| Jr. Feature |

On the Lookout

 Observation hobbies are hobbies that involve watching something you’re interested in

IN November 2001, 14 people (12 Brits, 2 Dutch) were spotted poking around a Greek Air Force base in Kalamata, Greece. Although it was an “open” day, meant for visitors, their activities fell under suspicion: They were observed to be writing in little notebooks and were accused of taking photos in an off-limits military zone.

The group claimed they were just plane spotters (people who look at planes for a hobby). The Greek government claimed they were spies. They were arrested and thrown in prison, where they were held for six weeks, and eventually released on bail of $11,696.

Confident they would be found innocent, the plane spotters (or “spies”) were finally brought to trial. The Greek authorities quickly trotted out their notebooks and photos in court, including pics of two other military bases and numerous fighter jets. In addition to the espionage (that’s a fancy way of saying “spying”) charges, they were also accused of trespassing at restricted military airfields. The sentence for a guilty verdict? Twenty years. (Yikes!)

The group kept arguing their innocence. “We’re just nerdy people who like to look at planes! We’re just following our hobby! We’re innocent tourists! You gotta believe us!” But the Greeks weren’t convinced. (Apparently, plane spotting must not be a very popular hobby in Greece.) The authorities did reduce the charges to “illegal collection of information” (which carries a much lower sentence than espionage). But much to their shock (and chagrin), the plane spotters were found guilty. Eight of them were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, while the others were given a year of jail time each. In 2003, they appealed the conviction, and all the plane spotters were acquitted (found innocent) and they were released. Finally.

Who knew that watching planes could be so risky?

But to those who do it, it’s a much-loved hobby — and the plane spotters didn’t quit, despite what they’d been through. (Although some of them did switch to watching civilian aircraft only and no longer track military planes.) Their story was eventually made into a documentary.

So, what is plane spotting? And how do you do it (especially without getting arrested)?

Eyes on the Skies

Plane spotting originally began as a way that civilians could help out during World War II. Many nations asked people to watch the skies for public safety and to let the authorities know if they saw anything suspicious (they were called the Observation Corps). In Britain, there was even a magazine called The Aeroplane Spotter that included diagrams and drawings of different aircraft, meant to help spotters identify them. While most civilians were just happy to help out, many of them were inspired by the experience. They just loved planes and began setting up groups to keep up the plane spotting even after the war had ended.

This hobby starts with watching planes. But it can also involve taking pictures of them, recording their movements, watching takeoffs and landings, and “collecting” aircraft serial numbers in notebooks by writing them down when you see them. Sounds easy enough, especially if you live near an airport.

Flight Risk

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, airport security has gotten a lot stricter and tighter, making things more complicated for plane spotters. But governments and security organizations around the world have recognized the potential of plane spotting groups and how they can actually contribute to security in the skies.

In the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and several other countries, the police have put together official codes of conduct for plane spotters. These guidelines help spotters know when to contact the authorities if they see or hear something suspicious. Some police departments have even gone one step further, creating Airport Watch groups, like at Chicago O’Hare Airport in Illinois. Members have ID cards and are given training to look out for and identify unusual activities at and around airports. There’s a special hotline for them to call to make reports, and they have regular meetings attended by the FBI, aviation authorities, and police. Sounds pretty cool, right?

What’s So Interesting Already?

When you hear a military jet streaking through the sky at sound-barrier-breaking speed, you can’t help but look up in awe. Plane spotters feel similar awe regarding any new or unusual planes. And because technology is always changing, it seems there’s always something to look at.

Then there are special events, like rare flights, or vintage aircraft shows, spottings of special planes (like Air Force One), and such. Because planes aren’t as easily accessible as other forms of transportation (trains, buses, cars), there’s also a challenge involved in spotting them.

Some spotters set goals for themselves, like seeing as many United planes as possible or seeing as many different types of planes as possible, or tracking down every different kind of firefighting plane, and so on. Of course, some of them also carry around walkie-talkies and other equipment and get together with other plane spotters, because it’s just more fun that way. Many even travel the world to see unusual and different planes, though a lot of their success involves knowing where to be and when to be there (which means keeping track of flight schedules and so on).

Want to try this hobby? All you need to begin is a notebook, a pen, and maybe a pair of binoculars. Oh yeah, you’ll also need to check out a book on planes so you can start learning the different makes and models. Then the sky’s the limit…. Just don’t get arrested for espionage!


Plane spotting is also known as aerovidology. Plane spotters are sometimes called aviation enthusiasts or avgeeks. Transportation Observation

Okay, so plane spotting seems too hard and potentially dangerous (Arrests! FBI! Espionage!)? Never fear. You can do the same thing with buses, cars, or trains.

The Wheels on the Bus

Bus spotters collect pictures of buses spotted on city streets around the world.

It may not be such a popular hobby in the States (not yet, at any rate), but it’s actually got hundreds upon hundreds of enthusiasts in Hong Kong, and there are bus spotters in the States, Canada, and other places. You never know, maybe you could start a new trend in your neighborhood!

What’s involved in bus spotting? In a nutshell: seeing and taking pictures of every different make, model, and design of bus possible. According to reports, for bus spotters, the main part of this hobby is taking the pictures. They try to capture bus pics from above, turning, head-on, up high, down low… too slow… (just kidding). The hobbyists spend a lot of time planning their shots, staking out locations, waiting for different times of day to capture different lighting, and so on.


Bus spotters are also known as bus fans, bus enthusiasts, or bus nuts (love it!). Some fans are into all types of urban mass transportation and are just called “transit fans.”

Shifting Gears

Cars are a cool one. There are so many different makes and models, so many colors and variations, and cars are everywhere. But with so many cars on the road, how does a car spotter make this hobby more special?

Car spotters, like plane and bus spotters, like to watch, make note of, and photograph cars they see. But they usually “specialize” in a certain style of vehicle. Maybe they seek out rare or vintage cars, look for those that have been modified in some way (think unique paint jobs or souped-up engines), or they look out for supercars.

Car spotting, not surprisingly, is popular around the world. But those chasing exotic vehicles, supercars, and luxury vehicles (Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bugattis, Porsches, Maseratis, and so on), generally have to hang around wealthy areas. You generally aren’t going to see a McLaren 765LT or an Aston Martin rolling down the streets of Monsey. For names like these, a car spotter has to head to Abu Dhabi, Geneva, London, Milan, Monaco, Paris, or Tokyo. Okay, also New York City, Miami, or Los Angeles could work, too. Just don’t forget your camera!

Nature Tracker

Observation hobbies don’t just have to involve transportation and vehicles. Any hobby that involves watching, spotting, and tracking various things is an observation hobby. And some of these hobbies involve observing the natural world, which can not only be incredibly relaxing but also inspiring. Observing the niflaos haBorei can increase our emunah.


Watch and track the movements of the stars, planets, meteors, and even satellites and the International Space Station. To get started, get a book on the night skies (or a good, clear star chart) and a decent pair of binoculars or a telescope, and start familiarizing yourself with what’s out there. Once you recognize the “regulars,” you’ll start noticing the unusual and extra-special things, too.

Bird watching

All you need is a field guide to identify different species of birds and a nice pair of binoculars. If you’d like, bring along a camera and a notebook to jot down your findings. Then head out to the field, woods, park, or your own backyard. Be extra quiet, avoid sudden movements, be patient, and listen carefully. There are lots of beautiful birds out there to observe (and hear!). The best times for this hobby are between dawn and 11 a.m., when birds are most active. Or, set up a bird feeder outside a window, and watch from your own home.

Butterfly watching

Similar to bird-watching, this hobby just requires a field guide, binoculars, a camera, and a sketchbook, if you like. While there’s no birdsong involved, butterflies can be very beautiful and interesting to observe, though it’s more of a spring and summer hobby. Butterfly watching can also be turned into a kind of “citizen science.” There are different projects and organizations throughout the world that ask people to report on butterfly sightings to help them better understand what’s happening to various species in the world — and to conserve them.

Leaf peeping

So maybe you or your parents have always loved checking out the fall colors when the leaves turn from greens to brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds. But you never realized that looking at leaves could be an actual hobby. Well, it is. And it’s known (cutely) as leaf peeping. All it involves is making a purposeful trip to enjoy the fall foliage. Easy, right?

Wildlife observation

Any kind of animal watching can be a hobby, but one of the most popular wildlife observation hobbies is whale watching. Of course, most of us can’t exactly do that in our backyards! Other wildlife observers try to spot frogs or endangered species. Want to start at home? Let us know what you can see!

All Aboard

Train spotters watch trains (you can call them locomotives, to sound more interesting). Some of them try to spot particular types of train cars or to track the trains belonging to particular companies. Others go after special, famous, historical, or rare trains. Because train spotters have to know a lot about train movement, schedules, and so on, they often become true experts in train operation, which is probably pretty useless in life, but convenient for the spotters.

Although train spotting used to be a child’s hobby in Britain (where booklets were published on the topic starting in 1942), now it’s mostly an adult one. Train spotters often record and photograph trains, much like the other types of “spotters.” Many of them go to check out trains with other spotters, and some even keep databases of trains to share with others.

Gongoozlers Galore

One hundred points to you if you know what a gongoozler is before you read on…. And for the rest of us, a gongoozler (cool word, right?) is a person who enjoys watching activity on the canals of the world (mostly in the United Kingdom). Some people use the term more broadly to describe anyone who’s interested in canals and canal activity.

Like the other “observation hobbies,” gongoozling involves looking at canals. But unlike plane and bus spotting, there really isn’t anything to chase around, so it involves a lot more standing and observing (and not really doing anything). Gongoozlers simply like to watch what takes place at canals. They may also collect canal memorabilia (like postcards and paintings) and take pictures. They may like to learn the history or stories about canals.

If you want to try gongoozling, or at least see some cool canal action, the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland is one of the most popular sites. It connects two canals and is considered a marvelous example of engineering, so even non-gongoozlers think it’s interesting to see. Some of the canals even have designated balconies and other areas for gongoozlers to get the best view.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 916)

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