Flight Line

Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history

Classic propeller-driven transports at Northolt then and now: Indian Air Force Super Constellation BG583 in June 1974, David and Mark Miller’s Dragon Rapide G-AGJG at the station’s most recent night photoshoot on 18 October 2018.

Northolt airfield’s history stretches back to 1915, when development started of a tract of farmland only 15 miles west of Piccadilly Circus, initially for training purposes but later as a fighter station for the Royal Flying Corps. Its role in the Battle of Britain, its Polish connections — commemorated by the nearby Polish War Memorial — and its post-war use by civil airlines are all well documented, so no need to repeat here.

As a boy, I remember reading of Pan American Boeing 707 N725PA which, on 25 October 1960, landed in error on Northolt’s 5,400ft runway 26 with 41 passengers on board.

The pilot made his “honest mistake” on a non-instrument approach to Heathrow’s runway 23L. Sighting the Northolt runway “slightly to his right”, he lined up on it, taking it for Heathrow since both airfields had gas-holders on the approach. Flight headed its suitably deadpan report, ‘Gasholder Landing System’.

Northolt has had its share of interesting visitors. It was on 9 June 1974 that an RAF Andover landed there carrying a pack of journos returning from a press visit to Lossiemouth. Taxiing back to the terminal, we were followed in by an Indian Air Force L-1049 Super Constellation, smoking gloriously. We descended onto the tarmac just as the Constellation shut down. Ever ready for the chance, one of our number asked the RAF ground handler meeting us if we could photograph it. “No problem by me”, he said, “but I’ll need to get the Indian captain’s OK”, with which he climbed the Constellation’s stairs and disappeared inside. Returning to ground level, he announced, “You’ll not believe this, but he’s happy as long as your pictures don’t show ownership of the aircraft”, this despite the 20ft-long ‘INDIAN AIR FORCE’ titling on the fuselage. We assured him that we were all expert aircraft photographers, took our shots, and everyone went away happy.

”The ground handler announced, ‘He’s happy as long as your pictures don’t show ownership of the aircraft’, despite the Indian Air Force titling “

As an aside, another Indian Air Force Super Constellation on a courier flight from New Delhi was involved in a near-miss with an Olympic Airways Boeing 727 on 9 January 1970. On final approach to Northolt’s runway 26 and after getting too low, its pilot was instructed to climb and go around, but a left-hand turn put it into direct and potentially dangerous conflict with Heathrow traffic.

More recently, Northolt has been home to regular night photoshoots, which bring together a selection of military and privately owned aircraft for the purposes of static photography on the floodlit ramp. Organised to support a good cause, namely the restoration of the RAF Northolt sector operations building, this event brings together hundreds of enthusiasts toting hi-vis jackets and tripods for three hours of good-natured nocturnal snapping.

Today, traffic is a mix of military, diplomatic and bizjet, and a £23-million contract has recently been awarded to resurface the runway, improve the drainage and install new arrestor beds. Northolt remains the home of No 32 (The Royal) Squadron, the successor to the Queen’s Flight, although the unit’s primary task today is to support military operations while “any royal or other use of spare capacity [is] secondary”, as a National Audit Office report stated. However, as the closest RAF airfield to central London and the only one within the M25, its long-term future seems assured, much as is the case with Brize Norton, Coningsby, Linton-on-Ouse, Valley and Waddington. Well, perhaps not Linton-on-Ouse.