Heathrow's Myrtle Avenue: A plane spotter's paradise

By Andy Dangerfield
BBC News, London

media captionBBC News spent an afternoon with plane-spotters gathered at Myrtle Avenue

As tens of thousands of Olympics spectators arrive in the UK via Heathrow Airport, few of them would think that they have spectators of their own.

But they do.

From a small residential road in west London, the arrivals are being closely watched and, in many cases, photographed.

Myrtle Avenue looks like your typical suburban street: pavements shaded by trees; semi-detached houses; family cars parked on driveways.

It is only when you walk to the end of the road that you notice a patch of grass where dozens of middle-aged men are sitting in a row, armed with binoculars, flasks of tea, high-frequency radios and expensive cameras.

The conditions are ideal. The sun is shining and the grass is dry.

'Perfect place'

A rumbling noise reverberates in the distance. There is a buzz of excitement in the air.

Suddenly, a gargantuan Boeing 747 appears from behind the rooftops and flies directly overhead.

The men snap furiously on their cameras and scribble in their notepads.

Seconds later, the plane will have landed on Heathrow Airport's south runway, a few hundred metres away.

Myrtle Avenue has become a prime destination for aviation enthusiasts since the closure of the only official area in Heathrow for plane spotting.

Until 2009, aircraft lovers would congregate on the roof of the Queens Building - next to Heathrow's Terminal 2 - to watch planes take off and land.

But the terminal was shut down two years ago, with the buildings demolished to be completely rebuilt, and since then plane spotting pilgrimages to Myrtle Avenue have been on the rise.

image captionGroups of about 40 plane spotters can be seen gathered at the end of Myrtle Avenue on weekday mornings

One of the dozens who were there on a weekend morning was Samy Mamoun, who is originally from Sudan but now lives in Golders Green, north London.

"It's a perfect place for plane spotting," he says. "We love watching the take-offs and landings.

"We look out for the types of plane - their airlines and logos. We're particularly looking out for the A340s, the A380s and Boeing 777s - all the big, heavy planes."

"And the Boeing 747 of course - she's an old lady now," he adds, with a sentimental tone.

The plane spotters deploy a multitude of tactics to identify the aircraft - they look for the type and position of their engines, the number of vapour trails they leave, and even listen to the distinctive noise the aircraft make.

Mr Mamoun has travelled far and wide to pursue his hobby. He has been to Amsterdam and Paris - and as far afield as Dubai, Addis Ababa and Cairo.

This is his fifth time plane spotting at Heathrow, but Myrtle Avenue's plane spotters have been kept on their toes recently.

Before this year, Heathrow's two runways were restricted to either take-offs or landings and switched each afternoon, except in an emergency, so aviation fans knew what to expect.

But under a trial, which runs until September, dual use of the runways can be deployed when a plane faces a 10-minute wait to land or take off and if 30% of all flights are delayed by more than 15 minutes.

'Wings bending upwards'

That means that if the runways switch use, plane spotters who are more enthusiastic about landings have to jump in their cars and drive around to the northern perimeter road.

Mr Mamoun said he preferred watching landings, because "the aeroplanes fly much lower, and it involves manoeuvring".

But Myrtle Avenue has also become a popular place to watch take-offs as you can see right over the airport's perimeter fence to the runway.

image captionPlane spotters at Myrtle Avenue came from Finland, Germany and Japan

Mr Mamoun's plane-spotting pal Waleed Elgundi said: "Take-offs are more exciting because the plane goes against a lot of headwind and you can see the wings bending upwards when the large aircraft depart."

"No departure is the same," he added. "They are affected by the winds, and of course the pilots who vary how far they go along the runway before taking off."

Adding to Myrtle Avenue's popularity is its proximity to Hatton Cross Tube station - a 10-minute walk away - and a nearby petrol station which has toilet facilities and a selection of sandwiches.

But some of the street's residents are far from enthusiastic about the influx of aircraft fanatics.

'Uncomfortable' view

Peter Graham, 71, who has been living on the street since 1972, says the plane spotters' cars "often block the service road at the back and residents can't get our vehicles out".

Himesh Patel, 22, who has lived on the street his entire life, says: "Sometimes I have beeped the horn on my car for an hour to get their attention and find out who is blocking the driveway."

"There should be a car park built for them," he suggests.

image captionThe street has become an increasingly popular destination for aviation enthusiasts

Resident Nundish Sukhoo, 26, highlights another problem that would test the patience of the most carefree of neighbours.

"They urinate behind the fence of our back garden," he says.

"You can see it from the window of our house. It's really disgusting and makes us feel a bit uncomfortable."

But apart from that he says "they're no great problem".

"It's a fairly unintrusive hobby," he says. "Perhaps they need to have proper facilities installed."

Across the grass, the concerns of the residents are of little interest to management consultant, Chikao Yamamoto, 66, who was visiting from Japan.

He tells me he has visited Myrtle Avenue "many times".

"And with lots of other plane spotters around it's easy to make… ," he pauses mid-sentence and grabs his camera as another plane appears in the sky.

His face lights up. To him, its red tail is instantly recognisable as belonging to his native air carrier Japan Airlines.

" ...friends."

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