On a recent morning, about seven men - and they are almost always men, no matter the day - stood on a hill overlooking the southernmost runway at Los Angeles International Airport, snapping pictures of nearly every airplane that moved, from the double-decker Airbus A380 to the comparatively tiny Boeing 737.
One of them was 52-year-old Russell Gann of Costa Mesa, whose father, a former McDonnell Douglas employee, had hooked him on airplane photography decades ago. A chemist, Gann comes to the spot in El Segundo at least once a week, usually around lunchtime, in part because he finds it relaxing. (Sometimes he brings his teenage daughter, who does not find the pastime nearly so enjoyable.)
"I kind of grew up around this," Gann said.
Just about every day, this small park near the corner of East Imperial Avenue and Main Street is filled with people watching airplanes taxi, land and take off. But only a handful of them - their long camera lenses give them away - are true airplane enthusiasts. Many dedicate large periods of their lives to plane watching, hoping to see the newest airplanes or the most obscure paint jobs. (Recently, the watchers were chasing an Alaska Airlines 737 decked out in a Walt Disney-themed paint job.)
"It's kind of a little treasure hunt," said Shane Chung, 45, who started following planes in high school and now brings his 7-year-old son to LAX.
As the nation's third-busiest airport and a major international gateway, LAX is an unusually rich place to watch airplanes, enthusiasts say. The nearly year-round sunshine also helps, giving the photographers bright light for their shots.
Other good plane watching spots are a small park next to the In-N-Out Burger on Sepulveda and the parking lot of The Proud Bird restaurant in Westchester. But though the photographers can stand closer to planes at those locations, they cannot easily frame Southern California landmarks - like the Hollywood sign and mountains - in pictures they take from them.
Since many prefer local color in their shots - the better to differentiate their LAX pictures from say, pictures of the same planes in Atlanta - the El Segundo location is popular.
"This is the Mecca," said Bob Grandolfo, 65, who answered questions while listening, in one ear, to a scanner that provided real-time air traffic control chatter. "It's a great place to eat lunch."
There has long been interest in aviation photography, but technological advances have changed the scope of it.
Grandolfo has uploaded 60 pictures to the popular website Airliners.net, the majority of them of airplanes taking off and landing at LAX. Highlights include several shots of a Qantas A380, an Asia-bound Cathay Pacific Airways Cargo 747-8 (the newest model of the classic plane) and a United Airlines A320 in a retro paint job. (Some refer to the site, with its searchable index of thousands of pictures from across the world, as "airplane pornography.")
There is little camaraderie among the serious enthusiasts atop the El Segundo bluff. On a recent morning, all kept to themselves, silently shooting picture after picture of the same plane.
Part of that could be because they all compete with each other to post pictures on the same websites. Or it might be because many of them sell their best prints to the same collectors for $15, $20 or $25 each.
But the reason could be simpler. Many said they come to the airport to get away, similar to how others might go fishing or hiking.
Mike Durbin, 44, who works for an airline in Sacramento, flew to Los Angeles recently for the day, strictly to spend several hours taking pictures. He was dressed casually, a San Francisco Giants T-shirt tucked into loose-fitting khakis shorts. He got particularly excited after seeing an Alaska Airlines 737-400, a plane he said the airline will soon retire.
"I love it," he said. "It's a good hobby. You know people with trains? We do this with planes. We just love airplanes. The power. The colors. Everything."
But not everything is perfect. Though they say it has calmed down a little, many say that since Sept. 11 they have been harassed by police who do not understand their hobby. The issue can be particularly tricky when photographers shoot close to an airport fence, Durbin said.
"Even if you're minding your own business, they still hassle you," Durbin said. "It's out there. It's real. It's a hard thing."
There are other troubles, too, for avid photographers like Dave Hoyer, 73, a retired United Airlines employee. He still comes out to LAX about eight times a year, but joked that he already had "billions" of photographs in his collection.
He recalled the glory years of DC-6s and 7s and said he was less than excited by some of the recent offerings. A four-engine China Eastern Airlines Airbus A340 - an unusual aircraft type at LAX - idled in the background, but Hoyer was not impressed.
"That used to be a big deal when it first came in," Hoyer said. "But like everything else, it gets old. How many pictures of one particular aircraft do I need?"
Then there are the views themselves. The bluff is not quite on the airport, requiring enthusiasts to shoot over a roadway, several air cargo facilities, and a smattering of high trees.
"Man," Gann said, smiling, "if I could take down those trees."
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