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Military low‑level flying is an effective way for an aircraft to reach its intended target without being detected
by enemy radar.
By flying low above the ground using the terrain as a shield from searching radar, the chances of detection and survivability of an aircraft are greatly increased
Low‑level flying can be used by fast‑jets to reach their target to drop ordnance, or as in recent theatres of war to aid fellow troops by dispersing a threatening enemy by carrying out a ‘Show of Force’ (an effective tactic of flying very fast and low over the threat as a warning). Transport aircraft use low‑level flying not only as a means of evasion, but to deliver troops and supplies where precision delivery is essential. Helicopters operating in hostile areas need to fly as low as possible, not only for their safety by using the terrain as a means of cover, but to deliver, pick‑up troops and supplies and evacuate the wounded.
Military jets and transport aircraft are considered to be low flying when operating below 2000ft above the ground (AGL) and helicopters below 500ft AGL. The minimum operating height for the former is 250ft AGL, whilst helicopters are permitted down to a minimum height of 100ft AGL.
As low‑level flying is an essential element of military flying, it is introduced at an early stage in a pilots training. Students working
towards fast‑jets learn the basics of low‑level flying on the Basic Fast Jet Training (BFJT) course, flying the Beechcraft
Texan T.1 at speeds up to 210 knots (4 miles a minute), before progressing onto the Advanced Fast Jet Training (AFJT) course
flying the BAE Systems Hawk T.2, flying at speeds of up to 420 knots (8 miles a minute). Low‑level flying is a perishable skill,
so when a student graduates onto a frontline squadron low‑level flying is practised continuously to ensure currency and safety.
The current United Kingdom Low Flying System was established in 1979 to enable aircrew to train in the low‑level environment efficiently and safely, whilst causing minimal disturbance to the public. The low flying system covers the whole of the United Kingdom and extends from ground level to 2000ft AGL. For daylight hours the system is divided into 18 areas (numbered 1 to 19 as seen in the map below).
Some of the low flying areas are designated as Dedicated User Areas, which are allocated to specific types of aircraft such
as helicopters to aid in special training requirements, whilst Tactical Training Areas 7T, 14T and 20T located in the more
remote areas, allow fast‑jets to conduct operational low flying down to 100ft AGL and transport aircraft down to 150ft AGL.
To reduce the impact of low flying on the public, the UKLFS operating hours are normally 08:00 to 23:00 daily, Monday to Friday, with no flying at weekends and bank holidays.
Certain designated areas, such as civil airports and associated airspace, large conurbations, industrial and medical facilities, are normally to be avoided by aircraft for safety and noise disturbance issues. Military aircraft and civil aircraft alike, must also avoid all National Prohibited and Restricted Areas. In addition, NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) can be issued at any time which apply to military and civilian aircraft alike and inform of temporary restrictions, such as paragliding activities and public events, like festivals, concerts and agricultural shows.
Certain valleys in the UKLFS such as the Mach Loop in North Wales have been flowed one way for added safety, to prevent the possibility of mid‑air collisions due to aircraft flying in opposing directions. In 1987, one such series of inter‑connected valleys in the Lake District National Park (LFA17) were flowed in a south‑north direction after a Panavia Tornado GR.1, ZA493, routing to the north from Thirlmere Reservoir and SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1A, XZ116, routing to the east from Derwent Water collided over Castlerigg Fell, with the pilots of neither aircraft having possibly seen each other. The Tornado crew ejected safely, but sadly the Jaguar pilot lost his life. The cause of the accident was basically attributed to the terrain, which channelled the two unrelated aircraft through the same airspace and restricted the pilots views of each other.
Whilst military jets must adhere to a flowed valley policy, helicopters do not. As helicopters fly much slower, avoidance with other helicopters is easier and as they can fly lower than the minimum height governing fast‑jets, a helicopter/fast‑jet conflict should not be an issue.
One cannot help but admire the pilots who perform this skilful and demanding form of flying, as a lapse in concentration, or an error of judgement, or just plain bad luck, can be result in disasterous consequences as noted in the following:
- The loss of Pananvia Tornado GR.1A, ZG708 in 1994, Glen Ogle, Perthshire, when the aircraft impacted into the hillside, resulting in the sad loss of the pilot and WSO.
- The loss of BAE Hawk T.1, XX193 in 1999, Shap, Cumbria, when the aircraft after initiating a turn impacted into a building and bridge on the outskirts of the village, resulting in the sad loss of both pilots.
- The loss of Panavia Tornado F.3, ZE982 in 2009, Glen Kinglass, Argyll, when the aircraft ran out of room in a tight turn and impacted into the hillside with the sad loss of the pilot and WSO.
From a photographer's perspective, the ideal location to capture an image of an aircraft in the low flying environment is where the
topography allows the photographer to climb to a height parallel or higher than the aircraft, so that the resultant photograph has the
aircraft relatively close and landlocked.
Low flying areas, LFA7 (North Wales and the Mach Loop), LFA14 (Scottish Highlands), LFA20T (Scottish Borders) and LFA17 (Lake District) are the most ideal areas to capture aircraft in the low flying environment, due to the mountainous terrain and numerous steep sided narrow valleys, which aid in funnelling the aircraft nearer to the photographer.
The locations used for images captured in the low flying photography section are shown in more detail, in the Military Low Flying Location sections.