In the United Kingdom, in west-central Wales, there are a series of valleys known as the Machynlleth Loop. Named for the town of Machynlleth (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) at the south end of the area, there’s not really all that much to see there unless you’re looking for picturesque green valleys, hills perfect for climbing about, and cold-water lakes that reflect the perfect blue of the skies above- when of course it isn’t cloudy.
Through these sparsely-populated valleys, at high speed and often very low level, fly Royal Air Force (RAF) Boeing CH-47 Chinooks and AH-64 Apaches, Eurofighter Typhoons, Panavia Tornados, BAE Hawks, Short Tucanos, and yes, even Lockheed C-130J Hercules transports. The RAF plays host to a number of other countries who also use the Mach Loop for low-level flight training.
Some of the finest photographs of tactical aircraft flying at low level have been captured by photographers and videographers peppered among these hills and valleys. The area, also referred to as RAF Tactical Training Area 7T, is situated under Low Flying Area 7. It all adds up to a bucket-list destination for aviation enthusiasts and photographers from all over the world. Many times observers actually look down at the aircraft as they fly by, and when humidity levels are up in the valleys the aircraft produce vapor trails when pulling Gs as they maneuver. Everyone loves a vapor trail. The RAF even publishes a timetable for Mach Loop flight activity. Vacation packages are available!
Nap-of-the-earth (NOE) flight is a critical skill for pilots of tactical aircraft. Hedgehopping, terrain-masking, ground-hugging, whatever you call it- the whole idea with NOE is to avoid detection in high-threat environments during approach to the target. When flying down in the weeds it is also less likely that the sound of the aircraft will give it away. These tactics have been proven to work time and time again. One example is the terrain masking used by the helicopters carrying SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan during Operation Neptune Spear– the mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden in May of 2011.
Back in the heady days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the advent of effective Soviet radar and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), attacks were planned and aircraft designed and built for high-altitude penetration. When Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot out of the sky over Sverdlovsk by a Soviet SAM on May 1st 1960, everything changed.
There are many military operations areas (MOAs) in the United States, but none of them are as accessible to civilian photographers and videographers as the Mach Loop.
Videos of various and sundry aircraft negotiating the Mach Loop shot from the ground are, while awesome in many ways, still just airplanes flying by. But a video shot from the cockpit of an aircraft in flight through the Welsh valleys is an entirely awesome way to experience the Mach Loop. Enjoy.
And another Pilot’s View:
(of a different aircraft flying the same Mach Loop)
( of F-15s in the Mach Loop– Video by Elwyn R on YouTube)
Title Photo by Peng Chen.