How I Became an AvGeek in a Week: The Miami Surprise Spot

Oct 6, 2017

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Five airports, five days, thousands of photos, and one sunburned and seriously jetlagged intern. That was the sum total of the crazy intern project I had embarked on and that was now coming to an end at the Miami airport: Avgeek in a Week. Starting out completely green as a summer intern at The Points Guy with zero aviation experience, I had just been sent across the American continent and back to learn the art of plane spotting — the geekiest pursuit of the geekiest of AvGeeks — and report back to TPG HQ in Manhattan with my newfound knowledge.

I was happy with the outcome. I had been through the airports in San Francisco to get my first plane spotting experience, Los Angeles for burgers and big jets, Washington National to learn how to spot smaller planes, and finally Saint Maarten on a study pilgrimage to the holiest spot among AvGeeks. (One that has sadly been lost since, amid the devastation of Hurricane Irma.) Now I was on my way back to New York, and I could say that while I was not in the same league as the experts on the TPG staff, I at least was sure they would not be speaking an alien language anymore when they discussed planes.

Through on-the ground experience and ample help from my colleagues, I had learned how to use an aircraft’s wingtips, nose shape and countless other factors to spot one plane from the next. I was hardly an expert in the field (that takes years, not days, of practice), but as I waited to board my trip’s final flight — MIA to JFK — I knew that I could make a claim to being a plane-spotter. Now I just wanted to land back in NYC and get some badly needed sleep.

Screen Shot 2017-10-06 at 1.02.19 PM

But what you want and what you get are often very different things. And before I knew it a full NYC ground-stop, terrible weather in the Northeast and a bit of bad luck had conspired to turn my scheduled 50-minute layover into a five-hour affair. I was stuck in Miami with nothing to do. Naturally, I began to spot planes.

And I have to say, my unplanned stopover turned out to be one of my favorite moments of the entire trip, delay notwithstanding. From the comfort of gate D28 I had full view of flights taking off from runway 8R/26L, the vast majority of which sported American’s unmistakable livery. Inside the terminal I didn’t have to worry about more sunburns, or bathrooms, or lenses fogging up in the heat. 

The first moments of flight for an American 737
The first moments of flight for an American 737

I was also able to snag a good position to see the action on Runway 8R/26L from the MIA Centurion Lounge, which I was able to access thanks to my Platinum Card from American Express.

Massive windows overlook the runway, and from many points throughout the lounge I was able to watch the entire takeoff process, including the first moments in the air. The elevator-accessed lounge also had a height advantage over gate-side spotting, which was too close to the ground and too walled-in by jet bridges to see much of the runway. 

But I didn’t mind watching from my gate, and I ended up spending far more time by D28 than the lounge. I didn’t have much of a choice; the confusion surrounding when (and if) my own flight would ever depart made me hesitant to venture too far from the gate. Had I had more freedom I would have checked out gates D1-16 and D38-50. These gates are closer to the runway — concourse D’s offset design pushes D28 back from the runway — and I’m curious how their view stacks up.

And because of a free sandwich cart that American rolled out to appease its fuming passengers, I didn’t have to worry about food either.

Despite my travels I still needed Google's help to ID this A330.
Despite my travels I still needed Google’s help to ID this A330.

The departures I watched that day were almost exclusively American Airlines flights (AA comprises 70% of all MIA traffic, according to the airline), which made spotting small but important differences pretty easy. I hardly broke a sweat telling an A319 from a Boeing 757, say, an achievement that speaks more to how little I knew at the start of my trip than how much I had learned over the course of it.

Jokes aside, I did find myself far more comfortable spotting planes than I had ever been before. The previous legs of my trip had been about learning to plane-spot; this final, unexpected bonus round would be my time to practice my skills. As I watched and photographed the departing flights I quizzed myself on what kind of planes I was seeing. I then cross-referenced my guess against the registration number. I was especially strong when it came to spotting Boeing 737s and A320-class craft, but a little shaky with the rest of the Airbus fleet.

A silver bird 737 takes flight at MIA
A silver bird 737 takes flight at MIA

My favorite spot at MIA was a handful of American Airlines “silver birds,” a nickname for the old, paint-free AA fuselage design. These planes had managed to escape American’s fleet-wide livery change, possibly because they hadn’t yet gone in for a maintenance check, often the time when paint schemes are changed. They were a refreshing sight and a nice little callback to the history of American Airlines.

For five days I flew across the Americas to watch planes from different angles, in different places, in different ways. I set off a total novice, knowing little about aviation and even less about the AvGeeks who follow it. From spotting by the SF bay, eating burgers in LA, watching planes fly overhead at DCA and sipping drinks at St. Maarten’s Sunset Bar, I came to appreciate this niche hobby. But my highlight reel isn’t the only way to plane spot, and you don’t need to drop hundreds of dollars and fly thousands of miles to catch the bug. All you need to do is sit by the gate window, take out your camera and watch.

planespotting collage

All photos by the author.

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