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Art of tail spotting takes off at base runways

By SEAN KIMMONS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 8, 2006

RAF LAKENHEATH — Right outside the confines of the base, men equipped with binoculars and radios tuned into the control tower’s frequency observed F-15 jets roar off the runway into a cold February afternoon sky.

No, the men weren’t spies from the al-Qaida terrorist group, but aircraft enthusiasts known as “tail spotters.”

Just about every day, tail spotters can be found at RAF Lakenheath’s plane viewing area along the 8-foot-high security fence near the start of the runway.

They get their nickname because they record the number every aircraft has on its tail, so it can be distinguished from all others.

Many tail spotters share the numbers among fellow associates around the world, sometimes to follow the path of a certain aircraft. There are numerous Web sites for tail spotters to do this.

Although he admits he’s not a computer person, Ray Parrish, a tail spotter from Tottenham, is part of a network of tail spotters who share tail numbers over the telephone, he said.

For the past 30 years, Parrish has traveled to numerous air bases throughout Europe and the United States to watch aircraft, he said.

“It’ll take you around the world if you let it,” Parrish said of tail spotting. “I’ve been out to America about 20 times.”

Upon arriving to the RAF Lakenheath viewing area on this February afternoon, Parrish planted a radio antenna on the top of his car and listened attentively to the radio traffic.

Other tail spotters began to roll into the parking lot at the same time, as if they knew when the aircraft would depart. Minutes later, an F-15 jet turned on its after burners and screamed down the runway, sending a rumbling echo to onlookers in the viewing area.

Glen Chipperfield, a tail spotter since 1987 from Yaxley, walked over to Parrish as they began to chat about aircraft that they’ve seen recently.

One of the most memorable planes Chipperfield has seen was the sleek SR-71 Blackbird in the late 1980s, he said.

When asked if tail spotters are a threat to base security, Chipperfield quickly responded, “We’re probably more of an asset than we are anything else.”

He explained that many of the tail spotters in the area know each other, so if any suspicious activity were to arise, they would notify security forces.


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