Spot the Orion
RAF MILDENHALL — Chilly wind gusts swept across the runway and blew past a group of aircraft enthusiasts waiting outside the security fence to watch a Navy P-3C Orion aircraft depart after being refueled on Feb. 28.
A British Ministry of Defence vehicle drove slowly along the perimeter road near the main gate so that the vehicle’s occupants could get a closer look at the enthusiasts, known as tail spotters because of their hobby of logging aircraft tail numbers. Soon after, an Air Force security force vehicle parked nearby to keep an eye on the group.
And, with their cameras poised for the aircraft’s departure, the tail spotters were suddenly sprayed by a maintenance truck that hit a large puddle near them.
There’s no way to know if it was a deliberate act. However, a few tail spotters assumed it was.
“I told you that some military people don’t like us,” said Mike Digby, a Briton from Cromer who has been tail spotting for almost seven years.
“They sometimes think that we’re their enemy, but we are on their side,” Digby said of military members who can possibly mistake the group for peace protesters who have been known to trespass onto air bases.
“If I had to choose between peace protesters and the U.S. military, I’d pick the military any day. If they weren’t here, we’d have no hobby.”
Under the watchful eye of base security and despite the unexpected puddle shower, the tail spotters got their photos and the tail number of the maritime surveillance aircraft. The plane was coming from Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, and going to an undisclosed location in the United States, according to a base spokesman.
Walter James Crisp, a Briton from Woodbridge, added the P-3C Orion aircraft number to his log of more than 5,000 aircraft.
Crisp often goes to Mildenhall in search of aircraft he’s not seen in his 50 years of tail spotting, he said.
“Some people go bird spotting and collect stamps. This is my hobby,” he said.
The enthusiasts count on an unofficial tail spotters network in the local region to find out which aircraft are up for arrival and departure. They also use a low-frequency radio to listen to the base’s tower.
“Everyone talks to each other,” Digby said.
Because tail spotters are aware of certain flight patterns, they also can be a second line of defense, Crisp said, adding that they would notify base security of any suspicious activity.
Mildenhall doesn’t mind tail spotting, as long as it’s done lawfully.
“Having them view the planes is more a sign of being good neighbors and good will than it is a security threat,” said base spokesman Geoff Janes.