STANDING AT A RAILWAY CROSSING IN BAGDOLA, in Delhi’s Dwarka Sector 8, Itika Gupta and Max Bearak watched a Boeing 747 climb the sky above them. “It’s almost a spiritual experience,” Bearak said after the plane had roared overhead. On either side of us, railway tracks stretched into the hazy distance, parallel to a fence, behind which lay the Indira Gandhi International Airport—a few buildings were visible, as well some taxiing planes. Every few minutes, a plane would take off above us—Bearak and Gupta would identify the model and airline, and then we would watch it recede into the distance and slowly disappear into the clouds.
Like astronomers and birdwatchers seek out stars and birds, plane-spotters like Gupta and Bearak search the skies for planes, often spending weekends at sites that afford them good views of take-offs and landings.
Gupta was introduced to planes when she was four, by a brother who was in the Indian Air Force. “He wanted me to become the first woman fighter pilot and he constantly talked to me about flying,” she said. She considered pursuing a career in aviation, even studying engineering, but “eventually decided against it, and kept spotting as a hobby”.
But “hobby” is too mild a word for their interest—Bearak is perhaps more accurate when he describes it as a “good OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder]”. “I’ve always loved machines,” said Bearak, the son of journalists, who shifted homes around the world almost every two years. “It started with cars. I used to sit outside my house in New York and watch them for hours on end, then trains, and finally planes.”
The Delhi airport, according to Bearak, is one of the best in the world for spotting, because “you get a huge variety of aircraft, small and large passenger planes, huge cargo planes as well as old propellers”. Spotters look for a range of airplanes, and Bearak pointed out that because India is a developing country, both modern and antique aircraft come into the airport, along with passenger and cargo planes—an unheard of range in the airports of the developed world.
While both carry cameras when they go spotting, Gupta also maintains a notebook with detailed diagrams of different logos used by airlines and aircraft manufacturers, which she updates constantly. The spotters are interested in all the details they can lay their eyes on, from aviation companies (“Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, McDonnell Douglas”, recited Bearak), to specific models (“757s, 737, 747, 752s”), and the parts of each aircraft (“tailfin, tailwings, stabilisers, along with different types of flaps”). “It’s the high of seeing something you learn in real life,” said Gupta. “There’s a difference between doing an experiment and reality. It’s the high of application.”
Different spotters treasure different parts of the spotting experience. Gupta loves the smell of hot tarmac and the roar of the engine. She enjoys witnessing the moment when a plane leaves the ground, “the majesty of seeing a hunk of metal lifting into the air”; she also looks out for touchdowns, the friction between wheels and tarmac raising a plume of smoke into the air.
Bearak gets a thrill from being up in the clouds in a window seat looking down at the world. As he explained to me, for many spotters, flying offers a diluted but tangible version of the Overview Effect, a cognitive shift reported by many astronauts in space, in which they experience a profound sense of awe and a heightened awareness of the interconnectedness of living beings. “They have a complete shift in how they understand life because they’ve seen earth from orbit,” Bearak said. “You get a version of that when you’re flying.”
Over my conversations with Bearak and Gupta, I began to sense what drew them to planes. I also realised, however, how unique a spotter’s perspective on the world is. Those of us unfortunate enough to live near airports might suffer from the constant drone of planes, but Bearak wishes that he could have his “bedroom open out into an open atrium” with an airport beyond, “so that I could see the planes land and take off”. Gupta, meanwhile, revealed the depth of her devotion while recounting one particular flight she had taken a few years ago. “It was from Bangalore to Delhi. There was terrible turbulence all the way, and for a while I thought the plane was going to crash,” she said. “But then I realised, what better way to die than on a plane.”