WALKING IN THE AIR
A feature about Low Flying with the RAF
This feature appeared in the March 2009 issue
TOTAL silence was created in a room at Orfield Laboratories, Minneapolis in January 2004. It happened in something called an anechoic chamber, which looks like the interior of a beehive. Inside it's so eerily quiet that your breathing is deafening and you can hear the blood moving through your veins. If accounts are to be believed, this level of silence will completely freak you out.
The hills, then, are really not that quiet. Breeze, birds, water, your own wheezing - by comparison, it's an ambient opera. Nevertheless, there are some sounds which, by sheer incongruity, cut through this soft sonic breeze like a scalpel through paper. The beedle of a phone. The clink of climbing gear. Or the scorching thousand-horsepower scream of a low-flying fighter jet doing 500mph.
The movements of Her Majesty's Flying Finest in the British hills divide walkers - but often not down the classic furrows of opinion. I know carbon footprint-measuring leaf-huggers who get damp with excitement at the sight of a fast jet's black arrowhead slicing through a valley, chased by that distinctive chalk-on-a-board chafe. I also know bolshy people who are happy to shatter the tranquillity of a hilltop with their garish mobile ringtone yet spit poison about the RAF's low flying. The subject is like militaristic Marmite for the ears, with a plethora of key rants habitually popping up. Where do they go? How low is too low? And are they just showing off? So when Trail got a call from RAF Linton-on-Ouse to come and see exactly what low flying was all about, for many reasons - including several that had nothing to do with Feeling The Need For Speed - saying no really wasn't an option.
"The British are the best in the world at low flying." Flt Lt Robin Manisty should know, having flown Tornados in some of its scariest places. "It's an anti-radar technique. Stay low, stay safe. And it's a very perishable skill. If you don't get out for a week, you're out of practice."
Robin trains pilots at Linton, the Yorkshire RAF station that's home to planes which patrol the bits of the Lake District that are higher than most cars but lower than many walkers. He meets Tom and me at the gates, beyond which an odd shift takes place among the square buildings of red brick and ruffled steel semicircles. Suddenly, it's 1944 again.
Linton is first in a chain that includes RAF Valley on Anglesey, home to Snowdonia's Hawk jets. But proto-pilots initially flex their wings here, in the Tucano. As an ex-Air Cadet, I was familiar with flying in planes without stewardesses - though not like this. Today, weather permitting, we were going for an airborne duck and dive to see some familiar hills from a pilot's perspective. But first, I wanted to gain an insight into how much planning really goes into such a jaunt - and also establish how much my movements mirrored that of a recent high-profile trainee. Did Prince William use this simulator?
Did Prince William sit in this ejector seat?
Did Prince William walk through this door?
"Hard to say."
Did Prince William fly in the plane that we're going to fly in soon?
Then we go to the map room. Look at an aviation map, typically a 1:250k sheet (these guys can get across a 1:25,000 map in about four minutes) and you start to get a grasp of just how little room there actually is in British air space. Carefree showboating? You'll be lucky. Flying in the UK is like wandering blind through a 3D, supersonic version of the M25 on a Friday night: commercial jet corridors, gliding hot spots and no-fly zones are articulated in a dazzling web of runged flight paths, arrows, warnings, restrictions and one-way systems. And, among it, a few disconcertingly straight lines: our route. That aside, navigationally speaking there isn't that much difference between low flying and walking. Really.
"Navigation when you're walking is a matter of map-to-ground. In the air it is clock-to-map-to ground," says Robin, as we regard a huge map of northern Britain. "When planning, every scale of map is studied. We use collecting features, or 'stop' features, in the same way - using something seen from the air as a turning point." This is an understatement: some trainees are sent 200 miles to find a phone box using a compass and a clock.
More straightforward is the 'unofficial' aircrew map of Britain. This cheekily depicts aviation no-go areas around airports ('shark-infested custard'), attractions of an iconic nature (Harry Potter Viaduct, Dambuster Valley), more ambiguous locations ('Sally's Tits', 'Biggus Dickus') and something named simply 'Aaaaaarrrgh'. Today, we wanted mountains. "We'll head for the Lakes - if we can get into it. We can't low fly if there is cloud cover."
The pre-flight briefing, given by Flt Lt Jan Janiurek, swiftly established that he was not the only thing capable of soaring clear overhead.
"Outlook is a sixteen, with an uncertain ten and a sticky six. Cloud cover is disgruntled, with a gelatinous ratio - but the biscuit's thin. Recipe is good, with a sideways Oliver on the forks and a questionable chopstick, though improving above 8,000ft. Side winds are schizophrenic but taken with caution there shouldn't be any need to medicate but, er, take care with the wickets, chaps. [Rueful chuckle from all.] The pattern should be two on one, but with a fast three should we lose the four. Overall then, good - but with a small chance of a seven."
This isn't verbatim, of course. But I was bewildered enough to air a loud "Sorry, but pardon?!" in a room full of They Who Very Coolly Dare. Part of me suspected this was all code for 'Right, chaps: we've got a couple of lilies with us today, so do your worst,' but the studious scribbling of notes around me suggested this extraordinary verbal schematic was indeed a flight plan.
Tom and I were then suited up, and - after sniggering at each other's helmets and hoses for a while - led by Robin and Jan to the runway. The Tucano T1 is built for training fast jet pilots, but it isn't a jet. It's got a turboprop, which makes it look like a heavy metal Spitfire, and is the reason why the noise you often hear in the Lakes is more a Battle of Britain neeeeeeeeeow than the scratchy sizzle of a jet. But it's every bit as manoeuvrable, can scud along at 310mph, and can pull itself up to 30,000ft without a sniff. Anything faster than a Tucano can't handle the turns of the tighter valley-to-valley flying in the Lakes. According to Jan it's "more than fast enough".
So here we go. I'm sat in the front seat, having things clipped and tightened around me. It's like the interior of a 1950s racing car: purposeful gunmetal, black-on-white dials with zebra-striped insets, usepolished knobs and serious-looking levers. Between my legs is a yellow loop - a reminder that I'm sitting on a bang seat filled with enough gunpowder to shoot me out the plane like a shrill green firework. There's no radar. Instead, looking at me from the most prominent position on the dash is a Heuer stopwatch. It's technological, but comfortingly mechanical - more like a lawnmower than a 767.
The engine coughs. A sputter, it catches, a rising, stiff rumble. The cockpit shakes. The instrument numbers softly double with vibration. Hissing oxygen chills my mouthpiece, compressed conversations fill my ears. The cooling system kicks in, turning the air white with ice mist as we taxi out. Beyond the transparent disc of the spinning propeller is the runway, and the hills of Yorkshire. And then, with a muscular pull from the front and a light waggle from the rear, we're up, the fields scrolling a few hundred feet beneath us.
Flying at 250ft - the minimum height for general low flying, and lower than even the weediest Lakeland fell - is odd. It's not like looking down from a hill: you are detached from the environment, and seemingly omnipotent over it. Cars, houses, bridges - you feel bigger than them. It's like being in a normal plane, but a few trenches closer to the action - close enough to feel the heat and smell the fumes.
We're on a straight-line course to celebrated northern nipple Roseberry Topping. Soon its profile spears from the skyline. We fly alongside, outlines of people on its crest standing surprisingly tall. A few wave. Like every fraudster flyboy I respond with a theatrical salute. I didn't care if they thought it was cheesy: I was the coolest plonker on the planet.
On our second orbit, Tom and Jan's plane banks sharply away from us to some lively radio chatter. "They're off home."
"Your photographer's poorly."
Poor Tom. I watch them leave, hoping he made it to his sick bag. Looking at the crannies around me in the cockpit, the alternative was too horrific to consider.
Now alone, Rob and I head for the Lakes. We fly along the Ribble Valley towards the barrage of cloud. Low flying demands as naturalistic an approach to reading and moving across the land as walking - only bigger. Where a walker might use a gully or a stream as a handrail, planes use something slightly chunkier, like Wharfedale. The valleys are your paths, low clouds your uncrossable rivers, the sky your bail-out. Your speed makes everything dizzyingly dynamic. A lone figure treks up to the summit of a hill, walker and mountain static against a spinning backdrop. The sun's sharp glint doesn't linger leisurely on rivers but smelts transiently along them, a streak of brilliant, molten silver catching my eye from all corners as we scythe along the valley, roads and railways intermittently aligning beneath us before peeling off. Like walking on a knife edge or summiting in a gale, it's an utter thrill.
Walkers have an advantage, though. They can navigate the cloud that hugs a mountain, with diligence and measured skill. A plane is far too clumsy an object moving too fast even to consider a zero-visibility attack on the Lake District, which was what we were faced with as we reached the western wall of Wensleydale. For today, the Lakes was a no-fly zone.
"We'll go up to 10,000ft and head home."
Disappointment is brief. Robin eases the Tucano lazily higher, the altimeter starts to get out of breath, the oxygen flow increases into my mask. My head prickles. Then, as we break above the grey murk of the ground-level morning, I see a sight which walkers never see: cloud-covered hills, from close above. It is awesome. I can recognise the outlines of the mountains. But they are covered in pristine white, hugging their curves and making it appear as if we are looking down on a snowy Arctic plateau beneath a navy-black sky. I look down and see our silhouette, a haloed Brocken spectre against the cloud. You can keep your hillside-strafing: if I had a Tucano in my garage, this is where I'd go for a spin. "We're going to do a loop. You'll feel some G…"
"I don't really want to do a loop."
"Yes, you do. It's sort of obligatory."
A dip. Then an upward twist. The G-force dial twitches to 3, then beyond. Suddenly it feels like my face is being pulled off from below. My body paralyses, my limbs, eyes, legs and head go heavy and unresponsive: the plane is accelerating away. My body is trying to stay behind. The horizon slides into view again, from the wrong direction: fluffy white and brown above, deepening blue below. Then a woozy tip, and the ride down starts. Neeeeow.
"Did you like that?"
"Mgah." I had visions of my face unrolling like a rubber bib when I pulled my mask off.
'Fun' over, we turn for Linton. Through compass headings, timing and sheer nous, even above the cloud Robin knows where we are. As we begin to descend, the cockpit's glass canopy turns white again - this time not with air conditioning vapour, but with thick cloud outside. Tellingly, my first thought is not of descending into Heathrow in a normal plane; it is of walking in a white-out. "This is the point where, if you didn't know where you're going, it could all go wrong. Hang on, I'll just look at the map."
I have a sudden mental image of Robin - the man with the fate of a hurtling, expensive plane and, to a lesser extent, my continued existence, wiggling between his legs - fighting with an map behind me. This is scary. According to the altimeter we don't have a whole lot of thinking time before being forcefully reintroduced to the ground. But the man flying the plane is a rather deft navigator to say the least, and we soon break the cloud and spot the trapezoid lines of the base ahead.
Say what you like about low flying through our hills. But there's no doubt that to see a plane weave at speed through a tight valley is to see someone wield almost godlike mastery of navigation. However unsavoury the eventual application, the RAF - which, incidentally, turned 90 this year - needs our hills to train for places considerably less friendly than the Lake District.
You may adore them for it, and many do. You may think they are noisy, unnatural additions to the hills which shatter the serenity of your escape - and if that's your view, you wouldn't be alone. From what we saw, these guys aren't philistines or show-offs: they use the uplands like walkers do, and are a part of our enviably unique, proudly patented British Mountain Experience™ - for better, or worse.
As for me, on the way back home from Linton I downloaded a fighter jet ringtone for my mobile. Now when it goes off on a summit, I won't feel quite so out of place. And it'll be fun to see everyone up there with me hopefully scanning the valleys for that noisy, magnificent streak.
Words by Simon Ingram. Article Copyright Trail Magazine.
This article appeared in the March 2009 edition. If you would like to order a back issue please call the Bauer Consumer Media back issues department on 0845 121 4000.