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Wednesday, 14 November, 2001, 10:46 GMT
I spy ... another plane
British plane spotters have been charged with spying after visiting a Greek military airfield. Ridicule is not all followers of this unusual hobby risk, writes BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen (and the odd Belgian) go out to airports without any intention of boarding an aircraft it seems.

Some of the arrested British plane spotters
Some of the arrested British plane spotters
Plane spotting - the hobby of photographing or noting the registration numbers of aircraft - lacks worldwide appeal, according to Ken Cothliff owner of Air Supply bookshop.

"It's a hobby unique to the UK and the Benelux countries. Other countries just don't understand the enthusiasm to collect aircraft numbers," he says.

It seems it is this cultural gulf which has landed a group of British plane spotters in trouble with the Greek military authorities and saw them charged with spying.

In-flight entertainment

Sentries at airbases in the UK are used to seeing people armed with long lens cameras, binoculars and radio receivers lining the perimeter fence.

The British authorities are even said to turn a blind eye to those enthusiasts tuning in to aviation radio frequencies so they can note down aircraft call signs, something Mr Cothliff warns against for those venturing abroad to spot.

However, seasoned plane spotter Geoff Richardson admits even the British military can become a "bit touchy" if enthusiasts wander too close to restricted areas, though generally relations are cordial.

"RAF Leeming has set up a designated area for plane spotters at the edge of the base. You can get a great view of the take-offs from there."

Plane view

A story even circulates among plane spotters that one US air attaché preferred the information exhaustively compiled by British enthusiasts about air force deployments and movements to the data supplied by the Department of Defence.

While the Greeks are clearly incredulous that anyone could derive innocent pleasure from collecting aircraft numbers, many in the UK view plane spotters with little more sympathy than their derided train spotting cousins.

Michael Heseltine at Greenham Common airbase
Michael Heseltine at Greenham Common airbase
"I've never seen doctors or judges train spotting," says Mr Richardson, "but people from the highest ranks and best professions spot planes."

Mr Richardson says he sees nothing unusual about the hobby he shares with "literally thousands" of plane spotters.

"Lots of people like to watch aeroplanes. Even people who don't like planes still love to see Concorde."

Holiday at Heathrow

Of course, few would go to the lengths Mr Richardson has to indulge his pastime.

Crowds at an airshow
Crowds at an airshow
Rather than accompanying his wife on holiday to Spain this year, Mr Richardson remained behind at Heathrow Airport for the week to collect airline numbers.

The "holiday" was as close as Mr Richardson has come to realising his dream.

"I'd love to win the lottery and to go to every airport in the world."

An unusual globetrotting ambition perhaps for someone who has only recently conquered his fear of flying.

See also:

14 Nov 01 | Europe
Spy case Britons' film examined
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