SPIES LIKE US (The Independent)

We’re the most unlikely of spies, us. The wind is biting, the March sky clear and, standing next to a ploughed field in Norfolk, we have mud on our shoes. A few more cars arrive along a bumpy track. Conversation between the men who have come here is kept to a minimum.
My companions graze slowly on supplies – meat pies, some sandwiches, Lucozade, crisps – watching the horizon. In the distance is a perimeter fence and beyond that, the ordnance of war.
We don’t look like a threat to the very security of nations, but then planespotters mostly don’t. I’m a latter-day spotter, but the people waiting in the country surrounding RAF Marham are the hard core. Hours without a spot is not uncommon.
A pensioner views the activities from his car’s front seat – through the windscreen. “Seen anything good?” he asks. A neatly folded newspaper lies next to his sandwiches on the passenger seat. “Not sure there’s much about today,” he adds wistfully. Spotting today, like spotting on any given day, is an exercise in patience. And after four hours, mine runs out.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Air shows where thousands flock each summer are different from real spotting. For me, it’s like shooting a sitting bird; too many planes and the excitement (such as it is) is dulled.
Perhaps Conrad Clitheroe and his friend Gary Cooper feel the same. Both are currently detained at the pleasure of the authorities in the United Arab Emirates for apparently planespotting (without cameras). Mr Clitheroe and Mr Cooper were said to have been taking notes with their former colleague, Neil Munro, an expat, when they were arrested. They have remained in custody since 21 February for apparently jotting down the numbers of civil aircraft in Fujairah, 80 miles east of Dubai. They are considered a threat to “national security”.
Both Clitheroe and Cooper, by all accounts, are avid enthusiasts. But it’s a hobby on the wane in Britain. Spotters say it is becoming increasingly difficult to access good viewing points at airports and bases. And security is tighter than ever before. Places like the Queen’s Building at Heathrow are long gone.
My dad took my brother and me spotting first. There were trips to Hounslow, for Heathrow, and though we were only about nine and six, it was exhilarating. Concorde would take off and we’d get McDonald’s after. Then, when I was twentysomething, I started spotting again. I met a girl who took me to the edge of the runway at RAF Leuchars, on the Fife coast. It was summer in 2003, there were seals in the sea, the sun was setting over the dunes, and a Tornado took off with its afterburners fully engaged. The roar was terrific; it felt like my heart would burst.
For some, however, spotting is a dark secret. Of those I spoke to this week, few were willing to give their names. Not so the Dorset spotter Howard Curtis, author of Military Aircraft Markings. “It’s a hobby on the wane,” the 53-year-old agrees. “Our society seems to be less and less tolerant of anything it doesn’t understand.”
So does that of the UAE – though Valerie Clitheroe says of her husband and chums: “They didn’t realise planespotting was such an issue.” An issue it is, though – as it has been abroad since 12 Britons and two Danes were arrested on spying charges in Greece and convicted in court. It was more than a year before they were freed on appeal in 2002.
Now, more than ever, spotters are viewed as modern oddities, eccentrics even. But when it comes to national security, Mr Curtis says spotters should be viewed as assets, who could help report suspicious activity at airports: “After all, who else is going to be sat at a cold airport on a wintry Sunday morning, when many who work there are tucked up in bed?”