Deja Vu – A Plane Spotting Challenge by John Madden
11th August 2020
Luton (A), RAF Northolt (B), Biggin Hill (C), Farnborough (D) & BlackBushe (E)
I’m only human after all!
There cannot be too many aircraft spotters who can say they were sitting in their back garden and missed an over flying Antonov AN-225. Let me introduce you to one, it is yours truly. At precisely 5:29pm on Sunday 2nd August I was enjoying some home cooked BBQ fayre under a clear blue sky whilst UR-82060 passed directly over my garden having departed an hour earlier from Prestwick on route to Chateauroux. I later established that this was just one leg on its epic journey carrying US Military launch vehicles to Israel to be fitted with the IDF Iron Dome Missile Defence System. Unforgivable of me, especially so as I soon discovered that over 7,000 people had been following the aircraft on Flighradar24 when it passed over Ascot. It hurts even more as I have not seen this aircraft type before and it would have been a very special spotting moment as part of this Challenge. Another day, Mriya!
And now for something completely different, a Biz Jet Binge
When deciding which aircraft types to go in search of for spotting Trip #2 it became obvious to me that my spotting adventures thus far had largely revolved around airliners and freighters. Nothing wrong with that, but I had allowed aircraft types that we commonly refer to as biz jets to go largely under the radar and I thought how best to hit this cohort as they do account for approximately 10% of total different aircraft types on my spotting list. It dawned on me that best way to strike off as many biz jet aircraft types in a single day would be to visit their favourite haunts, and within a 50 miles radius of Ascot I am fortunate enough to have Luton, RAF Northolt, Biggin Hill, Farnborough and Blackbushe airports.
During my early spotting years biz jets were a rather rare commodity at Speke Airport, to be fair though this aircraft category was rather thin on the ground 50 years ago. I dug out my old copy of Biz Jet 72 from the loft and a rough calculation indicates that there were approximately 1,200 biz jets worldwide in 1972, compared with today’s population of nearly 23,000 units. As you can see from the 1972 Great Britain fleet below, not only was the domestic fleet dominated by British built aircraft (bar a single Gulfstream GII of Rio Tinto Zinc), but the HS-125 accounted for 41 (93%) of the 43 biz jets on the register!
Further analysis of the publication reveals that the HS 125 held a whopping 30% of all registered biz jets outside the USA, along with significant numbers of Hansa Jet, Sabreliner, Piaggio and Jetstar aircraft represented amongst the worldwide biz jet fleet. Sadly, though time has not been kind to these aircraft types and all their parent manufacturing companies have since ceased developing aircraft specifically for the business/ private aviation market. On a happier note, I believe the more diverse combined British Isles biz jet population to be around 500 aircraft today so I am suitably excited at the prospect of hitting the road once again and seeing as many types as possible of this new generation of business/ private jet aircraft.
I recall spotting trips to the USA back in the 1970/80/90s when it was relatively straight forward to gain ramp access at most airports, but not so at those that classified themselves as “Executive” destinations. Whilst spotting at Fort Lauderdale Executive on a hot Friday afternoon back in February 1990 I noticed an American chap brandishing the most impressive array of camera equipment taking photographs of all landing biz jets along with their occupants. Intrigued to know what he was doing I approached him to know more. It transpired that he was a kind of modern day bounty hunter, passing on flight details to the relevant company shareholders alerting them of the misuse of corporate assets. Luring families from the cold North Eastern and Mid-Western winter climates to the warm sunny beaches of Florida is a lucrative business for many airports and surely accounted for their miss trust of anyone loitering with a long lens!
Having surveyed the biz jet airports on the list for Trip #2 for suitable spotting locations, it was evident from comments left in the public domain by fellow aviation enthusiasts that a similar sentiment still exists, although I suspect today’s veil of secrecy is a response to the paparazzi and their thirst for celebrity photographs and saucy stories. I am cognisant of the fact that biz jet flight numbers have dropped since the start of the pandemic, but with the prospect of more than 50 different biz jet types to spot it’s off to biz jet destination number ONE on my list and see what today’s catch brings home?
First stop of the day, Luton Airport
At the start of the new millennium I worked for a very budget conscious employer and was “encouraged” to use Luton airport for my European business trips despite living on Heathrow’s door step, and my records show that my last flight into the airport was on an easyJet Boeing 737-700 from Berlin Schoenefeld in October 2004. This inconvenience was not all bad as it did produce an opportunity during late 2001 to add a new aircraft type to my flight list, a Fokker F27 of newly formed Euro Celtic Airways who used the type on their Liverpool service. I booked a flight to Liverpool on one of their two strong F27 fleet and connected with an easyJet service to Amsterdam, returning directly to Luton to remain within the allocated travel budget. What such an enjoyable extra leg it was too. The airline soon ceased operations and not only was this my sole flight on the type but also the last time I flew on an aircraft powered by RR Dart engines! One other memorable Luton flight experience I recall was in November 1995 when I purposely went out of my way to catch a Suckling Airways Dornier 328 on a day trip to Paris, un vol extraordinaire avec beaucoup du vitesse! Enough about the past, let’s focus on the present.
Luton is a conundrum of an airport to say the least. Low cost carriers dominate the central passenger terminal area with the ultra-high net worth accessing their private carriages directly from the perimeter road. Upon arriving at the airfield things appeared not to have changed much from an infrastructure perspective although the two newly built short-term car parks raised hopes of good spotting vantage points. Following a quick drive around the airport’s perimeter on Percival Way, it was evident that there was in excess of 35 biz jets to be spotted. It was 09:00 and I had allocated just 90 short minutes to my stay at Luton. This may sound like sufficient time to note down 30-40 registrations but actually it isn’t when you are racing around every car park and cul-de-sac to log biz jets squeezed into every available space on the ramp, and all at an airport which appears to have been shoe-horned into the middle of a medium sized town. To assist with the task I was accompanied by a good friend (non-spotter, though I am working on it) David Peacock who not only checked registrations etc. for me but also managed to keep the aircraft spotting roller coaster of emotions we all experience in a good place throughout the day. He also provided the KitKats and Scotch Eggs at key nutritional moments.
First port of call was the top floor of short-term Car Park P1, availing truly fantastic views of aircraft taxiing to or from the runway and all biz jets parked on the western ramps. Sadly, the top floor is not high enough to provide views of any aircraft parked on the northern or north eastern ramps. This car park would certainly be the go to place for photography for those staying the day at the airport, although I would recommend parking in the significantly cheaper Long Stay car park and take the shuttle bus to the terminal and walk the short distance to P1. During my 15 minute stay at P1 several Wizz A321s and Bombardier Global 6000 9H-IRC departed, and I managed to log upwards of 15 biz jets on the western ramp. When leaving P1 to drive back along Percival Way to access the Long Term car park to spot the remaining out-of-sight biz jets, a British Airways Embraer 190 landed straight over the car and taxied to the biz jet ramp. A British Airways aircraft at Luton is certainly intriguing, and I later established that the aircraft had flown in from London City Airport for a privately chartered Formula One related flight to Girona, parking up on the Harrods Aviation ramp to collect its passengers.
The short car journey along Percival Way was interrupted with numerous stops to log the biz jets parked alongside the hangars, but the desired viewing point to see back across the Northern ramp required access to the Long Term car park. Surprisingly the first hour at the Long Term car park is FREE, so what more could I ask as I parked up close to the wire fence and Spotted a further 25 plus biz jets, including my first ever sighting of a Honda Jet. Proximity to the biz jets parked on the ramp closest to the Long Term car park is remarkable. Although Honda Jet SP-CHE proved difficult to shoot you can just make it out nestled in front the Reliance Industries A319 CJ in the photograph below. The Honda Jet had flown into Luton a few days earlier from Nice and departed on the return journey later that day. Regarding the Reliance A319CJ, she was accompanied by no less than four additional company assets including three Bombardier Global 6000 and a Dassault Falcon 900EX aircraft. Headquartered in Mumbai, this multinational conglomerate accounts for 3% of Indian GDP and is the highest income tax payer in the country’s private sector. I would be very interested to know what warranted the majority of the company’s biz jet fleet to be in town?
So after 90 minutes at Luton airport I managed to spot 42 biz jets, well 42.5 if we count the privately chartered British Airways Embraer 190 on its outing to Girona. Of the 42 biz jets, there were 27 individual aircraft types, all aircraft logged during the brief visit are included in the list below. So what was my favourite biz jet spotted at Luton airport today, it has to be the Honda Jet. Not just because it was the first time I had seen this aircraft type, but it does look unique amongst its peers in having a pylon mounted jet pod above each wing. It reminded me of the colourful TAT fleet of VFW 614 aircraft I often spotted when camping in France many decades ago, although I do fear for this new biz jet as I will reveal later in the conclusion to this spotting trip.
On the side, I logged a dozen assorted easyJet Airbus aircraft, four WIZZ Airbus A321s, four Ryanair Boeing 737-800s and my favourite airliner of the day, a TUI Boeing 757-200.
|1x Dassault Falcon 7X
1x Dassault Falcon 8X
1x Dassault Falcon 9X
1x Dassault Falcon 2000
1x Airbus A319 CJ
1x Hawker 800XP
|8x Bombardier G6000
2x Bombardier G5000
1x Bombardier Express
1x Bombardier C604
2x Bombardier C605
1x Hawker 750
|1x Emb Phenom 300
1x Emb Legacy 500
1x Emb Legacy 600
2x Emb Legacy 650
1x Honda Jet
1x Beechcraft 400XP
|1x Gulfstream G200
1x Gulfstream G280
1x Gulfstream GV
2x Gulfstream G450
3x Gulfstream G650
1x Gulfstream G550
|1x Cessna C680
1x Cessna C550
3x Cessna C560
After a quick 30 minute dash south we arrived at RAF Northolt, our second biz jet destination of the day. For the last three decades I have driven on the A40 past RAF Northolt too many times to remember and in doing so perfected the art of rubber necking to a level of proficiency that I can normally read several of the ten or so biz jets parked on the ramp without difficulty. I mention the number 10 because it’s not often I pass the airport and not see that many aircraft parked up. I’m not sure what happened today but as I drove past the airport heading east towards the Polish War Memorial exit there certainly wasn’t ten aircraft on the ramp. I drove northwards up the A4095 to my designated advantage point and looked back to the ramp and to my astonishment I could see just ONE solitary aircraft, Bombardier Challenger 605 9H-VCE which had flown in from Edinburgh that morning. Clearly the global government and military agencies are taking the COVID-19 issue very seriously and have greatly curtailed their international travel, or did I just chose the wrong airport on the wrong day?
Anyhow, although I have seen the airfield guardian many times before, it was good to spot HS-125 CC3 ZD132 as I needed a HS-125 series 700 for the purposes of my spotting challenge. Ironically only a few days later I spotted Piaggio Avanti N180FB screaming over my back garden at just 5,000 feet on its way to RAF Northolt, another aircraft type deleted from the list although seeing it on the ground would have made the visit more rewarding. Having said that, I did relish hearing that very distinctive sound of a twin pusher configured turbo-prop!
After the disappointment of RAF Northolt, I confess that the 90-minute drive to Biggin Hill in the sweltering 34.C temperature was somewhat subdued, but he of little faith was more than amply rewarded as we shall shortly discover. To raise the blood pressure further, I really wanted to spot the Formula One Management Team’s BAe 146-100 G-OFOM on the ground and a quick look at Flightradar24 before setting off from RAF Northolt indicated that the aircraft was due in to Biggin Hill from Girona just 10 minutes before our expected ETA. Having bigged-up my affection for this aircraft type to my passenger throughout the 90 minute journey I feared being awarded another “nil points” if it had already disappeared in to the hangar by the time we arrived at the airfield.
I don’t know about you, but I find the BAe 146/Avro RJ family of aircraft such a joy to spot. With its high wings, four engines, T-tail and gangly undercarriage, they always remind me of a large sea bird when I see the aircraft landing. I followed the protracted development of the HS.146 aircraft with great enthusiasm and always wanted to fly aboard this unique aircraft type to experience its short take-off and landing capability. I was fortunate in the late 1980s (moustache and white shorts removed by now) to have a job that required me to travel to Dublin every couple of weeks. Heathrow is literally on my doorstep so it was always convenient to take the regular Aer Lingus, British Airways or latterly BMI flight especially as the visits were mostly out and back in a single day. Then I learnt that Dan Air had introduced the BAe 146-100 model on their newly acquired Gatwick to Dublin route and I was immediately seduced into “secretly” booking a day trip with them.
Although the flight from Gatwick cost no more than the flight in and out of Heathrow, I wanted to keep the journey “secret” as I knew my American employers would find the whole concept of spotting incredulous and I certainly didn’t want my new manager to know I would drive an extra hour to catch a flight when I lived just 15 minutes from Heathrow. You already know about the ill-fated attempt to catch a Jetstream 41 out of RAF Anglesey last December, and this story also has its moment of despair. It wasn’t horses on the line that let me down this time, it was my car. Yes, it broke down on the M25, I missed my flight and had to confess to my manager that I didn’t make the meeting in Dublin because I was stranded just a few miles from Gatwick airport. How did you manage to break down so close to Gatwick when Heathrow is on your doorstep? he exclaimed. After a full confession he actually saw the funny side of the story and insisted that I took the Dan Air flight next time I flew to Dublin, but only the once. That flight alone was sufficient to convince me that it was one of the nicest aircraft to fly on and I have, since that day, gone well out of my way to enjoy the unique flying experience again. I do hope that Aer Lingus re-instate the CityJet Avro 85 on the London City to Dublin route next month after lockdown; I may have to raid the piggy bank for what could be the last chance to sample the aircraft on a regular airline schedule in Europe.
Having negotiated the narrow twisting roads of the North Downs with nothing to see but rolling hills, the A233 approach road to Biggin Hill is a great tease and further prolongs that moment of expectation. You know the airport is on your left but it is hidden away and then suddenly there is a moment of reveal and the horizon either side of the runway is filled with shiny biz jets. I pulled in to the aptly named “Look-Out Café” car park, although rather crowded today thanks to Rishi Sunak, but all the same very welcome after the gruelling journey along the M25 and latterly the outstandingly beautiful North Downs. More welcoming was the sight of G-OFOM parked on the apron outside the hangars on the northern ramp surrounded by eight Bombardiers, six Citations, an Embraer Legacy and a Hawker 125. Just moments later she was towed into the hangar and disappeared from view, the omens looked good for the visit.
The “Look Out Café” really does live up to its name and provides not only views across the airfield to the northern ramp, but is a great location for photographing landing aircraft from the west and aircraft visiting the Bombardier facility adjacent to the café.
After a cup of tea it was off to spot the remaining airports gems, and a short journey to the Heritage Hangar is required as aircraft that are scattered around the airfield facilities out of view behind the local business park. The perimeter road leading to the Heritage Hangar is accessed through a security gate and after multiple stops along the route it revealed a further 20 biz jets including the Irish Air Corps Learjet 45, the second Honda Jet of the day T7-APG, several Hawker 125s and the usual clutch of long range Bombardier and Gulfstream aircraft types.
In total, Biggin Hill trumped Luton and provided 46 biz jets, all of which are included in the list below. So what was my favourite biz jet spotted at Biggin Hill today? It proved not to be so straight forward as the decision for Luton. 258, the Irish Air Corps Learjet 45, was in the frame for a while, as were the pair of Polish registered Hawker Beechcraft 400XPs SP-TAT and SP-TTA. I think you may have already guessed which biz jet stole my heart today, one of the last to be built and rather youthful BAe 146-100, G-OFOM.
List of biz jets logged at Biggin Hill
|1x HS-146 100
2x Dassault Falcon 7X
1x Dassault Falcon 2000
1x Dassault Falcon 900
3x Learjet 45
|2x Bombardier G5000
5x Bombardier G6000
2x Bombardier Express
4x Bombardier G350
2x Bombardier G300
|1x Emb Phenom 300
2x Hawker 900XP
1x Hawker 800B
1x Hawker 800XP
1x Honda Jet
|5x Cessna 525
1x Cessna 550
2x Cessna 560
1X Cessna 650
1x Cessna 680
|2x Beechcraft 400XP
1x Raytheon 400A
3x Bombardier C604
1x Bombardier C605
On the side, I logged several interesting smaller types including a very smart looking Piper PA-31 Navajo T7-NAV, Cessna 421 N202AA, Lake Renegade G-LAKE and another new aircraft type for me, the Gippsaero GA8 G-CSPT which is used in conjunction with the Heritage Hangar Spitfire flights.
I’m not sure if it was fatigue or dehydration setting in but it was late afternoon when we arrived at Farnborough and once again I was apprehensive as to the number of biz jets I might spot during this brief encounter with the airfield. My doubts evaporated as soon as I pulled off the A323 in to the makeshift parking area at Gate 1. In front of me was a long swathe of biz jets parked uniformly in front of the new hangar complex on the northern side of the runway. It is difficult to photograph parked aircraft without a high powered lens at Farnborough, so one has to be patient and wait for arriving or departing aircraft. It was 4:30pm by now and I still had a squeeze in a visit to Blackbushe, a shower and change of clothing before sitting down for a curry at 7:30pm in Bracknell. This meant I could only hang around at this very useful vantage point for 20 minutes or so before moving onto location number two to spot those aircraft currently out of view on the far side of the airfield.
During the short stay at Gate 1 several aircraft arrived including CS-PHI below, but low and behold an aircraft type I haven’t seen before and notably missing from today’s spotting trip taxied out and lined up for departure at the other end of the runway. Pilatus PC 24 LX-LCC with its distinctive livery departed for Cannes and truly made my day, see photo below. In fact, it was one of two of this aircraft type present at the airport, but LX-LCC is the one I will always remember and the one to be included in the official Challenge spotting log.
Conscious of time we departed for spotting point number two which was located in the new Business Park off Aerospace Boulevard near the Exhibition halls that are used during Farnborough Air Show. This is a good location and I was able to spot the lines of aircraft previously hidden behind the two sections of trees close to the control tower when viewing the airfield from Gate 1 earlier. The Farnborough spotting task was carried out in a clinical fashion delivering a total of 38 biz jets logged at the airport. So, what was my favourite biz jet spot at Farnborough? Without doubt for me it was the PC-24. With the clock ticking we moved on to Blackbushe airfield located just a 20-minute drive to the north.
List of biz_jet aircraft logged at Farnborough
|3x Bombardier G5000
5x Bombardier G6000
2x Bombardier C604
1x Bombardier C605
|2x Gulfstream G280
2x Gulfstream G450
3x Gulfstream G550
1x Gulfstream 600
|3x Gulfstream G650
1x Dassault Falcon 7X
3x Dassault Falcon 2000
2x Pilatus PC-24
|1x Airbus A319 CJ
1x Airbus A320 Neo
2x Hawker 900XP
1x Emb Phenom 100
|1x Raytheon 390
3x Cessna 680
1x Cessna 525
This is a delightful airfield with such a different and distinguished past before it became the general aviation establishment it is today, after the opening of Gatwick airport. The last Douglas DC-6 I witnessed flying was at the 2008 Farnbourgh Air Show, an aircraft which had incidentally visited Blackbushe many times during the 1950s flying passenger charters for Dan-Air. No such large airliner movements these days, but the airfield is always good for an intimate experience with a visiting light biz jet or two and no long lenses are required. My quick rendezvous with the small ramp adjacent to the control tower revealed Cessna Citation 525 G-LUBB and my first Eclipse EA500 2-JETZ, both swiftly photographed for the Trip Report.
Did I feel like I had been on a biz jet binge today? Most definitely! It was a mammoth spotting trip, comprising a total of almost 5 hours driving, but the four hours of spotting across five airports delivered 132 biz jets including 42 different biz jet types. This spotting “session” proved to be more rewarding than I had ever expected and it really did make a huge dent in the number of aircraft types required as part of my spotting challenge. Not bad for a day at the office. My fear of being hounded by airfield security officials was totally unfounded, although my Duster must have appeared on so many CCTV cameras on the 200 mile spotting trip that those in authority quickly concluded that what I was up to was quite insane and of no threat to national security.
Of the five airports visited on this truly intoxicating biz jet binge, I really warmed to both Luton and Biggin Hill. Please don’t accuse me of stating the obvious, but Luton felt like a proper airport with the distraction of both airliners and biz jets to make the task even more difficult in such a short spotting period. Biggin Hill was such an engaging airfield in a different way and it reminded me very much of spotting in an era long gone; a café with picnic tables giving a view to die for, not to mention a cup of tea and scone crumbs on your log book. The airfield had aircraft parked everywhere and upon leaving I had that sense of achievement we all share of having hunted them all down. The disappointment of RAF Northolt was a one-off, and it was good to know that I haven’t lost my spotting skills whilst travelling at 50mph! Farnborough delivered the goods but was a non-joyous spotting experience if you know what I mean.
Job done, but I return sadly to my copy of Biz Jet 72 and reflect upon why so many of the leading biz jet manufacturers of that era are no longer with us. The sheer diversity of biz jet types encountered during today’s spotting trip illustrates the economic reality that in most cases single product biz jet manufacturers eventually fail. The HS 125, Lockheed Jetstar, Rockwell Sabreliner, Hansa Jet and Piaggio PD108 all fell by the wayside whilst Dassault and Gulfstream widened their product portfolio to cover multiple market segments and survived. Cessna, Bombardier and Embraer have all entered the crowded biz jet market and appear to have made a success of their endeavours by developing aircraft for every business and or private requirement.
So what was my favourite biz jet of the day? No contest in my opinion, it was the Pilatus PC-24. But surely such a choice contradicts my previous statement about betting the company on a single product. That’s exactly why I have chosen the PC-24 as Pilatus have created a truly unique and incredibly diverse product. We know the aircraft is well engineered and that supply is controlled so as to maintain second hand residuals in a similar way to that of expensive Swiss watch manufacturers, but it is the range of uses that the aircraft can be put to that separates it from past and present one product biz jet manufacturers. This is an aircraft equally at home on a quick sprint down to Cannes with wealthy holiday makers, dropping government officials into Davos, carrying critically ill patients from dirt strips in the Australian Outback to packing your family and prized Harley Davidson on board for a long weekend away in the mountains.
I have always admired biz jets. There are so many different horses for the many courses as we have witnessed on this brief spotting trip. Thanks to Gulfstream, Cessna, Bombardier, Dassault and Embraer for keeping this aircraft segment alive and kicking and producing such a crop of interesting aircraft types to spot. If I could have smuggled just one biz jet home in the back of my Duster today it would most certainly have been the PC-12. Joking apart I am sure the Eclipse would have fitted in the car with the back seats folded down and David taking an Uber.
I do hope you have enjoyed spotting Trip #2. I am booked to travel to Madrid on the 8th September for Spotting Trip #3, dependant of course on travel restrictions being lifted.
Stay Safe and Keep Spotting