Plane spotting is a game of patience and luck. This is especially true if you want to photograph a specific plane. While some airliners are part of daily life at airports, there are other, rarer planes, in the air, singled out for their model, livery or operator. Here, AeroTime lists its top 10 rarest planes to spot.
Antonov An-225 ‘Mriya’
The Antonov An-225 Mriya is beloved by the avgeek community. As a unique aircraft, each landing is scrutinized by plane spotters. Due to its dimensions, the aircraft can only land in airports large enough to accommodate it. The only consolation is that its special capabilities make it an aircraft acclaimed by clients around the world, who regularly use it to deliver gigantic loads to the four corners of the planet.
North Korea is a true fortress nation living in splendid isolation, and regularly subject to international sanctions. As a result, its national airline, Air Koryo, only has scheduled flights to China. Other destinations fluctuate depending on the country’s diplomatic relations or on-going sanctions. Thus, a regular link with Vladivostok, in Russia, was interrupted in 2017. Its fleet is a veritable flying museum of Soviet aviation.
The Airbus A330-743L, better known as the Beluga XL, was created by the European aircraft manufacturer to transport the largest parts of its planes between its different production sites. Entered into service in January 2020, the fleet should eventually reach six aircraft. If you want to see the whale face of this rounded plane, you’ll have to go to Europe, in particular Toulouse, France, home to the manufacturer’s headquarters.
It would be unfair to mention the Beluga without bringing up its counterpart across the pond. With its controversial appearance, the Dreamlifter is a Boeing 747-400 modified by the manufacturer for the transport of aircraft parts, such as full wings, between the various suppliers of Boeing. In service since 2007, four of them have so far been built. Their base of operations is located near the Boeing South Carolina plant where the 787 Dreamliner is assembled.
McDonnell Douglas DC-10
The iconic trijet aircraft whose career started in 1971 stopped transporting passengers in 2014. Today, the plane is mostly flown by FedEx Express as a freighter. According to planespotters.net data, 11 are still in operation with the US cargo carrier. There is another DC-10, however, that is even more special: the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital. Since the 1980s, the NGO Orbis International has used McDonnell Douglas aircraft as flying ophthalmic hospitals capable of flying to countries whose populations need eye surgery. The airplane also features a classroom for the training of local doctors. Orbis is on its third generation of McDonnell Douglas aircraft. Since 2016, it has been flying a DC-10-30, registered N330AU, which was donated by FedEx.
(H. Michael Miley/Flickr)
Convair was an American aircraft manufacturer which built a variety of aircraft throughout its 55 years of existence, ranging from interceptors and supersonic bombers to airliners. But the adventure stopped in 1996. Yet, one family of aircraft designed and built by Convair remains in operation: the CV-240. The twin piston-engine airliner, intended to compete with the Douglas DC-3, was built in the thousands, in a variety of sizes and roles. The most common version still in operation is the Convair 5800, a cargo version of the Convair twin-engine aircraft modernized by the Canadian company, Kelowna Flightcraft.
As coveted as the rarest model of aircraft, unique liveries are like trophies for plane spotters. Some airlines decide to go back to their original colors, others turn their aircraft into wild animals or famous Japanese monsters. Luckily for photographers, this practice so popular that any hub around the world ought to see one land on its runway at some point.
Grumman F-14 Tomcat
The 1980s were marked by a number of iconic items, including synthesizers and variable-sweep wing fighters. While the former made a comeback, the latter remains a thing from the past. The Grumman F-14 Tomcat rose to fame after appearing in hit movies including Top Gun, but the United States Navy retired the aircraft in 2006. Nevertheless, one operator continues: Iran. With no obvious way to procure parts for 42 years, however, the number of jets still in flight is unclear. The best chance to catch a glimpse of a flying Tomcat is Tehran Mehrabad Airport.
When all goes wrong on the ground, the air takes over. With the looming fear of a nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War, both Russia and the United States developed formidable aircraft capable of acting as operation centers for their respective militaries. Dubbed ‘Doomsday planes’, the U.S. Air Force operates the Boeing E-4B NEACP while the Russian Armed Forces fly the Il-86VKP.
Built in 1909, the Blériot XI was used by the French aviator Louis Blériot to cross the English Channel, a world first. Two originals were restored by the Swedish collector Mikael Carlson, making them the oldest airworthy aircraft. Carlson still flies them regularly in air shows around the world.