On September 29, the long since rumoured RAF Coningsby nightshoot finally materialised, with 50 photographers provided with rare access onto the base. The evening promised the chance to shoot not only the front line Tornados and Typhoons based at Coningsby, but also some of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight airframes, all of which were in varying lighting conditions, with the shoot running from between sunset and darkness. Importantly, a bacon roll was included! Harry Measures reports from Lincolnshire, bacon roll and camera in hand.
The obvious benchmark against which to assess this event was always going to be the RAF Northolt Nightshoot events run by Philip Dawe. In reality, it transpired the two events could not be more different – the first of those differences was the queue to get on base! Being limited to only 50 persons meant that the event sold out very quickly, along with some initial confusion as to who had actually secured a place. Those who were allocated places were sent individual laminated tickets via post – a nice touch in today’s era of “print your own” tickets.
Once through the ID check we were allocated into groups of around ten before a brief was given. Despite being in groups there was no set timetable, so the groups were free to move at their own pace, with the group members electing which airframes to photograph. This seemed fine, until each group moved onto the pan and split up with a starburst effect – some wandering through the backgrounds of others shots! This group approach may gave work better in future if the group leaders were more authoritarian and had a set & prearranged timetable to stick to, allowing say 10 minutes at each particular ‘set-up’ before rotating all the groups together. The reason for the group method, as far as could be seen, was because there was no line for photographers to stand behind unlike Northolt, and with the pan being quite a large area it would be very easy to lose track people if left to their own devices.
The aircraft that were available on the night were the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Spitfire Mk.XVI and Mk.V together with the Dakota C.3 against the fence outside of their hangar. The E-3D Sentrys that are currently ‘boltholing’ from Waddington during runway work there were on their allocated pan while Spitfire Mk.IIa P3750 sat flanked by two 12 Squadron Tornado GR.4s – one of which was the newly decorated centenary special tail. Further down the line, the Syncro pair Typhoon FGR.4, wearing its camouflage scheme, was grouped with Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIc PZ835 and 29 Squadron’s centenary jet. A tooled up Typhoon FGR.4 sat in one of the EFASS (Expeditionary Forces Aircraft Shelter System) hangars with a line of operational jets, including the 41 Squadron special just outside.
It should be noted that there were essentially no boundaries around the aircraft, as with Northolt. You were free (within reason, and as part of your group) to walk around the aircraft and get as close as you wanted to – hopefully without getting in anyones shot.
Our group initially bypassed the line up of BBMF airframes, stopping briefly at the Sentrys, before cracking on with the Tornados. Thankfully, the weather had cooperated & the sunset made for a great backdrop with deep blues and oranges on the horizon, especially once we moved to the line of operational jets. Our group even managed to somehow steal a set of steps from the engineers, which was an added bonus! Once most of the useful natural light had faded away, we regrouped en masse at the burger van, which gave time supposedly to set the lights up for the nightshoot element of the evening. While it was a nice touch to include food & drink, I’m not sure it was the best use of time to have a “set” break – many may have preferred more time shooting, but this is obviously a restriction of the group method.
Once we were all fed and watered, our group moved to the Expeditionary Forces Aircraft Shelter System hangar. Probably the most unique, but also under-utilised part of the shoot – it would have been great to see a cameo posing pilot with the jet, canopy up and lights on. Even using push in intake blanks on this jet would have been great, but instead it had the bag-type draped over it. We didn’t have a great deal of time to shoot it regardless, as word came through that the 12 Squadron centenary Tornado was to be towed away for maintenance, so our group moved over to shoot it. By the time we had a chance to return, the lights in the EFASS hangar had been turned off.
While we had been shooting the Tornado, the 41 Squadron Typhoon had been floodlit, but sadly, it was to be the next victim of the tug, being removed from the line not long after being illuminated. One cannot criticise too heavily on this, being that they are operational jets on a frontline base, however, as they were two of the star items in the line up perhaps an extra thirty minutes wouldn’t have gone amiss. The next airframes to be the subject of attention was the ‘Hurriphoon’ & Hurricane, with the pan being wet down by the station fire service at the request of the photographers.
The final airframe to be floodlit was the 29 Squadron display Typhoon, after which the photographers were escorted off base, briefly stopping at the BBMF hangar on the way out for some last minute photos. It would have been good to have an engine run from one of the BBMF airframes, perhaps going forward this would be a possibility. As with RAF Northolt events, many would certainly not object to a slight raise in cost (provided the group size stays small) to cover it, or indeed foregoing the bacon butty.
For a first event, the only response can be to praise the organisers and all of the team present – they were very attentive to all requests, and where possible acted on them to achieve a better photographic outcome. All the RAF personnel helping with the event were a credit to Coningsby indeed, and went out of their way to ensure a good experience.
That said, with any event of this type several things could be addressed for future events. For example the ladders left in front of one of the Tornados completely missed the point of a photocall, and the airbridge seemed to be positioned in the middle of nowhere. It should also be mentioned that by the time we had got on base and had been briefed, most of the sunset had passed – even being in half an hour earlier would have made all the difference or a week earlier in the year to give a slightly later sunset.
The team at Coningsby were constantly asking for feedback on how to improve, so there is no doubt that as more of the events happen, niggles such as those mentioned will disappear. It has the making to be a fantastic event, with unrivalled access to a frontline RAF base & aircraft. The only question left is one of participation – moving forward, what will these events attract?
AeroResource would like to thank everyone involved in the planning & delivery of the night, and very much hope to be back out on the pan at Coningsby next year.