Montreal plane spotters have fun as well as boosting airport security
Some plane spotters given training, uniform, special number to call in suspicious airport activity
Perched on a ladder with his camera, a scanner tuned to the control tower on the ground beside him, Jean-Charles Hubert doesn't miss much at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport.
Every week, rain or shine, the 41-year-old can be found at the airport with his fellow plane spotters – a group of aviation enthusiasts with a passion for photographing aircrafts.
"It's a bit like a drug,'' said Hubert, wearing a blue ball cap bearing the group's name – the 55th Avenue Spotters, named for one of the roads that runs by the airport.
"I keep telling myself I'm not going to come, but then I find myself back here.''
The group's dedicated presence can even be a boon for security, as far as the airport is concerned.
Hubert says he and some of the other spotters make a point of calling airport security if they notice anything unusual, such as a hole in the fenceline or suspicious human behaviour.
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Some other members of the group have had that role somewhat formalized by the airport authorities, who created an "airport watch'' program in 2009 that is modelled after similar programs in Ottawa and Toronto.
Christiane Beaulieu, the Montreal airport's vice-president of communications, says basic training, uniforms and a special phone number to call are provided to the watch's 46 members.
"They know where the airplanes are coming and going, they know how many people are around at any given time,'' Beaulieu said.
She wouldn't say how many incidents the group has reported, but said the airport's security team is "very satisfied'' with the arrangement.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, however, most of the 30 or so visitors at a popular spotting location seemed to be there just to watch the low-flying planes roar by overhead.
They included families with young children and couples sitting in lawn chairs, as well as the ubiquitous photographers.
Although similar plane-watching groups exist in other Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa, Hubert believes Montreal's is probably the most active, with several dozen photographers and some 3,600 Facebook members.
That's partly because Montreal's airport boasts numerous spotting locations near the runways and also because of the administration's support, according to Hubert.
In 2012, the airport opened a public park dedicated to plane watching, which it says is the only one of its kind in Canada.
It features bleachers, a raised bank to help spotters see over the fence as well as signs to help the public identify different kinds of planes.
Not that Hubert needs the help.
He started watching planes when he was 13 and can identify most of them even when they're just distant specks in the sky.
The schedule of takeoff and landings is often predictable, but he's always on the lookout for special aircrafts: the brightly coloured, the rare, the diverted.
While early plane spotters treated the hobby like a collection, trying to record as many tail ID numbers as possible, the 55th Avenue group takes a more artistic approach, striving to capture unique angles and spectacular shots.
"My goal is to have someone who knows nothing about planes to look at the picture and say 'wow,''' Hubert said.
A longtime goal, recently realized, was to get a winter selfie that perfectly captured the image of a plane reflected in his ski goggles.
He said the feeling was pure excitement – one he likens to a fisherman making a big catch.
"Sometimes you have to wait a long time, so when everything finally falls into place it's the best feeling,'' he said.