Low flying is an essential part of the role our armed forces undertake in defending the United Kingdom and carrying out overseas operational duties. This includes fast jet, transport and rotary aircraft. Training prepares aircrews for hazards at low level such as bird strikes, mid air collision and even controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), a grim term coined by engineers at Boeing.
The UK is split up into 19 low flying areas with different terrain characteristics and bombing ranges. The Royal Air Force works hard with local communities to deal with complaints and the effects of low flying. The MOD low flying website gives the public access to information and contact with community relation officers. The MOD also publish statistics and timetables on low flying.
Low flying began with crop dusting in the 1920s. The first known was a joint effort with the US Agricultural Department and the US Army Signal Corps, using a Curtiss JN4 Jenny, piloted by John A Macready.
In the following decades barnstorming and stunt flying entertained and amazed crowds in Britain and the US right up to the war years when pilots flying skills were then put to a more lethal use.
617 squadron came to fame for its low flying during Operation Chastise in May 1943. The squadron was only formed 2 months earlier and underwent intensive day and night time low level exercises, flying 150' above the lakes of Northern England and Wales. The squadron experienced a few bird strikes and did return with bits of foliage attached to their airframes. The rigorous training paid off with successful raids on the Mohne and Eder dams, however 133 crew were killed and 53 taken prisoner. Undoubtedly the effect of this raid was to shorten the war.
In the run up to the D Day invasion, low level flying played a key part in the preparation for the landings. Images of the Normandy beaches were taken by low flying Spitfire PR Mk XIIIs and proved crucial to planning of Operation Overlord. This type of Spitfire was armed and carried two vertical F24 cameras and one oblique F24.
Towards the end of World War II another famous sortie, Operation Jericho, highlighted the effectiveness of low-level flying. A daring raid was launched to free French Resistance fighters held in a German prison in Amiens. Mosquitos and Typhoons were used to breach the walls of the prison. The raid was controversial as a number of prisoners were killed by the bombing and many of the escapees were recaptured by the Germans. This raid was captured on film for Pathe News.
In the 1960s - 80s the Blackburn Buccaneer stood out as the most successful low level strike aircraft. The S1 entered service with Royal Navy in1962 then the RAF procured the S2A at the end of the 1960s. It was a potent weapon platform that could achieve 667mph at low level, delivering nuclear weapons against Warsaw Pact forces. Five squadrons of 'Buccs' were assigned to SACEUR, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe for land strike duties. Red Flag military exercises in the US allowed the Buccaneer squadrons to experience realistic low level training, all without the benefit of terrain following radar and secured some 'kills' without loss.
1991 saw the Tornado GR1 used to great effect in the Persian Gulf War. They were tasked to destroy Iraqi air bases, flying low level to deliver JP233 or LAAAS (Low Altitude Airfield Attack System) bombs which destroyed runways. This involved a risky low, straight and level approach to the target. One aircraft was lost during this type of sortie and aircrews did feel vulnerable executing this role. In this theatre of war, flying was invariably low and fast to avoid Iraqi anti aircraft fire from the M163 Vulcan Air Defence System and MIM 23 surface to air missiles controlled by their early warning radar. During this conflict a lot of Iraqi air defences were supressed by 'Wild weasel' action which combined the use of electronic disruption and delivery of ground attack weapons. TVAM captured some of the action with Jaguars, Tornado's and Buccaneers.
In the loop
Military flying training continues to include the necessity for low flying. Aircrew need to be ready for deployment anywhere in the world for moving troops, delivering humanitarian aid with food drops and reconnaissance operations. Evidence of this can occasionally be seen in the mountains of North Wales.
The Machynlleth Loop (LFA7) or CAD West is one of the low flying areas used by the Royal Air Force and NATO partners. It is the best known and most visited by a community of aviation photographers willing to stand exposed to the elements for many hours to catch F15 Eagles, RAF Typhoon and Hercules transports negotiating the twists and turns of the valleys between Machynlleth and Dolgellau in the north. There is an element of luck as to whether you see any aircraft. Most advise to choose a week day with a forecast of fine weather and good visibility. There are websites dedicated to the loop and worth time studying for the best places to watch from. They all agree that the loop is located amongst some of the most beautiful scenery in Britain and all visitors are urged to treat the countryside and the local communities with respect.
Lower than a Snake's belly in a wagon rut