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RAF Northolt

The RAF station that has the honour of serving the Royal Family and the country

ON September 13, a C-17 Globemaster operated by a crew from No. 99 Squadron based at Brize Norton, departed Edinburgh Airport bound for an RAF station that has handled some of the most important flights in the recent history of the country.

Pallbearers from the Royal Air Force Regiment carry the coffin of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

(Pallbearers from the Royal Air Force Regiment carry the coffin of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

The plane was carrying Queen Elizabeth II on her final flight, a journey that was followed online by more than five million people, making it the most tracked flight in history.

The RAF commented: “The Royal Air Force was honoured to convey Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on her final journey on board an RAF C-17 Globemaster from Edinburgh Airport to RAF Northolt. Her coffin was carried by RAF personnel from The Queen’s Colour Squadron, 63 Squadron, Royal Air Force Regiment.”

It arrived at the same destination where 25 years earlier Princess Diana had been repatriated after her tragic death in a road crash in Paris. On both occasions, the Queen’s Colour Squadron acted as the bearer party, cementing the importance of Northolt to the Royal Family, a connection that dates back almost a century.

In April, 1928, two Westland Wapitis were delivered to No. 24 Squadron at Northolt, specifically for the purpose of transporting the Royal Family, 13 years after the Government had requisitioned land at the site situated six miles north of Heathrow for the Royal Flying Corps, RFC, the precursor of the RAF.

RFC Military School, Ruislip, opened on May 3, 1915, soon becoming known as Northolt, the home to No. 4 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron, with sorties beginning immediately to defend London from German Zeppelin attacks. The opening of the airfield also saw the formation of No. 18 Squadron flying Bériot biplanes, but these experimental planes proved no match for the German Fliegertruppe.

A year later No. 43 Squadron were formed operating the Sopwith 1½ Strutter, notably flying sorties over France and taking part in the Battle of Vimy Ridge between April 4-8, 1917.

Aerial View in 1917

(Aerial View in 1917)

The 1920s saw the station’s royal connection forged, with the then Prince of Wales making his first flight from the station in a Bristol F.2 Fighter on April 29, 1929.

In the build up to the Second World War, a concrete runway was constructed, the station becoming vital during the Battle of Britain in 1940: Nos. 229, 264, 504 Squadrons, along with No. 1 Royal Canadian Air Force, RCAF, and No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, PFS, were all based at Northolt and under the control of No. 11 Group RAF. No. 264 were equipped with Boulton Paul Defiants, with all other squadrons flying Hurricanes, with Northolt becoming a major target of the Luftwaffe.

Around 4,000 bombs were dropped within two miles of the airfield over 18 months, but only two registered hits at Northolt, with camouflage proving particularly effective: hangars masked to look like housing and a fake stream painted on the runway were two of the measures used to confuse the Luftwaffe.

Around 30 Allied airmen based at Northolt were killed during the Battle of Britain, including many Poles, – the Polish War Memorial sits near the entrance at Northolt – with No 303 Squadron PFS believed to have been the most successful in terms of German aircraft downed.

303 Squadron pilots at RAF Northolt May 1942

(303 Squadron pilots at RAF Northolt May 1942)

After the Battle of Britain, the station remained a base for daytime fighter operations, and in 1943 it became the first location from where sorties using Spitfires were flown over Germany: the iconic fighter aircraft providing support for bomber operations. The station also became home to Winston Churchill’s personal aircraft, a Douglas C-54 Skymaster, which was used to fly the Prime Minister to meetings and conferences across the globe.

At the end of hostilities, Northolt became a home for civil aviation during the construction of Heathrow Airport, with several airlines using the station for schedules routes across Europe, and in 1952 it was the busiest in Europe.

In 1954 it returned to a sole military role but that didn’t stop some civilian pilots taking a liking to it: in October 1960, its close proximity to Heathrow explained one of the most bizarre landings at the airport, a Pan Am Boeing 707 touching down with 41 passengers, mistaking the military runway for Heathrow, six miles to the south.

A few years later and a Lufthansa pilot attempted the same, only to be dissuaded by red signal flares set off by Northolt personnel on the ground. With high tech systems still unavailable, aircraft crew had to look out for gasometers on the flight path to both Heathrow and Northolt, codes painted on to inform pilots whether they were heading for the right airport.

When it wasn’t being mistaken for Heathrow, Northolt was welcoming new units, the Metropolitan Communication Squadron arriving in 1957, reforming as part of No. 32 Squadron in 1969. In 1990, No. 60 Squadron was disbanded, personnel transferring to No. 32 from Germany making it the largest and most varied single squadron in the RAF – a major role providing VIP air transport, with the amalgamation with the Queen’s flight from RAF Benson in 1995 forming No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron.

With easy access to central London down the A40 which runs alongside the station, the desire for civilian jets to use Northolt saw privately-owner aircraft operating to and from the airfield outnumber their military counterparts by the mid-1980s, with a cap placed on non-military use of the runway.

Development over recent years has seen many units transferring to Northolt with the British Forces Post Office moving from Mill Hill as part of the MoDEL (MoD Estates London) project that saw the closure of RAF Uxbridge and RAF Bentley Prior and their services consolidated at Northolt – the Queen’s Colour Squadron transferring from Uxbridge in 2010.
Typhoon arrives at RAF Northolt in 2012

(Typhoon arrives at RAF Northolt in 2012)

In 2012, four Eurofighter Typhoons from Coningsby arrived for the duration of the London 2012 Olympics, providing air protection for the capital in conjunction with other security measures.

Along with No. 32 Squadron and The Queen’s Colour Squadron, 63 Squadron, Royal Air Force Regiment Squadron, Northolt is also home to 600 and 601 RAuxAF Squadrons, amongst several other units.

While its normal day-to-day operations typically go by un-noticed, the importance of RAF Northolt in ceremonial terms was epitomised by the dignified return of Queen Elizabeth II to London, with one social media follower commenting on the ceremony: “And it was immaculate.”

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