TORONTO – It’s good to have a hobby. Even better when it’s useful. And a group of Pearson plane-spotters have proven themselves very useful to airport administration over the last decade.
In a large parking lot on the east side of Airport Rd., just across the street from Runway 23, the view of airplanes approaching for landing – or “final” as enthusiasts call it – is prime. As planes swoop by, you get a good view of the nose, then the underbelly, then the tail before touch down. You can see, up close, the swaying effect of crosswinds, and marvel at the dexterity of the pilots that weather them.
As planes fly to and from Pearson through one of the busiest travel stretches of the year, most people don’t know it, but there’s an extra set of eyes watching out for the airport. They’re called YYZ Airport Watch.
“I’ve seen the birth and the destruction of the original Terminal 1, Terminal 2, Terminal 3 opening, now the new Terminal 1 opening,” says Brian Dunn, one of the group’s founding Directors. He has been watching and taking pictures of planes since the 60s.
“I’ve seen a lot of history here.”
These airplane enthusiasts gather regularly in various parking lots around the airport, regardless of the weather and – as the name implies – they watch.
But they’re not just here for the spectacular pictures and airplane talk. They also act as a sort of Neighbourhood Watch for the airport. Keeping a view from the outside for anything dangerous or suspicious; from debris on the runway to wildlife.
“There are indigenous populations of deers and coyotes near the airport, so if we see something like that we’ll call it in,” says fellow Director Andrew Cline.
As they drive around the airport’s perimeter, Cline says they also take note of and call in any security concerns like “holes in fences, gates left open, and anybody we don’t recognize.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship.
“It’s this extra set of eyes that’s literally around the airport 24 hours a day,” says Scott Armstrong, Director of Communications with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.
“A lot of these guys are out, they keep logbooks, they know when something doesn’t look right, and they’ll call it in to our operations centre.”
The group works in tandem with the GTAA and Peel Regional Police. Their time is volunteered, but they do get some perks in return for their help.
The GTAA and police pitch in for identifying flags, stickers and magnetic decals for their vehicles. The authority gives them meeting space on its property and they’re bused onto the tarmac for first-class views of big aviation events like the first landing at Pearson of the gigantic Emirates Airlines Airbus A380 in 2009.
They have various checks and balances potential members have to pass too.
“All members have a formal police check done. They have to meet certain criteria to join the group,” says Cline.
Pearson isn’t the only airport with a group like this. There are chapters and similar organizations around the world and elsewhere in Canada, including Ottawa, Montreal and Kelowna.
The Toronto branch is the biggest in the country though, boasting 130 members, logging over 10,000 hours of watch time a year.
And they do it all for the love of flight.