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Airport overlook: close, free and fantastic

My hectoring boss, Gazette Managing Editor Kevin Ellis, may need to have me outfitted with an ankle bracelet -- the type worn by folks under house arrest to keep them from wandering off.

Otherwise, I’m liable to do a little slipping off of my own to a place that is close, easy to get to, has free admission and is absolutely fascinating.

The attraction is the overlook for Charlotte Douglas Airport, a spot where an upclose look at thundering jet craft arriving and departing from one of the nation’s busiest airports is on free display.

For nearly 60 years, nothing has fascinated me more than watching aircraft.

When I was but a young boy, my dad used to pick up extra money ferrying bigwigs with Drexel Heritage Furnishings from the Charlotte airport to the company’s corporate headquarters in Drexel and back.

(That corporate headquarters, the attached showroom, and the adjacent factory have been reduced to a pile of rubble now, but that is a column for another day.)

Every great once in a while, when he was making a trip to the airport, he would let me ride along. And, even more infrequently, when his schedule permitted, he would take me up to the observation deck which then was a part of the facility.

Such a trip was especially spectacular after dark, when the lighted planes could be seen far in the distance as they began their final approach toward a runway.

I was also the kid who did, and still does, run out of the house for a look when a particularly low-flying aircraft approaches.

Later, as a gangly adolescent, I would drag a yard chair to the open field above our house, and, with binoculars and a notebook, record each plane that flew over. Any plane with military markings was a particular reason for excitement.

And a low-flying helicopter? That was, and is, reason to bolt from the supper table, with my understanding mother’s or wife’s permission, dash outside, and look upward.

Yet despite my love for watching aircraft, I did not even know Charlotte Douglas had an overlook until Brent Cagle, the facility’s aviation director, told a Get Ready Gaston group back in August that a new and improved overlook is the airport’s future.

So what does the existing overlook have to offer?

First and foremost is the proximity to one of the runways. A fence and maybe 250 yards of grass stand between the jets and watchers at the overlook.

The parking lot is gravel, with room for a few dozen cars. The area is nicely landscaped, has a couple of picnic tables, and about a dozen benches.

On the warm September morning I visited, several groups of children were combining playing with plane watching, senior citizens like myself were on the benches, and some folks were watching from their cars.

I stayed for about 45 minutes, and in that time saw probably 20 jets, most of them emblazoned with the symbols of American Airlines, thunder into the sky. Wow!

Some wisdom gleaned from that first visit:

• Don’t go on a warm September morning. No shade is available and my bald scalp was turning pink by the time I left. Wait until the weather cools or go in the early evening instead.

• If you’re interested in getting photos of the jets, perhaps suspended over or just in front of the looming Charlotte skyline, go in the late afternoon or early evening when the sun will be to your back and not right in your eyes.

• The gate to the overlook area is open from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week. I definitely plan to go back after dark one evening when the jets are fully lighted and the skyscrapers of the city skyline are twinkling in the distance.

• How to get there. Take Wilkinson Boulevard east toward Charlotte. At the first traffic light after crossing the bridge over the Catawba, turn right onto Old Dowd Road. Follow this road, until coming to a T intersection. Turn left. The entrance to the overlook will be on the right in about a mile.

Again, it’s close, it’s free and it’s fantastic.

Bill Poteat, if he’s not out at the airport overlook, may be reached at 704-869-1855.



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