Northolt by Night – Night Shooting at RAF Northolt
The Northolt Night Photo Shooting is an event which was started and is still mainly organized by Phil Dawe and his supporting team. He is an aviation enthusiast himself, so is “in the know” when it comes to the positioning and quality of the participants. The main goal of the event is to raise money to restore the Northolt Sector Operations Building at RAF Northolt. This Building 27 played a vital role during the famous Battle of Britain during WWII, housing the prototype of what became a standard design within the Dowding System – and arguably could be considered as the birthplace of Integrated Air Defense.
Phil worked as a government employee for National Air Traffic Services (NATS) at the London Air Traffic Control Centre for 38 years, until a heart attack forced him to take early retirement in 2009. Whilst working for NATS, the then Station Commander at RAF Northolt asked Phil to help save the building, which was due for demolition as part of the remodeling of RAF Northolt. Most of the pre-war buildings were demolished and replaced with new – build hangars and military living accommodations. Having saved the building in 2008, it was made clear that no public money would be spent on the restoration of it. The Station Commander asked Phil to come up with an idea that was different, one that would generate funds for the work.
A recent, rather impressive photo of an RAF VC-10 taken under the floodlights at Brize Norton gave Phil the idea of arranging a Night Photoshoot. The first was run in January 2009 as an experiment, with around 65 photographers attending the event. The results were fantastic with stunning photographs being produced. Now the 22nd Night Photoshoot is about to be held during March, 2017 with around 250 photographers expected. These events have raised over £150,000 for the building.
The lights used have a great advantage, that their wavelength have the same wavelength as daylight. So contrary to what we have under the “normal” floodlights, it colors photographs not yellowish but white. It requires no long and difficult after-processing and changing of colors, avoiding the normal yellow or greenish tints. The pictures made under the floodlights at RAF Northolt can be used almost directly out of the camera, and checked at the scene.
The first events usually included the station’s own aircraft, subject to tasking operated by the Royal Air Force. But Phil and his event soon received a good reputation and over the years he’s managed to attract participants from various air arms. With this, the number of aircraft and the number of participating enthusiasts got higher. There is usually one event at the end of the winter, which for many enthusiasts is the start of their season, and a second event in mid-autumn. Each event starts after sunset, taking advantage of the blue hour and ending in the dark after nearly four hours. The event starts months before, setting up the date, coordinating it with the staffs of other events done by the station, as it requires a lot of extra work from the station’s personnel. Then Phil asks the community what they want to see at the next event, and then he tries to organize the particular aircraft. There are limits and restrictions to the base, with its location at the western suburbs of London. There are restrictions on flying times, aircraft weight, and number of engines etc..
Even if he has the confirmation that a particular requested aircraft is scheduled to attend, there is no guarantee that it will really show up on the evening. I had the chance of talking to him at the last event and he told me two jubilant stories. The RAF has painted a Tornado fighter-bomber to commemorate 25 years of Gulf War I. This particular aircraft came out of the paint shop in the beginning of 2016 and should have attend its first public event at the Night Photoshoot in March 2016. However, shortly after its first flights, cracks were found in the wing roots. The aircraft spent the whole Air Show season in the workshop and was finished end September 2016. It was promised for the Night Shoot in October, but they could not guarantee the pink Tornado would be serviceable on that day. The plan was to send the aircraft if possible, but the backup plan was to send a standard grey jet.
Another problem the event is sometimes faced with are operational requirements. It happened a few times in the past that aircraft which promised to attend had to withdraw their confirmation due to other commitments. There is a special colored Hercules, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of No. 47 Squadron from RAF Brize Norton’s Transport Wing. After Phil asked, they promised to attend the event. However, No. 47 Squadron is the special operations squadron and has a lot of training duties nowadays both in the country and abroad. About five days before the event, cracks were found in the runway at Northolt and the decision was made to cancel the Hercules as it was likely to be too heavy for the damaged runway. An inspection a couple of days before the Night Shoot established that the cracks were not structural and were only surface cracks. Phil tried to re-book the Hercules but by then the crew had been re-tasked with another job and so there was no one available to bring the Hercules to Northolt. A phone call from one of 47 Squadron’s pilots, late on the afternoon on the day before the Night Shoot, asked Phil if he still wanted the aircraft – as this pilot was able to put a crew together and fly the aircraft down. As someone who had been involved in getting the anniversary tail applied, the pilot was keen to make sure she was going to make it to Phil’s Night Shoot to enable the gathered photographers to photograph the aircraft. The Hercules arrived in the setting sun just as the photographers were booking in at the gate.
Other participants include the event as part of their training, e.g. there are sometimes Alpha Jets from the French Air Force, whose students learn to fly in heavily controlled areas. Other participants include it in their night flying activities, and helicopters like to show up for refueling. The Irish Air Corps sometimes attends the event to take a short break from patrolling the waters of their island.
Some of these photos show another feature of this event, that you get aircraft with propellers and rotors running, many times especially just during a short time during the event. Another charm of the event is that you never know what shows up. I attended a few events and although I also had faced with cancellations I was never disappointed to have make the long journey from Germany. So if you ever have the chance to attend the event, ask Phil for the details you need to provide to enter the base. Completely selfless, I wish him and his team all the best for the events to come.
More information of past events and pictures can be found here:
I would especially like to thank Phil Dawe for all his ongoing efforts and for helping me in finishing this article with lots of background information.