With the number of nightshoots at RAF Northolt now sitting in the twenties, there really is no introduction needed for the nocturnal activities that take place on the West London base’s flightline. AeroResource’s Jamie Ewan and Ben Montgomery joined around 200 photographers ‘under the lights’ for the latest instalment and second of 2016 – Northolt Nightshoot XXI.
Organised under the knowledgeable leadership of Phil Dawe and his small but dedicated team, Northolt Nightshoot events have set ‘the standard’ for nocturnal aviation photoshoots since their inception in January 2009 – an event that saw just 60 photographers and six airframes taking part. Now, seven years on, Northolt’s twice yearly nightshoots have become become a ‘must’ for many, most of whom travel the width and breadth of the country (and beyond) to be there.
From its very onset, Northolt’s nightshoots have always managed to attract something either unique, special and or rare from far and wide to the planned line up that more often than not makes the journey worthwhile – Nightshoot XXI being no different.
As can be expected in an environment where operational requirements and aircraft re-taskings take precedence, serviceability issues crop up and the weather is out of the hands of those involved so there is always a chance that the announced participants cancel in the days and weeks leading up to the night, or even on the day itself. This is always understandable given the nature of aviation – both civilian and military. That said Nightshoot XXI saw no less than 14 machines – every one invited plus a couple more dropping in for a ‘gas and go’ – from the UK, Ireland, France and Poland fill 32(TR) Squadron’s beautifully lit apron during the planned three-hour event including two types previously unseen at Northolt from two debutante air arms.
Making by far their biggest contribution to the event to date was the Royal Air Force with Hawk T.1A, B200GT King Air, Tornado GR4, BAe 146 CC.2 examples being joined by the stalwarts of the transport fleet – a C-130J Hercules C.5, Chinook HC.4 and a Puma HC.2. The latter two dropped into the event for fuel under the cover of darkness with ample time being given to shoot them both static and running before heading on their way after an hour or so on the ground.
Of the RAF assets, it was the Tornado GR4 that took center stage – and rightly so for the aircraft in question was the elusive ZG750 or ‘Pinky’ as it has been nicknamed. This year not only marks the 25th Anniversary of Operation Granby – the name given to British military operations during the first Gulf War in 1991 – but also 25 years of near continuous Tornado GR operations worldwide. To commemorate this, ZG750 has been given an all over ‘desert pink’ scheme, Gulf War-esque nose art similar to that of the legendary ‘MiG Eater’ and carries the 11 ‘battle honours’ relating to the type on the tail. Currently in use with IX Squadron at RAF Marham, it was a superb coup for the organisers with the jet only making its third public appearance – having been beset with maintenance gremlins for a good portion of 2016.
In an added bonus to the night, it was a rare chance to see the Band of the RAF Regiment in their full apparel as they took advantage of the striking pink jet sitting on their home base, with their official band photo being taken in front of it and the based BAe 146.
Like the Tornado, almost all of the other RAF assets wore a ‘special’ scheme or included some form of ‘special’ mark on them – the Chinook, BAe 146, King Air and Hercules all celebrating the centenaries of 27, 32(TR), 45(R) and 47 Squadrons respectively.
The King Air wearing its very evocative poppy-based scheme – featuring silhouettes of both a British “Tommy” and the legendary Sopwith Camel – along with the Hercules both performed ground runs, the latter arriving as the sun set over the base. Completing the RAF ‘specials’ was 32(TR) Squadron’s centenary marked jet wearing a large example of the unit’s stringed hunting horn motif on its tail. Having been requested for the last event, the aircraft was sadly pulled from the line up with an urgent tasking so it was a delight to see the ‘home team’ represented by their flagship this time round.
As well as wearing its smart Squadron centenary markings, the Chinook – appropriately nicknamed ‘Nellie’ – also wore the name Geraint ‘Roly’ Roberts on the forward door while the Puma carried the name Flight Lieutenants Alan Scott under the cockpit. A touching and poignant memorial to the two Puma Force crewman out of RAF Benson who were sadly killed while serving in Afghanistan in October last year.
Although not wearing any special marks, the lone Hawk T.1A certainly looked the part in its 100 Squadron colours – skull and crossbones, fighter bars and all. With RAF Valley ceasing Hawk T1 operations earlier this year leaving just 100 Squadron and the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team flying the type, it was superb to see just one of the few remaining examples of the venerable jet still in RAF service out and about. Here is hoping the type can be seen under the lights a few more times before being withdrawn.
The Irish Air Corps made a very welcome return to the pan with one of their two CASA CN-235-100MP Persuaders, flying out of Casement Aerodrome, home of the country’s air arm. Having made their first appearance with the Persuader (which has been slated for replacement before the end of the decade) at Nightshoot XVIa, it was a delight to see the very same airframe operated by 101 ‘Maritime’ Squadron under the floodlights again. Because of the sheer volume of aircraft on the apron, the Persuader was rather far back – deliberately so as the aircraft departed mid-way through the event.
Making their first appearance at Nightshoot, the French Army brought the evening’s rarest machine in the form of one of their seldom seen 1992-built Pilatus PC-6/B2-H2 Turbo Porters. Operated by the Escadrille de Transport et de Convoyage de Matérial out of Montauban in the southern reaches of France, the crew were on hand to run up the aircraft filling the cold Northolt air with the shriek of its Pratt and Whitney turboprop.
Not to be out done by their fixed wing colleagues, 3e Régiment d’hélicoptères Combat based just outside Verdun at Etain-Rouvres were on hand with two of their Aerospatiale SA-342M Gazelles – one wearing the drab three tone camouflage associated with low-level reconnaissance and anti-armour missions while the other wore an eye catching ‘Tiger’ scheme of typical French flamboyance. Of note was the inclusion of a Viviane thermal imagery system atop of the cabin of the ‘Tiger’ Gazelle which went through its motions while the crew spun up the rotors.
Also making their first appearance at Nightshoot XXI were the Polish Air Force who have incredibly strong ties with Northolt, with numerous Polish Squadrons having called the airfield home some years ago. In particular during the Battle of Britain were 303 ‘Kościuszko’ who ultimately became the highest ‘scoring’ squadron of the 66 involved in the intense four-month battle.
With two examples of the modern looking PZL-130TC-II Turbo Orliks operated by 42 Baza Lotnictwa Szkolnego out of the 42nd Training Air Base at Radom and a CASA C295M belonging to 13 Eskadra Lotnicza based at the 8th Airlift Air Base at Kraków, it was humbling to see those ties still as strong today. During the night the Orliks (which translates to Eaglet) performed a pairs run against the backdrop of the two-tone grey CASA sat next to its Irish CN235 counterpart, the size difference easily apparent between the variants.
One has to wonder if the visiting Polish crews had a chance to visit The Polish War Memorial that stands just up the road from the base near the south-eastern corner of the airfield. The memorial itself lists the names of the nearly 2,000 Poles killed in the Allied fight for freedom, including ten that were killed flying from the very airfield it sits by during the Battle of Britain.
With the money raised from the event – a very reasonable £32 per person (which included a fuel and accommodation surcharge for those aircrew staying at Northolt overnight) – going towards the ongoing restoration of the airfield’s Battle of Britain Sector Operations Room, the event is worthwhile in helping to restore this significant piece of history.
As previously said, Northolt’s nightshoots need no kind of introduction (although we still introduce them each time!) and this is proved by not only the number that have taken place, or by the various machines – new ones, old ones, common ones, rare and different ones, civil or military– that have graced the apron, but more so by the sheer number of people who return repeatedly. No matter what is due to attend or eventually makes it!
It is easy to say that Northolt Nightshoot XXI will go down as the best yet but one question stands – will Nightshoot XXII better it? AeroResource will be there to find out for sure!