Northolt Nightshoot XVIII doesn’t really need introduction from us, given the popularity of these events with the enthusiast community. Whilst this was the 18th in the long series of nightshoots, it also marked the 100th anniversary of RAF Northolt, which celebrated the occasion two days before the nightshoot – which was held on Thursday 5th March.
As always, organiser Phil Dawe tried his utmost to attract new and interesting visitors – a task that can only become harder event after event as those rare visitors that have already attended lose interest or novelty value. Clearly this viewpoint is happily not the case, with all 250 tickets selling out at the asking donation of £25 (plus £6 surcharge for crew accommodation). This is great news for the restoration of the Northolt Battle of Britain Operations Room – with over £100,000 having been raised to date in support of the RAF Northolt Heritage Fund.
Sécurité Civile – Conair Turbo Firecat S-2F-T Turbo Tracker
At Nightshoot X Phil’s wish for a Turbo Firecat to attend came true and since then the type has also attended Nightshoot XV and was an unfortunate last minute cancellation at Nightshoots XVIa and XVII due to weather conditions on route and operational commitments. Operated by the Direction de la Défense de la Sécurité Civile (Department of Civil Defence and Emergency Preparedness) out of Marseille Provence Airport there are nine aircraft of the type in operation as water bombers alongside Bombardier CL-415 and Dash 8’s.
The Conair Turbo Firecat is a conversion of the Grumman S-2 Tracker – a type used by a number of military forces around the world since 1954 although most predominantly with the US and Canadian Navy’s in the Anti-Submarine Warfare role. Following their withdrawal from service, a number of S-2F variants were purchased by Canadian company Conair who converted them to airborne fire fighting platforms with two versions being produced – the original specification Firecat and the Turbo Firecat with uprated turboprop engines.
Turbo Firecat ‘07’ F-ZBEY was originally built for the US Navy as BuNo 136491 prior to its conversion. Whilst the type has attended before, aircraft ‘07’ is unique in carrying a special scheme representing the 30 year anniversary of Sécurité Civile that includes a Panther on the nose, ‘slash’ marks on the tail and the years 1982 and 2012 across the top of the wings.
The Tracker provided the first of the engine runs for the evening, with a planned run at 8PM being slightly delayed until approximately 8:15. Many thanks must go to the pilot at the controls for the duration of the run, which cannot have been overly exciting from the inside. It was also pleasing to see good etiquette from many of the photographers, whom having captured a particular image were moving around with a good awareness of others – far better than just guarding one particular spot for the entire run.
Royal Navy – Westland Sea King HAR5, BAe Hawk T.1
With the privatisation of the UK Search and Rescue role from 2015, the Sea King HAR.5 operated by 771 Naval Air Squadron is another type that may well be making its final appearance at the Nightshoots. After cancellations at the last few events its attendance is a definite highlight.
The HAR.5 model is used only by the Royal Navy (with the RAF using the HAR.3 derivative) and is a Search and Rescue conversion of the HAS.5 Anti-Submarine Warfare variant with a total of 12 delivered. Predominantly based at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, 771 NAS also operate a detachment at HMS Gannet out of Prestwick Airport in Scotland with both units covering 24/7/365 emergency callout. The unit is also frequently called on to assist with medical emergencies throughout Cornwall, Isles of Scilly and wider South West.
ZA166 was first delivered as a HAS5 in 1982 before later being converted to HAR5. As part of the SAR60 anniversary celebrations in 2013, each Sea King carries the name of a critical SAR operation that Royal Navy SAR has taken part in over its service. ZA166 carries the markings of the Yacht Sine Seorra rescue on 30th August 1992 where, despite force 9 winds, 5 crewmen were winched off the stricken yacht 20 miles off the coast of Guernsey earning Leading Aircrewman Chambers the Air Force Medal and the entire crew the Boyd Trophy.
Also attending on behalf of the Royal Navy – and again from Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose – was a solitary Hawk T.1 of 736 Naval Air Squadron. It had been hoped that the aircraft would be one of the newly marked examples, as the unit have been repainting their fleet with large identification numbers on the nose and lightning bolts on the tail. The aircraft that did attend was still wearing the “Fly Navy 100” markings from the Naval Centenary in 2009, which was equally pleasing for photographers as this livery will probably disappear once all the aircraft have been remarked into the 736NAS colours.
736 Naval Air Squadron took over from what was the Fleet Requirements and Aircraft Direction Unit (FRADU) in 2013, and acts as the Royal Navy’s Aggressor squadron. The small and nimble Hawk T.1 is able to simulation a threat aircraft, and the unit have been “in action” as part of Exercise Joint Warrior in Scotland, and Cougar 14 in Albania.
Belgian Federal Police Cessna 182Q
On first glance, a rather unassuming Cessna 182 parked in the middle of the attending aircraft could be seen to be one of the less interesting attendees. However, this aircraft is one of only two on strength with the Belgian Federal Police (Federale Politie) Air Support Unit, used in a surveillance role – and rarely seen outside the country! Although originally confirming their attendance with an example of their MD902 Explorer helicopter, the Cessna was substituted at a later date due to operational commitments with the MD902.
In order to supplement a rapidly ageing Aerospatiale Alouette II fleet purchased in the 1960s, the Belgian Federal Police (or what was then the Gendarmie) ordered second-hand Cessna 182s to be used for the aerial surveillance and support. The aircraft were delivered during 1994, with modification/standardisation activities taking place at Reims Aviation Industries. Three aircraft were initially ordered with serials G-01, G-03 and G-04. G-02 was assigned to a Puma at the time of the Cessna’s purchase, causing the out of order registrations. A fatal accident at Melsbroek on 10th January 2003 meant that G-03 was replaced with another aircraft (also registered G-03). The aircraft are used today to provide an aerial vantage for the police, with typical roles including traffic control, environmental control and securing high risk transports. Only G-01 and G-04 remain in service, and are based alongside the other Federal Police air assets at Brussels-Melsbroek, the military portion of Brussels Airport.
The Cessna provided the second of the two engines runs for the night (if you discount the brief attendance from the Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit), starting up almost directly after the Tracker shut down. Interestingly the Cessna provided a more challenging photograph, with the small aircraft buffeting substantially from the forces produced by the engine, meaning any lengthy exposures were likely to have a softening of the rear of the fuselage.
Royal Air Force – Hawker Siddeley Hs125 CC.3
It’s a sad truth that the home team do get overlooked when pondering whether to attend a Nightshoot or not. However, it does serve as a good reminder of how equally rare/unusual the 32 Squadron assets are when one goes out or service. Very shortly there will be nowhere left in Europe operating a military British Aerospace (Hawker Siddeley) Hs.125, after the last examples leave 32 Squadron service this year. One aircraft, ZE396, had already left to be stored and possibly scrapped at the Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group facilities in Chester, with the rest of the fleet set to follow in due course.
Nightshoot XVIII was anticipated to be the last appearance of the Hs.125, with ZD621 sitting out on the pan for the duration of the event. The other aircraft on strength were either out on tasking or hidden out of sight, making ZD621 the ambassador for the type. For those interested in collecting patches (which is probably the majority), a nice chequered white and blue retirement patch was available for a reasonable £5 during the event.
When the Hs.125 retires, it leaves the BAe 146 as the sole fixed wing type operated by 32 Squadron (a single Agusta A109E is also on strength), with two examples each of the CC.2 and C.3 on strength. The C.3 aircraft were purchased as an Urgent Operational Requirement to support operations in Afghanistan, and will be retained on strength to supplement the loss of the Hs.125.
Irish Air Corps Pilatus PC-9M
The Irish Air Corps have been staunch supporters of the Northolt events, with previous attendees from the air arm including the AgustaWestland AW139, Eurocopter EC135 (Nightshoot X) and CASA CN235 Persuader (Nightshoot XVI). 2015 saw the Irish PC-9M make it’s nightshoot debut, having been present for the older iteration of Northolt Photocalls back in 2008.
PC-9M 260, which is the first of eight of the type ordered by the Irish Air Corps, was delivered on February 10th 2004. The PC-9s come under the control of the Flying Training School, part of the Air Corps College of Number 1 Wing, headquartered at Baldonnel. As well as operating as an advanced flying training aircraft, the PC-9Ms also provide light offensive capability in the Close Air Support role, and are capable of being fitted with Belgian made FN LAU-7 Rocket Pods and FN M3P Heavy Machine Guns (one of each type under each wing).
As with all Northolt shoots, a small variety of locally assigned aircraft participate in the event wherever possible. Two of the 32 Squadron BAe 146 CC.2s were on static display (one outside, one inside), alongside an example of the newer BAe 146 C.3 variant. Also in attendance for a brief stop during taskings was the Metropolitan Police Service Air Support Unit’s Eurocopter EC145. Unfortunately for this event, the timing of the drop-in meant that 90% of photographers were positioned waiting for the Tracker to start up!
The uncertainty of “gas and go” participants at these nightshoots has always meant that some events could seem better value for money in retrospect. The 18th event was sadly hit by the cancellation of the Army Air Corps Apache (which had made its debut at the previous Nightshoot XVII) due to operational requirements involving preparation for live firing training. Other unannounced surprise drop-in assets also presumably cancelled during the event and their identity will remain a mystery.
There are not many negatives to mention, as the majority have already been ironed out in previous events. One of the bigger ones for Nightshoot XVIII was the cycle of photographers sitting on the white “do not cross” line and shooting back towards the BAe 146 in the hangar. Whilst this in itself is not so much an issue, then getting irate with others who have to cross in front of your image (because they can’t cross behind you) to get past isn’t quite the right attitude.
In terms of aircraft positioning, it would have been nice to see the Sea King further along the line, as given the effort to get it to the event it felt a bit abandoned in the far corner receiving only light from a single spotlight. Of course, moving it would have meant another aircraft would have taken that spot, and which one should that have been? Likewise with the raised gantry – it would have been nice to have that positioned in front of the Tracker, with its otherwise hidden anniversary lettering on the wing top surface. The negative would have meant that the steps would have then blocked out all of the angles available from the ground, especially during the engine runs. Both of these examples are “no win” really, and so can’t be raised as valid criticisms.
So what next for the future, and presumably Nightshoot XIX? Phil Dawe is continuing to look for new opportunities to keep photographers interested and keep funding flowing to the Heritage Fund – which in the end is what this whole endeavour is about. Phil shared a few snippets from his wish list with us, which is both varied and ambitious. The thoughts of an Osprey, Mustang, CH-53E, Tiger, Blackhawk, P-3 Orion or Transall C-160 under the white lighting on the 32 Squadron pan are certainly ones to ponder.
The best of luck to him, and our continued thanks to the efforts of all at Northolt, who were exemplary hosts as usual. Organising such a frequent event of this size on an active airbase cannot be an easy task, and it really is a unique opportunity in that regard, showing a great relationship between the RAF and enthusiasts, something that is also recognised by RAF Northolt Station Commander, Group Captain Andy Bacon.
“The RAF Northolt Night Photo Shoot is a fantastic event in support of a very worthwhile cause and it gives members of the public a great opportunity to engage with both Northolt and, of course, the visiting aircraft. I’d like to thank the organisers and everyone that came along for making this Night Photo Shoot yet another great success, particularly as it took place during the week that we celebrated Northolt’s 100th year as an active military airfield.”
For a video of the aircraft participating in the ground runs, head over to the link below on the AeroResource YouTube page.