Closely Watched Planes

St. Louis loses one of its best make-out spots, another casualty of airport expansion

Monica Manley and Jacob Hadland, both 22, are sitting on the tailgate of a pickup, a blanket thrown over their shoulders. Neither has ever been here before tonight.

"I've lived here my whole life," says Manley, "and I always knew this was the big make-out spot. So when we read about this being the final night, I told him, 'We have to go before it closes.'" Hadland gives her a little squeeze, and she cuddles closer.

"It's its own little city," says Manley, looking out on the runway, which is lit up like a pinball machine.

Alex Gottschalk and his dad
Wm. Stage
Alex Gottschalk and his dad

"I'm from Vegas, and this is not a lot of lights to me," counters Hadland.

A jumbo jet thrusts off the runway and sails past. "These things go over your head, it's almost like you could reach up and touch them," Manley says. "It makes you contemplate everything, all these people going places -- I can't believe they have so many places to go."

The airplane-watchers gather on a small asphalt parking lot in North County. Some stay in their cars; some mill around. There is a general ease of movement, a sort of calculated idling about, not unlike travelers taking a break at a highway rest area. At one end of the lot, kids chase each other around a car, giggling wildly. One family sets up a telescope.

It's the perfect night for the end of an era. In the clear western sky, all five planets visible to the naked eye -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn -- are clustered, a celestial event that occurs only once every twenty to 30 years. The phenomenon has been building for three weeks, and tonight, Tuesday, May 14, is the planets' tightest grouping.

The next morning, the Lambert Airport public viewing area, for 40 years located at North Lindbergh Boulevard and Missouri Bottom Road, will be closed. The small parking lot, a mecca for young lovers, dreamers and flight buffs, will be engulfed by construction in a project that will expand the airport from 2,162 to 3,730 acres.

Don't worry, it's only temporary, says airport director Colonel Leonard Griggs Jr. "For many St. Louisans, their introduction to aircraft and air travel came as children, when their parents and grandparents brought them to Lambert to watch airplanes take off and land," Griggs says. "The viewing area is a St. Louis tradition that we're definitely going to preserve." It won't be in the same location, however. Lambert spokesman Mike Donatt says a new viewing area will debut sometime after the airport expansion is completed, but he cannot say exactly when that will happen or where on the airport complex it will be.

The jargon of an air traffic controller crackles from a scanner: "Southwest 1485, cross three-four and proceed to gate ... clear for takeoff and change over to departure frequency." When the takeoff comes, all eyes turn to the east. The plane picks up speed as it rolls down the runway, and necks crane as the thing lifts off, a scant 200 hundred yards from the viewing area, passing just overhead and gaining altitude but still low enough for spectators to read the nomenclature on its belly. You hear a few ooohs and ahhhs as the aircraft passes, and then folks go back to what they were doing.

Mark Fox, a regular at the lot, isn't taking the final night of his favorite haunt very well. "I'm very sorry to see it go," says Fox, 43. "Very few cities have something like this." The president of an injection-molding plant in Fenton, Fox has been coming out once a week for years. It's his way of relaxing: "It's almost like a retreat. It's neat to go some place where all the stress is on somebody else. The guys in the towers have all the worries."

Unlike the more casual observers, Fox likes being on the inside of what's happening on the runway. With the purchase of a scanner, he's become a dedicated eavesdropper, listening in on dialogue between pilots and the tower. "It makes it a lot neater when you know what they're doing out there," Fox says. "It's almost like watching a game of chess, the way controllers move planes in and out."

Using the scanner and binoculars, Fox can usually pinpoint which aircraft the controllers are readying for takeoff. "Each flight has a specific flight number," he explains, "and when you're listening to the tower, you'll hear the controller say, for example, 'American 2720, cross runway twelve right.' When you see one of the planes start to move right, then you know that's the flight he was talking to." Because Fox looks like a serious airplane-watcher, it's not unusual to find bystanders around his green van. "Most come over to talk because I have the scanner and they want to listen in," he says. If they're lucky, they may get to hear some big-league choreography in progress on the part of the controllers. "Every once in a while they have 'oopsies,'" says Fox. "When two approaching planes come too close, one has to back off, and the tower has to decide which one."

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