Low Level Aviation Feature Report
Saturday 20th September
First things first, let me get this straight, Low Levelling is boring. Really boring! So boring in fact that you will find your mind drifting to a place where paint drying and counting sheep seem a far more interesting proposition. You see, standing on a hillside for up to ten hours would test any man's resolve. Time stands still on a Welsh hillside, minutes seem like hours, hours seem like days, it's boring. Staring into the abyss of a valley for hours on end is a strange way to spend your hard earned days off. Standing, looking, left to right, right to left, this way, that way... still nothing. Strange floating bits in your eyes start to appear, then all of a sudden a small black object shoots from right to left, is this it? Is this what I've been looking for? An overwhelming urge builds suddenly within your stomach to shout out. No one else has seen it, I'm going to shout out... it's a bird! Damn. One thing I've learned over the past couple of years is not to be too eager to shout out once you think you have seen an aircraft. It's always very embarrassing to shout "plane" only to discover it's a local Crow or Rook. You see, up here on a mountain it's boring, did I mention that? Your fellow snappers for the day will pounce on any duff shout and ridicule you for hours, it really is that boring.
gives an account of his hillside highs and lows. All photography by the author.
Still nothing happening, time for a snack, it's only 9.30am and my lunch has long since been consumed, only the healthy stuff left now, it's always the last to go. I keep staring into the distance, more time passes, I drift off again "that paint's nearly dry" I think, "I must cut the lawn tomorrow" I've well and truly drifted. Then all of a sudden I hear the alarm call "PLANE". As my eyes try to get back in focus I quickly scan the horizon and look for movement, I can see it. I quickly pick up the camera, check that I've got the right settings and press the camera to my face. As the aircraft nears, the tell tale head light becomes visible, it's a Hawk. Not especially exciting but quick, agile and great for target practice. As he blasts by through a tight valley he rolls to port to give a fantastic topside view, beautiful.
The excitement level goes from zero to a hundred miles an hour in a split second and all the hours of boredom are quickly forgotten. Now it's time for some "Chimping", I'm not quite sure who coined the phrase but stand at any hillside venue, air show or airbase and have a look at the surrounding photographers, all will soon become clear.
After the pass everyone always looks at the shots taken. You are looking to see what your efforts have delivered, I wonder if they are any good? Which bits have I managed to chop off? Are they sharp? Are any full frame? Did I get a wave? In a series of five or six shots taken during the pass, some of them are "keepers" which is always reassuring. Low level photography can be difficult, the speed of the aircraft, the twists and turns they take on the way through the pass (each pilot seems to have a slightly different route) and the constant battle for light and a decent shutter speed are all factors which keep the pastime interesting. Hang on, I thought I said it was boring? Well it is, but I very much have a love/hate relationship with this aspect of the hobby. After a day out I almost always really yearn to go back. But when I am there I hate the waiting and the uncertainty and have on the odd occasion, dare I say it, moaned maybe once or twice.
That said, I am convinced that it's part of the uncertainty that makes me want to go back time after time or maybe I just like moaning? The thing is if you go to Coningsby, you are going to see Typhoons, if you go to Lyneham, you are going to see Hercules, if you go to Cottesmore, well you might actually see nothing, but there are more important reasons for that! But when you are in a Low Flying Area (LFA) you could just about see anything and it's the excitement of photographing a Hawk one minute and then a TSP Saudi Tornado the next, or an Indian Hawk, a French Alpha or perhaps just a good old fashioned and beautiful Tornado GR4. You just never know what is (quite literally) around the corner.
Another thing I always seem to think about is "blanks". To get up at 4.30AM, travel 145 miles to stand on a hill for ten hours and then have another two and three quarter hours journey back, does make you carefully consider many factors. Add fifty pounds to all that effort and the decision to go or not to go seems all the more tricky.
In LFA7 weather is by far the biggest factor to consider. There are websites that just seem to make up the weather so they can't be trusted. The BBC has always been reliable but the problem with this area is that it has its own micro climate. The times I have been within a few miles of the Bwlch and the sky has been great, only to be greeted by the hilltops shrouded in cloud as you approach your desired location.
One of the other considerations is the "Low Level Devil", a strange phenomena that insists that if you need to use the "Gents" an aircraft will fly over during "full flow", if it starts to rain, the Devil makes you put away your camera, only to miss a passing GR4 in vapour. These are not things I have made up or heard about, these are actual events that have happened to me!!!
Other things to further scupper your long, boring and expensive day out are NOTAMs, festivals, sheep dog trials, CAS exercises, scousers etc well the last one is more of a weather demon than anything else if I'm honest, right Paul?
I started off this account by saying that this pastime is boring, and I stand by that, I really do. But my God do I love it when it "happens"? The thrill of being panicked into action as a Typhoon or Tornado suddenly appears from nowhere at 400 knots has to be seen to be appreciated. In an instant all the doom and gloom just disappears, sometimes aircraft passes even get cheers for Christ sake. Then moments later, well, three minutes later, when you realise that the aircraft isn't doing another circuit, the boredom is back... Now where's that wet paint again? zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz