Spotting During UN Week? Here's What You Need To Know

As mentioned previously, New York's annual UN Week is coming up next week. That makes this weekend the single best weekend of the year for planespotting at JFK in terms of aircraft movements. Thinking about coming to JFK for the first time this weekend? Here are a few pointers to help you along.

What to Wear

The beautiful autumn weather this time of year in New York City, coupled with JFK's waterfront location, can make for a widely varied temperature range over the course of a full day of planespotting. Early mornings this week have been in the mid-forties with highs in the mid seventies. Add in the coastal breeze that is sometimes present and can be quite strong, and your best option is to dress in layers. That way you can add or remove clothing as needed to stay comfortable throughout the day. Since there are some showers in the forecast, some light rain gear is also highly recommended.

Where to go

Unlike some airports where the best planespotting locations remain consistent, at JFK this is not the case. Locations here are totally dependent on the runways in use and time of day, with most locations only being suitable for one or two if the eight possible runways. Most, though not all of the places that we use are listed in NYCAviation's Planespotting Guide for JFK, so it is useful to read through that so you have a general idea of where to go once you know which runways are in use. The large numbers of spotters that come out for this weekend make it easy to follow the crowd if you're unfamiliar with the area. To find the crowd this weekend, the easiest way is probably to follow myself and NYCAviation on Twitter, and to use the hashtag #UNGAspotting. We will be updating where we are and what we're seeing throughout the day.

What to Bring

In addition to your camera, binoculars, scanner, and other planespotting equipment, there are a several other items that you should consider bringing along, three of which I consider to be must-haves. First off, all of the locations are out in the open, and most have little in the way of shade available. Therefore, sunscreen is a must-have item. Apply it early and often and for the sake of the photographers around you, please avoid spray-on sunscreen. Even more important is insect repellant. Several spots are very near to marshland, and the various biting insects can make you uncomfortable very quickly.  The final item that I consider to be a must-have is plenty of drinking water. I typically carry a 70 ounce Camelback with me and it is usually empty by the time I head home.
In addition to those three must-have items, there are a few more thinks that I like to have with me. Near the top of my list here is a fold-up camp chair. Not only does it let me get off my feet, it makes for an excellent "planespotting central" where I can put my bags and scanner. I also like to have a few snacks such as granola bars in my bag. While a couple places that we use have food readily available nearby, the majority do not. It's good to have something to tide you over so you don't miss the 747-SP that will inevitably land while you're on a food run. Finally, I always make sure to have plenty of extra batteries and empty memory cards with me for everything: I carry close to a dozen rechargeable AAs for my scanner and as a backup for my camera, a spare camera battery, and a rechargeable USB battery pack or two for my phone. Nothing ruins a day faster than running out of juice for your devices, so I take out plenty in the way of rechargeable insurance.

Scanners 201: Getting the Most Out of Your Scanner

Recently, I wrote about the basics of buying and using a scanner. However there are several helpful features and accessories that go beyond the basic functionality and were beyond the scope of that article as a result.  So let's dive right in and take a look at some features that you mind helpful.

Using Lockout and Primary

In part 1, I mentioned listening to different frequencies such as approach, ground, and ATIS at various times. However if you leave the ATIS in your scan it is all you will hear (it broadcasts in a continuous loop) and the others will just create clutter. A great way to program these channels in but not always have them actively being scanned is to lock them out, keeping them in the scanner's memory for a later time.  I program many different frequencies into my scanner, many of which I hardly ever listen to, and keep them locked out.  That way they are there if I need them.  Operation may vary from scanner to scanner, but to unlock a channel, I simply press the button for manual mode and page through until I find the channel I want to unlock.  Another great use for lockout is to temporarily remove a channel that is catching too much interference or which is monopolizing the feed. Another great feature found on many scanners is 'primary' , which scans one particular frequency more often than everything else. I typically set the main tower frequency as primary as that is mostly what I want to listen to.

Get a Better Antenna

Sad to say, but the "rubber duckie" antenna that came with your scanner is crap compared to what you can purchase as an aftermarket accessory.  The included antenna is designed to be cheap and receive a wide range of frequencies, however it sacrifices range and reception quality in order to accomplish that. Fortunately, there are far better options available that aren't all that expensive.  Look for either an aviation band antenna or a "gainer" or "super gainer" antenna for the best results.  The super gainer that I use is about 16 inches long but is fairly flexible.  Gainer or airband antennas will be somewhat shorter, in the eight to nine inch range.  One thing to be careful of is that there are two different connector styles used on scanner antennas, BNC and SMA, so you want to be sure to get one that matches your scanner.  If you don't know which one you need, take a look in your manual.  Look to spend $25-$35 on a good quality antenna. And then stash that stock antenna away as a spare.  I keep mine around for when I am at an airshow or other event and have my scanner stashed in my bag out of sight.

Better Ways to Listen

Lets face it, airplanes can get be loud, even on final approach when the engines are idling. For situations where the scanner cant quite put out the volume level that I need, a carry along a battery powered external speaker that I purchased off of Amazon. It uses AA batteries just like my scanner does and I always have a few sets of those with me. Pretty much any battery powered, portable speaker should work just fine.  Look to spend $20 or less on one of these.  There are speakers marketed as external scanner speakers, however with a street price in the $30 range there are many less expensive options.

On the other hand, sometimes you don't want to interrupt others with radio chatter or attract extra attention from a suspicious public. For times like that, I keep a pair of cheap earbuds in my bag. You don't need anything fancy, just something that is comfortable and which will stay in your ear.  If you don't already have a pair lying around, look to spend $10 or less.  One thing to keep in mind with both speakers and headphones is that scanner communications are not exactly high-fidelity audio streams so you don't need anything fancy or expensive.

More to Listen To

The listening fun doesn't stop with the approach, tower, and ground frequencies.  There are channels for different airlines at many airports, and even ramp control channels at many of the larger airports.  I can personally attest to the fun times that can be had listening to the JFK Terminal 4 (International Arrivals Terminal) ramp control during the evening.  There are lots of aircraft from many different places, most of which don't speak English as their native language, and that can make for some very interesting discussions on busy frequencies. While these sorts of communications may not be your first choice to listen to while spotting, they can be a fun change of pace.

I hope that this series of posts has helped you to better understand how to use a scanner for spotting.  They are an invaluable tool for any spotter and can greatly enhance your aviation experience.

Spotting Tip: Come to UN Week in New York

Un-flag-square.png

If there is one thing better than planespotting at JFK on a normal day, it's being there during the annual UN Week which takes place each September. In addition to the normally busy stream of globally diverse arrivals, this weekend adds a steady stream of VIP traffic as the world's leaders descend on New York. Aside from the Boeing Business Jets and Airbus Corporate Jets used by many of the world's nations, be prepared for aircraft that are far more rare around here. Recent years have brought Russian built TU-154s and IL-96s as well as Boeing 747SPs and even a 707. Of course Air Force 1 is a guaranteed visitor this year and with it comes at least 1 C-17 carrying support equipment.

So where should you be and when to catch all of the VIP action? The vast majority of the visitors will be arriving Saturday and Sunday September 21st and 22nd, while Air Force 1 should arrive either Monday the 23rd or Tuesday the 24th.  Finally Friday the 27th should bring a good amount of traffic as the dignitaries head home. The aircraft can arrive at all hours of the day or night which have foiled some shots in the past, so plan on some long days if you want to catch as much as you can.  As for which airport you should spot at, JFK gets most of the traffic as the major international airport, however LaGuardia has been known to get a few arrivals of its own.  Newark may get one or two arrivals though it is not a very spotter-friendly airport. Finally, if you're looking for something a bit off the beaten path, take a 2 hour drive up to Stewart International in upstate Newburgh where many of the aircraft are parked for the week. 

As for me, I plan on being there all day on the 21st and 22nd, and may stop by for a bit other times during the week.  I hope to see some of you there. 

Scanners 101: What to Buy and How to Use

As I have mentioned before, a radio scanner is one of my favorite tools to use when planespotting.  In fact, after my camera and lens, my scanner is the next thing I prep and pack before heading out. A good scanner lets you know when there is going to be a runway change and what the next few aircraft you will be seeing are before you can actually make them out.  In addition, they provide some really cool and appropriate background noise for your spotting adventures.  In order to make efficient use of this technology, you need to have a basic idea of what you need and how to use it.

There are two main types of scanners available: portable and base/mobile.  For the sake of this discussion, we are going to focus solely on the handheld radio-style portable models. These typically range in price from roughly $100-$500 with the more expensive models being able to receive digital and/or trunked (multiple independent channels on one frequency, similar to an analog cell phone) communications, monitor a larger range of frequencies, and store more programmed channels (more on that later). Fortunately for us, most aircraft communication is done with analog, non-trunked signals.  This puts a basic, entry-level scanner squarely in our sights and also makes programming significantly more simple.  One popular scanner among spotters today is the Uniden Bearcat BC75XLT.  It is a capable, 300 channel scanner in a compact package, and it is able to be programmed via a Windows-based PC with an included cable and free software downloaded from the internet, all for about $100.  Other recommended scanner brands are GRE and Radio Shack which sells re-badged scanners made by both Uniden and GRE under their PRO nameplate. While a basic scanner such as that one is certainly sufficient for planespotting, there is one feature, and alpha-numeric display, which is generally not found on the cheapest scanners. You may find that it is worth paying a little more for this feature so that you can see a description of what channel you are listening to. One thing to be cautious of are the so-called "race" scanners which are generally relatively inexpensive but only cover a narrow 450-470 MHz band that is nowhere near the aviation bands. The primary frequencies used for air traffic control of civilian aircraft are 118.0000 MHz to 137.0000 MHz, so that is what you should be most interested in.

Once you have found a scanner that fits your needs and budget, you need to know the basics of how to use it.  Fortunately, aviation radio communications are fairly basic and that makes listening to them relatively easy.  There are three basic modes to use when you want to listen to frequencies on your scanner.  The first and most basic is manual mode, where you key in a specific channel and that is all that you listen to.  Next comes service scanning mode where all frequencies used by a particular type of communication are scanned.  This is useful for areas where you don't know what channels are in use, but may pick up other traffic than just the airport you are spotting at.  It is also fairly inefficient as it spends a lot of time scanning unused or unneeded frequencies, potentially causing you to miss some of the communications that you are listening for.  The final, most useful mode is a programmed scan, where the channels that you want to listen in on are programmed into the device and only they are scanned.  This is a far more quick and efficient method of scanning, though it requires some amount of setup time and knowledge of frequencies.

Before we get into how to program a scanner, lets take a look at what banks and channels are.  Most if not all scanners have the ability to group frequencies into one of 10 banks where each frequency gets a unique channel number assigned to it. I find it easiest to group all of the channels for a particular airport into one bank that can then be activated when I am that particular airport. Having a basic understanding of that, its time to take a look at the two ways to program the desired information into your device.   First off, you can manually enter the frequencies, assign them a bank and channel, and give them a name if your scanner allows it.  This can be a fairly confusing and time-consuming process at least at first, but can be done without any additional equipment or software.  The other method is to use PC-based software and a cable that attaches your scanner to the computer for a far more simple entry interface.  The downside to this method is that for many scanners the cable and/or the full version of the software carries an additional cost.

The airwaves truly come alive at a major airport with dozens of frequencies in use for air traffic control, airport operations, and airline communications. While the vast majority of them hold little spotting value (though some can be quite interesting to listen to), a few are absolutely key.  I typically tune in to the tower and approach frequencies while spotting arrivals and the tower and ground frequencies while shooting departures.  At a busy airport this can be about 10 frequencies in total.  Another frequency worth making note of is the airport's ATIS channel which will tell you in a brief message the weather and which runways are active.

Of course this is just the basics of what you can do with a scanner while spotting.  Look for another article soon on some of the more advanced topics.