Low down and dirty in Wales

The UK is divided up into several low flying areas (LFAs). For aviation photographers these areas provide an opportunity to photograph military aircraft jinking and knife-edging through the valleys at upwards of 350 knots and at altitudes as low as 250 feet. LFA 7 basically encompasses Wales and it is here that the student pilots from RAF Valley cut their teeth. If youíre luck enough you will also be treated to a fly through by a frontliner but you had better be on your toes.

Article and images by Sťan Wilson.

The Machynlleth loop contains several ideal photographic spots. Traffic through the twenty-one mile counter-clockwise loop is mainly Hawks at a rate of one or two every hour or so but frontline fighters occasionally pay it a visit. During our four day trip we decided to concentrate on two areas, the Bwlch and Cad West.

The Bwlch is situated on the A470 between Dinas-Mawddwy and Dolgellau. You canít miss it Ė just look for the precarious ledges where normal people you would not want to spend their day!! Once up there however the view is fantastic. It was here we spent our first day, initially cursing at the clouds that were so low I could almost touch them. Then when the weather improved the cursing was redirected to the cameraís LCD screen at yet another Hawk with a set of wing tips clipped off!! The time from spotting the jet banking round the mountain in front of you to the time when it was once again a speck in the distance was about twelve seconds, assuming of course that you had been paying attention in the first place. Thankfully after a few passes my panning and ability to distinguish jet from bird came up to speed, just in time for the only frontline activity of the day. To be perfectly honest my heart was in my mouth when I spotted the pair of Harriers sneaking up the valley. Calmly does it now, donít screw this up was all that was running through my mind. A quick look at the back of the camera confirmed that day one had been a success. After that the Hawks seemed easier to track but day two would soon bring me back to earth with a bang.

Cad West is located on the A487 between Dolgellau and Machynlleth. Compared to the Bwlch there is less chance of tripping over a rock and breaking your neck but the climb is a little tougher (especially with twelve kilos of camera gear on your back) or maybe itís just Iím no longer the spring chicken I once was. This time glorious sunshine. Again, the view is stunning especially when it consists of Hawk after Hawk knife-edging right in front of you. For action shots this was certainly the place to be. After a few passes I was soon wishing I was back at the Bwlch. Life seemed so much easier over there. Now we only had about five seconds to get that perfect shot!! You had to keep scanning north because now, just to make things a little more exciting, the aircraft could come from three different areas!! A few tailless aircraft shots later and I decided it was time for some cockpit photos. Iím glad I did because to my surprise I noticed an instructor sitting back relaxing and waving at me. Our day ended with no frontline activity but a phone call telling us we had missed a Typhoon through Cad West while we were on the Bwlch at least gave us fresh hopes for the following day.

Day three was scorching hot and both enjoyable and frustrating. Let me paint the picture. By now I had probably photographed every Hawk at Valley. Please, please just one Tornado or Jaguar. Then out of the Bwlch comes two F-15s but they avoid us. Then another F-15, again refusing to come near Cad West. To top it all off, a Raspberry Ripple Jag. Turn left, please turn leftÖ. But no, he turns right and heads off towards Bala. Expletive deleted!! Then just before I try to test the flight characteristics of my camera a Harrier GR9 loaded with Mavericks and a Sidewinder appears out of nowhere. My faith in my "relaxing" hobby is restored.

Having seen the Eagles and Jag pass through the Bwlch we decided to spend our final day there. Again, low cloud cover which this time never really cleared up so no flying. Probably just as well because my sensor had collected quite a bit of Welsh mountain dirt!!

This has certainly been the most challenging photographic trip I have undertaken yet. I never thought I would hear myself say this but standing at the end of a runway photographing take-offs and landings just seems a little boring now. Next stop, the Lake District.

Thanks to Koji Nakano for the excellent company and chauffeuring duties and to Gareth from the Valley Area Spotters group without whose help we would have missed every jet on our first day.

 

 

 

             03 August 2005

 

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© Sťan Wilson 2005