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The first thing you see is the landing lights, three beacons high in the sky. Then, if you're a pro, you determine what type of plane it is. T-shaped tail? It's a 727. Two cigar-shaped engines, one under each wing? A 737. Three engines and a fuselage bigger than any other? Must be a Delta L-1011.

Minutes later your jet is clearing Interstate 95, raising its nose, and wobbling a little. It touches down with a puff of smoke, then a roar, as the pilot reverses its engines to slow down.

Welcome to the Ron Gardner Aircraft Observation Area, a patch of asphalt just south of runway 9L at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. It's a great place to park your car, crank up the air conditioner, and watch jets come and go: planespotting.

To many, flying isn't romantic any more -- it's just a pain in the ass. But if you're an aviation buff -- or if your kids are enthralled by the metal birds -- the viewing area is a great place to spend a lunch hour. Or longer. The best time to watch is around noon, when the airport is busiest.

On a weekday afternoon, Derek Dubus of Fort Lauderdale is sitting in his pickup, watching the action. His dad is a mechanic for Delta Air Lines in Miami, and Dubus has always been interested in planes. The viewing area's loudspeaker broadcasts control-tower radio transmissions, but Dubus has his own scanner, which means he can keep his windows rolled up and stay cool.

"You usually can't understand the tower too much," Dubus says. "You can just hear the name of the airline. But it's fun to know what's coming."

As he watches, a small jet makes its final approach. He squints, looking for distinguishing colors or signs on its tail. "That's Air Tran," Dubus says, grinning. "You know who they used to be, right? ValuJet."

Also watching is Keith Snyder, a computer engineer from Dallas who's in South Florida for a conference. An avid planespotter, he heard about the viewing area and zipped over in his rental car the first chance he got.

"DFW [Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport] is so big, the closest you can get is two miles from the runway," Snyder says. "This is the only [viewing area] I've seen that put holes in the fence so you can take pictures."

Indeed, whenever a plane appears, Snyder leaps out of his car and heads for the fence, camera in hand. As an Eastwind Airlines 737 gently descends, Snyder clicks away. He's excited about photographing Eastwind, a small airline with its hub in North Carolina. He doesn't have any photos of the airline's planes.

"I like to see different airlines, like the Caribbean ones," says Snyder, who's taken about 30,000 pictures of planes. "I don't get to see those in Texas. American? Delta? I don't need any more [photos] of those."

Last year, before the observation area was dedicated to Gardner, a long-time airport employee, planespotters would park along W. Perimeter Road, a stone's throw from the end of the runway. It was the best place to watch, but so many people were crowding the narrow road that airport officials started to worry.

"What happened was so many people congregated under the flight path, it was getting dangerous," says airport spokesman Bill Reynolds. "The kids would be loose, and cars and people [in that area] isn't good."

The new viewing area offers great sightlines. Because of a prevalent wind from the southeast, almost 80 percent of the planes jetting into Fort Lauderdale land facing east. So if you show up to watch, odds are you'll catch plenty of in-your-face images of planes touching down.

"I've been to more than 100 airports to watch planes," Snyder says. "And this is the best place I've seen."

-- Steve Harrison

The Ron Gardner Aircraft Observation Area is on SW 39th Street, just off W. Perimeter Road, next to the Broward County Animal Care and Regulation building in Hollywood. It's open 24 hours, and admission is free. Call 954-359-1200.

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