or, maybe, he could be a pilot.

Adam was in middle school the first time he stumbled upon Airliners.net. It was different than other sites. Airliners.net accepts only the first, best photo of each version of a plane. Spotters compete to have their photo become the one of record online, the one aviation enthusiasts around the world see when they look up specs on a plane. Magazines pay for photos they see there. Airline companies and airports do the same. Governments and militaries monitor the photos for fact-finding reasons. And the site has a leaderboard of the top five photographers, updated daily, on the homepage.

Asthma would keep Adam from joining the Air Force and he couldn't afford the training to become a commercial pilot. He'd find another way in.

The engine of a heavy British Airways plane headed to London rumbles in the distance as it taxis away from the gate. Adam leaves the shade of a lone oak tree in the Orlando International Airport's cell phone waiting lot and heads toward the perimeter fence that stands between the runway and him.

Adam is snapping photos already. Wes, who has been talking with his wife near their car, hands his infant daughter over to her and joins Adam at the fence.

"Wait. Wait until it gets out there under better light," Wes says as he tests the settings on his camera. Adam snaps a few more photos before taking his advice.

They peer around the yellow "no trespassing" signs under the layer of barbed wire hanging from the chain link fence all around them. They hold their cameras steady, raised to their chins. They're spotting from public land, on the safe side of the fence. But that doesn't mean security will let them stay.

It's silent outside of the rumble of the jet engine as the plane juts forward, followed by the click click click of the shutters on their cameras.

Wes holds the camera confidently between his hands, moving vigorously to snap different angles of the plane as it climbs. Adam's photos are snapped in quick succession, as he hopes that one will come out okay.

Adam blends into the scenery. He hides his thin hair under a Tampa Bay Rays cap. He's reserved and has a hard time looking strangers in the eye. He never flashes his teeth when he smiles. But he has a tight-lipped grin from ear to ear in any photo of him standing in front of a plane.

Adam won't risk getting into trouble for a good shot — unless Wes is with him.

Wes, a lean 28-year-old with an olive complexion is quiet but charming. You barely notice his Puerto Rican accent when he speaks. But you notice his striking blue eyes. Wes doesn't like to talk much but is generally confident about everything he does. He has a good eye behind the camera. He's risky when it comes to getting the best shots. It shows in his work.

Adam followed Wes on Instagram, liking and commenting on his aviation photos for months before they met in person. Adam marveled at the quality of Wes' photos and the clout he had among plane-spotting groups online.

"At first I was just taking pictures of planes from my iPhone when I was working the ramp," said Adam, who has worked for JetBlue since 2010, first at Fort Lauderdale International Airport and part-time in Tampa since 2012. "Wes taught me to take better photos."

Adam bought his first camera and started to occasionally rent big lenses. He's invested several thousand dollars in a Nikon D7100 and D3200. Wes shoots with a D7000 and D3200.

Adam noticed that other "avgeeks" were finding his photos online and sharing them.

Adam has more than 14,000 followers on Instagram (at Instagram.com/ajuriga). Hundreds of people like and comment on the images he posts. That's a respectable number, but the real goal is Airliners.net.

Adam has 12 photos on the site with a little more than 24,000 views. Wes has more than 200 photos with 330,000 views.

For Adam to increase his total, he has to find the right airport at the right time to spot a new plane or a plane with a new paint job or other attribute -- all while his competitors do the same. Airliners.net hosts more than 2.9 million photos of planes shot around the world, so virgin territory is harder to find.

Last year, when the inaugural Lufthansa flight landed in Tampa from Frankfurt, Germany, 50 or so spotters fired away at the Star Alliance Airbus A340-300, a model not often seen in the bay area.

Military planes — like the few that visit Tampa International Airport for repairs or gas — are even rarer. So a photo of them makes more of an impact, like winning a game with a walk-off home run instead of an RBI.

Then there's the artistry. Spotters try to bring a sharp focus to a perfect moment, like when small plumes of smoke gather from the friction of rubber wheels hitting the asphalt.

A group of judges votes on each photo, and the guidelines for acceptance have gotten more strict over the years, said Suresh Atapattu, an articles editor for Airliners.net.

"Airliners.net is where the most beautiful photos end up," Pope said. "It's not just a photo of a plane. It's getting the right weather and the right clouds and the right lighting and also a beautiful machine."

Adam and Wes look for a relatively new international flight in Orlando, a United Arab Emirates plane that flies to and from Dubai. It has a unique livery that you can't see on any other Emirates plane, the faces and logo of the Arsenal Football Club. The pair also expect a WestJet flight from Toronto with a one-of-a-kind Frozen theme. It's a seasonal flight, which makes a photo of it in Florida even more valuable.

While they wait for the plane to taxi, Wes and Adam place bets on who can identify the most planes by engine sound alone. Before long, it's time to move and avoid security.

The Dubai flight has yet to take off. But Wes promised his family he'd take them to the pumpkin patch. Wes' wife spent most of the day on her phone in the car when she wasn't entertaining their daughter. Adam's girlfriend, Melissa Connell, gave up going spotting with him after enough mini-vacations in which they never left the airport. Melissa, a pharmacist, understands his passion, though; they are considering a move closer to the Orlando airport so that Adam can work full-time with JetBlue — and see more interesting plane traffic.

Adam tries to convince Wes to stay until the Emirates flight takes off. But Wes frowns and shakes his head. "Next time, man."

Adam takes one last look at the Emirates plane still sitting at a nearby gate before piling his gear into his black Mazda and pulling out of the parking lot behind Wes and his family. He'll spend the next hour driving and looking for better places to take photos until the Emirate flight is ready to take off. A faded bumper sticker on his rear windshield shows a military jet with the phrase "jet noise is the sound of freedom."

It started with his dad. Jim Juriga would take Adam, his sister Amber and brother Jeremy to MacDill Air Force Base in the evenings to get them out of the Largo house while their mother was still at work.

They'd hover around the family car in what used to be an open parking lot near the main entrance gate at Dale Mabry Highway. They'd stay long after the sun went down. It was different in those days, Jim said. You could watch the military planes without being bothered. Now you can't see anything, he said.

"We'd spend hours watching the F-15 jets and B-52s take off," he said. "Adam was the one who really took an interest."

Jim and Adam would spend hours at home listening to the chatter on the air traffic control radio when they couldn't get out to the airport. They still do, with Jim living in New Port Richey and Adam living with his girlfriend in Floral City.

"Adam loves it," Jim says. "I think he'll find a way to be around planes until the day he dies."

Adam's social media accounts are flooded with military plane photos, something that sets him apart from Wes.

With Wes, he's shot Coast Guard planes and jets coming to and from the MacDill Air Force Base. Adam says it only happens "once in a blue moon" though.

There's no way for him to track fighter jets and cargo planes on regular radar apps. Military plane locations are kept secret. "So we just have to guess."

Most of the time, Wes and Adam are the only spotters at the airport. But today in Tampa, they spy someone else with a camera on the roof of the garage.

Jay Collie looks much older from far away. He's dressed in crisp, pressed khaki pants and a light sweater tucked in with a belt. His plain, navy blue windbreaker is zipped up over it.

The three plane spotters watch each other out of the corners of their eyes for a while. But eventually they congregate in a corner, lenses up to get a shot of a Spirit Airways flight in a new bright yellow paint design as it lands on the eastern runway.

"Hi," Jay finally says, lowering his camera, which is dwarfed by Wes' and Adam's.

Wes and Adam recognize him. They've seen his pictures on Instagram. Jay, or "awacrj" on Instagram, accumulates hundreds of likes on his photos. He's also a pilot for JetBlue.

Collie is friendly, more social than most Tampa plane spotters, a loosely organized group who have been Adam's biggest competition there. Adam usually avoids the local group gatherings — "They're mostly kids," he says, and they tend to bicker online.

Being around Collie reminds Wes of how he watched planes with his own father back in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Like Adam, Wes wanted to be a pilot. Like Adam, he instead works in ground operations for JetBlue, in Orlando.

To become a commercial pilot in the 21st century means a lot of time and money to get a pilot's license "and the first jobs that come after getting a pilot's license offer minimal pay," Pope said. "Pilots have to earn 1,500 hours of flight time before they fly small regional jets and in most cases, that's too long with too little pay for someone with a family."

The vast majority of plane spotters don't have a pilot's license, he said. It's rare to find a pilot who feels the need to plane spot.

After the three of them move on to an economy garage, Wes asks Jay, "So you like being a pilot?" It seems like a burning question he's been wanting to ask all day.

Jay shares stories about when it's really windy and things don't go as planned. Or how pilots pass the time by eating lots of snacks on long flights from Tampa to states on the West Coast.

Wes and Adam are fixated, hanging on Jay's every word. They let out big, hearty laughs and nod their heads with every new detail.

Wes starts snapping photos again as the conversation winds down. Adam notices and follows suit. They freeze when a truck circles the otherwise empty parking lot and watch until the truck disappears again back down the ramp.

The trio swap security stories. It's the first time their cameras hang loose around their necks all day.

Jay goes first. He shows off his JetBlue pilot badge, which allows him to skip security lines in the airport. But outside the airport he's just like everyone else. He wonders if it's because he's black.

"Security has found me and didn't care that I'm a pilot and that I work here," Jay says.

Wes was once detained for 45 minutes at Sanford International Airport for taking photos at a fence perimeter line.

"They handcuffed me and everything," he said. "But eventually let me go because I didn't do anything wrong."

While on a day trip to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City just to plane spot, Wes and Adam knew better than to try to shoot photos there. "You can get in trouble for taking photos with your phone inside the terminal there," Adam said.

So they went to a nearby Costco, where planes swoop in low on approach. Someone called the cops when they saw the pair taking pictures. The police questioned Adam and Wes and asked them to leave.

"9/11 changed everything," said Bruce Schneier, a security expert in Cambridge, Mass. "It created a lot of rules based on fear. In turn you're seeing people being harassed for doing something completely legal like taking pictures."

Adam and Wes each snap a photo of a former Air New Zealand B737-300 near the PEMCO hangar in the distance at Tampa International. Jay doesn't seem to notice.

Wes' shot makes it onto Airliners.net.

The loss just makes Adam becomes more determined. He plots a trip back to MacDill.

It's 5 a.m. on a Thursday outside MacDill Air Force Base, and Adam is sitting in a lawn chair in the shade at Gadsden Park.

He waits all day, until sunset, hoping to catch a glimpse of military aircraft.

It's going to be hit or miss. But he comes armed with the knowledge that traffic will pick up because more planes are expected for the weekend's Air Fest.

His hunch pays off. His shot of a Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor becomes his first military plane photo on Airliners.net. His walk-off home run.

But he wants more, to see the Air Force's famous Thunderbirds F-16 demonstration team land on Thursday. It's not just about getting a photos of them. He'd grown up watching them with his dad at air shows.

So he goes back again Friday morning at 5 a.m.

He hears them before he sees them.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com. Follow @SunBizGriffin on Twitter.



A place for plane spotters

Airliners.net was founded in the mid 1990s in the dorm room of a college student in Sweden. The rudimentary website allowed photographers to upload photos and have them hosted somewhere on the Internet.

"It was around the time of the inception of the Internet as we know it," said Suresh Atapattu, articles editor for airliners.net in Miami. "Before that, if you wanted to share pictures, you had to do it the old-fashioned way over mail or at conventions."

In 2000, a group of volunteers was created to screen the photos submitted and vote on which should be accepted to the website.

Recent plane spotters on the homepage leaderboard include Sam Chui of the United Arab Emirates, who has nearly 5,000 photos on the site and 71.6 million views. Andrew Hunt of Singapore has 13,300 photos on the site and 66.7 million views.

"The reward to be accepted is high because of the amount of attention it gets," Atapattu said.

Government agencies also monitor the site for intelligence reasons, Atapattu said. There are photos of Russian, North Korean and Iranian military aircraft uploaded to the site.

"Sometimes a photographer will withhold where a photo was taken because they don't want to be outed," he said. "Governments use our site to monitor which fighter jets are operational in other countries and where they're taking off."

Other plane spotting websites:

jetphotos.net

radarspotting.com

spottedplanes.co.uk

planelogger.com

'An added layer of security'

Some of Florida's airports are friendlier than others. Most require a permit, which means spotters register with the airport security office to take photos.

Tampa and Miami airports are among the friendliest in the state and don't require permits.

"We do ask that they advise us if they're coming out and we do keep an eye on where they're going," said Lloyd Tillman, director of operations at Tampa International Airport. "But in this post 9/11 world we live in, they become an asset for us, too. They know how to reach us and often notify us if they see something strange as well."

St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport doesn't require a permit, either.

In Miami, there are holes cut in the chain-link fence so spotters can stick their camera lenses through. Miami International Airport helped foster a group called "Miami Airport Watch" in 2014 in which airport security personnel train volunteer plane spotters to look for strange activity while they watch planes.

"They volunteer enough to come here, why not put them to good use at zero cost to the airport as an added layer of security," said Lauren Stover, director of public safety and security at the Miami airport.

More than a dozen plane spotters were trained in profiling and terrorism tactics, but they don't get access to additional or secured areas of the airport property.

Fewer than two dozen other airports in the country offer similar programs, said Lauren Stover, director of public safety and security at the Miami airport.

The program since has expanded to Fort Lauderdale International Airport, said Suresh Atapattu, an articles editor for airliners.net in Miami.

The airports in South Florida attract hundreds of plane spotters from European countries every year, Atapattu said. The volunteer programs help set up guidelines for travelers who don't know the local rules.

"We get a lot of spotters who come from countries like England, Germany, France and Belgium just to take photos at the airport," Atapattu said, and they sometimes spend their entire week vacation at the airport taking photos.

Other airports across the state aren't so helpful. Orlando International Airport doesn't offer many places for spotters to safely take photos. Though there is a public park on the airport property, trees obstruct the view of planes taking off and landing.

Sanford International Airport is known in spotter circles as one of the most unfriendly in the state.

"I call it 'security theater,' " said Bruce Schneier, a security expert from Cambridge, Mass. "This is a normal hobby. Photographers bear the brunt of this stuff even though what they do is totally legal. But there's this narrative we've created since 9/11 to create a false sense of safety. And meanwhile, people are being harassed for taking pictures."

Adventures in plane spotting in the post-9/11, social media age 06/29/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 29, 2016 3:53pm]
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