RAF Northolt Visit - 22nd October 2008

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Pete Thompson reports for On-Target from RAF Northolt, a well known but often overlooked Royal Air Force airfield. Photography by Pete Thompson and Andrew Hay.

The Station

Nestleing on the outskirts of the capital, and with the main A40 trunk road lying alongside, the airfield at RAF Northolt is older than the RAF itself. Located in the London Borough of Hillingdon and originally placed in open countryside, a vast difference to its present day surroundings, it became operational in June 1915 when BE2c’s of the Royal flying Corps flew defensive patrols against the mounting Zeppelin raids over London. The Officers' Mess, built in 1929, is still operational, as are several hangars and buildings dating from the mid 1920s. In the late 1930s, RAF Northolt was the first station to operate the Hurricane and during the Second World War was again one of the key airfields in the defence of London. During the Battle of Britain, Northolt was called 'home' by a series of both Allied and British Hurricane & Spitfire Sqns, including a complete Polish Wing. Of this Wing, 303 Polish Sqn clocked up the highest Allied score during the Battle of Britain, with Sergeant Josef Frantisek, a maverick Czech national and 'honorary Pole' becoming the highest scorer of the Battle.  During  1943, RAF Northolt once again claimed a first when based Spitfire Mk.IX Sqns became the first Spitfire Wing as a unit to operate over German airspace in defense of Allied bombing operations.

With the cessation of hostilities in 1945 one could be forgiven for thinking that the airfield would have quietened down, to a more leisurely pace, but it was not to be so as in 1946 the airfield was loaned by the Air Ministry for civil use whilst the nearby Heathrow Airport was under construction. Remarkably during 1952, Northolt was the busiest airfield in Europe, handling an annual total of 50,000 air movements.

In 1957 the Metropolitan Communication Squadron, which had formed in April 1944 as a VIP Transportation Flight to replace the disbanded 510 Sqn, moved to RAF Northolt. With the disbandment of 32 Sqn in Cyprus in 1969, 32 Sqn stood up again the following day at Northolt taking over the VIP duties from the Communications Sqn.  In early 1990, 60 Sqn disbanded from its base at RAF Wildenrath in West Germany and moved to join 32 Sqn, making it the largest and most varied single Sqn in the RAF. 

The major role of providing VIP air transport continues today, with the Station supporting 32 (The Royal) Sqn but also providing a service to civil operators, where capacity allows, to allow private VIP movements within the M25 and away from mainstream air traffic and media presures.

RAF Northolt is also home to such diverse units as No 1 AIDU, the Aeronautical Information Documents Unit, and operating in a vast new building alongside 32(TR) Sqn are the headquarters of the BFPO (British Forces Post Office) which recently relocated from its former location not far from the RAF Musuem at Hendon in Mill Hill. In the longer term there are plans to relocate, from RAF Uxbridge, both The Queens Colour Sqn, and the Central Band of the RAF to the Station.


32 (The Royal) Squadron

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The Royal Flying Corps Number 32 Sqn was formed at Netheravon on 12 January 1916 from a nucleus of personnel provided by 21 Sqn. A three-month work-up period followed on the Sqn’s DH.2s, with the Sqn departing for France at the end of May. Barely a month had passed before the Sqn’s service with distinction became noticed. On 1st July, the Commanding Officer, Major LWB Rees, spotted a formation of eight enemy aircraft and elected to attack. Despite the overwhelming odds, and in spite of injuries that he had received during the combat, Major Rees managed to force two enemy aircraft down out of control before his ammunition ran out. For his gallant action, Major Rees was awarded the Victoria Cross. In later battles on the Western Front, the Sqn was utilised generally in the ground attack mode and carried out low-level strafing of enemy troops with both the DH.5 and later the superb SE5A. Shortly after the end of the War, during 1919 the Sqn returned to the UK and was disbanded.

32 Sqn reformed at Kenley on 1st April 1923, and in the following years flew major bi-plane RAF fighter types such as the Snipe, Grebe, Gamecock, Siskin and Bulldog before before a move to Biggin Hill, from where they flew Gauntlets before receiving the more modern Hurricane in October 1938.

During the early days of the Battle of Britain, 32 Sqn suffered heavy losses, facing the brunt of the Luftwaffe attack on 11 Group Fighter Command’s area of responsibility, while based at Gravesend and Manston with a rest period from the end of May into early June 1940 at RAF Wittering.

Following the Battle of Britain 32 Sqn then remained in the south of the country moving around Pembrey, West Malling and Friston until 1942. At the end of the year, the Sqn departed for North Africa and, after trading its Hurricanes for Spitfires, continued on through the Continent and on to Italy and Greece, flying variuos marks including the mark Vc, Mk.VIII & Mk.XI.

Just prior the end of the War, 32 Sqn moved to Palestine for a three-year tenure, again flying Spitfires - this time the Mk.IX and FR.18, before moving again to Cyprus in April 1948. During July 1948, Vampire F.3s, followed by FB.5s and FB.9s replaced the trusty Spitfires, until 1955 when they were replaced by Venoms. Two years later during early 1957, the role of the Sqn was again changed, this time to light bomber, and Canberras were received at Weston Zoyland prior to deployment to Cyprus.

In February 1969, the Sqn disbanded in Cyprus, only to reform the next day at RAF Northolt, taking over the role and aircraft of the Metropolitan Communications Squadron. In this new VIP role, 32 Sqn flew various fixed wing types, including the Pembroke, Bassett & Andover. The Sqn received the first of its VIP jets in March 1971, in the form of the HS125 CC.1.

For rotary wing operations the Sqn flew the Sycamore, Whirlwind and Gazelle. In April 1995, 32 Sqn amalgamated with The Queens Flight, then based at RAF Benson, resulting in the new name of 32 (The Royal) Sqn - thus carrying forward the best traditions and high standards of these two specialist VIP units.

Northolt Today

Today having recently moved from its Second World War vintage accomodation to its new combined hangarage and operations facility on the south side of the airfield adjacent to the VIP terminal of RAF Northolt, 32 (TR) Sqn operates seven BAe 125 CC.3s, two BAe 146 CC.2s and three Augusta 109E helicopters. While the Sqn’s very essence in providing superb VIP transportation around the world is unique, the operations set up at Northolt and 32(TR) Sqn is equally unique. On any other operational Sqn throughout the RAF one would find hidden away in the Sqn an  Operations facility, and elsewhere on the Station there would be a Station Operations Centre. However at Northolt the role of the Sqn and Station Operations Centre has been done away with and both Sqn and Station Operations are combined in one location; this enables the Sqn to easily dovetail its VIP flight schedules with those of the guest VIP operators that utilise this airfield so close to the centre of London.

The visiting group, ably escorted by our knowledgeable host Flight Lieutenant Luke Vardy, was given access to this newest of Sqn facilities in detail, throughout our impressive visit.

Having had a tour of the new Sqn offices, the opportunity to see and photograph examples of the Sqn’s various types in their new hangarage was afforded the group, and I might add thoroughly enjoyed. The roomy, light and airy nature of the hangarage with the ‘daylight’ type lighting making photography a joy to undertake, in what can all to often be challenging conditions. Having seated ourselves on the current aircraft types the group was given access to the VIP area at RAF Northolt and was honoured to be allowed to see the Royal and VIP suites in all their glory, How the other half live! Finally to bring our visit to a close the opportunity to photograph the Station Gate Guard, a replica Spitfire in Polish colours. This is presently located outside the VIP Suite, but due to be moved back to the main VIP access gate when work there is completed, rounding off a fine visit to a well known but often overlooked area of the Royal Air Force.

Based Aircraft Types – RAF Northolt

32 (The Royal) Squadron

BAe 125 CC.3








BAe 146 CC.2




Agusta Westland A109E





RAF Northolt Station Flight

Pilatus Britten Norman 2T Islander

ZF573 (CC.2A)

ZH536 (CC.2)

ZH537 (CC.2)

On Target Aviation would like to thank the Officers, Airmen and support staff  of Royal Air Force Northolt; in particular the Station CRO, Sqn Ldr Willis, and our host from and 32 (The Royal) Sqn, Flight Lieutenant Vardy for their assistance in making this visit to this unique Squadron within the Royal Air Force a very memorable occasion.



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