The boy who cried “Virgin”… confessions of a plane spotter, of the amateur variety

You can see all sorts of things in Marrickville, the happening and slightly hipster capital of Sydney’s grooving, booming, bulging Inner West. We live near Enmore Park, which has a new pool and playground, cafes on its fringes, a re-made hipster pub hang across the road, unleashed dogs, women doing boxing classes, places to park shopping trolleys, and a constant flow of kids and their parents.

Anyway, there’s this guy who goes to Enmore Park. He gets excited, and starts to point. And then he yells “Virgin, Virgin, Virgin!”, and his two young girls come running, stand next to him, point, and join in: “Virgin, Virgin, Virgin!” People stop and stare, or start dialing the Police helpline, but these three just smile and nod.

OK, those of you in the know will know that that Virgin-shouting weirdo is me. And the girls are mine. We would have just seen Virgin Atlantic’s beautiful A340-600, the longest plane in the world, head off to Hong Kong. Four red engines, sleek and smooth, like a racing Ferrari in the sky. Only flies once a day.

You see, we like to watch the planes. We live between both main flight paths for Kingsford Smith Airport, so you can learn to love them, or you can go mad. Luckily for me, I have always loved the planes, going right back to pre-school days when education was sitting on the hill at Arncliffe watching the beautiful birds come in. Back then, 707s and 727s and Fokkers and the first Jumbos and the pure adrenalin of Concorde; Sonic Youth had a different meaning back then. I was transfixed by the TAA version of Jimmy Webb’s “Up, Up and Away”.

And now it’s my turn, the girls and me and 80 movements an hour, planes from everywhere, colours and symbols and shapes and technologies of many and various types. Geography and industry and physics and art, in one glorious, loud spectacle. Well, sometimes loud, the A380s and Boeing 787 Dreamliners are like genteel breezes compared to the hurricanes of Singapore’s older 767’s and the aging bulls that are the mighty 747s, the once-future of aviation fast being re-imagined as a jumbo-sized mistake.

Except when they abort a landing. One day in Enmore Park a Singapore A38o pulled out of its landing right over head, the groan and the scream of engines and flaps like something from another dimension. Exciting, unless you were on the plane.

I’m not a plane nerd in the purest sense, being almost completely devoid of aeronautical or combustion engine knowledge. A guy I used to work with once sat on a train to Newcastle and tried to explain how planes fly (and boats float and how computers work and cameras and and and ) but I came out none the wiser and decided to remain a passionate, technical illiterate. I’m not really fussed by fitout either – I mean, I love flying no matter where or who with, but I do that once every 9 months, and see a plane about once every 9 seconds, so it’s what’s on the outside that matters to me…

… a rainbow of colours. Lots of corporate red, in majority (Virgin Blue – get it?) or minority (Qantas).  Passionate orange, a clever choice by brand setters Jetstar. Yellow is Tiger and the garish red and yellow DHL, a reminder of the strip Watford wore when losing the 84 Cup Final. Some green flashes in the Vanuatu and AirCalin colours. Lots of soothing blue, Garuda and United. UPS is an indigo girl. Purple for Thai. Qantas even has a pink breast cancer awareness-raiser Dash with propellers.

… there are stars galore, Jetstar and Lan Chile. Flowers. Animals – kangaroos and tigers and birds; I used to surprise the girls by saying we would go visit the tigers and ‘roos, and they weren’t too disappointed when we pulled up at KSA rather than Taronga Zoo.

… there are planes with jet engines and propellers. Planes with two engines and four. Planes with one deck, and planes with upstairs as well.

… there are passenger planes, and there are cargo planes. Whilst most cargo goes out in the hold of passenger planes, there’s a growing array of dedicated freighters, from Qantas and Thai and Singapore and Korean and even Emirates and a seriously spooky Jumbo from Cathy Pacific which, with no windows and sleek shape, reminds me of the bomber in Dr Strangelove. There are the parcel posters like DHL, UPS and FedEx. And big global freight-only operators, like Polar, which comes to Sydney from Cincinatti, and Atlas.

… and there is the champion Flying Doctor service and the champion Ambulance plane. Making up for the private jets, the casino high-roller express, and the dickhead Prime Minister’s Air Force jet.

As a geographer, I also love the sense of connectedness that comes with aviation. Where planes are going, who is catching them and why. And the questions of political economy, like why we had no planes from India, with its 1.whatever billion people. The 1.whatever and a bit billion Chinese are serviced by 5 or 6 Chinese carriers – Cathay, China Southern, China Eastern, Air China, China Airlines (Taipei) and Hainan Air for a while. Plus Qantas, and Virgin Atlantic to Hong Kong.

The answer lies in the relative stage of economic development, business networks, and tourist preferences. And competition  between Sydney and Melbourne Airports. But Air India at least now flies to Sydney once a day, in a spiffy and pretty Dreamliner. You go to India via Melbourne, but it’s a beginning, and I think you might see 3-4 flights a day in 10 years, and 3-4 Indian airlines in 20 years.

Put all of that together and it’s a carnival of the skies. Sometimes it’s so mundane, one Qantas A320 from Melbourne or Brisbane after another, but at other times, like between 6 and 7 in the mornings, it’s a tidal wave of energy from all around the world.

We spend so much time with the planes overhead – at school, the pool, in the park, playing golf, walking home from shopping, hanging out the washing – that I invented a game. Nominate a colour, symbol and type of plane for each plane as you hear them approach. Whoever Frankie picked is the winner. Simple but effective boredom killer.

I love the planes so much I get very possessive. Virgin Atlantic announced last month that they won’t fly to Australia from Hong Kong any more, meaning their beautiful red bird will be gone from the skies. That would leave only Etihad flying the A340-600, the racing car of planes. It reminds me of the Fireflash from the first Thunderbirds episode, a childlike vision of everything beautiful and magical about flying. Very sad to see it go.

And then, out of the blue, Philippines switched their plane from an A-330 to the four engine A340-400, smaller than the 600 but still very interesting. You lose some, you win some. It joins Aerolineas Argentina, LAN and the troop contract flyer ADAGOLD in flying the 340-400, the latter a creepy albino.

I had to check my possessiveness when working on the recent Sydney Aviation Capacity Study. I tried to not be biased by consideration of which planes would go to a new airport and which would remain, wishing to avoid a Qantas bland-out,  an endless stream of silver Holden Astras, functional, boring (but at least the B717 has the engines up on the wing).

Yes, it’s a fascinating industry, hostage to fuels costs and maintenance costs and fleet adaptability and low cost carrier models and alliances and the search for mid-hemisphere hubs. Why, one, day, we might be hubbing out of Kabul, but the mountains might intrude. Still, Air Turkey will start pumping capacity to Europe via Istanbul next year…

Sydney Airport is one of the most congested traffic spots in Sydney, and I confess to contributing to that congestion. Hundreds of times when the girls wouldn’t sleep, I would drive the perimeter roads listening to Glenn Gould and savouring the peace among the unquiet. And then we began planned trips, mostly inside the terminals, coming in on the bus, sitting at the end of one of the gate piers chewing banana bread and watching the main runway and the hosties and the buses and the trolleys, sometimes seeing 1000 people queued in big international jets while a little Rex flight to Dubbo warmed itself up. Taking advantage of the toilets and the coffee and the shelter, all the things a parent needs. And then there’s the old viewing carpark on Botany Bay, where the hardcore nerds with their zoom lenses and radio monitors go, a fascinating little pocket frequented by champion racehorses as well. You can even walk right up to the airport fence, where jumbos as big as skyscrapers taxi by, we imagine the pilots and passengers are all waving as hard as we are.


And now Ikea at Tempe is “on”, the window seats in the cafe one of the best views in the world. Free coffee for Family members.

Amongst all of that airborne beauty, I have a top 10. It’s always extra exciting to see one of the top 10. And here they are, in reverse:

10, Vietnam

Nice jet, and very attractive full body modern blue. Lotus flower symbol.

9. Fed Ex.

A purple plane. Wilson jokes. MD-10 with the engine on the back, Brought me my boots from LA overnight.

8. Virgin A 340-600 see above

7. Air Asia reverse.

The Air Asia standard livery of red with white flowers and symbols is pretty nice. But this “See Malaysia” livery is a tourist brochure in the sky, the Petronas Towers on the tail. Doesn’t come often, but makes you wonder why others don’t market their countries with their fleet.

6. Aeropelican.

Small regional NSW carrier with plane dressed as a pelican. Followers of my blog will know I am coming back as a pelican. Maybe I will come back as an Aeropelican.

5. Air Canada

Something calming about this mid-morning departure, a lovely and understated paint job and the iconic maple leaf, the red lettering the clincher. Modern 777 and it goes to Vancouver and my local bus doesn’t. “It’s never a bad day if you see Canada”.

4. Areolineas – Argentina

An A340, older, its livery to change, for the worse. Maradona. The quirkiness of having a  flight to Sth America. Only comes 3 times a week – scores points for rarity.

3. Painted Qantas

These Aboriginal-themed planes are Qantas’ best asset, spreading a unique Australia to the world. I would repaint the whole fleet like this, make or more likely break. Not seen in a while and potentially avoiding rust in the Cadillac Ranch of Arizona,

2. New Air NZ.

This black beauty is sex in the sky, allegedly modelled on the iconic All Black strip. Rebranding matters, Air NZ is a quality airline and its old strip is completely fine, but this baby is going to take the world by storm. Air Fiji has followed, shedding its infantile coloured stripes for a more native look.

1. Hawaiian

This beautiful lady sneaks into Sydney at 19:10 every night, and leaves again before the curfew. A spectacular purple livery and entrancing hibiscus wearer on the tail, the only plane with a human on it (other than the Air Asia reverse) that serves Sydney. She reminds the girls of their maternal grandmother.

What are your favourite planes? Any stories from living around the airport?

STOP PRESS: found this ripper on the airliners site. Seriously, seriously cool. Have to travel to Central Asia or Moscow to see it I guess, but it would be worth it!

And here’s some links to galleries, and some fantastic transport art from Sydney-based Alan Spears.

Airbus A380-841 F-WWDD (msn 004) "Own the sky" LBG (Marcelo F. De Biasi). Image: 912600.


About peterwarrington65

geography, street art, cricket, Richmond Tigers, PJ Harvey, View all posts by peterwarrington65

3 responses to “The boy who cried “Virgin”… confessions of a plane spotter, of the amateur variety

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