My Story: From Spotter to Airport Bum

My Story: From Spotter to Airport Bum

I have some spare time on my hands, so I thought I’d tell you an aviation story, this one about my life in aviation.

I used to be a spotter at San Jose International Airport. Here’s one of my spotting pics below from a while back.


I spent hours at SJC at once, especially during the summers when I had more time. It was fun (so I thought) until I discovered general aviation. I discovered “real” general aviation years back when I was 9 (or even 10) after being invited to an EAA Young Eagles rally at a nearby small municipal airport. Young Eagles is a program created by EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) which gives kids ages 8-17 a free plane ride from a licensed pilot! That Young Eagles flight I took that day was my first ever flight in a general aviation aircraft and I was instantly hooked. I kept going back to the Young Eagles rallies and had more and more fun on each flight.

After being introduced to general aviation through EAA and Young Eagles, I started to go to SJC to spot less and less. In return, I started going to another one of my local airports, Reid Hillview in San Jose, CA. It’s a small class D airport a few miles away from SJC. I brought my camera with me and started taking pictures from behind the terminal fence of Cessnas and other GA planes which was not quite as exciting as the heavy metal I was used to, but that soon changed. After constantly going back to Reid and taking photos, I eventually got ramp access thanks to the Airport Ops workers. This gave me opportunities to take photos from beyond the fences, and also chances to meet local and transient pilots and talk to them! This ramp access would later turn out to be a huge turning point in my life as an aviation enthusiast and currently, pilot.

I spent about 2 years going to Reid after I was granted the ramp access taking photos and what I would call “spotting” at a general aviation airport. I didn’t interact with pilots as much as I do now, but I did manage to occasionally bum a few flights with some local pilot friends I’ve met previously. Around 2014, I hadn’t gone to SJC in nearly a year because of all the time I’ve been spending at RHV with the ramp access. I started to bring my camera less to RHV but just went to bum; meet new pilots, marshal transients in, wash aircraft, and most importantly, bum free flights :D

Fast forward 2 more years. 2016. I’ve logged more than 20 hours in aircraft ranging from a Piper Cub to a King Air. I haven’t paid for a single one of those hours. Most of it was from washing the pilot’s aircraft then receiving flight instruction time, others were just from random flights I’ve happened to tag along in where I was able to log the time.

Not only have I had the opportunity to meet new pilots and log free time, I’ve already made lasting memories. This past summer I received a scholarship from my local EAA Chapter for a fully paid trip to Oshkosh for Air Academy. Unfortunately this was about a month before Air Venture so I wasn’t able to see the show, but I got the opportunity to meet other people my age from around the US (and world) at this camp, where I learned a ton about aviation and aeronautics. Also got to fly in a Skycatcher :D

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through all of this, it’s to not give up on your passion. Aviation has been something that’s interested me from a young age and has followed me to this day. I plan on turning it into a full career (ATC WOOP! WOOP!) and will officially start flight training next summer at Reid Hillview where I hope to solo on my 16th birthday.

Reflecting on this, I believe that leaving SJC for RHV was no doubt one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. Standing on the top of a parking garage or behind a 10 foot tall fence taking pictures of planes did me no good. I wasn’t able to talk to pilots, learn from them, or bum free flights. The general aviation community is always open looking to inspire young future pilots, and that’s exactly what’s happened to me. So I encourage you, go out to your local GA airport (assuming you have one). Meet new pilots, talk to them, tell them how you’re interested in becoming a pilot and advice they have for getting there. I can assure you they’d be more than happy to help you out.

I’m only 15, I started hanging out at RHV when I was 11. Organizations like EAA have already turned my dream into a reality. If someone as young as me can be where I’m at, there’s no doubt you can too. There will be bumps and curveballs, but you’ll manage to get through them, just like every other pilot has.

Hope you enjoyed my story, of how I went from a spotter to “professional” airport bum.

Below are some videos and pictures of my journey as an airport bum.

@Laura, you might recognize this one. N12GJ was based out of PAO until it moved to RHV year ago.
Below is a flight I did in N12GJ from KHWD Hayward Executive to KRHV Reid Hillview this past summer.

Below is a flight I did in a Skycatcher at Oshkosh. We did 0 Gs!

This was a recent photo flight I did with my friend and I (in right seat) in Tahoe.

Air to Air photoshoot I participated in. Does anyone recognize the location?

As the sun sets at Reid Hillview, traffic is still active. The Bay Area never sleeps.

A personal favorite of mine, taken on the Bay Tour.


Amazing story ! Thanks !


nothing wrong with that,just shows where your passion is at

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Really enjoyed reading through that, awesome photos as well.

Even if it does start with washing planes I’m sure one day that will turn into something huge.

Moral of the story: We need more GA aircraft in Infinite Flight ;)

All jokes aside, this is one hell of a story. It’s stories like these that make aviation such a beautiful passion. I just wish more of the general public could be able to see stories like these instead of those horrible media reports about crashed planes, and drunk pilots.


Great story!

However I saw your last pic. I reverse engineered a search for it, and found it on a stock website. If he’s stolen the pic from you that’s fine, and you know that. However if you stole it, that’s not a very good thing to do…


Looks like a stock photo, I mean:

Unless you sold it as a stock photo, which is a good move lol!

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Went to his IG, more stock photos there.

If he sells them, it’s fine. If he just took some stock images and claimed them as his own, that’s not fine.

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Second Last one also is used in 3 websites

Very nice story. Hats off to you mack.

You could publish this!

That’s an awesome story and amazing pictures

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I’m glad you enjoy the photo(s). This particular photo was taken by me of course, but I’ve put it up on the market through EyeEm where it’s been sold through Getty Images.

However that photo is also available on another site called Unsplash, which is a 100% free to use/download/modify high resolution photos uploaded by photographers. This means you can use the photos for commercial purposes, like the guy above did in his entrepreneur site, without having to ask permission from the original photographer to use it. Just keep in mind only the photos on that website are under that copyright license.

You can check out my gallery on Unsplash here.

I forgot to mention, if anybody would also like to check out Instagram account, I regurlarly dump my photos there. You can find it here.

Any more questions feel free to ask.


Man, that’s an amazing story. Thanks for sharing!

Can you provide references? I’d like to see how my work contributed to other people’s websites :)


This is awesome! You guys might be able to expect more content @cleipelt in the coming months on FlightCast! Great story of aviation passion.


How did I missed that? Your story is awesome and your pictures wonderful; looking forward to hear you on FlightCast. :)

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Great story. I like the fact that people recognize and support passion.

I believe I can. That looks like San Francisco, looking towards the Oakland Bay Bridge!

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