RAF Northolt Night Photoshoot XVIII, the latest in the series of twice-yearly events at the historic west London station, took place during the first week of March 2015. As ever, it was organised by the irrepressible Phil Dawe and his team, and raised money for the restoration of RAF Northolt’s Battle of Britain Operations Room. Chris Wood reports.
No two events are the same, with different aircraft in attendance, and of course, nothing is guaranteed until its wheels, or skids, touch the tarmac. Phil works really hard to entice aircraft to Northolt – no easy task in today’s financially constrained environment – and his efforts paid dividends at this event, appropriately held just two days after the station celebrated its 100th anniversary on 3 March 2015. This time Phil finally got two items that had been on his wish list for some time, namely the Sécuritié Civile Conair Turbo Firecat in 30th anniversary markings, and a Sea King HAR5 from 771 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall.
The Turbo Firecat is a conversion of the Grumman S-2 Tracker, utilised for fire fighting duties. The conversation, which was carried out by Conair Aviation Ltd of Abbotsford, British Columbia, saw all the military equipment removed, the cabin floor raised and a large retardant tank fitted in the weapons bay. A later programme saw aircraft converted to Turbo Firecat configuration, the biggest change being to the powerplant with a pair of Pratt and Whitney Canada PT-6A turbines replacing the original Wright R-1820 radial piston engines. The Turbo Firecat also features a larger retardant tank and underwing fuel tanks.
This particular aircraft started life in the mid 1950s as a US Navy S2F-1 (later S-2A), BuNo 136491, and at some point it was converted to TS-2A standard. The TS-2A version was a training aircraft used by the US Navy for multi-engine training, until replaced by the Beechcraft T-44. In 1983 the aircraft was acquired by Conair for conversion to Firecat configuration. It was then acquired by the Sécuritié Civile in France in July 1984, but it returned to Canada in the mid-1990s for conversion to Turbo Firecat configuration, travelling to France again in July 1996.
It is one of nine currently operated by the Groupement des Avions Bombardiers d’Eau at Marseille Provence Airport, and this is the third time that one of their Turbo Firecats has made the journey from Marseille to Northolt.
771 NAS has been at Culdrose since September 1974, when it moved from RNAS Portland with its fleet of Wessex HAS1s. Its primary role since then, and to this day, is Search and Rescue (SAR). In 1979 the single-engine Wessex HAS1s were replaced by the twin-engine Wessex HU5, and in October 1987, the Wessex were replaced by the Sea King HAR5.
However, the Sea King’s days are numbered in the SAR role, with the Bristow Group taking over the UK’s SAR duties, starting in April 2015 with the full roll out due for completion by summer 2017.
Sea King HAR5 ZA166 was delivered to the Royal Navy in March 1982 and was the first aircraft of the second batch built as the HAS5 (Helicopter Anti-Submarine) version. It served with 820, 824 and 706 NAS before being converted to HAR5 standard.
Continuing the Naval theme was a Hawk T1 from the recently reformed 736 NAS, also from RNAS Culdrose. The squadron was re-commissioned in June 2013 to replace the Fleet Requirements and Air Direction Unit (FRADU), with their aircraft starting to receive squadron markings in 2014. However, the aircraft that arrived at Northolt was still wearing the ‘100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation’ markings from 2009, so Phil’s next task is to get one wearing 736 NAS markings!
An unusual visitor to the night photoshoot was a Cessna Ce182Q operated by the Luchtsteundetachement of the Federale Politie from Brussels Melsbroek Airport, in Belgium. One of only two fixed-wing aircraft operated by the Politie, it rarely leaves its home country so it was quite a coup to entice it to Northolt.
The Irish Air Corps has been a good supporter of the night photoshoots and this time it sent a Pilatus PC-9M, one of seven operated by the Flying Training School at Baldonnel.
The Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit, based at Lippitts Hill in Essex, is another long-time supporter of the night photoshoots, and can always be guaranteed to put in an appearance with one of its EC-145s. This time was no exception.
Northolt is the home of No 32 (The Royal) Squadron of the Royal Air Force and completing the line-up were a pair of the squadron’s aircraft in the shape of a BAe 125 CC3 and a BAE 146 CC2. The other 146 CC2 was to be found in one of the hangars, and one of the squadron’s 146 C3s was in another hangar.
The RAF’s 125 fleet is also on the endangered list, with only four left in service.
It was hoped that a few other aircraft would drop into Northolt for a gas-and-go in front of the photographers, but this time nothing extra materialised. Given the subject matter that was available, this was of little consequence.
Northolt’s Station Commander, Group Captain Andy Bacon, had this to say about the event:
“The RAF Northolt Night Photoshoot 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 Photoshoot yet another great success, particularly as it took place during the week that we celebrated Northolt’s 100th year as an active military airfield.”
Phil and his team are to be congratulated once again on putting together yet another successful night photoshoot. Around 200 photographers attended, raising a considerable sum for the restoration project. A big thank you must also go to the team providing hot drinks and food, which was much appreciated on what became a rather windy and quite chilly evening. Thanks as well, of course, to RAF Northolt for allowing this unique event to take place.