A band shutterbugs is shoring up security at Miami International Airport by informing law enforcement anytime they spot something or someone suspicious.

They love to hang out at airports and shoot planes – with cameras.

Now a band shutterbugs is shoring up security at Miami International Airport by informing law enforcement anytime they spot something or someone suspicious. They have been officially authorized to patrol the airport's perimeter.

Calling themselves Miami Airport Watch, they say if their pilot program – so to speak – is effective, they want to expand it to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Palm Beach international airports.

"It's like a neighborhood watch, but instead houses, it just happens to be the airport," said Suresh Atapattu, of Plantation, an avid aviation photographer and a biomedical engineer.


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There are 16 volunteers and most are professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, who enjoy photographing planes. About half live in Broward or Palm Beach counties

"It's a hobby that some of the most elite people in the world enjoy," said Lauren Stover, MIA's security director.

Mainly, they concentrate their lookout along the southern edge of the airport, where people frequently stop in the parking lots of businesses to watch planes. The group already has called in a few suspicious incidents.

A few months ago, they saw a man in a parking lot getting dressed in combat fatigues, accompanied by a few buddies in a car. Miami-Dade police were notified and swooped in with several cruisers.

"This guy was go in full costume as a Rambo-like character," Atapattu said. "It had all the makings of a bad incident."

As it turned out, the man planned to attend a nearby comic book convention. "It turned out to be harmless. But we couldn't know that," Atapattu added.

Mark Lawrence, of Plantation, who develops software for an aerospace company, said MIA Airport Watch will be on guard for anyone who might cause any kind disturbance, including people who might try to shine lasers at airplanes.

"I have friends who are pilots, and it scares the heck out of them because it can temporarily blind them," he said.

That happened in December, when someone shined a green laser into the cockpit of a JetBlue flight, forcing the pilots to shield their eyes as they were approaching Palm Beach International Airport. The plane landed safely.

Additionally, watch members will report if jetliners experience blown tires, excessive smoke or any other mechanical trouble while taking off or landing.

The photographers not only report an incident, they try to capture it via camera or video, said Keith Sonderling, of Delray Beach, a labor and employment attorney.

They do it, he said, because "if you're there hanging out there anyway, enjoying the planes and the weather, why not do something good for the community?"

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, airport officials were concerned about anyone getting near runways. But aviation security has evolved, Stover said.

"To me, people who like to take pictures of planes are not a threat," she said. "So, why not get an extra set of eyes to help us keep an eye on the airport?"

To be a member of MIA Airport Watch, a person must be a skilled photographer or videographer, and be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Interested persons should send an email to miamiairportwatch@gmail.com. The group will perform its own background check on applicants, said Atapattu, one of the organization's cofounders.

Much as they do with airport employees, Miami-Dade police currently are training each watch member on how to spot suspicious behavior. The members also are given photo IDs and special logos so they are instantly recognizable to airport police.

MIA is one of only four airports in the nation with the watch program, others being Chicago O'Hare, Minneapolis and Phoenix.

Greg Meyer, spokesman for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, said the airport's top priorities are safety and security. "If there is a group that would like to work with us, I am sure we would be receptive," he said.

kkaye@tribune.com or 561-243-6530.