I’m watching an Airbus A320 taxi to the end of the runway just a few hundred feet from me. After a few moments the pilot pushes the throttle to maximum and the sound of the engines covers my ears like a noisy earmuff. As the plane smoothly moves forward, I catch a sight of the towering skyscrapers of Uptown Charlotte in the distance, faint through the hazy summer heat. This it the Airport Observation Park at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, and this is where I had breakfast.
When I was a kid my parents would take the family down to Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee. It was a small airport with only a few flights a day, all from smaller passenger aircraft. But the one thing this airport offered that many others didn’t (and none do now) was an observation deck. This deck was at the edge of the terminal building facing the lone runway, about 25′ above the tarmac, with a perfect view for watching planes coming and going. I would cover my ears as the sounds of the engines echoed off the concrete of the runway and buildings, but it was still something I loved watching.
When I visited Charlotte, North Carolina in the summer, I asked a few locals what they do when they want something free to do. That’s how I learned about an observation park at the international airport, a place where visitors can watch planes land and take off. At first, I thought in this post-9/11 world of heightened airport security there was no way such a park could still exist. However, it is very real, and had a very real security vehicle sitting at the entrance.
It was early in the morning. I had just left my hotel, so I needed food. I found a Bojangles not far from the main entrance to the airport and decided that would be a great breakfast. After getting lost a couple of times (the airport was undergoing massive renovations and street construction in 2014, but that should be completed by early 2015) I found the park. The park is simply a large area near the end of one runway with a gravel parking area and lots of grassy areas. There are several benches along the edge of the parking lot facing the runway, giving visitors a place to get out of their cars and watch the action.
One clever family even brought a large umbrella with them to provide some shady under the scorching summer sun. That wasn’t a bad idea. It’s also not a bad idea to bring some food, like I did, and just sit back and enjoy the view. Even as busy as this airport gets during peak hours, it’s still a lot like watching a baseball game: lots of balls and foul balls, followed by a furious thirty seconds of action. Come prepared to spend some time. The best times of the day for seeing lots of planes coming and going is early in the morning around 7-8am and again around 6-7pm as all the commuter flights depart and return.
If you’re an aviation enthusiast, a photographer who enjoys capturing photos of planes, or just a couple or family looking for something free to do in Charlotte, this is a cool place to visit. The planes get loud, of course, but ear plugs will fix that. At the very least it’s something neat to watch, even if you only ever visit once. Once was not enough for me. I returned a few months later.