As the roar of a departing jet drew closer, Michelle Shangin clapped and waved from her perch on the roof of a blue pickup. From outside the Anchorage airport’s western fence line, she smiled and jotted notes as planes launched from south to north into the partially cloudy sky.
Plane spotting is a relatively new pastime for Shangin, a habit she picked up about a year and a half ago when she found out she could keep driving past the popular overlooks near Point Woronzof.
“Seeing this whole runway, I just fell in love with it,” she said.
Since then she’s been coming about three times a week, she said. The good days are when takeoffs and landings are non-stop, as they were on a memorable Wednesday two months ago. At the time, she saw 15 planes lined up to go with others landing just as frequently.
“That was just like explosive to me,” she said.
She watched and jotted notes during a high-traffic midday hour Wednesday as music trickled from the cab of her Ford F-150. She limits her spotting sessions to 25 takeoffs and 25 landings. Making a list of the comings and goings helps her not lose track of time.
“I could stay out there for hours and hours,” Shangin said.
Shangin, who said she recently graduated from Arizona State University with a masters degree in social work, said watching planes served as a nice change of pace during her studies, which she completed remotely.
“It was big therapeutic self-care, just taking a break from homework and assignments,” she said.
She’s not alone in her aircraft enthusiasm. Several factors make Anchorage a “plane spotters paradise,” according to Jim Szczesniak, manager of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. They’re often drawn to see big planes and old planes, he said.
“Anchorage is one of those places where you can see a 747-8 modern freighter, and then right behind it is an 80-year-old DC-3 on the taxiway,” Szczesniak said. “That’s kind of unique for some folks.”
Nearby Lake Hood is home to many other distinct planes, and some of the common jets coming and going from the International Airport are painted with custom designs.
“For plane spotters, it’s kind of like baseball card collecting,” Szczesniak said. “They like to have photos of the ones they don’t have.”
It’s not an entirely passive activity for Shangin. She cheers with waving hands and a bright smile as planes accelerate and lift off. It’s hard to know if air crews see her then, but sometimes she catches a glimpse of a pilot giving her a thumbs-up as they taxi toward the runway.
“Everybody needs joy,” Shangin said. “Some days are rougher on people, and having that extra boost of someone cheering you on is what I like to do.”
Shagin said the size of the jets impresses her. Anchorage sees some fine examples, including the portly Boeing 747 Dreamlifter, which is among the largest cargo aircraft in the world. Watching a Dreamlifter depart was a highlight Wednesday. But passenger planes are great, too.
“They’re connecting families together,” she said.
For now, the thrill of jets doesn’t include flying in them. Shangin hasn’t flown on plane herself since May 2005. The thought makes her uneasy. When she was young, she often flew in small planes with her grandfather and uncles, she said. In those instances, she could see the pilot.
“Going in a jet though, I can’t see the captain, so that kind of gives me anxiety,” she said.
An experience in the mid-1990s left a bad impression as well. Then, she was headed to see family in Chignik Lake. On her first leg from Anchorage, her plane had trouble and had to return to Anchorage. Then it happened again on the second attempt. The experience shook her up, she said.
But Shangin plans to return to the air soon, first by riding in a float plane and a jet later on, she said. She’s been sitting on a pile of frequent flyer miles for years. Sometimes she thinks about where they might take her.
Shangin plans to stay in Anchorage and wants to serve Alaska Native people in her social work career field, she said. She’s been applying for jobs. Before the end of her spotting session Wednesday, she lifted her binoculars to look south and catch a glimpse of what was coming her way.