Ask the pilot

The strange underworld of airliner porn, and the geeks who make it happen.


Patrick Smith
April 27, 2007 3:23PM (UTC)

Next time your favorite television show makes a trip to the airport, look closely at that jetliner cabin scene. Chances are it's one of Richard Chan's warehouse planes. Chan is the founder and CEO of Aero Mock-Ups, a facility in North Hollywood, Calif., stocked with replica fuselage sections and thousands of aviation-themed props. He has been in business for 20 years, having built the entertainment industry's premier go-to facility.

From the street, the low-slung cluster of sheds, pallets and storage containers would pass for a salvage yard if it weren't for the orange windsock that flies above the office. Passersby would be startled to know that hundreds of shows, motion pictures and commercials have been filmed here. Hanging on a back wall are the autographed pictures of the many Hollywood heavyweights who've passed through.

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The interior shells are constructed by hand, mostly from plywood. Keeping in mind the need to accommodate lighting, camera gear and air conditioning, some of them are, let's just say, reasonable approximations. But not all of the inventory is artificial. Most of Chan's stock is the real thing, encompassing almost every imaginable prop. Need a galley cart, a row of overhead bins, a cabin sidewall panel or an FAA-approved flotation device? There's one around somewhere.

Most noticeable are hundreds of scavenged airline seats -- blocks of two, three and four; coach, business and first -- stacked like Legos on floor-to-ceiling rows of metal shelving.

"Those, I think, are from Ansett," says Chan, pointing toward a pair of oversize chairs in hideous gray leather. Ansett is a defunct carrier from Australia. Understandably, there's a decidedly outdated look to many of the cushions, their patterns and colors showing off an array of retired schemes and post-deregulation knockouts. I spot plenty of '80s-vintage United, American, Pan Am, Braniff and Eastern.

I'm astounded to discover one of civil aviation's most iconic objects shoved anonymously into a corner: an actual spiral staircase scavenged from the first-class section of a retired 747. Closer inspection reveals an Air Canada logo, and I try to imagine the thousands of travelers who had spun themselves up and down these very steps over the decades, on their way to Paris, Rome, Hong Kong. The fiberglass and aluminum helix looks forlorn amid the detritus. In fact everything looks forlorn, in what amounts to a sort of airliner chop shop -- the remains of dead planes scattered around like the flukes and skeletons on the deck of a whaling ship.

Chan's office is past a set of glass doors at the end of a short hallway. Chatting with him, I notice a set of airplane seats off to one side -- a conversation piece. To the layperson, there's nothing particularly unusual about them. To me, their slate-gray leather and tapering backs give them away.

"Those are from Concorde, aren't they," I say.

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Chan's eyes widen. "Yes, they are. British Airways." He is disarmingly polite, and his words are marked with a faded British lilt. There's a practical, hardscrabble feel to Chan's operation, but five minutes in his presence and it's clear that he didn't get into this weird business by fluke. He knows the industry inside and out, and can tell a 727-100 from a 727-200 by the shape of its intakes or the number of emergency exits. And I venture he can tell you precisely which aircraft that cannibalized stairway was taken from.

Chan is a licensed pilot and passenger safety advocate, having served as an advisor to both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. Not to slight the impressiveness of his résumé, but becoming the proprietor of an establishment like Aero Mock-Ups requires a peculiar, almost childlike fascination with planes. It's a fascination that I know too well, as I wander around Chan's warehouse like a kid in a candy store, spellbound by what, in most people's eyes, is little more than junk. On a smaller scale, you might remember my 2003 meeting with Ivan Hoyos, owner of the Plane World hobby store near Miami International Airport. I describe such people, myself among them, as "airliner enthusiasts."

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"Airliner enthusiast" is a phrase that pops up frequently in this column, occasionally alternating with "airliner nut." The meaning is probably lost on most people. Airliner enthusiasts are connoisseurs of civil aviation. But the "hobby," for lack of a better term, has little to do with flying per se. What gets our pulse going is not the visceral thrill of flight, the slipping of surly bonds. Rather, it's the grand theater of air travel: the color and craziness of the world's airlines; their route structures and service cultures; the places they go. We're enamored of planes, of course, but we see them less as technical marvels than as romantic symbols. The A.E. beholds the 747 or Concorde much the way an architecture buff beholds the Chrysler Building or the cathedral at Chartres in France. And beyond any inherent beauty, the airplane is nothing without context -- the greater point of going somewhere.

Despite what you might think, we come from all walks of life and an assortment of backgrounds -- we're artists and authors, firefighters and clerks.

Though usually not pilots. Richard Chan and me notwithstanding, the A.E. is seldom a pilot, and most airline pilots don't have anywhere near the industry acumen of a devout A.E. (For what it's worth, a good 50 percent of what I discuss each week on Salon is not common knowledge, or even of interest, to the average airline pilot.) Generally speaking, pilots are enamored of technology and the gratification that comes from hands-on flying. For the A.E. that's only part of it (or sometimes none of it at all). The A.E. would rather be sitting in the economy cabin of an exotic airliner than in the cockpit of a high-performance fighter. As a youngster, the typical pilot hung out at the local grass strip, watching canvas-winged Cubs fly touch-and-goes. The A.E., on the other hand, collected airline souvenirs -- timetables, baggage tags, silverware -- and spent hours poring over the route maps of Aeroflot, British Airways and Cathay Pacific, sounding out the distant cities to which they flew. The pilot will sit down with a copy of Aviation Week for a story on the newest cockpit gadget or GPS navigation enhancement. The A.E. would prefer to read about the history of the Air-India logo. This might come across as self-important, but the A.E.'s passion is, in several ways, a melding of technology and culture.

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Nevertheless, in the eyes of most people, ours is a distinctly lowbrow hobby. It lacks the cachet of other, more refined infatuations (as I've written before, we won't be vindicated until the day Ken Burns makes a sepia-toned documentary about the 747), and we bear the stigma of a certain stereotype: nerdy, shy and decidedly unhip. Few modes of transport are more openly reviled nowadays than commercial flying, and skulking around airports with a camera or a pair of binoculars isn't going to win you much respect, or a date with that sexy agent over at the Virgin Atlantic counter. (On the contrary, it's liable to get you taken in for questioning.) This underscores all that is misunderstood about air travel, but we're stuck with it. Thus the A.E. keeps it quiet when among friends or family, usually out of embarrassment. We stay where it's safe -- in the closet.

Not all of us are total fanatics. Aerophilia strikes with levels of severity, and for some the symptoms are mild and manageable. My own case is somewhere in the middle, though maybe with millions of dollars I'd become more eccentric. Consider John Travolta, whose affliction is obviously full-blown, manifest by the actor's privately owned Boeing 707, which he captains himself on jaunts around the globe. I'm unaware of anybody else in the cultural elite so deeply invested, but those with a thing for wings include New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, columnist Alex Beam of the Boston Globe, writer Douglas Coupland and renowned journalist William Langewiesche. Coupland is particularly drawn to the mystique of crashes, while Langewiesche is a former professional pilot whose father authored a well-known book about flying.

It's difficult to say whether A.E.s share some proclivity at the genetic level, but there are common threads. Typically our infatuation began at a very young age. We're almost exclusively male, and tend to be very good at geography.

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By the time I reached junior high, I'd become a hardcore planespotter. From the 16th floor observation deck at Boston's Logan Airport, armed with binoculars and a notepad, I'd log the registrations of arriving and departing planes (those numbers and letters on a plane's aft fuselage). Later, using a magic marker, I'd X out the day's tally in my fleets book. I owned at least two volumes listing the entire global fleet of commercial planes, country by country and airline by airline. The goal was to spot as many carriers, models and specific planes as possible. By 1980, I'd marked off every last Boeing 727 in the fleets of Eastern, Delta and American Airlines. How impressive is that?

The analogies to bird-watching are obvious, even uncanny, but planespotting differs in a number of ways. For one, the aluminum species tend to go extinct much more quickly than the feathered kind. By the early '80s, I came to see a definite pointlessness to amassing a checklist of aging airplanes when, in not too long a time, they'd be parked in a scrap yard awaiting the crusher. (Around this time, too, I started listening to the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat, discovering another, even less socially acceptable way to spend my time.)

You can still purchase those fleet rosters (one company, out of Zurich, Switzerland, has been publishing for 40 years), but old-style spotting has become rare. As with so many pursuits, a somewhat altered version has taken hold in cyberspace. Virtually every aerogeek on earth is intimately familiar with the megaportal of Airliners.net, easily the Web's richest source of airliner fetish material. Proximity to an actual airport no longer matters. At Airliners, a hobbyist in rural Kansas or the Australian outback can, if only vicariously, savor the digitalized sight of an Air Koryo IL-62 or one of the last remaining 707s.

The Airliners archives contain well over a million photographs. (The vast majority showcase commercial planes, but there's a limited number of military and small craft too.) A tremendously useful search engine allows visitors to specify aircraft type, airline, location and various other subcategories, and includes the ability to look up individual planes by plugging in their registrations. This feature reveals dozens of shots of the four Boeings involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, snapped in years past. It's possible to compose a pictorial history of a particular aircraft, from airline to airline, continent to continent, over several decades. There are cockpit photos aplenty, and a section of crash and accident pics. My personal favorites are the hundreds of interior cabin depictions, showcasing the latest luxuries found in the forward quarters of the world's leading carriers.

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Airliners is the brainchild of Johan Lundgren, a 32-year-old living in Lulea, in the north of Sweden. Not surprisingly, Lundgren's affection for commercial planes began in childhood. "In the early '80s my father worked for an aid organization in Zambia," he explains. "We flew back to Sweden every summer, and made stopovers in all kinds of places in Africa and Europe. All those flights, all those airlines, and all those airports are what started my interest in aviation."

Lundgren also did military service in the Swedish air force, serving as a mechanic on the Saab Viggen, a supersonic fighter. In the mid-1990s he launched an upstart Web site called Your Photos where visitors could upload shots of airplanes they had taken themselves. This later evolved into Airliners.net, formally registered by Lundgren in 1997. "The servers stood in my dorm room for many years. As of last year, Airliners is now physically located in a room in the central part of Lulea, but I still manage everything myself to keep costs down."

Most of Lundgren's visitors are from Europe and the United States, but a scroll through the forum discussions, where every post is marked by a flag representing the author's home country, is a world tour. Post a topic on whether a given airline is planning to install on-demand video in business class, and in short order the thread is likely to include opinions from the Comoros, Pakistan, Ghana and Cyprus. Like commercial aviation itself, it is all quite beautifully international.

Adds Lundgren: "We log about 250,000 unique visitors a normal day and 3 million page views. Our servers are working hard. The visitors to Airliners.net are mostly aviation hobbyists, whether working in the industry or not. Other than that we get a lot of news agency people hunting for information, as well as lots of photography buffs who simply enjoy the high and often artistic qualities of our photos."

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That latter point is not to be underestimated. You needn't be an airliner enthusiast to appreciate the talent of Airliners' contributors. Some of the photography is gorgeous. Trust me, I have no vested interest in promoting Lundgren's business, especially since he and his moderators have banned me from the forums on the grounds of my advertising my column there, but as my regular readers already know, I'm prone to marking up my columns with selections from the site's archive. Airliners' linking system makes it simple, and the vastness of the stock makes it possible to illustrate almost anything. For example:

Ever wonder what a compressor stall looks like? Or check out these masterly depictions of wake turbulence, wing condensation effect and the proper touchdown technique in a powerful crosswind.

Take in the majesty of contrails at 31,000 feet (and at night), or the ghostly beauty of the Northern Lights.

Just how big is a 747, and how close should you stand to one? Speaking of size, look carefully at this Pan Am DC-10, focusing on the figure of the captain in the windscreen. Grasping the immensity of a wide-body jetliner requires a certain perspective, not normally possible from the terminal.

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By the same token, just how ugly is the Airbus A380? About this ugly.

Here's a breathtaking look at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from the window of a 737, and another of the Alpine backdrop at Innsbruck, Austria.

Such dramatic photos speak for themselves, but I especially enjoy the more contextual and nuanced ones. Among my favorites is this "historical" pic from Prague in 1972. Another is this 30-year-old snapshot from Tajikistan. Is that merely a picture of airplanes, or something more? I see geography, history and aviation all at once.

In this one, you can see the Narita, Japan, airport ground crew standing in formation, giving the customary salute to the departing Iran Air SP. (Try to imagine such a thing at LaGuardia or Detroit.) Meanwhile, what's going on aboard Iberia's "Antonio Machado"? Has the first officer dropped his contact lens?

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I'm uncertain about the site's copyright protocols, but it's unfortunate the media doesn't tap more regularly into Airliners' stock. Last year, the Associated Press couldn't find a picture of a Northwest Airlines DC-9 to accompany a story it did on that carrier's older jets. There are more than 2,000 of them available through Airliners. And while it might sound morbid, newspapers and magazines could present compelling pictures of the actual aircraft involved in mishaps.

If there is one confounding mystery about Airliners, it surrounds the site's most prolific contributor, a commercial photographer from Australia named Sam Chui. Chui's pictures have been viewed more than 17 million times, putting him in a category with Ansel Adams or Alfred Eisenstaedt. But it's not the volume of Chui's work that's so startling, it's his remarkable composition and the diversity of his settings. Chui seems to be in every corner of the globe at once; one day he's shooting in Tehran, Iran, and the next day he's recording this dicey takeoff of a Russian wide-body in Phuket, Thailand. Chui's travels spin a web across countless countries. Who is this international man of mystery?

And how in heck did he get this one? Or this one? Chui is a god to the Airliners crowd, and the forum let me have it one day after I mused that perhaps his more improbably angled photos -- especially his huge gallery of bird's-eye views taken at Los Angeles International -- are in some way doctored. I mean, really. Chui declined to respond for this article, but I'm told he rents a small Cessna and cruises the VFR (visual flight rules) shoreline route adjacent to LAX, outfitted with a harness and telephoto lens. However he gets his shots, all I know is I can't stop looking.

As you might figure, Airliners.net is my default browser setting, which makes it either hugely entertaining or a dangerous distraction. Lord knows how many hours I've spent trolling the site's image banks when I should have been writing. There are others who know what I'm talking about.

Johan Lundgren is a pusher. I imagine he'd be loath to agree, but there's a name for this kind of business. It's called pornography.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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