Military aircraft utilize low-level training areas around the world. However, if you’re looking at a picture or watching a video of a United States Navy, Marine Corps, or Air Force aircraft flying not over but between terrain, such as valleys, hills, and mountains, chances are the image was captured in one of two well-documented and publically accessible places.
The first, located in Wales in the UK and known as the Machynlleth Loop or Mach Loop, is a low-level training area used by Royal Air Force (RAF) and NATO partners, including the United States, to practice nap-of-the-earth flight or terrain masking in everything from fighters and attack aircraft to airlifters and helicopters. The Welsh countryside captured in the background of these images starkly contrasts with the other well-documented low-level training area.
Seemingly light years away but really only half a world apart from the Mach Loop is Rainbow Canyon. Situated close to the western boundary of Death Valley National Park in California, the area is better known as Star Wars Canyon. Cut from the Santa Rosa Hills by lava from volcanic activity millions of years ago, the geology of the area strongly resembles that of the home planet of Star Wars characters Luke and Anakin Skywalker- Tatooine.
The particular terrain feature, the canyon connecting the Owens and Panamint Valleys, at the end of the Sidewinder low level route is also referred to as the “Jedi Transition”. In use as a low-level training area since World War II and part of the R-2508 Training Complex, the area is restricted for use by military aircraft only and is administered today by Edwards Air Force Base (AFB).
What makes Star Wars Canyon a stellar (or inter-stellar?) place to observe, photograph, and shoot video of tactical jets is proximity. Frequently the jets are traveling through the canyon well below Father Crowley Overlook, the favorite publically accessible observation point. Aircrews utilizing the valley to sharpen their terrain masking skills often come from the bases in the area, such as Nellis and Edwards AFBs, Naval Air Stations (NASs) Lemoore and North Island, Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake, Marine Corps Air Stations (MCASs) Miramar and Yuma, and Fresno Air National Guard Base (ANGB). Squadrons based elsewhere and passing through the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) at NAS Fallon also frequent Star Wars Canyon as do allied air forces training alongside the USAF at Nellis.
Featured in these HD videos are such tactical jets as Boeing E/A-18G Growlers from VX-9 Vampires, Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets from VFA-25 Fist of the Fleet, VFA-14 Tophatters, VFA-86 Sidewinders, VFA-97 Warhawks, VFA-22 Fighting Redcocks, VFA-136 Knighthawks, VFA-151 Vigilantes, VFA-2 Bounty Hunters, VFA-143 Pukin’ Dogs, VFA-154 Black Knights, VFA-122 Flying Eagles, VFA-146 Blue Diamonds, and VX-9 Vampires. DRAKEN International McDonnell Douglas A-4K Skyhawks, USAF F-15C Eagles from 114th FW California ANG, T-38C Talons from Edwards AFB, and F-16Cs from Hill AFB and the South Carolina ANG are also captured flying low and fast. French Air Force Fouga CM.170 Magister trainers are an unexpected bonus. There is even footage of a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III from McChord AFB transiting the canyon, although not as low or fast as the others. Turn those speakers UP. Thanks to ManteganiPhotos for posting these awesome videos complete with radio calls!
Bonus video- shot from the cockpit of a VFA-97 Warhawks F/A-18E Super Hornet flying through the Sidewinder low-level training route in winter.