17-08-2021

The Plane Spotters of Myrtle Avenue

Myrtle Avenue has been associated with the pastime of ‘Plane Spotting’ for decades. Runway 27L, Heathrow airport’s south runway, is bordered by a pocket of green space; a revered location for plane spotters. Though the noise of these aircraft is a pollutant and alarm clock for local residents, the proximity of the aircraft passing overhead is an incentive for travelling spotters.

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A quiet suburban street in west London unusually crowded with parked cars and pedestrians, spotters will converge en masse at Myrtle Avenue, to see the take-offs and landings of their favourite aircraft.

The faint droning of a distant plane, on a gradual approach to the busiest airport in Europe, prepares the gathered spotters. The glass of spectacles, camera lenses and binoculars, fix upon the rooftops of Myrtle Avenue. The spotters are still, observing the descent with pen and paper in hand. Some prefer more modern techniques and have headphones on, delivering live information to them from a number of available radio sources, as they patiently await an arrival. The glass of the cars and homes reflects the image of a descending jet. Cumbersome and lumbering, dwarfing everything below, the landing of a plane is not always a significant event in the eyes of a spotter. Despite the spectacle of each take-off and landing, the adept senses of the spotter await the rarer, larger and more unique aeroplanes.

The wars of the 20th century led to spotting becoming viewed as an important pastime, credited as a hobby and encouraged by the government as an additional means of ensuring public security. The Royal Observer Corps was established in 1925; a form of civil defence in which volunteers were tasked with detecting, identifying, reporting and tracking aircraft over Great Britain. The First World War highlighted the need for a warning system in the UK, particularly over the coast of south-east England that lies nearest to mainland Europe, as German planes and zeppelins successfully carried out bombing campaigns over the area. In 1917, Germany reduced the number of airship attacks in favour of new fixed-wing bombers. This change of tact from the Luftstreitkräfte resulted in the death of 650 people, compared to 302 people in the previous year. A growing concern for Britain, Major General Edward Bailey Ashmore of the Royal Flying Corps was tasked with developing a warning network. The existing observation posts, manned by British Army personnel and Special Constables, were utilised alongside the Metropolitan Observation Service. Though not fully operational until late into the war, the notion of a vast network of people spotting, identifying and reporting hostile aircraft to authorities would be built upon to prevent casualties in future wars.

Royal Observer Corps volunteers from Hertfordshire

Paranoia after the First World War established a new Air Raid Precaution (ARP) committee in 1924. The Romney Marsh and Weald of southern England were built upon, with observation posts and control-centres formed as part of a ‘Raid Reporting System’. An expanding Observer Corps began to operate across Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Essex, covering all areas from which attack was plausible. For the success of the system, cooperation from the RAF, the army, police force and the General Post Office was required, though it was volunteer observers that allowed the programme to expand across county lines. Spare-time volunteers received no pay, were not granted allowances and had no official uniform. At their own expense, volunteers paid for the Observer Corps lapel badge that could be adorned with personal clothing. By 1936, England had full coverage of observation posts, spanning from Flamborough Head in Yorkshire to Poole Harbour in Dorset. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, observation posts covered most of Great Britain.

The Observer Corps was prepared for the Second World War, as the political crisis that culminated in the Munich Agreement had forced the mobilisation of the group for a week in September 1938. The shortcomings of the Observer Corps were laid bare, forcing the hierarchy to assess the condition of the organisation. The following year, a series of practice drills were held to optimise the operations of the Corps and its volunteers. Uniforms for the Observer Corps now included steel helmets and armbands, upon which rank could be exhibited. In addition, they were provided with high quality, Royal Navy-issue binoculars.

On the 24th of August 1939, Chief Constables issued ‘Mobilisation Notices’ to all members of the Observer Corps. From the 3rd of September 1939 to the 12th of May 1945, observation posts across the country were continuously manned, in fear of attack from the Luftwaffe. Years of preparation culminated with the Battle of Britain in 1940, as Germany sought to achieve air superiority over Great Britain. As the only means of tracking and monitoring German aircraft once above Britain, the Observer Corps enabled timely air-raid warnings to be issued, thus saving countless lives. Spotters from the Corps had split roles, with some working for 56 hours a week, their eyes fixed on the German aircraft targeting Britain’s cities. The Observer Corps was granted its Royal title by King George VI because of its important role in securing victory in the Battle of Britain.

Two men of the Royal Observer Corps on a cliff top near Dover, 1943 (image c/o Imperial War Museum)

The Royal Observer Corps was stood down on the 12th of May 1945, after the Luftwaffe had ceased combat operations. Their participation in the Second World War was rewarded with an RAF rally and air display at RAF North Weald in Essex. Observers who were present undertook the first uniformed march-past with the accompaniment of the RAF Band. The celebration of the Corps undertaking was short-lived, as the threat of war immediately loomed.

The development of technology and weaponry that led to the Cold War impacted the scale of the Royal Observer Corps. Their operation was significantly reduced, altered from the traditional activity of spotting aircraft. Human error and spotting were no longer widely required, with the improved performance of radar technology. Observation posts were reduced in number, replaced with underground monitoring posts that were equipped with radar devices and trained ROC volunteers. The tradition of aircraft spotting was no longer sufficient in preventing an enemy attack, with new jet aircrafts capable of reaching their targets and evading the warning systems used during the 1940s. The Royal Observer Corps was officially stood down on the 30th of September 1991. As the Cold War ended, the move into peacetime over British skies resulted in the Corps becoming defunct. Commemorated today, the ROC created a legacy for the hobby of plane spotting in Britain today.

A short walk from the Hatton Cross Underground station, Myrtle Avenue is one of the preferred spotting locations that surround Heathrow. The Great South-West Road marks the fenced boundary of the airport, with Myrtle Avenue being the closest point for safe spotting. The small green space at the tip of the suburban street affords excellent photo opportunities for spotters, with aircraft passing narrowly above homes. When the weather allows, and runway 27L is in use, dozens flock to Myrtle Avenue. 

With their folding chairs and sweet snacks, spotters from around the world visit the eastern tip of Heathrow. Adrian is an avid spotter from Barcelona. Though visiting London for only a week, he was spending the first hours of his trip at Myrtle Avenue, collecting images to contribute to his plane spotting Instagram page. Though not deemed a pastime for younger people, Adrian shares the passion of older hobbyist’s. The sizable lens attached to his camera allows him to capture an unrivalled clarity in his images. His motivation to plane spot was personal and driven by a desire to feel close to distant family. Having relatives in Australia, he was encouraged by the possibility of spotting a Qantas A380, the largest passenger plane in the world.

Adrian capturing a takeoff from 27L, Heathrow Airport

The spotters each have individual reasons for their participation in the hobby, with individual nuances and interests. For some, they may seek to track and monitor as many of a given craft as possible, others are determined to observe and monitor aircraft, recording information and communications between pilots and air traffic control. Spots can be conferred, discussed and debated on the forums and airwaves, with a community of spotters utilising all popular social media platforms. There is a necessity for detail, the need for confirmation, as the personal quotas would be adversely affected. With planes descending at a rate, the accuracy needs to be instant; this hobby requires an eye for fine detail.

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