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Cranky Dorkfest: aviation geeks unite

Southwest 737 on short final above the In N Out before landing at LAX
Guest Contributor: Bailey Noel

Photos: Bailey Noel

Does anyone need an excuse to slip away to Los Angeles for a weekend? I sure didn’t back in May when my friend Todd proposed we attend a planespotting festival happening around LAX the second weekend in September. As a Pennsylvanian planespotter, who adores her local airports, yet despises their lack of variety in traffic (looking at you Republic Airways), it didn’t take much convincing. 

I didn’t know much about “Cranky Dorkfest” before we planned our trip, but I soon learned that this was an event put on by Brett Snyder, author of the beloved and honest aviation blog “The Cranky Flier”. The premise is simple: anyone who likes airplanes shows up to the park across from the famous (at least among aviation geeks, or “avgeeks”) In ‘n Out and enjoy one another’s company while watching the large variety of airline traffic land at LAX. Yet, it’s so much more than that.

Avgeeks from across the globe descend on LAX. For many it’s an annual tradition and a homecoming of sorts, where they get to reunite with all of their online aviation-minded friends and spend time together. For my friend Todd and I, it was our first time (my first time in Los Angeles ever), and we were eager to see what the event had to offer. 

We hopped off the plane at LAX, having just woken up from our transcontinental naps, where we dreamed of the exciting traffic we were going to see that weekend. Airbus A380s, Boeing 747s, and most importantly for me, the Asian international airlines. Having flown Breeze Airways, our Airbus A220-300 parked at a gate at the Tom Bradley West Gates (Midfield Satellite for those in the know) and allowed us to get a taste of what we were expecting to see. While heading to the baggage claim shuttle, we oohed and aahhed at planes such as Air Tahiti Nui’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Asiana and Korean Air A380s parked side by side. I also got my initiation into LA traffic before even leaving the airport, while on the rental car shuttle. When we made it to the rental car center, I was able to get my first chance at LAX spotting as planes were flying over the parking lot, while Todd was doing the tedious work of checking over every inch of our rental car and documenting its current state. 

The avgeeks and Dorkfest attendees may cringe at what I’m about to say, but we decided to spend the rest of our first day in LA by doing some non-aviation activities. We fulfilled our dream of riding the new Mario Kart Ride in Super Mario World at Universal Studios, ate dinner at Margaritaville (my personal dream), and took the scenic way home by way of Mulholland Drive before checking into our hotel, Aloft Los Angeles Airport in El Segundo. 

There is a block of special event rated rooms for Dorkfest at the premiere planespotting hotel in Los Angeles, the H Hotel. We were unable however, to secure a room at that rate so we decided to spend our first two nights at a more affordable option before moving over to the H on Sunday for our final night.

Not staying at the H for all of Dorkfest did not hamper our spotting abilities at all, especially thanks to a special event held at the Flight Path Museum Saturday morning before Dorkfest officially kicked off at the In-and-Out. About a month before our trip, we signed up to potentially be chosen for this special event, and were elated to find out that we were chosen. The event, sponsored by LAWA was the first post-pandemic.

We arrived at the museum around 9am and spent some time browsing the detailed collection on display before heading outside to the ramp. We were greeted by kind LAX staff who gave us LAX branded water bottles and Randy’s Donuts (as an LA visitor, getting a taste of these iconic donuts had me tickled pink). With the museum being located next to the south runways, we were all given front-row ground level access to photograph the aircraft traffic not only on the runways, but also at the terminals and taxiing past the runways across from us. The highlights of the plentiful aircraft we got to saw included the Alaska Airlines “More to Love” Boeing 737, the Horizon Air retro livery E-175, and to cap off the event, an Atlas Air Boeing 747 that taxiied to the cargo ramp right past us. This was my first time being on ground level so close to a powered Boeing 747. This solidified in my mind even more than ever before that she will always be the ‘queen of the skies’, and I would implore any doubters of this statement to do this if ever given the opportunity (although an extremely rare one we were lucky to experience).

Still on the high from being towered over by the 747, we gave several of our new spotting friend’s a ride over in our rental car to the northside of the airport for the main event. As I rounded the corner, I got my first glimpse of what we had traveled 2,000 miles and three time zones for.

There were avgeeks everywhere. How cool was that.

It was of course very cool, Todd and I proceeded to dive into the crowd (not literally, don’t worry this isn’t like a mosh pit or something) and see who was all there. I knew from the swag in circulating the crowd that airline representatives were mingled in. My first order of business was to get all my swag, because if you know me, I’m a swag person (Just ask the people I camp with at Oshkosh who had to drive home my trinkets that couldn’t fit in my airline luggage). It only took me a moment to find who I was most excited to see, the representative from Spirit Airlines and after I said hello his jaw dropped. That morning, I had put on the “dorkiest” outfit I own: my Spirit Airlines ‘Spirit’ Outfit. Which includes head to toe Spirit Airlines merch: A Spirit branded scrunchie, a Spirit hat, bright yellow t-shirt with the company logo, and crew socks with the logo and yellow airplanes on them. Spirit Airlines is how I got my start in the industry, and I still am a ramp agent for a company that takes care of their aircraft at my small hometown regional airport and was trained by someone who loved the company even more than I have grown to (If you think my outfit is outlandish, then you need to meet him!) and because of him, I’ve carried on this tradition of taking the company value of “swag” to the maxes when traveling on the airline and attending events such as DorkfestBut Spirit wasn’t the only airline with representatives in attendance, Southwest Airlines, and even their Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson, was in the crowd meeting attendees and shaking hands, and a representative from Alaska Airlines was giving out Boeing 737-400 Combi aircraft trading cards.

Also in attendance were various aviation blog authors, social media influencers, and content creators. We found Airline Videos Live towards the west end of the park live streaming from the event, Ian from Flightradar24, NYC Aviation, and way too many more to name here. If you have an author or creator you want to meet, there’s a good chance you could meet them next year at Dorkfest 2024!

Aircraft that all attendees shared joy in capturing together included a Lufthansa 747, an ITA A350, and to cap it off, the big boss Emirates A380.

As the event winded down, raffle tickets that had been distributed for free earlier in the day began to be pulled. Prizes ranged from free roundtrip tickets on Spirit and Alaska to new and rare models, premium subscriptions any avgeek would love, amenity kits, a free tour of any one of United Airlines hubs, and even an American Airlines wall clock. Of course I was bummed to not win any of the Spirit prizes, but was most crushed when the Alaska AIrlines prize of two round trip tickets and a model of their brand new special livery Xáat Kwáani, or Salmon People, a model that hadn’t even hit shelves yet, and out of all the attendees, I was only one number off. 

But I quickly shook off this disappointment and replaced it with excitement and anticipation while standing in line to order at In ‘n Out for the very first time. After we had ordered and were waiting for our food, I sent my travel partner Todd outside with the goal of getting the table closest to the restaurant’s sign, featured in so many iconic photographs with planes soaring just above it ready to land at LAX. And wouldn’t you know it, on the busiest day for spotting at LAX he was able to secure the most desired table amongst all avgeeks. We enjoyed our meals, Todd having a double cheeseburger (number two) and I opting for just a single (number one), taking breaks anytime we saw something interesting coming by and snapping those ever so iconic In ‘n Out airplane photos.

We stopped back by the hotel after eating, changed into our swimwear, and hit the beach. Saturday night departure spotting was one of the events I was looking forward to the most on our trip. For weeks before our trip I kept imagining being on a beautiful sandy beach with the waves crashing and a melting, gorgeous orange sunset setting over the Pacific… and now it was time to make that a reality. We drove to Dockweiler State Beach blasting California Gurls by Katy Perry and pretty much any other pop song about California we could fit in the 10 minute  drive. Once we arrived, we drove down the beach to position ourselves between the two runways, then staked our spots in the sand with our hotel towels. Soon after we sat down we started photographing the departure traffic, flight after flight, photographing one flight on our left then immediately turning and photographing a second one on the right. Most of the departures we saw such as the British Airways A350, Hawaiian Airlines A330, and Qatar A350 were planes photographed landing earlier in the day during Dorkfest. Something I found neat was watching the planes takeoff over the ocean (beautiful) and getting one last glimpse of them flying back over us after gaining altitude over the ocean, getting two perspectives of the same plane only minutes apart. I also took some time to get into the water, and between getting battered by the waves (I was clearly a landlocked tourist, it took me a little bit to get the hang of jumping waves) I couldn’t help but be awestruck that I was in Los Angeles for the weekend. I ran away to LA for the weekend to spend time with like minded people and get to meet such amazing people. How lucky was I? (incredibly. I was incredibly lucky.)

I soaked up every moment I spent in the Pacific, even as clouds rolled in from the west. I unfortunately did not get the gorgeous golden California Sunset that Saturday night that I had hoped for, but got to witness a unique display of a bright pink sunset diffused through the gray clouds blocking our view. We spotted our final flights, said goodbye to the Pacific, and drove over fashionably late to an evening social event held at the Proud Bird Food Bazar. We got a late dinner and enjoyed the nighttime views of traffic arriving on the south runways, as the Proud Bird has a PERFECT view for planespotting (day or night) and a large variety of food that has something everyone will like. This is a must-stop place for any avgeeks traveling through LA, and I’ve already recommended it to a long list of people back home in Pittsburgh. More giveaways raffles were pulled as we arrived, we weren’t there in time to get tickets so Todd and I weren’t exactly paying attention to what was being given away. We caught up with spotters we had met earlier in the day, said hello to those we weren’t able to talk to earlier, and I met someone incredible. 

Have you ever seen someone and you have an unexplainable attraction to talk to them? You think to yourself “I have to talk to this person”. Well, Todd started talking to the gentleman first, who fit into the event very well wearing a bright orange T-shirt and SpotLAX ambassador lanyard. Todd discovered that he and this gentleman were alums of the same undergrad school, and when they also connected on the fact that they both grew up in the Pittsburgh area, Todd asked him where, and he said Latrobe.

What are the chances? What are the chances of meeting someone for the very first time who grew up in your hometown 2,000 miles away, all the way across the continent, at such a niche event? I couldn’t contain the shock and excitement I had, and my new friend, Glenn Beltz, couldn’t contain his either. We went to the same high school and were both in the marching band, he graduated the same year my uncle did, I could take you to the exact neighborhood he grew up in, less than 15 minutes where my parents live, and he used to fly into Latrobe Airport on the weekends during his undergrad days. Glenn is now a citizen of Santa Barbra, so I made sure to give him the 411 (or, if you’re from Pittsburgh like us, “the 412”) of what has been going on in our hometown, changes with Latrobe airport, where I work summers, over the years, and of course had to sprinkle a little hometown gossip in there as well.  This was such a special moment with feelings that I can’t even begin to try to put into words. Meeting a fellow Latrobean from the 15650 is a top tier moment from this trip that can’t ever be topped, and I look forward to continuing to keep in contact with Glenn. 

After saying goodbye to Glenn and the other spotters at the Proud Bird, Todd and I decided on a whim to cap off the night with a sweet treat. We found a gelato place in Manhattan where after getting our cups we walked down the hill to the pier to eat and watch the waves crash in the darkness. Despite being 10:00, the area was still lively with activity, people were fishing on the pier, walking on the beach, and enjoying the late night atmosphere just as we were. It also didn’t help that my brain was still set to east coast time, so instead of 10:00pm it felt more like 1:00 am, and we had a very long day, but a night on the pier was the icing on the cake of that beautiful day. 

Sunday morning I woke up still on the high of the night before and ready to take on the day with no plans, a day open to spend in LA how we wanted. Over hotel breakfast we discussed what we wanted to do, and settled on having a lazy Sunday morning with some Mario Kart before it was time to check out of our current hotel. Are you truly an avgeek if Sunshine Airport isn’t your favorite Mario Kart track? Todd doesn’t think so, but I ask that you don’t send him too much hate online for his (wrong) opinion. 

After our comfortable noon check out (thank you Aloft) we decided to grab some lunch back at the Proud Bird for some mid-day spotting. Once again we ordered and went outside to their outdoor area which includes a special events patio, a turf green space for all visitors, a playground, and planes with storied histories on display like a C-45, a Bell X-1, and A-4 Skyhawk in the Blue Angels livery just to name a few. My one tip for any avgeeks going to the Proud Bird in the future is to not go hungry. The food is very good, don’t get me wrong, but you will be constantly sitting your food down to photograph the great traffic LAX has to offer, and the restaurant is one of, if not the, best place to spot the runway 25 arrivals. After only having an average hotel continental breakfast, I was hungry for the pizza I had ordered, but I believe this was the record slowest time I have ever eaten a personal sized pizza. When you’ve got one great flight arriving after another, you too would be constantly cleaning your hands and picking up your camera to get them all. So for the most excited spotter’s, I’d recommend going to the restaurant only for a drink or snack so you can be ready to get back to spotting ASAP. 

Several spotters from the event were also at the restaurant for lunch, and we all had fun standing out in the turf trying to photograph the Goodyear Blimp doing laps over So-Fi stadium in the distance. After spotting for a few hours together, we said our goodbyes and “see you next year!”s as we all departed the restaurant and went our separate ways.

Todd and I’s next order of business was checking into our next hotel, the H Hotel Los Angeles, the premiere planespotter hotel in LAX where most of the event’s attendees had stayed. After checking into the airport view room at the hotel, which had unfortunately dirty windows that barely provided a view of anything let alone the airport which we paid extra for, the both of us were chomping at the bit to go up to the hotel’s overlook rooftop terrace, the main attraction of this hotel (because as we already learned, it sure wasn’t the windows). I changed into my swimwear as for some reason I thought the hotel had a rooftop pool on the terrace… don’t ask me where I got that idea from… and we took the elevator up to floor 12. Although I was disappointed and slightly embarrassed to learn the pool was on the ground floor, NOT the roof, we walked out to see our group we were just spotting with at the Proud Bird on the terrace. I was amazed by the space, it does have clear safety walls as any good rooftop terrace has, but it has built in concrete steps to allow photographers to shoot above the glass while not having to sketchily balance on the patio furniture on the rooftop, an attention to detail I greatly appreciated. The terrace’s main view, and what you see when you walk out is the approach path down to the 24 Runways. You get a full view, from the planes approaching with downtown in the background to touchdown. Also, I believe for the location its view of the 25 Runways to the south wasn’t that bad either. The walk from the once side of the terrace to the other was no sweat, and there were concrete steps on that side of the patio as well. You can see the approach down to 25, then after the landing plane crosses the threshold, the view is a little blocked by the United Airlines hangar, but most of the time it was short enough to still get a wide and clear berth of the plane touching down. I took full advantage of this view to get literally one of my dream aircraft I had yet to photograph, an MD-11 (built locally in Long Beach). I finally can say I have the feather of a Fed-Ex MD-11 in my cap. Sure, I wish it was UPS, because that is the airline that operates them in Pittsburgh and inspired my thirst and hunger to capture this bird that is always impossible to get at home as it always departs at 9:50 pm and arrives back shortly after 5 am… it only runs in the dark. Also visible is Taxiway E (echo) running parallel to Runway 25R. This is the taxiway all aircraft departing from 25R take, and this allowed us beautiful shots of aircraft like “The Salmon People” livery. Seeing the plane was exciting but I couldn’t help but think about almost winning a model of it and Alaska Airlines tickets the day prior. But, this of course didn’t stop me from taking plenty of photos and having a good time on the deck with our new spotter friends, who we once again said our goodbyes and “see you next year!”s as we all departed the restaurant and went our separate ways after a couple of hours.

Todd and I spent a good few hours up on the deck, just in awe and staying entertained by the traffic coming and going, and just when we decided to hit the pool, our spotter friends, yes the same friends from Proud Bird and earlier on the terrace that we said good-bye to twice, came back and let us know that the Qantas “Yam Dreaming” Boeing 787 was preparing to turn onto final. Of course it was a no brainer, we delayed our pool party for the special from Australia and caught this, and a couple more, final birds with our friends who we just couldn’t seem to get away from (and I mean this lovingly of course). You know, I would not be surprised if one day soon I turn the corner at Pittsburgh International Airport and randomly run into Ben Granucci, Henry, Tom Rainey, Annie, and Jacob Rutledge if the amount of times we saw them all this particular Sunday says anything about how we all seem to end up at the same place at the same time (what can I say, we all have great taste in which arrivals to photograph!)

We went for a dip, unfortunately on the ground floor not the roof, and decided to go back up to the terrace for sunset. We did a mad dash from the pool to our room to get our cameras as golden hour had already started, and made it up to the roof to find a golden, orange, California sunset I had dreamed of for weeks leading up to this vacation. We soaked up the sunset and photographed some planes and the airport in the gorgeous light. As we watched our final California sunset on our vacation, I couldn’t help but feel the worries of the real world creeping back in, but our vacation wasn’t over quite yet. It isn’t over until it’s over, and we still had time for one more burger at In ‘n Out. 

I had a Spirit Airlines Red eye to catch back to Pittsburgh so I could make it to class on-time Monday, so I packed up my belongings and we headed out to the restaurant. We savored our burgers while taking in, for one of the final times this trip, what LAX had to offer and took our final photos. We didn’t want to leave. Todd had a Breeze flight the next afternoon, yet he felt the same way about my part of the vacation coming to an end.

Before leaving the area we went over to the spotting park and took the airplanes as they flew directly over us, nothing else compares to this place. So when the time of my flight creeped closer and closer, we tore ourselves away and made our way to the airport. 

Something we didn’t anticipate was the amount of traffic at the airport this late at night. It was crawling and locked up traffic at departures at 10 pm. So a lesson was definitely learned that night about giving ourselves plenty of time to get to LAX– no matter what time of day. 

We took the shortcut to the Spirit departures and said our goodbyes to one another and our California vacation. Then I did a dash through security to the gate. I wish I had more to say about the terminal, but boarding had already started for my flight and I just wanted to get it over with. I was extremely lucky to find after boarding had completed and the cabin door had closed on the way home to have a row entirely to myself. My flight was pushed from the gate and I took in my last views of LA. We headed down taxiway echo, the south side taxiway I had spotted “The Salmon People” livery and several other exciting aircraft on earlier that day, I looked through the windows on the opposite side of the aircraft and could see our hotel last hotel, with the awfully dirty room windows, yet incredibly amazing terrace, we lined up and waited our turn, until it was time to rocket down 25 right on our A320 neo operated by an airline I take pride in and means so much to me. We lifted off and crossed over the beach we spent our Saturday night, I got pummeled by waves, and had spotted these very departures on, and we climbed over the chilling Pacific making our large swooping bank turn for one last flyover, one last pass by, one grand finale look of Los Angeles from above, glimmering with lights in the night, before we climbed into the clouds and settled into our transcontinental journey.   

This was my very first red-eye and this flight home on Spirit Airlines was a far cry from the Breeze Ascent Class seat I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take out to LAX only a few short days ago. I did take a nap on the plane, but that disoriented me. When I woke up I had no idea how long I’d been out for, where we were, or how much longer we had in the trip. While I didn’t like this feeling of being disoriented, I decided to pass the time by playing Mario Kart and perfecting the Sunshine Airport course. 

Landing in Pittsburgh just shy of 6 am was a rude awakening… and I was already awake. Needless to say, red-eyes aren’t my favorite (but then again, nobody likes a red eye… I hope…). My fellow passengers and I hopped off the plane, this time at home in Pittsburgh, officially marking the end of a truly incredible weekend. I cannot reiterate how much I enjoyed spending time at Cranky Dorkfest and how grateful I was to have had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful spotters and avgeeks. Have I met some new friends for life? I think so. All I’m saying is I better see you all at Cranky Dorkfest 2024, where I’ll have my first LAX homecoming of sorts reuniting with all of my online aviation-minded friends and spend time together.

I can’t wait.

Notes from the editor: Board members Marie Czarny and Jean-Christophe Dick noticed a very energetic airplane spotter dressed head to toe in Spirit attire at the LAWA Dorkfest event. We had to enquire, who was this person and what’s the story here. We met Bailey and talked for a while. Starting her career in aviation, we thought she would be a good contributor to chronicle her experience at Dorkfest and looking forward to having her back at the Museum in the future.

Photo of Bailey Noel

Bailey Noel

Bailey is a Freelance photojournalist specializing in aviation currently preparing to graduate from Robert Morris University, located near Pittsburgh, PA in Spring 2024 with a B.F.A. in Cinema and Photography. Outside of school, Bailey works at her hometown airport, Latrobe Arnold Palmer Regional Airport as a ramp agent servicing Spirit Airlines flights and volunteers as an Airport Ambassador at Pittsburgh International Airport. She looks forward to taking to the skies as a student pilot soon. .
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