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Popping the Mach Loop Cherry

Gary Parsons & Mike Kerr go low-level

Legs aching, chest hurting, and it’s only half eight in the morning.  The sun’s trying to peep out from behind a distant hill and even the sheep seem half asleep. Just what on earth am I doing climbing a very Welsh hill in October?

We’re ashamed to admit it, but here at f4 towers we’ve never been ‘to the hills’ to capture some low-level action.  Everyone says it’s the thing to do, but time, distance and motivation have always been lacking in the past – but here we are, two days set aside to see what all the fuss is about.
Planning is essential, something we’re notoriously bad at.  The simple steps were done – check the best place to go, make sure it’s a weekday (the RAF and USAF still don’t cooperate and fly at weekends) and pack the camera bag.  As novices, we decided to go where the action was most guaranteed, so it had to be North Wales and the ‘Mach Loop’; there’s lots of info elsewhere on t’web on this low-level system, so we won’t bore you with the technicalities, but check out www.warplane.co.uk and www.lowfly.net for more.

Day One

There are several locations to the Mach Loop, but we went for the Bwlch just to the west of Dinas village where the sun would be behind us, a good view ‘upstream’ ensures there’s time to see something coming and the climb’s not too severe.  Jets fly the loop anti-clockwise, at least they’re supposed to, so traffic would flow east to west.

At least I’ve got some sensible climbing boots on – a last minute thought that it may not be a good idea to go in trainers was validated as the boggy ground squelches and rivulets run down the mountainside from overnight rain.  The climb didn’t look too bad from the car park, but half way up I look back and the car seems a thousand feet below us. Gulp.  It’s probably only three hundred feet, but I’ve never been good with heights.

We reach the top – there are three levels at the Bwlch, each separated by a hundred feet or so.  It’s about nine in the morning, and we check out the views, which are superb – Snowdon is away to the North-East and the sun is basking the other side of the valley.  Cameras are readied and the first action eagerly anticipated...

We’re not alone on the hill – very rarely would you be, as the small car park is nearly always full of about ten cars.  Taff is on his sixth visit, and his mate maybe climbs twice a year or so.  Taff has yet to see a Typhoon – or a Tornado GR4 – so our spirits sink, it could be a loooooong day...

The scanner has some air-to-air chatter, so there are aircraft about.  Most of the chat is from Hawks from nearby RAF Valley on training sorties, and we’re reasonably confident we’ll see one of those...maybe...  At 10:40 we’re thinking the fence at Coningsby would have been a better choice, when there’s a shout and a light appears from around the corner over Dinas. “Hawk!”  There’s a surprise, but it’s some action at least.  I’m going for the action shot, so 1/400th has been set on the 20D fitted with a 300mm fixed lens – as I’m lazy and can sort out the mess in Photoshop later, have decided that Tv mode is the way to go.  As we’re shooting against the hill and not sky, the automatic metering should be close enough.

Day Two

In about five seconds the Hawk has pulled hard right and zips through the valley beneath us – it’s not as close as I thought it’d be, but is about three-quarter frame in the viewfinder.  He pulls hard left around the hill and disappears – “He may be back in three minutes”, says Taff.  The ‘loop’ is exactly that, and sure enough three minutes later he pops out over Dinas again.  Another volley of shots and he’s gone, this time turning right and back to RAF Valley.

Time to chimp – seem okay on the small screen, but it’ll need the PC to be sure.  Everyone’s now anticipating more action, looking east towards Dinas expectantly.  Gradually cameras are lowered, the chat picks up and more coffee is poured.

The day continues in the same vein – maybe an hour’s wait, then a Hawk pops around the corner.  Ho hum – it would be good to get something grey and pointy.  As fun as Hawks are, a two hundred mile journey and overnight stay needs a bit more to justify itself.  To dampen the spirits even more, the sun has gone and a chilly breeze has picked up, something the Bwlch is notorious for.  Even five layers of clothing and a woolly hat don’t stop the hands and feet getting cold, and it’s only early October.

At 14:45 another shout, but the shapes are different – Tornados!  This is more like it as two GR4s chase each other through the valley.  Buffers are filled as the two jets flash by, the second escaping almost unphotographed as he’s close to the first one.  They pull hard left, and hopes are high for a second lap.  Five minutes later though, the mood falls flat – it’s obvious they’re not coming back.  Taff’s happy though, the first for him in six visits.  Hopes are high now for more fast jets, but the afternoon fades away with two more Hawks before we call it a day at 17:15, fading light and the need for warmth winning the battle.  There’s always tomorrow...

08:45 and we’re slightly late, driving through Dinas. “What’s that?” asks Mike.  “What’s what?” I ask, then we both see a Hercules roar overhead, swinging left as he heads for the Bwlch.  “Bastard!” is the only thing we can say, as the pedal is put to the metal.

Half an hour later and we’re in position, this time at the second level lower down the hill.  Everyone else was caught out by the C-130, our only consolation at this moment in time.  The RAF is up earlier today as a Hawk whistles through at 09:30 with another half an hour later – three aircraft before half ten, much better than yesterday.  It’s overcast today, but little breeze so it feels a bit warmer and there’s the prospect of some sun later on.

We joke about what we want to see – F-15Es, German F-4F (there’s one at Coningsby at the moment) before more exotic things such as B-1Bs, Lightnings and B-2As (that’s what the boredom does to you).  Another Hawk at 10:30 – I must admit to getting slightly deflated seeing that single light every time.  But an hour later, even a Hawk would be welcome.  Just as I’m contemplating suggesting we play ‘I spy’, it’s suggested F-15s could be on the way – they’ve been picked up on the scanner and want to go low-level.  I’ll believe it when I see it, I suggest.

But sure enough, five minutes later the familiar vortices trailing off the wingtips of two Eagles can be seen – they’re higher than the RAF jets, with the second one not in the valley.  They pass by, barely getting below the hilltops, but turn hard left – will they be back?  Three minutes later – Yes!  Lower this time and cameras go into machine-gun mode for a few seconds.  The light’s not good, but nobody really cares as the Eagles turn and twist their way through the valley.

 A Hawk fools us a few minutes later as we think the Eagles may come around again, and so the excitement dies and sandwiches are attacked.  An hour passes before two new shapes appear – Typhoons!  Still relatively rare at low level, two FGR4s from 3 Squadron make a single pass to the satisfaction of all, buffers well and truly filled on Canons and Nikons alike.  We now just need a Harrier to complete the strike set...

The next two and a half hours are the longest of the two days.  Sunshine comes and goes, aircraft are heard on the scanner and in the air, but nothing enters the loop, not even a Hawk.  At 16:00 hopes are fading, but a single aircraft sweeps into view – Harrier!  Believe it or not, it’s the set-completer, but just as he pulls right to go below us he pulls up and flies over the valley maybe a hundred feet above us.  It’s only half a shot – side on, but just sky in the background – could have been taken anywhere.  Damn.

Over the next hour two Hercules pass across to the west, but not near enough and neither enters the loop.  Nearly 17:00, and we’re thinking of giving up, when another Harrier sweeps into view – and into sun!  Better still it’s carrying mission marks, and is possibly the shot of the last two days.  Another Hawk five minutes later completes the day for us, as the sun is now so low that it’s disappearing below Cadair Idris.  As we get back to the car park, a Hawk T2 screams overhead – “Bastard!” is all we can say once more.

So, are we hooked? Well, no, not really – sure it’s great when a jet appears and the photographic opportunities are superb, but there’s a lot of thumb-twiddling in between.  We were reasonably lucky too – the weather was kind, we had Tornados, Typhoons, F-15Es and Harriers, more than some have seen in several trips.  We’ll certainly be back, but not until next summer when it’ll be warmer, there’s more light to play with and I’ve been to the gym a few times...


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