On a recent warm fall day at Gravelly Point Park in Northern Virginia, Steve VanMetre is crouched on a grassy field with his two young daughters and a camcorder, tracking a tiny dot in the sky coming his way.
"Here it comes, girls," he says. "Cover your ears."
As the object draws closer, VanMetre, a pilot, tilts his camera into the air to capture a red and grey Northwest jetliner soar by closely overhead, making an ear-splitting roar as it lands on the runway at Reagan National Airport just a half-mile away.
"See that turning?" he calls to his daughters, pointing to the whirling plume of smoke the plane leaves in its wake. "That's the vortices off the wing."
The booming sound of a low-flying airplane may not fit into your idea of a day at the park, but for many Gravelly Point visitors, it's the main attraction. Located on the shore of the Potomac River, just a stone's throw away from the airport, the park is a hotbed for aircraft spotting, a decades-old pastime that involves relaxed to obsessive watching and photographing of airplanes.
On any given weekend when the weather is right, the park is full of tourists and locals who come to Gravelly to see commercial jets make their final descent into Washington. With a view of the Washington Monument to the north and a cool breeze coming off the river, the park is considered one of the best spotting areas in the country.
"This is probably one of the best places to come to really see the airplanes," said VanMetre, a pilot for American Airlines who comes to Gravelly to see planes from another perspective. "It's about as close as you can get without the police getting involved."
The types of people who flock to the park are as varied as the planes themselves. The spotters range from aviation buffs to photographers to more casual watchers who find themselves inexplicably fascinated by the steel behemoths that rush by overhead.
Some treat the hobby like their job. Hardcore spotters can tell you the make of a plane from literally a mile away, and pride themselves on how many different types of jets they can spot in day.
Frans Tinga, who works for an airplane technology firm in Amsterdam, Netherlands, has been spotting since he was 13 years old. Flanked by two cameras, a low-grade telescope and a book of plane model numbers, the near-lifelong spotter meticulously catalogs every plane he photographs. He's been doing it for more than 30 years.
"My goal is to take a few really good pictures of every plane from every airline," Tinga said. "It's a little bit exciting when you get them all."
On this particular day - without ever examining a manual - he identifies and shoots an RJ100, a somewhat rare regional model made in Canada that flies mostly out of Minneapolis and Detroit. He knows plane-spotting sounds a little geeky, and frankly, he doesn't care.
"If you avoid everything that's a little bit strange," Tinga said, "you don't do anything special."
For many, the primary appeal is not the planes themselves but the compelling pictures they inspire. Gravelly is a haven for professional and recreational photographers looking for something a little more exciting than snapping portraits of flowers.
"I've always been interested in airplanes from a young age, and there's always a lot of action out here," said Andrew Propp, an amateur photographer from Falls Church, Va. "They're coming in fast at over 200 miles per hour, and it's hard to get a good picture. It's really a great challenge."
Though it's hard to ascribe an exact history to something as simple as observing planes, some say spotting as a hobby began in Europe during World War II. With radar technology in its infancy, some countries encouraged their citizens to watch the skies for enemy aircraft.
As commercial air travel grew, the activity became a leisurely pursuit practiced all over the world. Many airports have formally or informally designated sites for spotters to set up base, and several Internet forums exist for enthusiasts to share tips, anecdotes and pictures.
While spotting has increased significantly over the past few decades,
the pastime has come under new scrutiny since Sept. 11. With tighter airport security under the guise of looming terrorist threats, questions have been raised about the risk of letting average citizens observe air traffic at such a close range.
The concern is particularly high at Gravelly given its proximity to the nation's capital. Visitors have grown used to the sight of police cars circling the parking lot. Though shutting the park down was never a serious consideration, the site is subject to temporary closures should the terrorist alert level be raised.
"It's something that has been discussed at length," said Sgt. Frank Barwinczak of the U.S. Park Police, which patrols the park along with three other agencies. "If the security levels change, then there are different things we can do. But if we're just in a normal state like we are right now, it's open like any other park."
Barwinczak said his forces frequent the Gravelly far more than they did before Sept. 11, and some spotters said they can feel watchful eyes upon them. Several said they fear the park may eventually close.
Yet while some spotters worry about the future of their hobby in Northern Virginia, most aren't giving the matter any thought. With the usual Washington tourist stops clear across the river, Gravelly Point remains one of area's lesser known attractions.
"Every time we get visitors, we bring them here as part of the ritual," said Doug Inglis of Vienna, Va. "Everybody's interested in seeing something different."
To reach Gravelly Point, take the Metro to Reagan National Airport, walk inside the terminal and exit from the lower level. Upon leaving the terminal building, turn right and keep walking north. Past the building is a parking lot, followed by a row of hangars, after which you will see an asphalt bike path. Continue along this path until you reach the park. It is about a 15-minute walk from the airport Metro stop.