Plane spotting at Perth Airport

Where is a good spot to watch planes taking off and landing at Perth Airport? In the past, officially sanctioned viewing was limited to the international terminal's observation deck, or the windows in the domestic departure lounges. Or else you could look through a fence and hope not to look suspicious. However in December 2011 Perth Airport opened a new dedicated public viewing area close to the end of the main runway. Since then I have road-tested this new viewing area to see whether or not it is a planespotter's dream come true.

A Qantas Boeing 747 landing into a northeasterly wind, from the public viewing area, Perth Airport
A Qantas Boeing 747 landing
into a northeasterly wind

The new lookout is on Dunreath Drive, the road which passes around the south end of the main runway and connects Perth's domestic and international terminals. It is accessed from roundabouts on the approaches to either terminal (see map below) and is well signposted, using the big white-on-brown signs of the type used for tourist attractions.

Upon arriving at the small viewing area car park, the first advantage struck me: it is free. Using the viewing windows at the terminals involves parking at these terminals, something I was grateful to avoid. Plane spotting is more enjoyable knowing you're not paying through the nose just to park.

From the car park it is a few minutes walk up a nicely landscaped - and wheelchair accessible - ramp to what is basically an elongated sand hill. Plane enthusiasts have used this sand hill unofficially for years, and when you reach the top it is easy to see why. It isn't very high, but it is high enough to give unobstructed views over the southern end of the longest of the two runways. The international terminal is visible in the distance on the other side, and the substantial security fence around the runway is well and truly overlooked. Right in front of you, no more than 200 or 300 meters away, is the end of the runway.

Public viewing area, Perth Airport
Public viewing area, Perth Airport

A paved area on top of the hill, with railings, some shade and limited seating, are all there is to it. The surrounding sandhill is covered on top with a woodchip-mulch suitable for walking on. This is handy if the paved area is crowded and you want some space for unobstructed photos. There are no toilets, so plan ahead!

When I've been there the place has been very well used by a steady stream of visitors. Some were casual viewers like me, and others appeared to be aircraft enthusiasts - giveaway signs being the very long camera lenses and scanners picking up air traffic communications.

Other visitors were people who were meeting or seeing off friends or relatives who were travelling. Instead of hanging around the terminals to see the plane land or take off, they had driven to this new public viewing area. Apart from paying less for parking, this could also provide a clearer view from outdoors in the fresh air ... well, maybe.

Exactly what you see of arriving or departing aircraft depends on which direction planes are taking off and landing in, and which runways are in use. Since the viewpoint is at the far end of one runway, it will be:

either good for viewing take offs,
or good for viewing landings,
but not both ... and sometimes neither.
Runways

The viewpoint sits at the far southern end of the longest runway, runway 03/21 (aligned to compass bearings of 30 and 210 degrees). This is near enough to north-northeast and south-southwest.

There is another, shorter, runway towards the northern end of the airport - runway 06/24 which goes roughly from east-northeast to west-southwest. Unfortunately this runway and any activity on it are not visible from the public viewing area, which is too far away and has its view in that direction obscured by trees.

Only aircraft using the long runway 03/21 can be seen from the viewing area; fortunately this is the runway which is used most often. The type of view will depend on which direction the planes are taking off in.

Taking off towards north-northeast: best for watching landings

Moment of impact: a Qantas Boeing 767, from the public viewing area, Perth Airport
Moment of impact: a Qantas Boeing 767

Planes take off and land into the wind as far as possible. That means planes will take off and land towards north-northeast on the main runway when the wind is anywhere from east to north or nearby. That happens to cover the most common wind direction in Perth in the mornings (a land breeze).

In these conditions the viewing area provides a great view of planes landing. All but the smallest tend to land as near as possible to the start of the runway - which is right in front of spectators. You get an excellent view of them flying low, and are close enough to often smell the burning rubber when they hit the tarmac.

Unfortunately, the viewing area is in the wrong spot to provide a good view of take-offs towards the north-northeast. Most aircraft don't need the full length of the runway, and will save time by not travelling all the way to the end - where the viewing area is. Instead they enter the runway much further down, usually out of view, and leave the ground towards the opposite end.

Occasionally, however, an aircraft needing maximum take-off room will taxi all the way to the runway's end and begin its acceleration from in front of spectators. This provides a close up view as it passes by just across the fence. It will be far away by the time it has gathered enough speed to lift off, but it can be impressive to hear and sometimes feel the engines going from idle to full thrust right in front of you as it starts moving.

Taking off towards south-southwest: best for watching take-offs

A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 taking off into a sea breeze, from the public viewing area, Perth Airport
A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777
taking off into a sea breeze

Planes on the main runway will take off and land towards the south-southwest when winds are coming from somewhere in the south to west. This is most common in the afternoons when sea breezes blow. In this situation the public viewing area provides excellent views of aircraft as they leave the ground and start their climb.

Small aircraft may already be airborne when they come into view, but will still be flying low as they pass. Larger aircraft, which need more runway to get off the ground, leave the ground much closer to the viewing area, and are often still retracting their undercarriage when they roar past spectators.

On the other hand, landings towards the south-southwest are not well seen from the new public viewing area. Planes tend to touch down as near as possible to the opposite end of the runway, and most will have slowed down and left the runway before coming into view.

What happens when there is no wind, or crosswinds? I'm not sure what the official guidelines are, but from my observations it appears that taking off and landing towards the south-southwest seems to be the default when there is no wind, or the wind doesn't favour any particular direction. Strong crosswinds from southeast or northwest may encourage more use of the shorter runway where possible.

My verdict

Despite some limitations in what you can see, and the fact that it is only open during daylight hours, I think the new public viewing area is a wonderful facility for anyone remotely interested in watching planes take off and land from close range. Perth Airport has done a magnificent job recognising the demand for such a viewing place, and deserve to be congratulated for building it (and not charging for parking).

Public viewing area, Perth Airport

The site can be reached in either of two ways: driving along Brearley Ave towards the domestic terminals and turning right into Dunreath Drive at the first roundabout, or else driving along Horrie Miller Drive towards the international terminal and turning left into Dunreath Drive at the second roundabout.

Warning: as the map shows (bottom of page), traffic heading south can enter Dunreath Drive directly from traffic lights on Tonkin Highway very close to the viewing area. This is a short cut for southbound access to the International terminal only (and back the other way). Note that no left turns are permitted into Dunreath Drive towards the viewing area, and no right turns are allowed going back the other way. In other words, it doesn't provide viewing area access for law abiding drivers.

This viewing area may not fit the "roads less travelled" theme of this website, but I felt compelled to include it. Watching big aircraft landing or going up can stir the spirit of any traveller, and Perth now has a great location to experience this.

More information

Here are some links for finding out what flights are coming and going, and for working out which direction the main runway is being used in.

Perth Airport public viewing area - about the viewing area, on the Perth Airport website
Flight search - a live updated list of today's arrivals or departures for all airlines except Qantas and Jetstar
International flight schedules - lists of all scheduled international arrivals and departures for the month, useful because it displays aircraft types
Latest weather observations for the Perth area - shows current wind directions at various sites around Perth, including the airport.

Video

A look at the public viewing area near the south end of Perth Airport's long runway, and some of the landings and take-offs that can be seen from there. Footage was shot on different days and wind directions and is not shown in order. Includes some speeded up, slowed down, and time-lapse parts shot on my phone ... because I was experimenting! Anyone with a long lense or up-to-date gear can get much closer shots than I did.
Music: Gaining Ground by Leon Ayers Jr.

Perth Airport public viewing area from Graham Barker on Vimeo.

Location map

The public viewing area is indicated by the brown and white aircraft symbol to the left of the main runway (bottom end).
Map, controls and symbol may take a little while to finish loading