Military low-flying over Ullswater

by Nigel Wharmby

Banner Image © Nigel Wharmby

Those of you who live in the Lake District or who have visited this beautiful part of the country when the weather has been good will no doubt have had your peace shattered at some stage by the sight, or more importantly the sound, of military aircraft, most often fast jets, screaming down one of the many valleys. As both an RAF fighter pilot, responsible for that sound occasionally, and also as a member of the Patterdale community on the receiving end, I was invited to take this opportunity to explain a little about what we do, how and why we do it. I will limit the discussion to the Fast Jet element of which I’m a part, although much of the rationale pertains equally to helicopters and tactical multi-engine aircraft.

Military low-flying is essential

Military low flying is an essential activity and a very perishable skill for aircrew. It provides terrain masking from a potential adversary’s ground-based air defence systems, increasing our survival in a contested air environment. It minimises exposure to hostile systems, increases the element of surprise and therefore denies or degrades hostile radar and visually laid systems. In some instances it is also essential for weapon delivery, although modern ‘smart’ weapons have greatly increased our delivery profiles and stand-off range from potential targets. But most importantly, it is a very perishable skill, owing to the demanding nature of the low level environment.

1. Kirkstone Pass © Nigel Wharmby

Training and practice are crucial for safety

It requires considerable practice to be classed as competent during initial training in the art of low level flying and navigation, which is why you will see training aircraft such as Hawks at least as often as you see Typhoons in the valleys of the Lake District. I have deliberately broken out ‘flying’ and ‘navigation’ as two distinct elements. Flying at low level demands particular concentration and imposes a high workload on the aircrew. Flying over reasonably level terrain, maintaining an accurate height and speed is a skill which we impart to our students at an early stage. Transfer that flying into an area where the surrounding terrain is higher than the aircraft presents a greater challenge. Our Hawks and other frontline aircraft routinely fly at 420 knots (480 mph) for tactical and flight safety reasons. That's 8 miles every minute or one mile every 7 seconds. 

2. Brotherswater © Nigel Wharmby

So low flying through winding valleys requires well-honed judgement and considerable anticipation. ‘Placing’ the aircraft to take a curve in the valley is like a Formula One racing car looking to make the apex of a bend. Add to that mix that the pilot has to navigate accurately, potentially acquire a target on the ground the size of a garden shed and be overhead to an accuracy of +/- 5 seconds and you may begin to imagine the challenge. The UK weather is also likely to be a factor, requiring split second decisions as to whether it’s fit or not to continue. Add to this that the pilot is possibly leading a pair or more of aircraft for which he has responsibility and the demands are magnified. Hence, the importance we place on the level of training and currency requirements to be proficient and above all, SAFE, in this challenging environment.

3. Southern End of Ullswater © Nigel Wharmby

Scrutiny ensures all flights are effective and safe

Given the challenges discussed above it should come as no surprise that UK low flying is highly regulated and scrutinised. The UK Military Low Flying Handbook, as well as breaking down the country into specific regions, highlights the restrictions and prohibitions by exact location. A simple example pertaining to Ullswater and Windermere is that it’s a one way flow system. Aircraft may only travel south to north to minimise risk. 

4. The Corner round Place Fell

These restrictions, together with temporary warnings, along the route are replicated on our low flying maps which, even in this age of computers and GPS, are planned and carried for every individual flight. After extensive planning, which typically takes twice as long as the actual flight, each flight route is mapped on to a Centralised Airspace Distribution System which highlights any potential confliction with other airspace users. This is scrutinised by a specialised Low Flying Booking Cell which, when satisfied, provides an individual booking number for that flight. Only then can we actually brief for and conduct the flight.

5. Ullswater © Nigel Wharmby

Hopefully, this gives you a brief insight into our low flying activity, the levels of training required and the scrutiny required to ensure that it is conducted effectively but above all SAFELY for both aircrew and the public.

By Nigel Wharmby, 

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