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After 9/11, plane-spotter hobbyists are being watched themselves

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Plane spotting, an offbeat hobby of watching and recording airplanes, has taken on a more ominous tone since 9/11. Those who huddle around airports with police scanner, binoculars and photography equipment are answering more questions from police and suspicious citizens. (Phil Derner Jr./NYCaviation.com)

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It's not easy being a plane spotter, aviation enthusiasts who hang around airports to watch, record and photograph dramatic images of airplanes in action. Since 9/11, the hobby has come under scrutiny from aviation officials, police and suspicious citizens. (Phil Derner Jr./NYCAviation.com)

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New York City native Phil Derner Jr., an avid plane spotter who spends thousands of dollars on equipment to pursue his hobby, captures this American Airlines jet at LaGuardia Airport. (Phil Derner Jr./NYCaviation.com)

Some people collect baseball cards or stamps, but Steven Morgan, 45, collects airplane sightings, a hobby that makes him a marked man in the post-9/11 world.

Morgan, of Laurel, Md., is a plane spotter, the term for aviation enthusiasts who ogle, photograph and record details about airplanes as they taxi, take off and land.

It’s a compulsion driven by a lifelong thrill over the speed, power and grace of jetliners. Morgan’s love of airplanes started with childhood trips to the airport with his father. Morgan delighted as planes screamed directly over his head, and he waved his arms as if to guide them safely to the runway.

As an adult, Morgan travels throughout the country and sits for hours inside and near airports to jot down aircraft registration numbers. These days, however, people who take a special interest in airplanes are of special interest to law enforcement.

“Everything changed after 9/11,” said Phil Derner Jr., a New Yorker who runs the plane spotting Web site nycaviation.com. “A lot of us get the cops called on us.”

Morgan’s most dramatic run-in with the police occurred a year after 9/11 at Dulles International Airport outside Washington. Morgan was on the top level of a parking garage peering at airplanes through a telescope. A police car idled behind him, soon joined by two others. Suddenly, the police cars gunned their engines and squealed toward him, pinning Morgan into a corner. The officers rushed out of their cars and barked at him to back away from his car. One officer drew his gun, recalled Morgan, who works as a budget analyst.

“I was standing there shaking in my shoes,” Morgan said. “I calmly told them I was not a terrorist; I was not doing anything against the law.”

A Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority spokesman, Rob Yingling, said that plane spotters were subjected to the same scrutiny as any airport visitors. He said some spotters gave the airport authority a "courtesy announcement" before visiting to forestall problems.

At the national level, it’s not illegal to watch or photograph airplanes, according to Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration. But law enforcement personnel, she said, have wide discretion to question people whose activity they regard as suspicious. The spotters might see it as a hassle, but “I think if they’re not doing anything wrong, they should not have any problems with answering questions from law enforcement,” Davis said. “In the day and age that we live in, you can’t be too careful.”

But spotters aren’t just being stopped for questioning. Some airports are citing security concerns to block the hobbyists altogether. Salt Lake City International Airport, for example, used to have an observation area where devotees could watch planes. It was a cheap way to entertain children and a haven for spotters.

But the spot, which had loudspeakers that boomed airplane communications, was closed for security reasons after the terrorist attacks, said Barbara Gann, a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City department of airports. Closing the observation area was a “precautionary measure,” Gann said. “It gave us an exposure we didn’t want to take a risk with.”

It’s not just the airports that are worried: Neighbors out for a morning stroll look askance at anyone near airport runways with zoom lenses as long as your arm and scanners to catch the chatter of air traffic towers. Steve Rhode, a producer of aviation films, said he recently was chased away by nervous parkgoers near Washington's Reagan National Airport, which is just a few miles from the White House.

“One guy in particular wouldn’t leave my side,” Rhode said, and stood in his way as he aimed his camera at airport traffic. “It does get a little freaky sometimes having people stare at you. It’s all just kind of gone crazy” since 9/11.

Some places still welcome spotters with open arms. Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina has an observation area with a covered roof and speakers that pipe in communications from the tower. There’s also the Crosswinds Cafe, where spotters can spy planes from indoors. All of it is for plane lovers, said Jill Denning, a spokeswoman for the Raleigh-Durham airport authority. “Even in miserable weather,” she said, “people like to come out and watch the planes.”

Plane spotters have learned to be prepared for the hostility they may face. Rhode says he brings two forms of identification when he photographs or films near airports. Derner packs his bag with magazines that have published his aviation photographs to show security personnel if he's hassled.

Many spotters says that, far from being a security risk, they can be a useful deterrent to terrorism, serving as extra eyes to guard against suspicious activity.

Kurt Gorm Larsen of Norway has been plane spotting for 35 years, starting when an airport first opened on his tiny home island. Then, as a 14-year-old, Larsen rode his bicycle eight miles to the airport to see the king, who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. After his first glimpse 35 years ago of a French Caravelle airplane and a Boeing DC-9, Larsen said, he was hooked.

Larsen used to travel extensively to U.S. airports, but since 9/11 he has stayed closer to home. “I feel a bit sorry for those people that don’t understand that plane spotters are extra eyes to help keep the aviation industry even more secure,” Larsen said in an e-mail message.

The difficulties that plane spotters now face has put a damper on what used to be a fun, carefree hobby, but Derner said he didn't blame those who cast a suspicious eye on him and other spotters.

“People get concerned. I can understand that,” he said. “And, honestly, if they didn’t I would get worried.”

Rhode described his strategy for dealing with gruff security personnel and suspicious citizens: “I just pack my stuff up, go away and come back later.”

E-mail: so2171@columbia.edu