On March 17, the ever popular Northolt Nightshoot event reached a milestone number with the 20th such gathering taking place at the west London base. Adam Duffield, along with many others, made the pilgrimage for Northolt Nightshoot XX.
After 20 events, these nightshoots really need no introduction for many as is always evidenced by a vast number of familiar faces that can be seen when walking up and down the flight line. Despite this, organiser Phil Dawe and his team still manage to attract new attendees from far and wide.
With the experience of so many evenings before, the team had tried to attract some extra special items for the night but, unfortunately, as always seems to be the case, a number of the planned ‘star’ visitors fell foul to last minute cancellations for a number of unavoidable reasons. The Sécurité Civile have been great supporters of the event over the last few years and the hopes for the 50th Anniversary marked Canadair CL-415 were dashed due to operational commitments as was, understandably, the planned French Army Aérospatiale Puma. The home based 32 Sqn centenary marked BAe 146 was also out on task therefore unable to attend. Maintenance issues played havoc with many items as well with the RAF Halton de Havilland Chipmunk, 736 NAS full schemed BAe Systems Hawk, 32 Sqn schemed Gazelle and 27 Sqn centenary Chinook all suffering from gremlins.
The true star of the evening however had been planned to be the newly painted Operation Granby schemed Panavia Tornado GR4. It’s supposed attendance kept secret until everyone arrived, many had already heard rumours of its maintenance issues already therefore it was not overly disappointing to not see it on the apron. There may still be hope for it to attend later in the year following its recent one-off flight to RAF Marham for a potential fix.
As is the way though, the show goes on – and there were still plenty of aircraft in attendance to entertain.
Royal Navy Avenger T1 ZZ501 & Hawk T1A XX301
The Royal Navy treated attendees to a show of both fixed-wing types currently operated out of RNAS Culdrose. The newest to the base, the Avenger T1, is operated by 750 NAS and arrived at the naval base in mid-2011 before entering service and replacing the venerable Jetstream – which had been in service for over 30 years -towards the end of 2012. Whilst the aircraft on first glance may appear similar to the RAF’s King Air trainers, it is based upon the larger Beechcraft King Air 350 that is the platform for the elusive 14 Sqn Shadow R1s, and has a distinctive ‘canoe’ underneath the centre fuselage. Just four Avengers are operated by 750 NAS and it’s appearance at Nightshoot XX marks the event debut of the type.
On the other side of the attendance scale, numerous Hawks have been seen on the 32 Sqn ramp over the course of the previous 19 events however, it is always nice to see a Royal Navy example. Operated by 736 NAS, this unit replaced what was FRADU (Fleet Requirements and Aircraft Direction Unit) and operate the jet’s in the aggressor role. XX301 is one of two Royal Navy Hawks to carry the ‘Fly Navy’ centenary tail with the second, XX337, having been seen at Nightshoot XVIII.
Royal Air Force Chinook HC.4 ZA681
The planned attendance of the the 27 Sqn ‘special’ was no doubt the reason for many to attend the event, however its withdrawal due to technical issues could not be avoided. Thankfully, the crews at RAF Odiham managed to send an alternative airframe in the form of ZA681. Delivered initially as a HC.1 variant in 1985, it was upgraded in 1993 to the HC.2 configuration before, more recently, being upgraded to a HC.4 under Project Julius which included a glass cockpit and uprated engines. A technical snag prevented the crew from the planned shutdown, instead running for a considerable length of time before returning to base. Whilst this gave everyone extra time for the “rotors turning” photos, it also contributed to the considerable distance the aircraft was held from the crowdline.
NPAS Redhill Surrey Police Eurocopter EC135P2+ G-TVHB
The various EC145’s of the Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit have been regular attendees at nightshoot events over recent years often stopping in for a shot break inbetween taskings. However, Nightshoot XX saw a different unit and aircraft participate in the form of a National Police Air Service EC135. Whilst crewed and operated out of NPAS Redhill, the aircraft itself is normally operated by NPAS Benson and is currently standing in for Redhill’s MD902 G-SUSX, which is undergoing maintenance.
Scottish Aviation Bulldog T.1 G-BZXZ / XX629 & Piper L-4J G-BILI
Two very different machines to the usual at these events, both aircraft were flown across from RAF Halton earlier in the day before performing engine runs during the evening. Both aircraft are ex-military but with very different backgrounds and roles whilst in service.
Used as a basic trainer in the RAF, and the predecessor to the Grob Tutor in that role, Bulldog XX629 was delivered in 1974 before being sold-off and registered on the civilian register in 2001 as much of the fleet was. The aircraft carries the markings of the Northumbrian University Air Squadron, which it served with whilst still in service.
The Piper L-4J’s history is much longer and very different, as you expect from the age of the aircraft – a mere 67 years old! Delivered to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in 1948 with military serial 45-4467 it was too late to see any action during World War Two where so many of the type were used for reconnaissance and artillery spotting duties (amongst a list of many other varied tasks). This military background of the type is well represented on this particular aircraft carrying the code 44-J along with a set of invasion stripe markings.
Gazelle Squadron HT.3 G-CBSK / ZB627
Northolt Nightshoot XX represents the Gazelle Squadron’s second successive appearance at the event. Whilst the intention was to bring the 32 Sqn VIP schemed Gazelle HT.3 – XZ934/G-CBSI – an unfortunate oil leak discovered just 24 hours prior to the event leading to it being grounded whilst the cause was identified. Fortunately, a second airframe was available and substituted in for the event – HT.3 ZB627 (G-CBSK) in its 2FTS scheme. Although this particular Gazelle was present at Nightshoot XIX, it was still appreciated for its attendance for many who would have missed it the previous time.
As always, the ‘locals’ of RAF Northolt were available on the evening to help boost numbers. RAF BAe 146 C.3 ZE707 can be considered a regular, but welcome addition to the shoot whilst its VIP schemed CC.2 stablemate, ZE701, was briefly seen on the flight line by those arriving early before it was moved back into its hangar in preparation for a planned flight the next day.
Towards the end of 2015, it was announced that London Air Ambulance would be acquiring a second MD902 Explorer to join their existing machine – G-EHMS. Whilst its predecessor has been a regular at these events, especially since the change of operating base to RAF Northolt, Nightshoot XX represented the debut of the new aircraft – G-LNDN – and offered the first chance to capture both aircraft side by side within their hangar.
Also lurking in the corner is the very latest arrival to the base. Believed to be replacing 32 Sqn’s sole remaining AW109E is a new, civilian registered AW109SP Grand New G-ZIOO. Delivered to the base in late 2015, the Grand New features, amongst many other changes, a larger cabin. The civilian registration carried by the aircraft also features a nod to history of the Squadron operating it with ‘GZ’ – the code used during the Second World War and ‘100’ referring to 2016 being their centenary year.
Despite all the cancellations, there were still plenty of aircraft available to get shots of and, in fact, you have to wonder if there would simply have been enough space if everything planned had made it!
One thing worth mentioning is the layout of the aircraft upon arrival. Over the last few events, since the Air Ambulance has been based at RAF Northolt, it’s become clear that the initial positioning of the aircraft is not necessarily the final placement! With the Air Ambulance hangar being part of the 32 Sqn hangar complex and the aircraft’s late night operations, it leads to a return of the aircraft normally during the first 30 minutes of the event. For this reason, a clear gap has to be left in the attending aircraft so that it can be towed back into the hangar for essential overnight maintenance prior to the next day’s operations. However, once in place, aircraft are soon rearranged in to a more photographable position. At this event in particular, extra credit should be given for repositioning the Avenger, Bulldog and L-4 prior to their engine runs.
Whilst many photographers are very aware of their surroundings, Northolt Nightshoot XX certainly felt significantly busier than the previous few events with the crowd line during engine runs often being 4-5 deep making it difficult for those at the front to extract themselves without knocking into or getting in the way of other people’s shots. With over 200 people at the event and small items such as the Bulldog and Gazelle running, this will always be an issue as there simply isn’t enough space and it’s difficult to know what could be done to ease this at future events without having to limit numbers (and potentially increase costs).
Despite this, Northolt Nightshoot XX was, once again, a great event providing aircraft that are unrivalled at any other event of its type. From transports to vintage trainers, the 20th instalment provided a great variety even with the cancellations. Hopefully, those aircraft unable to attend will be at the top of the invite list for Nightshoot XXI!