Airfield Guide
Johannesburg - O.R. Tambo Intl
ICAO Code:FAOR/JNBInfo Last Validated:aug13
City:JohannesburgPosition:26°08'21"S 28°14'46"E
Runway(s):03R/21L, 03L/21RElevation:5512

When you want to see aircraft from a large number of African airlines in an efficient way you need to go to Johannesburg. No other African airport is served by so many (local) airlines. Being the busiest airport in whole Africa (since 1996 when it passed Cairo) you usually can spend a day or two here without being bored. After that you better pick out the right times to see just that aircraft that you missed during the other days. Since 1952 this is the main international airport for Johannesburg. First named after Jan Smuts (with ICAO code FAJS) it was remaned Johannesburg International Airport (JIA) during the early nineties. On 27 October 2006 it again received a new name: O.R. Tambo International Airport after the former president of the African National Congress (ANC) Oliver Tambo. In January 2013 the ICAO code was changed to FAOR.

Note: The use of airband radios requires a licence. Failure to have one will result in a protracted court case and fine. This has happened to a local spotter.


The airport has two parallel runways, which run north-south, and a disused cross runway, of which parts are still in use as taxiway and remote parking positions. The western runway, 03L/21R, is over 4400 m in length, making it one of the world's longest international airport runways. This is needed because of the high elevation: almost 1700 m. This means that the air is "thin" and aircraft need more speed to lift off. But even with this long runway operations are restricted and direct flights to the United States are not possible due to the low amount of fuel that can be carried.

Usually runway 03R is used for landings, while take-offs are from 03L. But when there are no departures 03L is preferred to reduce taxi times. With southern winds 21L is main landing runway and 21R main take-off runway. The domestic and international terminals are at the westside of the airport, as are the South African Airways maintenance hangars. To the northwest is the cargo area. This is also where longhaul aircraft spend their time during the day waiting for the return flight in the evening (most flights to and from South Africa are during the night). On the eastside many small companies are located, including Safair. Finally the southeast corner is occupied by Denel.

Getting There

For most of us flying into Johannesburg is the only option, although some may fly to Cape Town and then travel by car to Jo'burg. Be aware of the long distances: Cape Town Johannesburg is about 1400 km! When in the area the airport can be reached from Pretoria via the R21 motorway, from Cape Town via the N1 motorway and from the city itself via the N3 ringway and the R24.

Around The Airport
Observation areas

The terminal buildings have three viewing decks. One is in the International Terminal (Terminal A). It has a narrow field of view though as it is between two nodes that jut out either side. If no aircraft is parked on bay A5, you can get excellent shots of aircraft taxying by. Photography best after 12.30 hours, as the sun is into your face in the morning. The only problem is the glass has a slight brown tint, but is not too detrimental to photography.
The best viewing area is in between the international and domestic terminal. It can be reached via stairs behind the domestic check-in desks. The third (and better) viewing deck is further south in the domestic terminal, Terminal B. It is just above the third floor past the airline check-in desks. It has floor to ceiling (clear) glass and is airconditioned... a real bonus in summer! This allows photography of most of the domestic aircraft! Like the other observation areas, best photography is in the afternoon.

Eastern hangars

Although this area has a security check point it is usually not a problem to gain access to some of the non-scheduled carrier's hangars on the eastern side of the field. Just say where you want to go and always ask permission before just taking photos. You will almost always be allowed in anycase. The exception will probably be Safair. Look here for old 727s and DC-9s, as well as stored BAe748s.

Soccer field

The famous soccer field next to Safair also allows some great shots to be taken of aircraft taxying on taxiway H. This is where most of the freighters go and some of the aircraft going to Jo'burg's D Apron. Traffic just depends on how the ground controller feels that day. It is either very quiet or very busy! The fence separating you from the taxiway is somewhat lower than you are standing, so photographing over the fence is not a problem. Also the sun is in your back nearly all day, as the sun transits by the north (note the southern hemisphere)!

This vantage point is also good for reading aircraft parked on the other side, either at the terminal or at the cargo ramp. A 15-20x scope is recommended as are mornings and late afternoons to limit the heatwaves. Finally you could walk up the fence of the Safair apron. However, this is not possible anymore due to walls in the way, and unsafe lower ground between soccer parking area and fences.

Finals 21L

For taking landing shots of aircraft landing 21L continue the Bonaero Drive to the south, and find yourself a spot in the neighbourhood of the approach lights.


While the Denel facility is fenced off, when you ask it may be possible to view the aircraft storage. However, photography appears to be not allowed.

Finals 03R

For an afternoon with northerly winds this is the best place to go. It is best reached via exit Rondebult Road (M41) from the N12 motorway and then heading north. At the T junction turn right and then first left. Position yourself just around the turn of the road. Local taxi driver know this point as "Jones Road". From here with a 200 mm lens everything up to small regional jets can be photographed full frame. It is also possible to stay on the other side over the centreline, for morning shots.
Warning: avoid being alone here, for your personal safety and that of your car and camera equipment.

Just south of spot 6 and south of the N12 highway, on the east side of the centreline, you can stay in the relatively cheap Birchwood Hotel for safe spotting.

Finals 03L

Runway 03L has two spots for the afternoon, one of which is right next to an access gate. It is a bit remote and well hidden, and security sometimes objects to you standing there.

SAA hangars

A wall is limiting views on the aprons of SAA maintenance facilities. Occasionally you can get a glimpse by taking a road to the right.

Kulula Boeing 737 taken from the viewing area in the domestic terminal during the afternoon. (Henk Nieuwenampsen)
If you want landing shot the best location is spot 6, in the finals of runway 03R. (Morné Booij-Liewes)
  • 115.200
  • 121.700 / 121.900
    Clearance Delivery
  • 121.900
  • 118.100
  • 123.700 / 124.500
  • 122.625 / 123.050
More Info
  • Official website from ACSA (Airports Company South Africa)
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