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 must be a recent road: neither of my street directories showed it, but Google Maps did (see map below). In any case, it 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. There are no toilets, so plan ahead. When I've been there the place was very well used by a steady stream of visitors, despite it being new. Some were casual viewers like me, and a couple appeared to be aircraft enthusiasts - the very long camera lenses and the scanners picking up air traffic communications were good signs.

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

Runways

The viewpoint sits at the far southern end of the longest runway, known as runway 03/21. The numbers come from the directions it is aligned in, being compass headings of 30 or 210 degrees, which are near enough to north-northeast and south-southwest.

Because of this location, the shorter runways which are at the northern end of the airport, and the planes using them, are obscured and too far away to see well (the observation deck at the international terminal remains the best viewpoint for these). Only aircraft using runway 03/21 can be seen from the new viewing area; fortunately this is the runway which is used most often.

East or northeast winds

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

Planes take off into the wind as far as possible, so when the wind is an easterly or northeasterly (the most common wind direction in Perth in the mornings), planes will take off towards that direction from either the main runway or one of the shorter ones. Unfortunately, the public viewing area is in the wrong spot to provide a good view of take-offs towards these directions. The shorter runways are not visible and too far away. Planes using the long runway do their taking off at the opposite end from the viewing area, although occasionally one might start its acceleration from in front of spectators.

However the viewing area provides a fantastic view of planes landing on the long runway towards the north-northeast. All but the smallest tend to land as near as they can 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.

Southwest winds

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

When winds are from the south to southwest (the direction most common in the afternoons), planes on the main runway will take off and land towards the south-southwest end. 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, take off much closer to the viewing area, and are often still retracting their undercarriage when they roar past spectators.

On the other hand, southwesterly landings are not well seen from the new public viewing area, most planes having slowed down and left the runway well short of the end.

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.

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.

It 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

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.

Location map

The public viewing area is indicated by the brown and white aircraft symbol to the left of the main runway (bottom end).
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