In the 70s, my brother and I were… planespotters. Home was near Windsor, and during the holidays we’d pester our mother to take us there to catch the 727 Green Line to Heathrow. She probably didn’t mind, two boys out of her hair all day. In our bags went our tools – binoculars, log books and air band radio, which could be useful if we couldn’t read the plane’s number on the fuselage.
The radio looked like any other but alongside the usual medium and long wave you could listen to conversations between the pilots and air traffic control on VHF. So if you missed ‘copping’ a number with the binoculars, you might hear the pilot speaking to the tower.
Also into the plane spotting kitbag went a packed lunch. A cheese sandwich, a bottle of Cresta (it’s frothy, man) and a banana, which made the cheese sandwich taste of banana too, especially if it was a hot day and we let everything mush up in the bottom of the bag.
They called them Green Line Coaches, but really it was just a single decker bus. Once we got there, we’d go to the Queen’s Building, a labyrinthine rooftop terrace between Terminals One and Two.
The Queen’s Building was a remnant of an earlier age of innocence, where the plane spotters were outnumbered by friends and families waving off or welcoming travellers. Those expecting passengers would wait until they saw the correct plane touch down, often with the guidance of a friendly spotter, and then they’d rush down to the terminal to be in place to greet their people before they’d collected their baggage and come through passport control.
But as we passed whole days on the terraces, we lived and breathed planes. Not just looking at them, but reeling in the throb and rumble as the planes landed and took off. Landing, thrust reversers screeched as pilots urged their aircraft to a stop. Taking off they’d make even more noise, every inch of throttle needed to get a hundred ton metal tube into the air. And the smell – a pervasive fug of burnt kerosene.
And why do I say seaside pier, in the middle of an airport? Well, there were little cafes and shops, and photo and recording booths. It was a rare day that we didn’t take home a set of mugshots of us pulling faces or a cheap piece of vinyl recording some unlistenable din we’d made. There was a camaraderie among the planespotters, and if someone missed spotting a number someone else would volunteer the info.
I regularly use Heathrow now for business trips to Ireland, and while I’m waiting for the plane to Cork I probably sit in much the same place sipping my moccachino from the Eat concession as I did when I trained my binoculars on the runway. I watch the planes, but I don’t write down any numbers, from inside what is now known as the Queen’s Terminal.