The Secret City on

Features column: On the observation deck of the city's most distinctive building, British enthusiasts use telescopes and reference books to identify and catalog, if possible, every airplane that takes off and lands at LAX.

   The planes fly in like unrequited love, constant and tantalizing, and the men with sun-flushed pink and peeling white faces crane their necks, peer through spyglasses and stare at the blue, silver and white flying tubes that streak through the sky like launches from Cupid's quiver.
     The men--they are almost always British, and male--stand on the circular observation deck of the Theme Building at LAX. That's the landmark monument completed in 1961, the one that looks like a concrete spider; the one that's our more freaky version of St. Louis' Gateway Arch. Each man carries binoculars or fold-up telescopes that look like the ones used by officers of 17th century sailing vessels. Each man stares at the sky.
     Then, every 90 seconds, 2,200 times each day, a jet approaches. The men--seven of them today, plus one spouse--mouth cryptic phrases to themselves, words to be written down in a moment, or they speak into microcassete tape-recorders. "Six three zero alpha uniform seventy-five U.S. Airways," one says. "Seven six seven American Airlines November three six two alpha alpha."
     This is what these devotees do with their leisure time. They travel the world, identifying via painted-on serial number at the rear of the plane and cataloging every commercial, and for some, corporate and military aircraft that they can. They call themselves tail-number collectors or, more simply, planespotters. And they love LAX.

* * *

     Jeff Brown is a 33-year-old resident of Manchester, England. A schoolmate got him started planespotting when he was 13, and since then he's been to more than 30 airports in Europe, America and Asia. Over the years Brown has gathered a wealth of information. Like all planespotters, he knows that this is the more cosmopolitan cousin to trainspotting. He knows that the Southland is home to a variety of Asian and Latin American carriers that don't often fly to Europe. He'll tell you that Miami International Airport and LAX are good spots to spot, yet New York's JFK is not. He'll also tell you that the airports in Frankfurt and Amsterdam are good spotting locales, but police hassle spotters at Charles de Gaulles airport in Paris. Get him reminiscing and Brown'll tell you that Hong Kong was ideal for spotting back when the airport was downtown and there was a pub at the end of a runway.
     On an April afternoon, Brown is finishing up a four-and-a-half-week journey that's brought him through New Zealand and Australia. He carries a small notebook. In it, he's handwritten, among other lists, serial numbers of the 44 remaining Delta 737s (down from 66 that morning) he needs to spot in order to close out that particular category in his personal files--that is, until the airline retires old planes and replaces them with new ones. It's pretty much a perpetual cycle, one that ensures no planespotter can ever finish what they've started.   
     "You got to keep up with it, yeah," Brown says. "So you get to a point sometime when you're very close--you've seen every aircraft in one fleet, you don't come back for 12 months and they've added another 60 or 70."

* * *

     Lupe Burke sits at the reception desk in the lobby of the Theme Building. She's been employed by the city's Department of Aviation for more than 22 years. She says the planespotters started turning up around 15 years ago.
     "When they first came here, they had telescopes and all this garbage. I had them checked out," Burke says. "Visitors would come down and say 'Do you know they have telescopes?'" Burke says she called security, who questioned the planespotters and departed, satisfied. Word of mouth soon spread that LAX was both planespotter-friendly and had an observation deck with a panoramic view, not to mention a deli on the first floor.
     "They've been to every airport in the world and they have not found one better than this," Burke says with pride.
     The planespotters are a tiny minority of the visitors to the observation deck. According to Burke, they number roughly 125 out of upwards of 50,000 visitors annually. But they are nothing if not focused and determined. What if--knock on wood, the city employee is asked--disaster struck and an earthquake wrecked the concrete ground beneath the spotters' feet?
     "They'd stand on the arches," Burke says. "They're not going to miss a plane."

* * *

     Es Robinson can barely break away from his planespotting to join his traveling partner Terry Button to chat with an onlooker. Robinson, 35-ish, and Button, 43, have been engaged in this post-modern bird watching for about three decades each. Button says he's tracked some 40,000 civil and military planes. Robinson trumps him: "About 71,000," he says.
     The pair arrived in L.A. a week ago. It's Robinson's first trip to the city and Button's maiden voyage to the U.S. They have their luggage with them and their flight home departs in two hours. This is their first and only trip to the observation deck. The pair say they prefer to be mobile, so they rented a car and each morning from 8-9 a.m. they parked along the northern perimeter of a runway, spotting. Then they drove to half a dozen or so regional airports.
     Robinson's writing a reference book in the manner of the hardcover ones so many of the spotters carry, the books with tissue-thin paper that list the serial numbers of every plane in every fleet. All in all, he says, Miami offers a better selection of aircraft than Southern California. Button, though, praises the Southland for sheer volume. "I think we've seen two and a half thousand aircraft in a week," he says.
     After Robinson speaks yet again into his tape recorder, he walks back over to Button to point out something incidental he's just noticed, something that the typical Los Angeles tourist tends to seek out much sooner. Robinson points out the "Hollywood" sign--visible, by the way, to the naked eye.
     "We've been here a week now, and we hadn't seen it," Button says. "So we can go over and say we did see it. We never got into the center (of the city) at all."
     Ian Marr and his wife have just arrived on the observation deck. Marr breaks the planespotting mold a bit. First, he's here with his wife. Second, at age 54, he's just resumed planespotting after a 30-year break. He's also less intense than some of the others here. Marr seems like the ideal person to ask the question of the day: What's the appeal of planespotting?
     "It's illogical, it's totally illogical," Marr says. "I mean, grown blokes doing this? But if you go to Heathrow, you'll see far more people than you do here. You can't really explain it.
     "It's just a harmless diversion," he adds. "You're out in the air, you're not kicking in doors, you're not smashing up bars. You know, you go to work 50-odd weeks a year, you come out on holiday you try to enjoy it. I do work fairly hard, so this is time off. I make the most of it."
     Then Marr says something so blasphemous that the other planespotters would probably throw him off the deck if they heard. "If I was younger," Marr concludes cheerfully, "I'd probably go surfing."