On a bit of a blustery and for some people a cold autumnal evening, a record number of photographers descended once again on the west London airfield of RAF Northolt for the 10th Night Photo Shoot. Although unofficially celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Royal Air Force Search and Rescue organisation, there was a distinct Gallic flavour to the event with three French and one Irish based aircraft in the line up. Although the Bell 212 was parked on its own on the civil pan, for reasons that were to become obvious later in the evening, the rest of the aircraft were arranged on the 32 Sqn pan under the glare of the excellent white light emanating from the flood lights mounted on masts high above the hangars. Two air stairs had also been placed together to provide an elevated platform for topside views.  

RAF Northolt Night photo Shoot  X ~ 6th October 2011

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Following previous attempts that were thwarted by mechanical problems or the weather en-route from their base at Marignane Airport, Marseille in the south of France, a red and white Sécurité Civile Conair Turbo Firecat finally arrived for a night photo shoot. The aircraft is basically an ex Canadian/US Navy Grumman S2 Tracker that was converted by the Canadian firm Conair into an aerial fire-fighting aircraft. The torpedo bay was replaced by a 3,296 litre water retardant tank and the Wright R-1820 radial piston engines replaced by Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67AF turboprops with extra underwing fuel tanks added.

After the sun had set below the horizon, engines were started. The first to have rotors turning was the Sea King and then in the distance you could hear, as they gathered speed, the distinctive blade slapping of the Bell 212. To everyone’s surprise it took off. It hovered and moved out into the darkness and returned back into the light a short time later and did a bit of turning and more hovering before landing and shutting down.

This was followed by the Irish Air Corps EC-135P2. There was a bit of a lull in the proceedings before the French aircrew arrived and then the Fénnec fired up and apparently managed to produce some flames from its exhaust. Finally the Turbo Firecat rotated its prop blades and with engines running, open and closed the bomb bay doors and at one point managed to dip its nose as the revs increased and the airframe strained against the brakes and chocks. The only aircraft not active was the Alpha Jet.

32 Squadron, our hosts for the evening, had all the hangar doors open so the gathered photographers could photograph their aircraft which included a BAE 146, two Agusta A109 helicopters and a pair of BAE 125 CC3’s with one of them having a small 32 Squadron ‘75th Anniversary’ marking that had only been applied for the night shoot and was to be removed the next day. A welcome addition had been set up in the end hangar in the form of a little NAFFI type shop where previously ordered bacon butties could be bought along with a variety of hot and cold drinks and other snacks.  



Sony A580 + Sony 16-80mm Carl Zeiss Lens.


Normally on a night shoot the usual procedure to photograph aircraft under these lighting conditions is to mount the camera on a tripod to keep it rock steady, keep the ISO as low as possible and use Aperture Priority to control the shutter speed which can range from a few to at least thirty seconds. That Thursday evening I threw caution to the wind and used the ‘Hand Held Twilight’ mode on my Sony A580. Being a function of the camera you have no control over any of the settings and after you press the shutter release button the camera rattles off 6 rapid shots at different high ISO levels. Using Image Averaging, which can also be achieved with any good imaging software on your computer, reduces the picture noise level and eliminates colour artifacts of the 6 images at the same time micro-shuffling them so they line up. After about 10 seconds of processing in the camera you have a high ISO/Low noise image.

Everyone agreed that this was the best night shoot yet and Phil, Lee and all the volunteers and station staff should be congratulated once again for a magnificent effort to satisfy a growing band of Northolt Night Shooters and raising a record amount from the entry fee to go towards the restoration of the Northolt Sector Operations Building, which was also the template for all other Sector Operation Buildings built prior to the Second World War, that played an important part in the Battle of Britain and thwarting the Luftwaffe formations throughout the rest of the Second World War