At the end of May RAF Brize Norton, in association with Threshold.aero, opened its gates to aviation enthusiasts for the Air Mobility Force Photocall. This was a significant event for the station as it marked the final time RAF operated C-130J Hercules aircraft would participate in such an event before they are formally retired at the end of June.
Paul Johnson/Flightline reports. All photography by the author.
Due to the nature of their taskings, the RAF’s Air Mobility Force is not often seen at airshows and RAF Brize Norton itself does not have the capacity to host public events. It was therefore no surprise that when Threshold.Aero announced the ‘Air Mobility Fleet Photoshoot’ it proved very popular amongst photographers and enthusiasts.
RAF Brize Norton previously held a small night photoshoot in October 2016 hosted by 99 Squadron. The 2023 event was again hosted by 99 Squadron though they ran three different sessions throughout the day – Morning, Afternoon and Early Evening. As with the 2016 event, the photocall supported charity – this time raising thousands for the Royal Air Forces Association. Originally the event had been scheduled for the end of April which would have meant the evening session would have been a sunset/dusk shoot. However, the end of April saw Sudan descend into crisis and RAF Brize Norton found itself at the forefront of the evacuation of British and other foreign nationals from Wadi Seidna Airfield, North of Khartoum. Not only did Brize provide aircraft and personnel for the actual evacuations, it also played a pivotal support role making sure military and government personnel were positioned in Cyprus and Sudan to support the evacuations.
That urgent operation meant the original April date had to be postponed as the station could not guarantee either aircraft or personnel to support the photoshoot. Pleasingly however, both RAF Brize Norton and Threshold.Aero were able to announce a new date at the end of May very quickly. With the change in date the evening session really became a late afternoon session finishing well before official sunset. However, the golden light was perfect!
The stars of the event were two remarkably clean Lockheed C-130J-30 Hercules C.Mk4s from 47 Squadron. It seems incredible that the C-130 is finally being retired from RAF service having been in service since 1966. Initially the RAF operated with the C-130K model in two major variants – the basic C.Mk 1 and the stretched C.Mk 3 variants. The Mk2 version was the famous Hercules W.Mk2 ‘Snoopy’ based for many years at Boscombe Down as a meteorological research aircraft. When its research role came to an end, it was modified to become a test bed for the TP400 powerplants fitted to the Airbus A400M. 1994 saw the introduction of the C-130J variant into RAF service with new glass cockpits and more efficient Rolls-Royce-Allison turboprop powerplants. Two versions of the C-130J were procured – the standard C-130J became the Hercules C.Mk5 while the stretched C-130J-30 were known as the C.Mk4. These initially flew alongside the older K-models until they were retired in 2012. By 2023, just 47 Squadron is left operating the C-130J Hercules in the tactical transport role often supporting UK special forces. After an illustrious career supporting numerous operations around the globe, the well-loved C-130s are planned to fly their final sorties on 17th June with the ultimate retirement taking place on 30th June. Many of the RAF airframes are due to sold on to new owners.
Appearing alongide the Hercules aircraft was a Airbus A400M Atlas C1. The example lined-up for the photoshoot was the very latest airframe to join the RAF fleet, ZM421. This aircraft arrived on 22nd May 2023 from Getafe, Spain. The aircraft has been flying for some time with Airbus as part of its testing fleet and previously visited the UK in 2018 for RIAT. While the type has been in service since 2014, it is still being developed to take on many of the roles previously carried out by the C-130.
99 Squadron also positioned one of their Boeing C-17A Globemaster III aircraft in the photoshoot area while another was parked just outside. Like the Hercules and Atlas, these aircraft are very busy supporting various operations and other military requirements throughout the year. Indeed, a further C-17 was flying during the time of the evening photocall session.
A final surprise for the event was access to one of 10/101 Squadron’s Airbus A330MRTT Voyager KC2 just outside the main terminal area at Brize. These aircraft not only support aerial refuelling operations, but also provide strategic transport support flying military personnel around the world. They also operate regular flights to the Falkland Islands and also are used to support UK government and royal visits around the globe.
Thanks must go to 99 Squadron, all of the RAF Air Mobility Force and Threshold.area for staging an enthusiast’s event to showcase the C-130J Hercules just ahead of its retirement as well as the C-17, A400M and Voyager. Hopefully this will the first of many more such events at Brize.