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2023 Page 2 - Latest News and Photography Trip Reports

All the latest news and trip reports from my photography adventures around the U.K and abroad.

Trip Report September 2023

On Saturday 9th September I boarded a British Airways Boeing 777 from London Heathrow to Los Angeles LAX for probably my last military low flying trip of the year.

My intention was to explore areas of the Sidewinder military low flying route lying within Death Valley National Park and for that reason I hired a Jeep Wrangler, as access to the locations would be by graded roads and rough tracks, so a vehicle with a high ground clearance was required.

In August, Hurricane Hilary, a Category 4 Pacific hurricane hit southern California and Nevada bringing torrential rainfall and gusty winds, resulting in widespread flooding and numerous mudslides. Death Valley National Park received more rainfall on August 20th than it normally does in an entire year, with all roads in the park including the CA‑190 being damaged and closed until further notice. This put the kibosh on my plans of visiting the low flying locations in the north of the park, notably Marble Canyon and Eureka Dunes, so again (second time this year) I had to arrange an alternative itinerary.

I decided to keep the hire jeep, as it would give me the opportunity to familiarise myself with the vehicle for a future trip and I considered it more suitable than a normal hire car for access to some of the locations I planned on visiting this trip.

Century Circle Logo

Sunday 10th - Today I was travelling 215 miles north of Los Angeles to Lone Pine, Inyo County, where I would be staying for one night at the Best Western Frontier Motel. After collecting my Jeep Wrangler, I made an early start to try and avoid the busy L.A. traffic. I headed north towards Mojave, making a quick detour at Rosamond to visit the Edwards Air Force Base West Gate Century Circle on Rosamond Blvd. Century Circle which is part of the Air Force Flight Test Museum, gets its name from the six displayed aircraft which make up the “Century Series” fighter aircraft of the 1950's and 1960's. The Air Force Flight Test Museum located on Edwards Air Force Base which required base access is no longer open as it will be moving outside the air base to the area at Century Circle where it will be accessible to the public. Construction of the new museum started in November 2021 but had been delayed due to the COVID pandemic and I was curious to see how it was progressing. Arriving at Century Circle I was greeted by the view of a new 60,000 sq. ft. steel framework structure constructed on the Rosamond dry lakebed adjacent to the existing aircraft exhibits. The hangar‑like structure will exhibit one of the most unique collection of research aircraft in the world. It will also protect and preserve these rare aircraft from the damaging outside elements. As the construction of the museum is not funded by the Department of Defence, but by fundraising from private sources, corporations and individuals, the completion date for the museum is still to be determined.

Century Circle and the new AFFT museum Part view of Century Circle with the steelwork for the new Air Force Flight Test Museum erected on the Rosamond dry lakebed.

After visiting Century Circle, I had lunch in Mojave before commencing my journey north to Lone Pine. Lone Pine stretches along the Highway 395 in the Owens Valley, between the eastern peaks of the Sierra Nevada range to the west and the Inyo Mountains to the east. Mount Whitney can be seen from the town and the beautiful rock formations of the Alabama Hills which have served as a backdrop from many classic Cowboy Westerns are only a short drive away. Arriving in Lone Pine early afternoon I decided to drive into the Alabama Hills and visit the iconic Movie Flat Road and the numerous natural rock arches. The effects of the recent Hurricane Hilary were evident, as access to the hills from Lone Pine was via a detour as sections of the main Whitney Portal Road were closed due to storm damage. After an enjoyable sight‑seeing afternoon and evening meal I retired for the evening in preparation for the following day.

Mount Whitney and Alabama Hills View of Mount Whitney and the Alabama Hills from Lone Pine.

Monday 11th - Today for my low flying photography I was trying a location in the Owens Valley on the Sidewinder low flying route between Waypoints C and E. Through the day I had passes by four F/A‑18's but none were landlocked. Aircraft route north to south through the valley, and as my location was facing south it was not ideal for capturing approaching photos of the aircraft as for most of the day they were backlit by the sun. Only when the aircraft passed my location to my west or east side was the light suitable for capturing images. After leaving the hill I tavelled south to spend the remainder of the week in the Kern River Valley section of the Sidewinder low flying route.

Jeep Wrangler hire vehicle Jeep Wrangler hire vehicle used for accessing locations on the Sidewinder low flying route.

In the Kern River Valley I visited some locations already tried and tested by myself but also some new locations on both sides of the River Kern between Waypoints A and B. Some of these locations involved quite a trek which was tiring due to the relatively high temperatures and rough terrain. Accessing locations on the west side of the river proved to be even more challenging, due to the thick vegetation covering the hillsides and having to cross a deep fast‑flowing tributary stream using a fallen tree trunk straddling the stream as a bridge.

Tuesday 12th - A good day with fourteen passes by a variety of Navy and Air Force jets. The highlight of my day was capturing the VX‑9 “Vampires” F/A‑18F Super Hornet, BuNo. 166791, finished in a retro gloss‑black paint scheme. The black paint and white markings pay tribute to a scheme known as “Vandy 1” which was originally carried by the commander's aircraft and flagship of VX‑4 “Evaluators”. Use of the name “Vandy” applied to all VX‑4 jets, and it originated as an abbreviation of the squadron's official “Vanderbilt” callsign used at the time. The “Vandy” tradition which has been absent for nineteen years probably returned due to the 30th anniversary of the amalgamation of VX‑4 and VX‑9 which was approved in 1993 and actioned the following year. I was also lucky to capture photos of VX‑9 “Vampires” F/A‑18F Super Hornet, BuNo. 166791 ‘XE‑260’ which had rero markings of VX‑5 “Vampires” before they merged with VX‑4 “Evaluators”.

F/A-18F Super Hornet, Vandy 1 of VX-9 F/A‑18F Super Hornet, BuNo. 166791 “Vandy 1” of VX‑9 routing low‑level through the Kern River Valley.

Wednesday 13th - I tried a location on the west side of the River Kern. All the passes today were by F/A‑18E's of VFA‑113 “Stingers” from N.A.S. Lemoore. The hill was not as high as I anticipated and most of the photos were belly shots of the aircraft, but the mountainous backdrop made for some nice captures. Today was hotter than the previous days and due to the amount of water I could carry and the distance back to my vehicle I made the wise decision at midday to leave early. I have seen people suffering from heat exhaustion and realise how quickly it can happen, so I was erring on the side of caution. Walking back to my vehicle a F/A‑18 Super Hornet, Fouga Magister and F‑35 Lightning passed overhead.

Thursday 14th - I had a long and arduous climb to my chosen vantage point, so I made an early start at 07:00 while the hill was still in the shade and the temperatures were cool. The first pass of the day at 09:42 was by a VFA‑122 “Flying Eagles” F/A‑18 Super Hornet, BuNo. 165794 ‘NJ‑104’ with F‑35 Lightning. I only captured keepable photos of the Super Hornet as the F‑35 was too close behind to have time to lock onto. The remainder of the morning saw passes by a variety of F/A‑18E's and F/A‑18F's. At 10:00 I captured my first low flying photos of a Beechcraft C‑12 Huron, BuNo. 76‑0161 from the USAF 418th Flight Test Squadron, Edwards A.F.B. I decided to leave the hill at 14:00, as it was a hot day and it was a long and difficult climb down.

Friday 15th - I decided not to climb any hills today. I didn't like the thought of coming off the hills feeling hot and sticky and then having a long drive back to Lake Elsinore, western Riverside County, where I was staying for the night. I decided to have a leisurely day, taking my time to drive back towards the L.A. area, on the way stopping off at the Air & Space Park in Mojave to view the aircraft exhibits, and Edwards Air Force Base North Gate to view the NB‑52B Stratofortress, “Balls 8’.

Photographs from the Sidewinder can be viewed at: 2023 ‑ Sidewinder.

Saturday 16th - Today I made an early start to avoid the busy L.A. traffic (but that never really works as it seems to be busy at any time) as I was visiting the Western Museum of Flight at Zamperini Field, Torrance, L.A. The museum had kindly arranged for Fred Peitzman (a museum docent) to give me a guided tour of the YF‑17 and YF‑23A which are parked in a secure compound away from the main museum. Fred gave a very informative talk on the leading‑edge extensions (LEX) of the YF‑17 and how they were developed, drawing on his own experience working for Northrop as a wind tunnel engineer. The LEX gave the YF‑17 (prototype aircraft from the Lightweight Fighter Evaluation programme which developed into the F/A‑18 Hornet) a high angle of attack which was advantageous for a fighter aircraft.

Fred Peitzman, museum docent. Fred Peitzman, museum docent and ex Northrop wind tunnel engineer.

The museum regularly holds a Celebrity Lecture Series, and this weekend it was on the Lockheed Martin/NASA X‑59 Quesst Mission, presented by two NASA test pilots, David Nils Larson (NASA X‑59 Project Test Pilot) and James L. Less (NASA X‑59 Research Test Pilot). In the U.S. supersonic flight over land is banned due to the noise and tremors it can produce. The X‑59 programme is to demonstrate the ability to fly supersonic, or faster than Mach 1 over land, while reducing the loud sonic boom to a quiet sonic thump, a much quieter and softer sound that is barely noticeable on the ground. If successful, the programme could open the door to a new generation of supersonic‑capable commercial aircraft that are able to travel faster than the speed of sound overland reducing travel time significantly.

NASA test pilots David Nils Larsen and James L. Less X‑59 NASA test pilots (l‑r) David Nils Larsen and James L. Less.

The X‑59 is currently being built at the Palmdale Lockheed Skunk Works and its first flight is planned for 2024.

After the presentation finished I had to leave (unfortunately missing the question‑and‑answer session) as it was time to return the hire car and make my way to LAX for my early evening flight back to the U.K.

Trip Report July 2023

In July I had my third military low flying trip of the year with a three‑day visit to the Mach Loop, LFA7, followed by Saturday at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire.

Wednesday 12th - I arrived at Dolgellau (Gwynedd, north‑west Wales) at 06:30 after an eight‐hour drive. After a much‑appreciated sausage butty and mug of coffee at the Costa Coffee (premises of the former Little Chef) I was prepared for the day ahead. I was undecided as to which photography location to try in the Mach Loop, but the weather conditions made me decide on The Spur, a location I have not visited since May 2018. The weather was more favourable than forecast, but it was quite windy and the location which is east facing would provide some shelter from the south‑westerly wind. Access to The Spur is via a sheep track traversing the hillside which is nicknamed the ‘Ankle Break’. Ferns which had grown to over 6ft high and were wet from the previous rainfall would have made navigating to the vantage point difficult, but I was pointed in the right direction at the start of the trek by a fellow photographer who departed to the location ahead of me. At 09:20 I had reached the vantage point and was prepared for any aircraft that might appear.
At some locations you have little time to react if an aircraft's approach is hidden from your view, so you must be constantly on high alert which can be tiring. At The Spur you can be more relaxed, as you have ample time to react to approaching aircraft as they appear around a bend in the valley routing towards you from the village of Dinas Mawddwy and past Bluebell (another photography location).

F-15E Strike Eagle, BuNo. 91-0604 USAF F‑15E Strike Eagle (BuNo. 91‑0604) takes the bend in the valley, as it approaches from Dinas Mawddwy.

The first aircraft to appear was USAF F‑15E Strike Eagle at 13:57, BuNo. 87‑0207 (in the markings of the 389th Fighter Squadron ‘Thunderbolts’, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, USA) from Lakenheath, which was quickly followed at 13:59 by a Texan T.1, ZM340 from RAF Valley. The F‑15E Strike Eagle, BuNo. 87‑0207 returned at 14:31 with a companion, BuNo. 87‑0209 in the same squadron markings. At 16:10, Texan T.1, ZM340 returned with a companion, ZM327. At 16:23 two F‑15E Strike Eagles, BuNo. 91‑0604 and BuNo. 01‑2003 of the USAF 494th Fighter Squadron ‘Panthers’ routed past, followed at 16:51 by a single Hawk T.2, Zk038 from RAF Valley.
During the late afternoon more photographers had started arriving, which signalled that something unusual was possibly going to appear. The rumour circulating was that the Spanish Navy Harriers which were visiting RAF Fairford for the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) were departing on a 1.5‑hour sortie at 17:00. Their intentions for the sortie were unknown, but there was a hint that they could possibly be visiting the Mach Loop. Everyone stayed on the hill till 18:45 but the Harriers did not show.

F-15E Strike Eagle, BuNo. 87-0207 F‑15E Strike Eagle (BuNo. 87‑0207) of the USAF 389th Fighter Squadron, ‘Thunderbolts’, routes past The Spur.

Thursday 13th - The Spur. I had planned to visit The Spur again today and I'm glad I did, because when travelling from my accommodation at the Gwesty Minffordd Hotel located near the Tal‑y‑llyn Lake, I noticed the car parking for CAD West/East and Bwlch Oerddrws to be full, with many photographers already lining the hills. Today was RIAT arrivals day and there was always the possibility of an attending aircraft routing through the Mach Loop while travelling to RAF Fairford, hence the number of people on the hills.
I managed to find a parking space and was on the hill for 09:00. The first aircraft to appear at 12:11 was a Bell Boeing CV‑22B Osprey, BuNo. 11‑0061 from the USAF 7th Special Operations Squadron, Mildenhall. At 13:36 two F‑15E Strike Eagles, BuNo. 91‑0321 and BuNo. 92‑0605 of the ‘Madhatters’ 492nd Fighter Squadron routed past and appeared again at 13:39 after doing a circuit of the Mach Loop. The Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) in the second jet must have spotted the American flag erected on the hill by some of the photographers, as he gave a wave on both passes. Texan T.1, ZM324 leading ZM330 routed past at 14:10. The last aircraft of the day, a single F‑15E Strike Eagle, BuNo. 01‑2003 of the ‘Panthers’ 494th Fighter Squadron appeared at 16:06 and again at 16:09 after flying a circuit of the Mach Loop. I left the hill at 17:50.

Friday 14th - heavy rain and strong winds prevailed all day, so I did not venture up the hills. I had an evening meal at the Gwesty Minffordd Hotel before departing at 22:00 to drive to RAF Fairford for RIAT the following day.
Photographs from the Mach Loop can soon be viewed at: 2023 ‑ UK Military Low Flying.

Saturday 15th - Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford. I first visited RIAT last year and I had no intention of going again this year, but that all changed when I heard the announcement that a Spanish Navy EAV‑8B+ Matador II (or Harrier), German Air Force Panavia Tornado ECR, Panavia Tornado IDS and a civilian replica Messerschmitt Me 262 would be attending.
RIAT which is regarded as the World's largest military airshow was staged from Friday 14th to Sunday 16th July. The theme was Skytankers23, focusing on aircraft capable of performing air‑to‑air refuelling, as 2023 is the centenary of the first air‑to‑air refuelling.

EAV-8B+ Matador II, Serial VA.1B-26 McDonnell Douglas EAV‑8B+ Matador II (VA.1B‑26 ‘01‑916’) Spanish Navy, 9 Escuadrilla.

This year I booked into the Flight Deck hospitality enclosure, which provided a crowd line location near to where the aircraft take‑off and land. The enclosure fee included a complimentary drink, lunch and the additional benefits of private toilets and unreserved informal seating.
The weather was better than forecast with only two heavy rain showers in the afternoon. Throughout the day high winds not only hindered panning for photography, but saw the cancellation of some planned flying displays as the wind speeds were above their safety limits, most notably the Me 262, which made its only flying appearance on Sunday.

Me 262 replica, Reg D-IMTT Messerschmitt Me 262A/B‑1c replica (D‑IMTT ‘501244’).

It was disappointing not to see the Me 262 display, but the Spanish Navy Harrier and German Tornado's more than compensated for its cancellation. I was going to watch the RAF Typhoon FGR.4 display, but it was delayed due to a VIP aircraft routing into Brize Norton, so I exited early to avoid the traffic congestion. I travelled the short distance to Tewkesbury where I stayed the evening before making the long journey home the following day.
Photographs from RIAT will be uploaded soon.

Trip Reports:   2023/2,   2023/1,   2022/2,   2022/1,   2021

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