A Kalitta 747-400 departs Los Angles over the H Hotel, home of SpotLAX. Note the twelfth floor observation deck, below the engines on the left side of the photo.
SpotLAX and Dorkfest are my favorite events of the year - informal concurrent meetups that give avgeeks from around the world a chance to hang out while word-class plane spotting happens around them. Cranky Dorkfest is a couple of hours of very accessible, airline and airport supported fun during a Saturday lunchtime at the In-N-Out; SpotLAX for those spending the weekend at the H Hotel, with a few informal gatherings around the airport and a post-Dorkfest dinner at Proud Bird.
2022 was my fourth year attending (started in 2018, with a COVID hiatus in 2020); I try to make an effort to talk to as many people as I can, friends and strangers alike, and this year marked a noticeable shift from, "what's JetTip," to "hey, you're the JetTip guy," which was amazing. I got to chat with customers about all of the ways they use JetTip: gate agents using it as a heads up to know when equipment swaps are coming in, even a couple of customers who prefer to print the arrival/departure boards - I'm going to have to make some changes to make those more printer friendly - perhaps it's time to offer smart flight alerts via fax?
This year my friend John Wetter and I took a circuitous route to Los Angeles, doing some ad-hoc spotting in Las Vegas and the desert before getting to LAX. We arrived in Vegas on Tuesday evening, and took in the ridiculous faux splendor that is the Strip at night, before hitting the road for avgeek activities early Wednesday.
Wednesday: Harry Reid International (LAS)
The spotting guides that say a step ladder is needed here aren't kidding! A Hawaiian A330 departs LAS for HNL, as a Delta 757-300 taxis in the foreground. There are quite a few parking lots, as well as an official spotting area, along the south side of the field.
I've never been to Vegas before, but have been wanting to do plane spotting there for years - the main attractions for me being JANET and the Sands bizjet fleet, along withthe great angles of departures with the Strip in the background.
The Sands fleet basking in the desert sun, along with the MGM Grand, and LAS's signature just-high-enough-to-be-in-the-way fencing. There are precious few 747SPs that remain air-worthy, it was cool to see one, even though a mile of heat haze. The A340-500 there isn't too shabby either!
The Sands aircraft were present, unfortunately none of them arrived or departed while we were there. Being a student of history, it seemed prudent to get out and document the Sands fleet while it's still intact - Sands founder Sheldon Adelson passed away in 2021, and the eccentric fleets of enthusiast billionaires don't tend outlast their owners for very long.
Not an artistic achievement, but it still counts! After missing the bulk of the morning's JANET flights with a poorly timed rental car pickup, we caught this mid-day departure from the parking lot of the Airplane Shop.
The quasi mysterious JANET fleet, which transports civilian contractors between civilization and the remote, secretive military installations of Area 51 and the Tonopah Test Range, is based at LAS. They operate a fleet of distinctive 737-600s in a simple white with red cheatline scheme. Dreamland Resort, which is a treasure-trove of secretive aviation information, has a comprehensive guide covering JANET operations. If you're interested in getting some photos of them, get an early start, and know that they seem to prefer the 1/19s even if commercial traffic is largely sticking to 8/26.
Our overall experience at LAS was somewhat disappointing, largely because we didn't get an early enough start, didn't do our homework with regards to runway preferences, and didn't have cooperative winds - makes for a good reason to go back, I suppose! From what I've read, desirable morning departures off of the 1s are really, really far away from the good vantage points, and are largely going to be domestic narrow bodies.
Another item of note - if you or children in your life have toy or model aircraft around the house, odds are good at least one of them was produced or distributed by ADI (GeminiJets / Daron), which is headquartered just southwest of the airport. If you've read this far, you'll definetly dig it.
Wednesday: Nellis Air Force Base (LSV)
85-0418, an F-16C, wearing a beautiful aggressor livery.
While we usually stick to commercial passenger airliner content around here, Nellis AFB is just north of Las Vegas. Catching fighter jets is always a roll of the dice, but in the hour or so we spent at Nellis, we saw quite a few F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, and an F-35. There are good vantage points near the racetrack northeast of the airfield, as well as the industrial area southwest of the base, and watching and photographing aircraft here is well-tolerated.
Nellis is home to the 64th Aggressor Squadron, which flies F-16s in unique, adversarial liveries. They are very photogenic. There are a ton of other squadrons based here, operating a wide variety of aircraft.
If and when I return to Vegas, I think I'll catch some morning JANET departures at LAS, and then camp out at Nellis and hope for the best.
Full disclosure: these gorgeous fast jets do not appear on JetTip (or virtually any other flight tracker), at least on a regular basis.
90-0262, an F-15E based at Nellis.
78-0630, from the 476 FG, based at Moody AFB, GA.
86-0220, a Nellis-based F-16C
Wednesday: Mojave Air & Space Port (MHV)
The most interesting thing at Mojave that you're allowed to photograph: this NASA Convair CV-990, part of the LSRA program, which tested brake and landing gear systems for the Space Shuttle. It's part of a trio of gate guardians there, along with a TF-35XB and an F-4.
Mojave Air & Space Port is the home to a whole bunch of interesting stuff, notably several different companies in the drop-a-rocket-from-a-plane business, including Stratolaunch, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, Northrup Grumman's Stargazer, and Scaled Composites, as well as a boneyard filled with several dozen retired heavy aircraft in various states of decay and disassembly - mostly 747s and DC-10s.
Public streets allow fairly close access to many of the hangars at MHV, though any location we found was clearly marked with "photography prohibited" signs. This was frustrating given Stargazer (the last air-worthy L-1011) and Cosmic Girl (a 747 with a rocket launching rack) were parked out in the open.
The drive from Nellis to Mojave is about 3.5 hours.
Wednesday: Palmdale / Plant 42 (PMD)
Every aviation fan's favorite cartoon skunk, adorning the side of one of Lockheed Martin's many large hangars at Palmdale.
I've been fortunate to visit quite a few cool places chasing airplanes around in the last few years, I don't think any of them elicited the sense of reverence and wonder driving past the Skunk Works. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, NASA, and the US Air Force all have a presence here. The south side of the field is the home of several adjacent park/museums which includes a mind-boggling collection of aircraft, including the SR-71, A-12, U-2, and NASA's 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
After a quick survey of the area, we met up with a local aviation fan and grabbed pizza and drinks at Bravery Brewing Company. Great food and very cool aviation decor.
After dinner we made our way back to Palmdale and saw NASA's SOFIA depart; sadly it was after dark and I botched the manual focus on my 135 mm f/2, but it was fantastic to get one last look her airborne before she retires in a few weeks.
Thursday: Palmdale / Plant 42 (PMD)
PMD's a fun airport to hang out at because you never know what might drop in. NASA's Super Guppy had arrived the day before, and following the schedule it kept the previous week, we were hoping it would leave around lunchtime. Sadly the Super Guppy didn't depart, but we did catch an Edwards F-16D, and then got a surprise arrival from another special visitor...
A Northrup Grumman B-2 returning to its birthplace, PMD. This particular aircraft is 88-0328, the Spirit of Texas. The per aircraft program cost in 1997 dollars was ~$2.13 billion - certainly the most expensive aircraft we saw on our trip.
As lunchtime approached, we met up with some other folks who were in the area ahead of SpotLAX and Dorkfest - Seattle, New York City, Minneapolis, Madison, and Louisville were all represented.
Thursday: Los Angeles (LAX)
Frenchbee's A350 arriving at LAX. 2022 is the first year this low cost carrier has been flying to LAX during SpotLAX.
We made a quick visit to Griffith Observatory, and then continued down to LAX, where we spent the evening taking photos from the overpass at Westchester Parkway and Lincoln Boulevard. Mid-September is starting to get a bit late in the year for the light on the north side, but it's still a great show, especially with friends from out of town.
An Avianca A330-200 sporting the old livery in some great light.
Level A330-200 arriving at LAX.
Phillipines A350-900, Love Bus, arriving at sunset.
China Southern's A380 arriving at LAX just after dark.
After getting checked into the H Hotel and dropping off the rental car, a good number of SpotLAX regulars were on hand to hang out on their 12th floor rooftop deck.
Friday: SpotLAX, Day 1
A Qantas A380 arriving, as seen from the rooftop deck of the H Hotel - more or less the reverse angle of the China Southern photo above. A delayed arrival meant yours truly got a few extra hours of sleep on Friday morning.
Friday marked the official start of SpotLAX activities, with a meet-up on the upper level of the new economy parking lot. It offered a great view for the arrival of a special Emirates A380.
Emirates A380, special livery: Journey to the Future.
A few of us ran down to Proud Bird for some lunch and the arrival of the Top Gun JSX E135.
JetSuiteX's Top Gun Maverick special livery arriving at LAX.
On Friday evening I was happy to attend the inaugural Churros On The Rooftop event for the launch of Hype Aviation.
Saturday: SpotLAX, Day 2; Dorkfest
Hundreds of aviation enthusiasts gather at the marquee event of the weekend, Brett Snyder's Cranky Dorkfest.
The largest event of the weekend, Dorkfest, attracted several hundred attendees to the park near In-N-Out at LAX. LAWA, the airport authority that operates LAX, rolled out the red carpet this year, providing a sound system and a very cool rotating photography platform. Brett's got a great write-up on his blog, which details the various raffle prizes donated by the airlines; JetTip contributed a pair of annual memberships.
Airline Videos Live had a studio set up on the west end of the event and interviewed many of the participating organizations and attendees, yours truly included, and did a great job covering and promoting events this weekend.
As is tradition, JetTip had custom event keychains and aircraft spotting checklists to hand out, and some of you all took the challenge very seriously.
As things wrapped up at Dorkfest, I went down to Clutter's Park - I had attempted and failed to catch the DHL A330 on Thursday and Friday, and wasn't going to let it sneak out again!
Another new airline for SpotLAX / Dorkfest, and one of the most stunning I've seen. The metallic blue finish, subtle patterns near the tail, and Italian colors on the tail are stunning.
A Turkish 777-300ER departing LAX.
Saudia's Formula E special livery, shortly after arriving at LAX.
I've been hoping to get one of these A330 freighters with a chin bulge for a few years; after two failed attempts earlier in the week, I was finally able to catch it on Saturday afternoon. The modification is needed to elevate the front of the aircraft in order to make the cargo deck level when the aircraft is resting on the ground - self loading cargo doesn't mind the slope in the passenger version, but it made moving cargo pallets difficult.
As the light continued to swing north, I headed to Proud Bird for the SpotLAX dinner. We had the patio reserved this year, and it was filled with like-minded avgeeks.
Two different forms of precision engineering pointed my way in the form of a Canon 600 mm f/4 and a China Airlines Cargo 777-200F.
Proud Bird is a great spot to spend an evening watching the freighters come in. This is a China Airlines Cargo 777-200F.
NYC Aviation also hosted a raffle, featuring a wide variety of aviation ephemera, including a pair of JetTip memberships, FlightRadar24 memberships, and several Ts from Jetset Shirts. Of course, there were numerous interruptions from passing aircraft.
Sunday: SpotLAX, Day 3
On Sunday morning, JetTip sponsored Donuts on the Deck; of the ten dozen pastries provided, only four remained at the end of the event - not too shabby, avgeeks!
After enjoying possibly too many donuts, I went back down to Clutter's park for a little bit to drop in on the Airline Videos Live crew as they did their big Sunday show and snap a few more photos.
Another freighter high on my wishlist this year was the new Mas Air Cargo livery - the sun even cooperated for a couple of moments!
... and then it was finally time to head back home to Minneapolis.
Once again, a big kudos to Ben and Heather at NYC Aviation, Brett Snyder at Cranky Flyer, and everyone else who I had the pleasure of speaking with at SpotLAX and Dorkfest this year. For information on SpotLAX 2023, sign up for NYC Aviation's SpotLAX email newsletter, and you'll be the first to know when details are announced.
A Lufthansa A340-600 departs into the sunset at LAX. See you all next year!
Nick lives in Burnsville, MN with his wife and three children. He grooves on railroad and aviation photography, politics, geography, weather, and LEGO. He started JetTip's smart flight alert service in 2017, and is now a full-time avgeek. He can frequently be found atop a step ladder at MSP's Aircraft Viewing Area.