Thursday, 17 October 2013, saw RAF Northolt host the latest in a long line of night photoshoots with the specific aim of raising funds for the restoration of The Sir Keith Park Building (Building 27), the Battle of Britain Z-Sector Ops Room. Karl Drage was there for GAR. Additional imagery courtesy of Chris Wood and Kevin Jackson.
My day had started off at London-Heathrow Airport, where I’d hoped to catch the two new types to grace the British Airways fleet – the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787. Now, the journey from Heathrow to RAF Northolt is just 11 miles. Admittedly, 1730 is probably the worst time of day in which to attempt it, but suffice it to say, traffic was horrendous.
Scheduled to start at 1830, it soon became quite clear that I was not going to get there in time, indeed, it was after 1900 by the time I passed through the gates and pulled up to check in.
Formalities completed, the convoy of late-comers – for I was not alone – were escorted across to the 32 (The Royal Squadron) car park before making our way out onto the apron where the visiting aircraft that we’d all made the journey to witness lay.
While there may only have been six ‘subjects’ before us, three of the six (and I mean no offence to the other three when I say that) could easily have been considered the ‘star item’ at any other event.
For many, the aircraft they wanted to shoot above and beyond all else was the Lockheed C-130K Hercules C1 XV295. After 46 years’ service, the K’s time with the Royal Air Force is all but up, and the variant is set to bow out for good on 31 October. Talking to the crew, it was clear just how much love and affection exists for the old girl, and doubtless there’ll be a few tears shed in the coming weeks.
Sitting to the right of the Herc was another real star in the shape of the Eurocopter EC725 R2 Caracal 2789/SJ. Operated by the Armée de l’Air’s EH 01.067 ‘Pyrenees’ squadron based at Cazaux, the aircraft is a CSAR (Combat Search And Rescue) platform and is an infrequent visitor to the UK. The visit to Northolt allowed an aircraft commander check-out flight in an English speaking environment to be performed, and the aircraft and crew visited No. 33 Squadron at RAF Benson earlier in the day.
More Gallic flair was provided by Sécurité Civile Grumman TS-2A/Conair Turbo Firecat F-ZBEH/20 from Marseille. Used in the aerial fire-fighting role, these ‘Trackers’ are like hen’s teeth outside of France and you can probably count UK visits on one hand over the last 30 years. This, however, was not the first time an example has appeared at a Northolt event!
Upon my arrival the QinetiQ Avro RJ100, QQ101, on the far right-hand end of the line, was running its APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) and it soon became apparent that this would not be the case for much longer, so, with the very smart tail markings nicely illuminated, a beeline was made towards it. I just managed to get a few shots away before she was shut down and the tail lights went out.
She had been scheduled to be joined from Boscombe Down by a QinetiQ Alpha Jet, however, a fleet-wide technical issue resulted in one of the two on-the-day cancellations – the other being the 771 NAS Sea King which sadly also encountered a serviceability problem.
The first aircraft to be ground run laid between the Tracker and the RJ100, and I’m fairly sure it was another Northolt nightshoot ‘first of type’: Grob Vigilant ZZ193/SR. While maybe not the most exciting type in the world, she looked great under the lights, and I was briefly transported back in time to my first powered-glider flight, in a Vigilant, from RAF Cosford during an ATC summer camp in the early-1990s….
The Vigilant was followed by the Herc, and, aside from looking magnificent in the dark, it was also fantastic to hear her rumbling away – unquestionably that was worth my attendance alone.
On the subject of attendance, while it was certainly busy, I still didn’t feel it was ‘too busy’. It does always surprise me a little at just how well these things work out, but it’s simply a case of getting your shots, changing positions and cracking on. I certainly didn’t witness any unpleasantness first hand (though I have seen some references to it on Facebook) and bagged pretty much everything that I wanted to, and nobody I spoke to had anything negative to say.
My late arrival meant I missed the arrival of the London Air Ambulance (MD 900 Explorer G-EHMS) and the Met Police Air Support Unit’s Eurocopter EC145 G-MPSC, and, while the former had been positioned inside one of the hangars, the latter departed towards the end of the evening.
The Caracal and Tracker were the final two items to ground-run and ensured everybody went home in high spirits having experienced another great night at RAF Northolt.
Sincere thanks are extended to Phil Dawe and the whole team at RAF Northolt. Here’s to many more!