Most of us have a pull toward the sky, like some transcendental connection of what might be or what is. Infants’ tiny heads will turn, tracing a contrail or a jet in their sight. Toddlers point and grunt or say something that vaguely sounds like the word "plane." Children will scream out, “I SEE A PLANE,” point it out, and then ask you all kinds of questions. What kind of plane is that? Where is it going? Where did it come from? Is that the same plane we were on?
Even long after they stop asking and this world in the sky seems more normal, whatever “normal” really is, children and some adults, me included, will keep looking. I’ve watched my five-year-old tracing a plane across the vast sky until it disappears into the horizon. Afterward she looked at me, recognition of the coolness of the moment passed between us, and we didn’t need to say a word.
I am always search for eye opening adventures for my kids. The first adventure I ever went on as a father was to the airport. In truth, I started this tradition because I was looking for a way to get my wife that ONE morning a week to sleep in - without torturing myself. But it’s turned into something much better. (By the way, as a Dad you get tons of points for giving you wife breaks, be it sleeping in or just a nice, quiet afternoon. Hint, Hint.)
The first time I ever took Sydney to the airport, she was too young to even walk, but even from the car she was in awe. We spent nearly three hours at the airport those first couple of times. This meant two diaper changes, but it was still worth it. We live in Austin, so although there is not a constant barrage of loud takeoffs and landings, there are planes frequent enough to entertain us. If you have a fussy kid like we do, the takeoffs and landings are ‘big’ enough events to completely distract them. And once they are distracted, they are happy each time you go.
I’ll never forget the first time I went with each of my children. The first plane took off, they looked and me, and then said “more!”
Here’s the routine:
1. Find a place near your airport to watch planes.
In Austin, there is a family viewing area literally beside the 17 Left 35 Right Runway (see more on runway lingo at the end of this post). Drive past the airport on 71 and take the first right after the Airport exit, onto Golfcourse Road.
Austin used to be an air force base, so this area was leftover from those days. But I’d imagine most airports have some place to watch the planes take off and land, even if it’s just an airport hotel parking lot. Be creative. It’s seeing the planes you’re after.
2. Pack up or pick up food and drinks.
Think picnic, Daddy style. Messy is okay. Ideally, outside of the car. But we do have to clean my car twice as much as my wife’s, so it’s not always outside the car. ;-) What my kids love the most is being able to get out and wander around. The planes become the event, but the time in between allows for precious bonding. Ask them questions. How do you think planes fly? Where is that one going? Where would you fly if you could?
3. Tune into the ATC at http://www.liveatc.net
You can listen to the tower and the planes as they take off and land. I tune into this on the way to the airport and my kids turn there little faces to the sky. They always find the first plane before I do. I’ve found that even though they don’t understand everything they hear, this sets the ambiance. My daughter always gets excited when she hears them say “Big Heavy” over ATC, which means one of the big FedEx planes is coming in or taking off. They also have Droid and iPhone App available.
4. If you have someone coming to visit, you can also track their flight with http://flightaware.com/
You can actually type in their flight number and track in real time or near real time where it is. So you’ll see it on the screen and then see it in the air as it approaches.
I enjoy this because it’s a lot like watching baseball with your kids. It’s about what happens in between the pitches, not just what happens with each pitch.
Enjoy! If you’re a mom, share this with you husband, your brother or your husband’s brother. Uncles can do this stuff too.
Shoot me a comment if you have questions or suggestions on where to watch planes from your city.
Runways are numbered based on a compass. A compass has 360 degrees. 360 is North. Drop the 0. 36 is a runway facing due North. 18 would be due South. Planes always take off into the wind. So they would choose 36 or 18 based on the current wind.
But there is one more thing. If there are parallel runways then they are named based on right left and if there are three center. Right, left, and center are based on the direction the plane is facing. So 36 Right is the same runway as 18 Left, it’s just called something different to tell the Aircraft which direction they will takeoff or land in.
In Austin, there are runways 35 and 17. The number tells you the direction. In Austin, where there are two parallel runways, 35 Right means you’re facing almost North and it’s the runway on the right.
More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runway