Spotting Unique and Unusual Aircraft in the Northwest
Some of the world’s largest, rarest and most interesting aircraft fly through and over Washington state.
On July 25, 1920, Herbert Munter was the first aviator to fly over Mount Rainier, circling his wooden biplane thrice around the stratovolcano before clearing its summit.
Today, the Pacific Northwest is still rich with flying feats of engineering that connect our region to the world. On almost any given day you can see uniquely oversized transport planes, vintage military aircraft or flying laboratories where scientists test new engines.
With so many of the region’s workers tied to the aerospace industry, there’s a robust community of aviation experts, enthusiasts and onlookers to help spot special aircraft at an airfield near you — or in the sky while you are at home.
Snohomish County Airport might be one of the most diverse in the world now that it has passenger flights, and the unique aircraft that pass through can be spotted flying around the Puget Sound region and across Washington state.
Boeing builds its largest aircraft in Everett, so Puget Sound residents will see test flights of 747 jumbo jets, 787 Dreamliners and the new 777X — the world’s largest twin-engine plane, powered by the biggest jet engines ever made. Near Paine Field, you’ll see unusual paint jobs on aircraft bound for Uzbekistan, India and other far-flung locales. And it’s one of the world’s few airports with Dreamlifters, four extra-large 747 cargo jets expanded to bring 787 wings, tail assemblies and other parts from as far as Japan to Everett for assembly.
Late philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s collection of vintage military aircraft are at Paine Field, which means you might see a World War II bomber sharing the skies with modern fighter jets stopping in for fuel.
“Once in a while you get a day like an air show,” said Katie Bailey, who photographs aircraft at Paine Field.
King County International Airport/Boeing Field
This Seattle airfield offers prime viewing locations for general aviation, military aircraft and cargo jets. Museum of Flight visitors sometimes gather in the parking lot or atop the surrounding berm to watch the action, most of which happens on the west side of the field.
Aircraft flying over Elliott Bay north of the airfield can be seen from Seattle’s waterfront.
F-15 Eagle fighter jets from other states often visit, and you sometimes can see lumbering C-5 Galaxies, giant military transporters that are getting older and increasingly rare. Boeing also conducts test flights over Washington of its new 777X and the troubled 737 MAX from Boeing Field.
In addition to those commercial jets, Boeing Field test flights include Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus, a militarized 767 that can refuel other aircraft in flight. These tanker tests have been seen near the Pacific Coast and over Eastern Washington.
Boeing also conducts test flights of its P-8 marine patrol jets out of Boeing Field. These 737-based jets are built for the U.S. Navy and our allies to hunt submarines and ships with radar and sonar buoys. The P-8 Poseidon will replace the four-propeller P-3 Orions, which have a stinger-like magnetic anomaly detector and can be seen flying around Seattle and the Washington coast.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
The Northwest’s busiest airport isn’t just a hotbed for domestic carriers like Alaska Airlines, Delta and Southwest, but also international carriers with unique paint jobs like Icelandair’s “Hekla Aurora” Boeing 757 (pictured below), emblazoned with the green and blue bands of the northern lights.
The airfield also is an ideal place to see heavy cargo jets. Watch during the height of cherry season and you’ll catch Asian carriers like China Cargo hauling fruit by the ton.
On busy days aircraft line up for landing more than 20 miles to the north or south (planes take off and land into the wind), so you don’t even need to be near the airport to watch them come in.
Renton Municipal Airport
This small airfield is only about 4 miles southeast of Boeing Field, but is a world apart in many ways. Boeing builds all of its 737s here, including P-8s. The fuselages are made in Kansas and ride the rails across the country by train to Renton.
Plane spotter David Honan recommends the Cedar River Trail that runs along the airfield for ground-level views of planes preparing for their first flights.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord
Gargantuan military cargo planes fly over the Tacoma area from JBLM, one of the largest transport bases in the country. This base has U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster IIIs as well as U.S. Army combat helicopters.
Fairchild Air Force Base
Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane has a fleet of KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft and hosts planes and helicopters used to fight wildfires. Militaries from around the world send aircraft to Fairchild for joint exercises. The biggest is Mobility Guardian, which drew pilots from Australia, Brazil and more to Fairchild in 2019 and JBLM in 2017.
Grant County International Airport
Pretty much anything Boeing builds will fly to Moses Lake for testing, and you can also catch various electric-powered aircraft going through practice runs. Perhaps most unusual of all, Rolls-Royce recently started turning a retired Qantas 747 into a flying technology test bed that can mount experimental engines on the top of the plane. Monday through Thursday tends to bring the most activity, while Fridays and weekends are quieter.
Tips and Tools
Go to Spotterswiki.com for airport-specific details such as official spotting areas if you’re able to visit, and remember to park safely off the road and obey security warnings. Here are a few more tools to bring you closer to the excitement overhead.
- Don’t forget earplugs or other hearing protection if you’re going to be close to landing or departing aircraft.
- Flightradar24: Track flights globally and over your neighborhood, check the map to see what’s headed your way and set alerts for specific aircraft. Wondering what’s making those contrails overhead? Simply point your phone’s camera at the sky and the app will display the plane’s route, the type of aircraft, call sign, speed and altitude.
- LiveATC.net: Listen to chatter between pilots and air traffic controllers around the world with this website and app.
- JetTip.net: This website scours flight schedules and sends text alerts about unusual flight activities at airports near
you, including new and notable aircraft, diversions and special flights.
- PlaneSpotter.com: This website sells laminated aircraft identification guides that are great for kids.
–Written by Tim Neville
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey, and was updated in July 2020.