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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 November 2023

In November, accompanied by my wife I embarked upon my second photography safari of 2023 to India, primarily looking for tigers. On this trip we were travelling to Bandhavgarh National Park in the Umaria District of Madhya Pradesh. This was our fifth visit to Bandhavgarh, which is regarded as one of the premier parks for tiger sightings.

Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve sign

We last visited Bandhavgarh in October/November 2022. I was undecided whether to visit again at the same time of year, as tiger sightings can be more difficult due to the jungle blossoming into life after the recent monsoon rains. The vegetation is lush and dense and the big cats can disappear into the jungle only a few metres from the forest tracks. With more water available in the jungle interior, tigers are not restricted to the waterholes used during the dry season where the chances of a sighting can increase. On a positive note, the jungle is more photogenic when in bloom and the temperatures are more bearable than the intense heat of the dry season. Bearing these points in‑mind, we decided to go with the mindset we would see nothing and if we did see a tiger it would be a bonus.

We were flying British Airways to New Delhi, where we would catch an internal flight to Jabalpur, approximately 180km south‑west of Bandhavgarh. From Jabalpur it was a four‑hour journey by taxi to our hotel, Bandhav Vilas, located on the outskirts of the village of Tala, after which the main safari zone of Bandhavgarh is named. The itinerary was to depart London Heathrow on Wednesday 15th and arrive at our lodge midday Thursday, in time for the afternoon jungle safari.
(Note: on previous visits to Bandhavgarh, we travelled by overnight train from New Delhi to Katni, from where we had a two‑hour journey by taxi to Tala).

We had the India travel visa from our visit to Ranthambhore in April. The hotel and fourteen private jeep safaris were booked and the B.A international flights and India internal flights were finalised and paid. The next day, we were informed by B.A. they had cancelled their flight to New Delhi ‑ Unbelievable!. The jungle safaris are non‑refundable, as were the internal flights. The next scheduled B.A. flight to New Delhi meant we would not arrive at Tala till after the weekend, missing a large chunk of our holiday. It was beginning to look as if it was not worth going, as we would be starting our return journey from Bandhavgarh to the U.K. the following Friday.

Wednesday 15th - To cut a long story short, we eventually departed London Heathrow at 20:30 on a B.A. overnight flight to Mumbai.

Thursday 16th - We arrived in Mumbai late morning and transferred to the Taj Santacruz Hotel located next to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. We had to stay overnight in Mumbai as our IndiGo Airlines flight to Jabalpur did not leave till the Friday afternoon. This allowed us to recover from the nine‑hour overnight flight and sample the local cuisine of the luxury hotel and relax in our sixth‑floor room which overlooked the airport main runway.

Friday 17th - We eventually boarded our Airbus A320 IndiGo Airlines flight to Jabalpur two‑hours later than planned, due to the inbound flight being delayed. Upon arriving at Jabalpur after nearly a two‑hour flight, we boarded our private taxi to Tala. The 180km journey took approximately 3.5‑hours. We arrived at our hotel late evening where we were greeted by Rambeer Singh, or Ram for short, who would be our naturalist/tracker/driver for the next eleven jungle safaris. After a light snack we retired for the evening, as we had an early morning wake‑up call.

By travelling to Mumbai, we arrived at Bandhavgarh earlier than if we waited for the next scheduled B.A. flight to New Delhi. The downside was the travel took a lot longer than our original itinerary and we lost three jungle safaris.

Ram, Natutralist/driver Ram, our naturalist/driver

The itinerary for the next seven days was as follows:
Up early (04:45) for our morning game drive. A cup of coffee and some biscuits in the hotel reception to help wipe away the tiredness. We then board our Maruti Suzuki Gypsy vehicle and travel into Tala to the Forest Department Centre, where Ram, would pick‑up the Forest Department guide/tracker, which is compulsory for all jeeps entering the park. The guide carries a GPS so that the Forest Department can monitor the location of all vehicles in the park. We then travelled to the entrance gate of our designated zone for the safari, which opened at 06:15, where we must present our passports. The passport details must match those of the original booking, or access would be denied. A picnic breakfast was taken in the park at a designated location. All jeeps must exit the park by 11:30, or the tracker and naturalist could be fined or given a limited ban. We then returned to the hotel where we had free time till lunch, which was served at 13:00. After lunch we had more free time till the afternoon safari. The afternoon safari was the same procedure as in the morning. The park opened at 15:00 and all jeeps had to exit by 17:45. Returning to the hotel we had free time till the evening meal, which was served at 20:00. After the evening meal we retired for the evening after a long, exhausting but enjoyable day.

Bandhavgarh, which is set among the Vindhya Hills was declared a national park in 1968 and became a tiger reserve in 1993. The reserve covers a total area of 1,536 sq. km, which is divided into a core zone and buffer zone. The core zone covers an area of 716 sq. km and is divided into three zones: Tala (zone 1), Magadhi (zone 2) and Khitauli (zone 3). The buffer zone cover an area of 820 sq. km and is also split into three zones: Dhomokhar, Johila (Kalwa) and Panpatha (Pachpedi). Our eleven jungle safaris were conducted between the three core zones.

The topography of Bandhavgarh National Park varies between steep ridges, undulating forests and open meadows. The habitat of the park is termed as ‘Moist Mixed Deciduous Forest with a predominance of Sal’. On the low‑lying areas Sal trees are the predominant species, but forests of mixed deciduous type gain prominence on the upper hills, and hilltops with shallow soil and rocky outcrops. Bamboo is found almost throughout the park.

Typical jungle safari view. Tala zone. A typical view. Tala zone.

Saturday 18th.
Morning safari, Tala zone - Tala is noted for the fort which stands on a plateau overlooking the surrounding countryside. Halfway up the southern slope of the plateau is a large monolithic statue of the reclining Lord Vishnu, known as Shesh Shaiya, which is highly revered and a major tourist attraction. Tala zone is characterised by tall Sal forests, hillocks, grasslands and many large meadows, such as Chackradhara and Rajbhera. Many documentaries on tigers have been filmed in these meadows, such as: ‘The Hunt’ and ‘Dynasties’.
During the safari we observed tiger pugmarks and heard chital and monkey warning calls, but no tigers were seen. A jackal was seen scavenging in the tall grass, but it was too obscured to get any photos.

Bandhavgarh Fort The large plateau on which stands Bandhavgarh Fort. Tala zone.

Reclining Vishnu, known as Shesh Shaiya The 35 feet long statue of Lord Vishnu, found in a reclining position. Tala zone.

Afternoon safari, Khitauli zone - A zone comprised more of a dry‑deciduous forest.
We saw our first tiger shortly after entering the zone. Pujari, a large male was resting in a waterhole. His head was just visible, and by standing on the seat of the jeep I was able to get an unobstructed view for photos. Eventually he walked off into the jungle. He was seen crossing the road shortly after, but there were too many jeeps in front of us to get any photos.

Sunday 19th.
Morning safari, Tala zone - Shortly after entering the zone we were informed by another jeep that a tiger had crossed the road in front of them and disappeared through the dense foliage down onto a dry riverbed. We slowly moved along the road and suddenly our Forest Department tracker spotted the tigress, Chakradhara, resting on the sandy riverbed. Amazing how he spotted her, as she was just visible. The tigress eventually started walking towards an area where the road dropped down and crossed the dry riverbed. We arrived at the crossing just as she appeared onto the road and started walking ahead of us. She walked along the road only for a short distance before moving off into the jungle. We pulled‑up alongside the area and observed her tree scratching and scent marking, before she walked down onto the dry riverbed and disappeared. The other three jeeps at the sighting departed to the park Centre Point for their picnic breakfast. We decided to wait in the anticipation she would reappear, but she did not. After thirty minutes we decided to depart for our breakfast. Travelling to the Centre Point we passed a lot of jeeps who had finished their breakfast and were heading back towards the area where we had seen the tigress. Nearing the Centre Point we saw a jeep parked on the side of the road. As we approached, they informed us that there was a tiger by the stream, drinking. Approximately 75m away on the opposite bank of the stream, partially hidden from view was the tigress, Dotty. For the next thirty minutes our two jeeps followed the tigress as she followed the stream, scent marking, drinking and occasionally entering the water to cool off.

Tigress called, Dotty Tigress, Dotty. Tala zone.

She was quite distant at times, as the road did not always follow the course of the stream. I overcame this problem by adding a 1.4x extender to my 200‑500mm lens, which gave me a total focal length of 700mm. The road eventually crossed the stream where we could park‑up and watch the tigress approach through the tall grass bordering the stream and walk onto the road. She walked past our jeeps, less than 10ft away, before disappearing into an area where we were not allowed to follow. Ram, our naturalist, informed us that, Dotty, had been ousted from her territory in the Magadhi zone (near to where we first saw her) by her four daughters and that she was probably in the Tala zone looking to secure a new territory. A late breakfast finished off a very successful morning safari.

Afternoon safari, Magadhi zone - A zone characterised as grassland with a mixed dense forest cover. The zone borders the Tala zone and some tigers who live in Magadhi also share their territories with the Tala zone.
We saw tiger pugmarks and heard the growling of two tigers mating, but no tigers were seen.

Monday 20th
Morning safari, Magadhi zone - Immediately after entering the zone a deer alarm call was heard off to one side of the road, followed by a monkey alarm call on the opposite side of the road. We waited as the alarm calls continued. Eventually they subsided and stopped, meaning the tiger was lying down or had moved out of the area. We went to the area we had heard the tigers growling during the morning safari, but no tigers were seen. There had been no sightings by any jeeps during the safari.

Jeeps waiting after hearing tiger alarm calls Jeeps wait patiently hoping for a tiger to appear after hearing alarm calls. Magadhi zone.

Afternoon safari, Khitauli zone - A male tiger had been sighted in the zone during the morning safari, so we headed straight to the location where we soon found the male tiger, D1, walking along the road. D1, who was approximately four‑years old, was from the first litter of the tigress, Dotty. The tiger soon turned off the road into the jungle, but continued walking parallel to the road in the direction of a river that lay ahead. We went ahead and positioned ourselves behind two jeeps that were on the ford that crossed the river. We were in the perfect position for capturing photos as the tiger approached from upstream, walking down the middle of the shallow river towards us.

Male tiger, D1 Male tiger, D1. Khitauli zone.

After the tiger passed us and carried on his route downstream, we quickly followed the road around to where it crossed the river again. There were already jeeps on the low bridge awaiting the tiger's arrival, so we had to park on the road where it started to drop down towards the river. It was not a problem, as it was a good vantage point and gave another good photo opportunity. The tiger approached from upstream and stopped short of the bridge, looking confused by the jeeps blocking his path. He did not appear to look distressed, because he calmly laid down in the water and started drinking. Eventually the tiger walked onto the riverbank past the jeeps and continued his journey downstream.

Tuesday 21st.
Morning safari, Tala zone - Lots of tiger pugmarks on the road, but no alarm calls were heard. We exited the park with no tigers seen.

Entrance gates to Tala zone Entrance to the Tala safari zone.

Afternoon safari, Tala zone - Lots of tiger pugmarks on the road, but the park was quiet. We were driving towards the exit when a sambar deer alarm call was heard from the area we had just left. A sambar deer alarm call is a 99% guarantee of a tiger in the area, but it was too far away to return, as it was nearing the time to exit the park. We learned later that a jeep did have a fleeting glimpse of a tiger at that location.

Wednesday 22nd.
Morning safari, Magadhi zone - One of the four young daughters of the tigress, Dotty, was spotted in the tall grass of a meadow. The tigress seemed to be limping. The injury was the possible result of a fight with another tiger. She disappeared into the long grass and was not seen again.
Later in the safari, we had to divert from our planned route due to wild elephants feeding on the side of the road. A jeep travelling ahead of us had made a hasty retreat due to being charged by one. The wild elephants which had arrived in the park last year could be aggressive (especially if they had young) and quite destructive. You could sometimes see where they had been feeding by the broken tree branches and vegetation littering the forest roads. On one occasion the road was blocked by a tree the elephants had knocked over. Ram, our driver, was very cautious of the elephants, because last year a female with a calf had chased his jeep for over a kilometre. The opportunity never presented itself where we could observe the elephants at a safe distance, so I never captured any photos of them.

On Wednesday afternoons the park is closed to the public, so we had free time to ourselves.

Thursday 23rd.
Morning safari, Magadhi zone - Spotted deer alarm calls were heard in a wooded area adjacent to the meadow we saw the injured tigress on Wednesday morning. The alarm calls gradually moved away from us over to the far side of the woods, so we decided to move over to that area. When we arrived in the area a jeep informed us that a tiger with a limp had just crossed the road and disappeared into the jungle. We had missed the sighting by two minutes ‑ Ah such is life.

Afternoon safari, Khitauli zone - In a meadow just a short distance from the entrance gate we found the male tiger, Dhamokhar, laid down in the grass. His head and upper body was just visible above the grass. We watched him for about ten minutes when suddenly the tigress, Ra, emerged from the tall grass, approximately twenty metres away from him. For the next hour we watched as they mated numerous times, the act always finishing with the tigress emitting a deep growl, as the experience can be quite painful for her. On one occasion she even turned on the male lashing out with her claws, with the male rearing up on his hind legs to defend himself ‑ An amazing and privileged spectacle to witness. Eventually the female wandered off, with the male following her.

Tigress, Ra, lashes at the male, Dhamokhar Tigress, Ra, lashing out at the male, Dhamokhar, after finishing mating.

Friday 24th.
Morning safari, Tala zone - We were in the park less than five minutes when we spotted the pugmarks of a large male tiger. We followed them for about a mile, when up ahead we saw two jeeps parked on the side of the road. Laid down on the short grass, approximately forty metres away on the edge of the jungle was the zones large dominant male tiger, Bajrang (which means, Monkey God, in Hindu). He was quite relaxed, and for the next twenty minutes we watched as he kept calling out for a female partner with a deep throaty growl, which resonated throughout the jungle. It was only 06:30, so the light was not ideal for photography as the location was in the shade and the sun was still low on the horizon. Nevertheless, it was a nice sighting for our last jungle safari. Eventually the tiger rose to his feet and started walking. By now more jeeps has arrived on the scene, so we decided to leave, as it was starting to get chaotic with jeeps jostling for position.

Bajrang, male tiger. Bajrang, dominant male tiger of the Tala zone.

Today we were leaving Bandhavgarh to start our return journey to the U.K. so we had to cut‑short our safari. We left the zone at 09:00 to return to the hotel to pack our luggage and bid our farewells to Ram, and the hotel staff. We left the hotel at 10:00 to make the journey back to Jabalpur by private taxi, where we caught a mid‑afternoon IndiGo internal flight to New Delhi. The flight was delayed by two‑hours, again due to the late arrival of the inbound flight, but this was no great drama as we had plenty of time to spare when we arrived in New Delhi.

Saturday 25th.
We departed New Delhi at 03:00 on a B.A. flight back to the U.K., arriving at London Heathrow early Saturday morning. Our return travel arrangements were as the original itinerary, which thankfully went without a hitch.

To conclude: I was very surprised how many tiger sightings and the quality of sightings we had compared to our visit last October/November. Wildlife is never predicable and I realise some of the sightings could be luck ‑ happening to be in the right place at the right time, but I also think a lot of the sightings were attributed to the knowledge and tracking skills of Ram (our naturalist/driver) and the Forest Department trackers, to whom we send our sincere thanks.

Photographs from my trip can be viewed at 2023 ‑ Bandhavgarh, India.

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 USA Military Low Flying.

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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