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Aviation in Seattle: Paine Field Spotting Guide

With Aviation Geek Fest fast approaching and in the spirit of AvGeeks everywhere, I am giving out my tips on spotting at Paine Field (KPAE) in Everett.  Known predominantly as the location of “the Boeing Factory” it can be an AvGeek’s dream or nightmare. Here are some of the tips and tricks from a local AvGeek who calls KPAE his home base…

The livery for the State of Kuwait aircraft is very similar to Kuwait Airway's design.

You could take photos just like this using our guide.  Photo by David Parker Brown / AirlineReporter.com

Location:

Paine Field (officially known as Snohomish County Airport) is located in Mukilteo/Everett, roughly 30 miles north of Seattle.  In relative terms, it’s about 30 minutes or so north on I5 from downtown (if you’re not during peak Seattle driving time that is).  Originally an Air Force Base in the 50s it became the home of the Boeing Factory when the 747 factory line was built on the site, the rest from that moment is history.

The airport has three runways (two parallel & one cross runways) though the one predominantly used is 16R/34L.  This runway is the site where every Boeing wide body since the first 747 has had its first ever flight; pretty good landmark.  The field also has a number of other aviation related tenants including ATS (Aviation Technical Services) who do the maintenance work for Delta, Hawaiian, Southwest and Alaska Airlines, along with a number of local AvGeek attractions including the Future of Flight, Historic Flight Foundation & the Flying Heritage Collection.

Some key places to spot at Paine Field. Orig image from Google Maps.

Some key places to spot at Paine Field. Orig image from Google Maps.

Where to Spot:

The two primary locations that most AvGeeks are going to be interested in are “Future of Flight/The Mounds” or “The Wind Sock”.  These two locations border 16R/34L and at different times mean different kinds of views available.   The rough guide is:

  1. Future of Flight/The Mounds:  Predominantly used for 16R Arrivals/Departures.  Your best shooting/viewing spot is up on the Stratodeck (free to access) on the top floor of Future of Flight and can lead to some great views/shots of aircraft lining up for take-off, panoramas of the flight line showing all the different aircraft in multiple states or taxiing for take off. You can also get nice approach shots as aircraft land right in front of the factory. If the Stratodeck is closed, there are a number of mounds built into the sites next to the fence line that allow you to take a photo unhindered by those pesky barb wire fences (no need for a step ladder here).  For those staying at the Hilton Garden Inn (located next to Future of Flight) you may even be able to get a good shot direct from your balcony.
    (Example Shots – A Lot 787, ANA 787 Lining up, Ethiopian 777 Cargo Head On)

    The Location of the "windsock" at Paine Field.  Not much here but you will be close to the action Photo by Malcolm Muir / AirlineReporter.com.

    The Location of the “windsock” at Paine Field. Not much here but you will be close to the action Photo by Malcolm Muir / AirlineReporter.com.

  2. The Wind Sock: Located down near the Historic Flight Foundation, this spot is a little bit more basic and not as well known.  There isn’t really much to this spot but a built up area, just off a side entry at the top of a mound.  What it gives you is unrivalled close up action of the touchdown point of 34L.  You are extremely close and those with big lenses will need to zoom all the way out for some arrivals (especially a Dreamlifter).  Though you can get some impressive landing/take off shots you will also get very close to touch and go’s by the heavies on 16R and that can be an impressive sight on its own.
    (Example Shots – Dreamlifter Take Off, Emirates 777, JAL 787

To help you find your way to these two locations, a great new site Aviation Photographic has a great little guide to spotting at Paine Field with a map that will show you an easy way to identify these locations (even if from a satellite image).

People lined up on the mounds outside Future of Flight, to take photos of an aircraft departing.  Photo by Malcolm Muir / AirlineReporter.com.

People lined up on the mounds outside Future of Flight, to take photos of an aircraft departing. Photo by Malcolm Muir / AirlineReporter.com.


When to Spot:

Weekdays are by far the best time to spot at Paine Field with the factory and test flights in full force.  Flights come and go at random times and although Flightaware.com can be a great source at times, you need to live by one rule at Paine Field:  Boeing Time.

What is “Boeing Time?”  It is really just a way to describe that if you are an avid spotter, out to get that brand new aircraft fresh from the factory, be prepared to wait….. a lot.  Because these are test flights, so there is no guaranteed time of departure. They either pop up at the very last minute or more often than not, they run late.

Usually you can rely on the Dreamlifter schedule which are operated by Atlas Air. They show up on Flightaware as GTI4*** (where *** is the rest of the flight number), and they come at all hours of the day or night.  You can sometimes get a Southwest or Alaska or Delta 737 coming in on the weekends for maintenance, although most of the time this is during the middle of the night.

Boeing 787s on the flight line at Paine Field. Photo by Malcolm Muir.

Boeing 787s on the flight line at Paine Field. Photo by Malcolm Muir.

Random Tips/Tricks:

A couple of extra little tips and/or tricks for you:

  • Being that there is no commercial service here at the field, you will more than likely need a car to get around.  There are a number of places around the field that offer great places to spot. Just try to stay off Boeing property, since they do not allow you to take photos from their property and might be met by a security person. If you stick to the above two spots, you won’t have a problem (and a step ladder won’t be required).
  • Since flights come and go at any time, having a scanner or access to LiveATC (via one of their mobile apps) can be helpful.  Remember that LiveATC has about a 10-20 second delay and that access is not guaranteed so it could go down.  On some days they will also play the ATC feed on top of the Stratodeck at Future of Flight.
  • During winter you can get some great shots even with the rain and cold.  Since movements are often infrequent you may not be exposed to the elements for long, you can hang out in your car down by the mounds and pop out when needed.

Hopefully the guide can help you enjoy your time at Aviation Geek Fest (or any time in Seattle really) that little bit better. If you have photos taken from Paine Field you want to share, put them in the comments — we would love to see them.

This story written by…Malcolm Muir, Lead Correspondent. Mal is an Australian Avgeek now living and working in Seattle. With a passion for aircraft photography, traveling and the fun that combining the two can bring. Insights into the aviation world with a bit of a perspective thanks to working in the travel industry.

@BigMalX | BigMal’s World | Photos

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