Beijing Capital is the only (civil) airport serving Beijing, and is therefore by far the busiest airport in China. All the important Chinese domestic airlines are represented as well as a reasonable selection of international carriers, including one or two particularly interesting airlines that are not easily seen anywhere else. The number of movements can be quite amazing at times, and this is one of those airports that doesn't really seem to have any specially busy periods - here it's pretty much non-stop action all day!
Luckily (and unusually these days), the quality and quantity of movements is matched by the
range of places from which it's possible to get photos of them. Despite one or two classic spots
having disappeared in recent years, the number of places where you can still get great photos
would put most other major airports to shame. Admittedly none of these are official viewing areas
(although in general you are unlikely to run into any problems security-wise, as the authorities
here seem to be surprisingly tolerant of people taking photos of the aircraft), and most will
require quite a bit of effort to get to, but in my opinion Beijing is without doubt one of the best
airports in the world for aviation photography.
Although the two-runway layout means that there's nowhere where you can see all the movements, Beijing has a very regular take-off/landing pattern, and it's easy to work out where the best spots for photography are going to be. With a northerly wind (luckily the most common wind direction) runway 36L is used for take-offs and 36R for landings (almost exclusively, although a very small number of domestic flights do use 36L for landing, presumably depending on which gate they're parking at), and all the spots mentioned below are suitable for photography. In the less likely event of a southerly wind, 18L is usually used for take-offs and 18R for landings. In this case, there are fewer places to choose from, the best spots being c, d, and g. I've found that the wind often seems to change direction from a northerly to a southerly in the early afternoon (in winter, anyway), but if you're already somewhere around point g at this time, this won't make any difference to your ability to get photos.
a) The only place to even see any aircraft from around
the terminal area is the apron to the right of the terminal (if arriving by road). This is where
any biz jets present will park, with the regional airliner ramp a little further away (visible but
not easy to photograph). It also overlooks one of the two taxiways from the terminal to runway
36L/18R, so a fair amount of traffic will have to pass by at some point. Unfortunately, however,
it's less than ideal for photographs as it faces due south, and you'll be shooting into the sun
I've never encountered any problems just taking a few quick shots from the approach road, but I wouldn't recommend spending any length of time here even on a cloudy day, as you'll stand out like a sore thumb, and this is probably the most sensitive part of the airport anyway. The building opposite you with the Chinese-style Communist architecture is the VIP terminal, so, although anything present is likely to be rather tempting, I'd be particularly discreet with any photos here.
Deer Jet Hawker 800XP
Korean Air Boeing 777
b) To take advantage of all the fantastic photographic opportunities that Beijing has to offer, you'll need to do a fair bit of walking. Start by leaving the new terminal at the domestic end (right-hand side when leaving the terminal) on the ground (arrivals) level, and walk towards the old terminal. Just after passing the old terminal, on the right, is the China Postal ramp (they use one of the two old 'satellites' here). If anything is parked up, it used to be possible to get reasonable, if somewhat cluttered, shots from the road here, although I believe that sheeting or similar may have been put up on the fence now to prevent any viewing of this area.
China Postal Airlines Y-8
c) Just beyond the China Postal ramp the road comes to
a T-junction. Turn right here and follow the road around for a couple of minutes, and you'll come
to a section of the perimeter fence with a good view over the north taxiways to runway 36L/18R.
This is closest to the domestic ramp, and a large proportion of the domestic services will pass
here (although not all, and you won't see any international flights). There's no problem shooting
through the fence, and you can get good photos with a medium zoom lens (135-200mm), from morning
This spot is still pretty close to the terminal, however, so I'd advise a certain amount of discretion here. I was stopped by the airport police once after someone had reported my presence (although on another occasion I was here for around an hour or so with no problem whatsoever). Although all very polite, I was told that photography was not allowed, and I would have to leave the area. The police actually seemed more interested/concerned with my making notes rather than taking photos, so I would recommend doing this as unobtrusively as possible if you need to.
China Northwest A320
China Northern MD-90
China Xinhua Boeing 737
Air China Cargo Boeing 747F
China Postal Airlines Y-8
d) Continue along the road from point c,
which will take you under the three taxiways. After the third tunnel/bridge take the stairs on your
left, and you'll come up beside a small army barracks, with the runway right in front of you. Keep
walking along the fence to the right, past the small fire station, and you should arrive at what
appears to have once been a large building, but is now basically a rubbish dump. Photos through
the fence here are difficult, but, assuming the area hasn't been razed and redeveloped (which is
entirely possible with the Olympics coming soon), it shouldn't be difficult to find somewhere on
the piles of rubbish to elevate yourself above the fence line, from where superb runway action
shots can be had, particularly if they're taking off on 36L as you're right in line with the
rotation point for most aircraft. A 135-300mm lens will cover all types from Boeing 737 size and
above. A very limited number of aircraft use 36L for landing for some reason, in which case
they'll taxi back past this point to get to the terminal. You are very close to the
taxiway here, and you'll really need a wide-angle lens for shots of these! This spot is perfect
from first light until around midday.
Despite the presence of the barracks, security does not seem to be a problem, and plenty of locals turn up to watch the planes here. Occasionally a group of soldiers emerge to take up positions at various points along the fence in this area, apparently in response to a particular 'sensitive' flight taking off or landing (I've noticed it at the same time as Air Koryu and China Postal flights, for example). At this time you will probably be told to move away from the actual fence, but there doesn't seem to be any problem with taking photos from anywhere else in the vicinity. Around 20 minutes or so later all the soldiers disappear back into the barracks, and everything's back to normal!
Air Koryo Tu-154
China Southwest Boeing 757
China Eastern MD-11
Air China BAe 146
Shanghai Airlines Boeing 767
e) To get photos in the afternoon you'll need to head back towards the airport, but carry straight on at the T-junction near the China Postal ramp instead of turning back towards the terminal area (if coming directly from the terminals, turn left here just after point b rather than right). Continue along this road, which soon takes you under the south taxiway (be careful in the tunnel as there's no pathway at all here). Just on the other side of the tunnel is a little-known spot where, until relatively recently, you could get great shots of aircraft on the south taxiway to/from runway 36L/18R. It used to be possible to get right up to the taxiway itself and, indeed, it wouldn't have been at all difficult to hop over the fence here onto the tarmac! Unfortunately, but not really surprisingly given the current security climate, a much larger fence has now been erected all around this area, preventing access to the original perimeter fence. Reasonable photos are still possible from certain points here but, unless you want to stand in the middle of the road (not recommended!), the new fence does make things difficult. The light is good from morning until mid-afternoon.
Xiamen Airlines Boeing 737
China Southwest Boeing 737
CNAC-Zhejiang Airlines A320
Hainan Airlines Do 328JET
China Northwest BAe 146
f) Continue on along this road (past the line of taxis
that will probably be here) and, after passing the new cargo terminals, take the first road on
the right. About 5 minutes walk along here you'll come to a track on the right, by what appears to
be a derelict building. By following this back towards the general direction of the airport, you'll
eventually get to the well-known photo spot by the holding point of runway 36L (you can see aircraft
lining up for departure from quite a way back along the path, so you can't really get lost). This
spot is deservedly famous amongst well-travelled aviation enthusiasts as it's right next to the
taxiway between the airport and the west runway, and everything has to pass here if runway 36L is
in use for take-offs (which luckily is usually the case). Although there's a double fence at this
point there are various rocks etc. lying around which will allow you to get high enough to have an
unrestricted view over the inner fence. You're very close to the action here, too - everything's
in easy range of a medium zoom lens, and you'll really need a wide-angle for the biggest aircraft
(MD-11 size and up). And if that wasn't enough the sun's perfect for most of the day, with only
very early morning and late afternoon likely to cause problems.
To walk here from the terminals will probably take around 45 minutes, and there are no 'facilities' of any kind (not even any trees for shade/shelter), so bring everything you need. It would obviously be a lot easier to take a taxi here, but, at least for a first visit, it'll probably be rather difficult to give directions, since you won't know exactly where you're going and the taxi driver is very unlikely to speak any English. You'll also need to remember to arrange a pick-up time, unless you want to walk back.
Unfortunately, however, this classic spot may be no more. Sometime around 2002 a major expansion and redevelopment of the cargo facilities was commenced, with a large new apron being constructed here. A new fence was also put up around this area, which would obviously result in this spot becoming inaccessible at some point in the future when work had progressed further, although it was still 'open' when I last visited in early 2003 (and probably for quite a while after that). However, there haven't been any new photos taken from here on sites such as Airliners.net since at least early 2004, so it would appear that this particular spot has probably now gone for good. A great shame if this is true, although luckily there are still plenty of other locations around Beijing airport to keep the enthusiast happy!
Air Koryo Il-62
China Xinjiang Tu-154
China Yunnan Boeing 767
MIAT Boeing 727
Shanxi Airlines Xian Y-7
g) The best spot for photos in the afternoon is the 'far side'
of runway 36L/18R. There's a very convenient earth bank here running along the entire runway length,
almost all of which will allow you to get unobstructed runway shots over the perimeter fence, whichever
runway configuration is in use at the time. There are a few guardposts along this side, which I
wouldn't recommend standing in full view of, but there's more than enough 'free space' to make this
entirely unneccessary anyway. A medium zoom lens will be fine for most things here, with 300mm only
really needed for the few regional jets/bizjets that can be seen. The light is good from early
To get here, follow the same route as for point f above, but turn left when you see the localiser at the end of runway 36L, rather than continuing on to the fence by the taxiway. The track here will take you round the end of the runway (and through a few houses/small village - beware of dogs), from where you can then follow the perimeter fence until you find a suitable spot. It should take around 20 minutes to walk to the first decent spot from the 'turn-off' at the end of the runway, although you can of course continue walking right to the other end of the runway if you really want, which will take a lot longer! It's probably possible to take a taxi most of the way, if you knew where you were going in the first place, although what the 'roads' are like on the other side of the houses I don't know (if you're actually following the perimeter fence here, for instance, the only possibility is to walk).
China Xinjiang Boeing 737
Sichuan Airlines ERJ-145
Canadian Airlines Boeing 767
Federal Express MD-11F
CAAC Beech 350
h) The last main location I've found for getting photographs
at Beijing is another long hike from the terminals, but in a completely different direction from most of
the other spots. Take the main airport expressway south, away from the airport, until you're in the
general vicinity of the end of runway 36R (ie. the usual landing runway). There's no way of seeing the
runway from here, or even landing aircraft, but there's a bridge over the expressway at this point, with
a road going off to the left, together with some local bus stops. Take the road to the left, and then
continue in general southerly direction, which should take you through what appears to be a small
industrial area. Note that there are a number of small roads/alleyways here, so don't be surprised if
you take a wrong turning or two. Eventually you'll come to a fairly major road crossing the one you're
on - turn left here. You'll then see a large expanse of open ground on your left, back in the direction
of the airport itself, which seems to be a local rubbish dump. If you go in here and continue walking
for a few more minutes you'll find yourself in a pretty good position for landing shots on runway 36R,
with good light from early afternoon onwards. I believe it's possible to get landing shots in the morning
from the other side of the runway (and possibly runway action shots?), although I haven't been around
this side myself.
To be honest, however, this spot doesn't really have a whole lot going for it. It's a hell of a long way from the terminal (at least an hour's walk, although you could of course take a taxi if you knew where you were going) and, although you can get decent enough landing shots here, there's nothing whatsoever to distinguish them from standard landing shots possible at any other airport. It's hardly the world's most pleasant photographic location either - you are basically in the middle of a rubbish dump, with absolutely no facilities anywhere nearby. In my opinion, unless you particularly want to see the Boeing 720 preserved in this area (which is a very good reason for coming here, it has to be said!), there's probably little point in making the trek out here - there are plenty of other photographic possibilities around the airport anyway, almost all of which are both more accessible and more interesting.
Hainan Airlines Boeing 737
Wuhan Airlines Boeing 737
China Xinjiang Boeing 757
Air Macau A321
Wrecks and Relics
The only preserved aircraft to be found at Beijing is a former United Airlines Boeing 720, which is located in a military facility near the runway 36R threshold. It is believed to be used for anti-terrorist training, and is only visible from the rubbish dump area described at point h above. The facility is, not surprisingly, surrounded by a high wall, so your only real chance of seeing it is if there's a suitable mound of rubbish to climb up on. Poor quality photos may be possible from one of these mounds, although obviously great care should be taken if you do try to get any shots of it. The Chinese military is not known for its openness and, if you were caught taking photos here, the consequences would presumably not be pleasant. Winter is probably the best time for a shot, as there won't be any leaves on the trees to block an already limited view. Still, it's a very rare photo if you do manage to get it!
|Last visited on 23 February 2003||Top of page|
Click on the icons below to see maps relating to Beijing airport. Note that these are all external links to other sites, and will open in a new window.
|General map of the Beijing area
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Beijing Capital International Airport (official)
Very comprehensive website with detailed information on just about everything a passenger to the airport could want to know (albeit in typical 'Chinglish'...). There's even a whole page describing exactly what all the pictorial signs at the airport actually mean in case they're not completely clear (although you'd hardly want to get your laptop out when you're there just to check this)! Most useful for the enthusiast is the detailed description of the transport options to the airport, and the excellent real-time arrivals and departures information for the current 24-hour period.
A photo gallery containing a large number of photos taken during Simon Brooke's visit here in 2002.
Airliners.net's usual huge selection.
Jetphotos' selection of shots from Beijing.
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