Once more, as summer makes way for autumn on its way towards winter, the nightshoot season draws ever closer. Perhaps the most well known of event of its type, RAF Northolt once again opened its doors and welcomed some 250 photographers for Northolt Nightshoot XXIII. Adam Duffield reports on the event with additional images from Jamie Ewan and Mark Kwiatkowski.

With the previous 2017 event turning in to an evening shoot following the tragic events at Westminster prior to its original date, Northolt Nightshoot XXIII was to be the only nightshoot of the year at the base. Although running to a familiar format once in front of the aircraft, the evening has seen an increase in the security procedures prior to entry to the flight line – something that those who haven’t attended recently may not be expecting but quite clearly understandable.

Running from just after 1830 until 2130, three hours of ‘shooting time’ is just the right amount of time to capture the various visiting airframes from differing angles and also the planned engine runs. The initial line up had included the return of a type that many thought was long gone and something that was likely to never be seen under the ‘floodlights’ again. Following their exit from Royal Navy service, many of their honourable Sea King HAR.5’s faced an unknown future and it was thought that Nightshoot XVIII would be their final appearance. However, Helm-Heli-Operations of Portland has acquired two of the ex-Culdrose airframes and returned them to operational ‘service’. Having planned to attend this edition of the nightshoot, operational commitments sadly prevented it from happening. Still, with a new lease of life for Westland’s legendary aircraft, there is a strong chance that we will see them at a future event. Also joining the cancellation list, was ex-Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre L-19E Bird Dog which was sadly beaten by the blustery weather conditions hitting the UK.

Royal Air Force Tucano (ZF377) and Hawk T2 (ZK027)

Originally planned to have been 72 Sqn’s Centenary schemed machine, the aircraft was unable to make it and was instead replaced by a ‘standard’ example from the unit’s home base at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. Joined by a 4(R) Sqn Hawk T2 from RAF Valley, it was a rare occurrence for Northolt’s 32(TR) Sqn not to have airframes out on the flight line. In line with normal jet participants at the nightshoot, the T2 remained ‘tagged and bagged’ for the duration whilst the Tucano provided the first, and for many unexpected, engine run of the evening. A great chance to get up close to a type often overlooked.

Belgian Federal Police MD 520N (G-15)

Developed from the Hughes 500, the MD 520 is a beautiful looking machine and the Belgian Federal Police example on display was a rare and welcome sight. The force have previously attended with one of their Cessna 182Qs during Nightshoot XVIII, however this was the first time one of their rotary assets has attended. Operating two MD 520’s, the ‘copters having replaced the service’s Allouette IIs, the evolution from the Hughes is clearly visible in the shape of the far more streamlined design and less robust look – a sign of the times. However, the distinctive NOTAR (no tail rotor) is a clear divergence from both its predecessor and helicopter design in general – a system that makes the MD 520 incredibly quiet while operating, as was demonstrated during its engine run which closed the evenings action.

Armée de l’Air Alpha Jet (705-ND / E26) and Embraer EMB121 Xingu’s (ZF / 090 & YE / 078)

The French Air Force has been a stalwart supporter of Northolt Nightshoots over the years and this time around was no different. Following the types participation at the Evening Photoshoot XXIIa, a pair of Embraer EMB 121 Xingu’s returned to Northolt. Once again provided by Ecole de l’Aviation de Transport (EAT) 00.319 out of Base Aérienne 702 Avord, the pair represented the two differing schemes currently in use – the grey of the Air Force and white/light grey used when in service with the Aéronavale, aircraft being ‘swapped’ between the two branches. With both aircraft providing engine runs, the crews also were on hand with a plentiful selection of ‘swag’ for sale.

Alpha Jets are perhaps the most regular attendees at the events, but for Nightshoot XXIII one of their current ‘specials’ was present with a unique scheme on the tail. Applied to two different aircraft, the tail on the visible port side celebrates the centenary of l’escadrille SPA 85 – the First World War squadron that the Tours based L’escadron d’instruction en vol 3/13 ‘Auvergne’ traces its origins from and the unit attending the event. Prominent on the port side is a portrait of Maxime Lenoir, a First World War fighter ‘ace’ credited with 11 ‘kills’ before he was killed in action October 1916 while flying a SPAD VII. On the hidden starboard side are the portraits of three legendary pilots of SPA 85 – Cpl Eugene J. Bullard, Cne Marc Limasset and 1st Ltn Arthur C. Kimber – the first African-American military pilot, SPA 85’s first Squadron Leader and one of the first pilots to fly the ‘La Folie’ (‘Joker’ or ‘Madness’) motif respectively.

Army Air Corps Lynx AH9A (ZG885) and Apache AH1 (ZJ225)

At the bottom of the booking emails for almost every Northolt event there is the hopeful statement that ‘surprise’ visitors may attend on the evening. Whilst these are often not announced as their appearance is subject to operational commitments, the anticipation of just what the surprises might be always stirs many a rumour.

For Northolt Nightshoot XXIII two surprise rotary visitors were provided by the Army Air Corps (AAC) with one stopping overnight and the second arriving for a ‘gas-n-go’. It is not the first time that an Apache AH1 has attended a nightshoot but their menacing appearance is always a welcome sight in front of the camera. Arriving prior to the waiting photographers made their way to the flight line, the initial parking position behind the Xingu pair was initially a concern however, the airframe was ground-taxied and re-positioned closer to the crowds during its preparation to depart on ‘slot’ – the aircraft flying a ‘command check’ sortie. Crewed by members of 663 Sqn and 664 Sqns (AAC) the aircrafts commander was making his final Apache sortie before heading onto his next posting – with so many photographers shooting the aircraft he won’t be short of a memento or two!

The second of the surprise guests however made both its first, and likely last, appearance at a Northolt event. The last remaining Lynx variant in service, the AH9A is scheduled to be retired from AAC use in early 2018 and it is believed that just three airframes are currently flyable in the UK. Fitted with a M3M .50 calibre Machine Gun in the starboard door, the crew repositioned shortly after starting to give a chance to show it off to the cameras. A huge effort with the weapon having to be checked in and out of the armoury before and after their run. Having been a type synonymous with the modern day AAC, it will be a sad day when the type is withdrawn from service. Kudos to Phil Dawe for securing what is more than likely the final public appearance of the type.

Thankfully, the worst of the forecast inclement weather held off for the majority of the night with only the last 45 minutes or so seeing light rain cross the airfield and the added fireworks displays from homes around the base as part of the Diwali celebrations certainly gave many something additional to look for in their photos. Although the positioning of the Hawk led to tricky lighting, Northolt Nightshoot XXIII saw possibly the largest number of engine runs at one of the events for sometime which was welcomed by many. The running order seemed somewhat unclear to many attendees – something that could perhaps be conveyed as part of the initial pre-entry briefing in the car park to aid in planning or even just on a board beside the merchandise stalls.

As is always the case, last minute cancellations are often expected and its no doubt that the loss of Sea King was real shame, however the debut of the Belgian Federal Police MD 520 along with the surprise addition of the Lynx AH9A more than made the event worth attending. Once more Phil Dawe and his team should be commended for putting on another great evening helping to raise further funds for the Northolt Battle of Britain Ops Room restoration.