Where the Big Birds Fly

At what age did you stop looking up when you heard the roar of a jet engine overhead? At what point did a passing freight train become a traffic frustration instead of a counting challenge? Well if you answered “NEVER!”, then congratulations for still being a kid at heart. I love these mechanised wonders and never fail to be awed by the technologies and systems that keep the world moving…except now I take a camera (or three) with me to try to capture the wonder of it all.

Recently, I got to indulge my interests in London, a city well-suited to someone with a passion for planes and trains. Staying on the Piccadilly Line in Ealing meant staying under the most-used approaches for Heathrow — runways 27L and 27R — and being only a short Tube ride from the best spotting points at the airport. 

Hatton Cross Underground Station is a great starting location for exploring Heathrow Airport. From here, it’s only a very short walk to the end of runway 27L. The aircraft come roaring overhead with startling regularity and the footpath provides an excellent spot to watch their short finals. 

Although the Piccadilly line continues to the various Heathrow terminals, Hatton Cross was formerly the terminus of this branch of the Piccadilly before it was extended to ‘Heathrow Central’ (today’s Terminal 2 & 3) in the 1970s. It’s also the start of a free travel zone where passengers can get to various parts of the airport via train and bus for zero monies!

Down at platform level, the pillars are decorated in a tile motif based on British Airways’ Speedbird motif. It’s easy to overlook, but one of those great little details that Underground stations often have if you keep your eyes open.

At ground level, runway 27L is nearby for watching short finals, otherwise the end of runway 27R is a short (and free) bus ride away. 27L is the pick of the spots though, with a clear view back to the beginning of the final approach and a nearby park to watch approaching aircraft. I spent quite a bit of time here with my Leica M4 (with 90mm Elmarit on), Olympus MJU-II and Fujifilm X-Pro2.

As one of the world’s busiest passenger airports, there is no shortage of amazing aircraft landing at Heathrow. Unlike many airports across the world, the Boeing 747 remains a common sight with British Airways the world’s largest operator of this type in passenger service. Virtually every major type manufacturer by Boeing and Airbus can be seen on final approach at Heathrow, although the economics of the airport favour heavies over smaller aircraft. The occasional Dash-8 from Aberdeen or Edinburgh is a somewhat incongruous sight!

Heathrow has plenty of other spotting sights dotted around its perimeter — Spotterguide has you covered there. Sadly, there is no longer a visitor centre to patronise and watch the aircraft go by and the spotting points inside the airport tend to be airside and require a ticket to reach. I’m no hardcore planespotter, but Heathrow doesn’t seem like an airport in love with its spotting community. Unlike, say, Frankfurt, which offers tours and terraces, or Munich with its wonderful visitor park and playground, Heathrow seems less friendly for non-paying, non-travelling visitors. 

But it is Heathrow, one of history’s prototypical and iconic international airports. If you still pause and look up at the jets roaring over, visiting Heathrow is a no brainer.

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