An Awesome Planespotting Opportunity: The Launch of a New South African Airways Route

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a Dulles media event for the launch of South African Airways’ new service to Accra, Ghana, continuing onto Johannesburg. The inaugural flight was scheduled for August 3rd, and I was able to partake in the festivities, courtesy of the communications folks at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Checking in behind the Emirates ticketing desks, we were issued badges and security passes, allowing us to get past the TSA and enter the terminal.

Once past security, we were guided to the operations center for Dulles, and split into two groups. Each got to experience both the airport’s ground control tower and operations center for 15 minutes each.

Up in the control tower, we were introduced to the three controllers there and given a brief walk-through of their jobs and what they were doing. They kept on working throughout the presentation, and we could hear their radio traffic as they guided in planes to their parking spaces at the gates. A number of the avid photographers in the group snapped pictures from the windows, though I spent some time chatting with the controllers on their processes, which was really fascinating.

Downstairs, we moved into the operations center, which was the “Mission Control” for the airport, similar to a 911 dispatch center, if you’ve ever been in one. They monitor all of the camera, trams, gates and problems that may arise in the facility. Because the airport is so large, and is literally like another city, there’s a full staff on hand to mitigate any problems. We were shown radar systems, radio controls, and maps, all aiding in the operations. Towards the end of the talk, one of the red emergency phones rang, and a dispatcher ran over frantically, to find out that an incoming Envoy (as American Eagle) ERJ-145 from Baltimore was diverting to Dulles with heavy smoke in the cockpit. It was a tense moment for sure, but we got to hear the alert processes for the fire department, police and airport personnel, as they responded to the runway to aid the incoming plane. Unfortunately, we were ushered out at this point so they could focus on the emergency, but it was quite an experience to see this first-hand, and it not be a drill.

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We then walked over the terminal to B37, where the flight would be departing from. There, a group South African dancers were banging drums and chanting, in traditional tunes. It was really a terrific show.

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As the show wrapped up, we were moved over the the ribbon cutting ceremony where dignitaries from Ghana, South Africa and the airline participated and spoke.

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Not long after, the boarding of the aircraft commenced, and we were allowed down onto the Tarmac to take pictures. We spent a good deal of time down below snapping away at our cameras, before being escorted onto the Dulles “moon buggies” to be taken to the runway to watch the plane take off.


As we drove out, we stopped a few time to take pictures of some planes taxiing and on the ground, though our final stop was just short of the runway, in a perfect viewing angle to watch the steady stream of both regional and international jets take off. We were here for about an hour as the South African plane became delayed due to some baggage issues. Not to worry, though, as there was plenty of planes taking off to keep everyone occupied.

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Approaching the hour, the South African plane made its way onto the runway, and we were able to wish it a bon voyage across the South Atlantic on its way to Ghana. Keeping with the aviation spirit of the day, we also hung around to see a British Airways A380 take-off, which, for me, was the real highlight. Such a huge piece of machinery driving down the runway is a sight to be seen.

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As we drive back to the terminal, we were each given goodie bags to remember the day. It was a really terrific experience, and one that Dulles does for most new routes, or new carrier to the airport. I’ll be signing up for these again for sure, and you can too — each event can have a limited amount of public entries, and there’s a contest allowing you to win tickets in the days prior to the event.


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