The Mach Loop

I’m on a roll at the moment, so here’s a quick post about the Mach Loop. It’s an area here in North Wales where low flying military aircraft can be photographed as they fly through the valleys. There’s no timetable of when this will happen, but generally you can say Monday to Friday, usually during daylight hours, although Friday is usually POETS day so there may be limited traffic then.

To get there I have to leave the house at six and after an hour and a half drive it’s time to climb up the side of a hill to the vantage point which puts you level or even above the aircraft as they fly through the valley. In reality there are several vantage points but my favourites are CAD East and CAD West. It’s very rare that you wont find other photographers up there waiting for the same thing as you and often that wait can be long. Sometimes it’s three hours of boredom followed by ten seconds of sheer panic as you spot the incoming aircraft, get you camera up, focus and fire the shutter, hoping that you’ve got a least one in sharp enough focus.

CAD-East-Base-Camp

But of course, we’re photographers with a common interest so it’s not really hours of boredom, we chat, talk about gear, which aircraft we seen, keep in contact with the other photographers who are on the other vantage points, have a look at flightradar 360 to see what military aircraft are flying and where they are, and most importantly listen to the radio scanners for those magic words “low level LFA7”. And the tents? Not normally for sleeping, more to keep your kit dry, the wind off, it can be cold at those heights, and generally act as your own little shelter against the elements.

So when your up that hill you have to carry, camera, lenses spare batteries, food, water, hot drink, and the tent. The only good thing is the load is lighter on the way down. Is it worth it? To me yes. If I get one good photograph on a day, I’m a happy guy. If I don’t there’s always the banter, and amazing scenery to enjoy. On a clear day you can see so far.

On the CAD east side you get to see the underside of the aircraft as well as head on photographs as they make their approach. It just gives you that little bit of extra time to pick them up and focus.

Hawk T2

Tornado GR4

CAD West, you’ll get cockpit photographs but the difficulty is that you are photographing into the sun which can make it difficult.

Tornado Swept Wing

Hawk T2

At the end of the day I’ve been on the hillside ten and a half hours, it’s six o’clock and it’s time to go home. Faced with another hour and a half drive home I’m eager to get off the hill, and I’m not alone. Military activity has slackened off. The scanners have been quiet for a good hour the radar picture shows nothing up flying in the vicinity so we all make the decision to head home.

All-Packed-Up

The tents get packed up, camera gear is stowed, we take all of our litter and head home.

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A Visit To The Mach Loop LFA7

A lot has been said elsewhere about the Mach Loop so I’ll keep this short. It’s an area in Wales where military aircraft practice low-level flying through several valleys. So if you can get high enough you will be at the same height or maybe even higher than the aircraft transiting through the loop. Of course, being military, there’s no public schedule of when an aircraft is likely to go through, so it’s a case of get there early, stay late, be prepared for hours of inactivity and then sudden bursts of activity. . This means you have to carry enough food and water to sustain yourself while you wait. Of course being Wales, you must also be prepared for changing weather conditions as well.

The Valley
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/1250s at f4.2, ISO 200

Our plan for the two days we would be in this area was to photograph from CAD West, the right hand side of this photograph and the following day use CAD East on the opposite side of the valley. CAD West allows you to photograph the cockpit side of the aircraft as they fly through, but during the morning you are shooting into the sun which can cause problems with shadows. From CAD East you will see the underside of the aircraft but you don’t have the same problems with the sun until late afternoon.

Right, let’s get the aircraft in…if only it were that easy. We waited from 8:30 until about 12 before the first aircraft, a Tornado from the Royal Air Force, came through. Not unusual, to wait that time and then you have to be quick with the camera. These aircraft fly fast and from seeing them enter until they fly away, you’ve probably got about 10 seconds but cut that in half for the real close-ups.

Tornado
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/1600s at f5.6, ISO 200

However if you are lucky enough to get a “Fat Albert”, Hercules C130 you’ve got all the time in the world.

Fat Albert
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/800s at f4.4, ISO 200

Yep! We’re higher than he is. Oh! I love these, they’re so easy to photograph.

Our next low flyer was this juvenile bird. I think it’s a Wheatear but regular readers will know my bird identification skills have never been that great. Anyway this little guy kept flying close to all the photographers. He was looking for any scraps of food we would drop. Quick dash, scoop it up and then fly back to the fence to wait for the next titbit.

Wheatear
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/640s at f5.6, ISO 200

Did I mention we were on the side of that hill on the hottest day of the year so far. Temperatures soared to 30C – 90F which meant we had to carry more water and make sure we were well covered in sunscreen. Factor 50 for me, I’m a “peely wally” Scot.  This phrase is often used to describe the Scottish complexion but alabaster or ivory might be more complimentary. In other words I burn when exposed to the sun. And another thing from the car-park to our location is a climb of approximately 100m – 328ft. Doesn’t seem much but the last part is a steep climb at about a 45 degree angle, even early in the morning it was hot work.

Anyway I digress, back to the aircraft…

Hawk T2
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/800s at f5.6, ISO 200

Next to come through was a Hawk from RAF Valley, it’s the two-seater version and I caught this one just as he banked to come through the gap.

CAD East
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/640s at f5.6, ISO 200

I wonder if the guys up on CAD East got that one. That’s there we’re going the next day. Looks hot up there as well.

After that little flurry of activity it all went quiet and we sat on the hill baking in the sun. Some took to their tents, others just waited it out listening to their scanners for any signs of activity

Waiting
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/2500s at f4, ISO 200

After a couple of hours of waiting, news spread that a Tornado was inbound.

Tornado Swept Wing
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/1000s at F5.6, ISO 200

This boy’s in a hurry, swept wing, he’s not hanging about, that’s for sure. I managed to get this one photograph of him…and the noise. There’s nothing like the sound of a military jet engine in a semi confined space. Sheer joy! After that we decided it was time to get off the hill. We’d run out of water and really needed to re-hydrate, fortunately there was plenty in the car, even if it was going to be warm.

Rather than go home I’d booked a night’s stay at Plas Gwyn a fantastic B+B in he nearby village of Dolgellau. Julie and Jan made us really welcome and if you’re ever in this part of the world I can highly recommend a stay here.

Overnight the expected thunderstorms rolled in, here was heavy rain but our next day started clear and certainly a lot cooler. So after a hearty breakfast at Plas Gwyn we set of for CAD East. Less of a climb today. You can drive up a farm track which will get you near the top of the hill, leaving just a short walk up to a good vantage point overlooking CAD West and the valley. There’s limited parking though and if you go up this route don’t forget to shut the gates and keep the speed low as the sheep and cows roam freely here. Once on the top the view is magnificent.

CAD East
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/500s at F8, ISO 200

There was a lot of low cloud further down the valley but it shouldn’t stop any low-level flying as the aircraft turn as they get over the lake. So it’s just a case of waiting now. There were a few guys up there already and they’re a friendly bunch so while we wait, we chat and listen to the scanners for air activity. But we could see a problem developing, those level clouds were approaching fast and they were starting to look really thick.

The Clouds
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus M 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R 1/6400s at f4, ISO 200

Pretty soon we were sitting in the clouds, the temperature had dropped dramatically, but worst of all we could hear aircraft flying above us, for F15’s but they wouldn’t fly low-level through this muck. Even if they had we wouldn’t see them.

Low Cloud
Sony Xperia M4 Aqua, 1/380s at f2, ISO 100

Anyway by 2pm it was obvious that this cloud wasn’t going to clear fast, so it was time to call it a day and get off the hill. But when you have no visual landmarks it’s all too easy to get disoriented and go the wrong way. Fortunately, because of continuous use there’s a reasonably well-marked track and a fence line to follow which will get you back to the car park.

I hope you enjoyed this short visit to the Mach Loop with me, Maybe we’ll do it again soon, but not in such hot weather.