Low flying military aircraft, Mach Loop – June 2010

Last week I was fortunate to spend a few days with my good friend Ian Schofield, fulfilling an adventure we had spoken about for over a year.

The mountain range of Snowdonia in Wales has a special area known as the Machynlleth Loop, where military aircraft pilots hone their low fly skills. Referred to by military air crews as ‘The Loop’ and by USAF crews as ‘The Roundabout’. With flowed valleys running counter clockwise from Machynlleth to Dinas Mawddwy, the Cross Foxes Inn south through Cad east/west then Corris and back to Machynlleth (see OS map OL23), a rotation can take about 3 minutes in a jet aircraft and many of today’s jet aircraft will practice low flying there particularly Hawks (Think Red Arrows) who are based nearby.

The Mach Loop, is well known as the busiest UK low flying area and in the past during the cold war period it was not uncommon to see 80 plus movements a day. My research on Warplane.co.uk and Fox2.co.uk ensured I was of no illusion that those days are gone, and it’s is not unusual, in fact to be expected to experience a ‘blank’, and to be prepared to spend 12 hours sat on top of a hill with nothing going by.

After a 4.5 hour drive down from London on Bank holiday Monday, we arrived just before the light faded and went to review our site for the following day, before checking in at the campsite.

There are several well practised locations for seeing/photographing the planes at very close range, and often they pass below you!

Cad West was our chosen location for the first day, the forecast wasn’t great, but promised to be fantastic on the second and third day.

http://www.multimap.com/map/browse.cgi?lat=52.7087&lon=-3.8450&scale=25000&icon=x

For once the forecasters were on the money, and the morning mist and fog was right on cue…

This was the view from our location, and as you can see, the view was terrible, let alone any chance of aircraft flying in.

You can see the car park in the centre of the image, the climb up to these locations are not for the faint hearted!

Unfortunately the promise of  “clear sky’s in the afternoon” was unfounded, and a whole day was spent on ‘the hill’ with not even a single plane going by..

(There were some reports of aircraft in the area on someone’s radio scanner, but nothing was prepared to exercise in this cloud!)

Here is my pal Ian, poised waiting to photograph a grey plane against a grey cloud!

So… one day down, and our first blank, this was expected to be the worst day, and we remained positive, returning to our campsite for a beer and food eagerly anticipating good weather on day two.

Thankfully, we were relieved to see the sun bright in the sky early on Wednesday morning and headed out to a location with a few new gained colleagues, who were experienced in the area (Thanks guys from Fox2). This meant we were planning two climbs in one day, starting with CORRIS

http://www.multimap.com/map/browse.cgi?lat=52.679&lon=-3.8740&scale=25000&icon=x

If you see the foggy images above, you will just notice a lake, our location was just before that lake on the edge of another steep hill, and as you can see from the following image the weather conditions were very different…

And to reassure us we were car parked by a Hawk whilst preparing our kit at about 8AM. At least there was something in the air, and the well respected ‘gift’ of a jet plane screeching over your head at low level whilst your trying to get above them to take a photograph had been handed to us.

Another steep and longer climb, about 40 minutes later we were ready to go, just waiting on the first plane to appear from our right….

We waited, and waited…

We were warned we would have about 4 seconds from the plane appearing to being out of sight again, reaching an apex of their turn just in front and below us, so we remained on guard…

The shout of “Hawk” was my queue, and my first chance to see how close these aircraft really came! A black dot appeared from the right and turned directly towards us allowing me a few rapid shots before passing over head. These are free areas and no two planes ever take the same line, I soon found out!

Not long before they fill the frame!

The next Hawk I was a little more prepared for, and it followed a more predictable line, banking over perfectly just several hundred feet off the ground below me..

After a few false alarms, we decided enough was enough from this location, and the site of our blank the day before was in order, the light would be good there now, and if there was activity it was best for the dynamic angles…

A long climb down and back up to Cad West we went. Once there we had another several hours of little or no activity.

Whilst walking around the area at the top of the hill, I suddenly noticed a lot of commotion and the shout of a Harrier approaching, which I couldn’t see….

The reason for apparent blindness was the fact it was coming down the road at extreme low level and I just managed to spot it as it pulled up towards us just a few hundred feet away…

This Harrier was a special 100 years celebratory Fly Navy tail liveried version.

(For the 100th Anniversary of British Naval Aviation, one of the Naval Strike Wing’s GR.9 Harrier aircraft was painted up in anniversary markings for the visit of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS to London in May 2009. In addition to its “Fly Navy 100” tail, the aircraft sports the latest overall Medium Sea Grey colour scheme, which is believed to be more appropriate for the current high altitude operations in Afghanistan.)

This turned out to be the start of a crazy hour, and we were fortunate to have over 6 passes by Tornado’s and yet more Hawks..

The most amazing pass was from a GR.4 Tornado from 31 Squadron flown by their CO and we were lucky to see a very rare sight with the Tornado wings swept back, something very rarely done at these heights and speeds…

You can see both the pilot and co-pilot giving us a look/wave as they pass feet in front of us between two mountains!

a few more Hawks later, and a Hercules was a fantastic end to the hour, and we say nothing else for the next several hours, but it didn’t matter.

This special liveried Hawk was also a highlight. It’s a 100 SQN 90th anniversary special liveried XX285.

Our final day was going to be similar to day two, and the rumours were wild about 31 squadron returning for more ‘fun’.

the morning was spent up at Cad East, opposite our previous location due to the angle of the sun, but unfotunately the activity was extremely light with just a hawk and a Tucano training plane to keep us occupied.

Lunchtime again saw us transfer to Cad West, with that mammoth climb, I thought my legs and heart/lungs were going to fail on this last ascent, for someone of my ‘stature’ this was a strain on my physical ability, but very much worth it, and the fear of missing something whilst half way up also helped!

We were not disapointed in the afternoon, and were please to be visited by the same 31 SQN Tornado’s again with wings swept back!

A few other highlights included,

This Hercules (Lockheed Martin C5 (C-130J) Hercules ZH884) and this T2 special Hawk.

Towards the end of the day by a pair of Eurofighter/BAE Systems F.2 Typhoons who were flying close together, the first made a very low pass through the gap, and the second flipped inverted over our heads and gave us a wave Stunning!

A fantastic end to an amazing exped, here’s looking forward to the next one.

Thanks again to Joe, Lloyd, Dave, Mic, Andy, and all the guys from FOX2 for the advice and support.

Oh… and in between all that action we found a little time to grab a few landscape photos at Lake Vyrnwy.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the images.

As an addition, I have been in touch with Ian, the CO from the squadron who was flying one of those wing swept Tornado’s! Some of my images might be used for PR at a Airshow near you soon!

Check how cool this looks, Photos supplied courtesy of Ian

The hill over his right shoulder is where we were photographing from! thats a cool image. And one more from Ian before he left for the day…

Respect to you guys, you all do an amazing job (I spent my 12 years under the water in another metal tin!), and managed to find some time to make our week as well.

4 Comments

  1. by AdamB on June 10, 2010  10:33 am Reply

    Hi,. was passed the link to this page by Cherie C of VTRlist (VTR_List@yahoogroups.com)... you've got some superb photos there and sounds like you had a great few days.... been hearing about this place for a while now, looks like we'll be having a few days in Wales this summer! :o)

    • by swaffs on June 10, 2010  11:57 am Reply

      Glad you like them!
      You should definately check it out, just be prepared for the fact that you may not see anything!

  2. by tony byrne on September 15, 2010  8:29 pm Reply

    Just spent a week under the Machynlleth Loop, heavy rain low cloud and not a lot around, but today Wednesday 15th had a very low Tornado and a few Hawks pass over BArmouth, will be back when the weather is better.

  3. by Del Breingan on September 19, 2010  1:01 pm Reply

    Brilliant photographs!...I've spent a lot of time in N. Wales and love seeing the aircraft fly by. Dad was RAF and took me to all the bases in the 50's and 60's
    Glad I found your site...More please!

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