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Incredibly low flying

When I was a wee kid growing up on my folks’ farm in East Anglia, it was a common sight, in the 1970s and 80s, to see RAF Jaguar and Tornado jet aircraft practicing very low flying over the flat (ish) fields of that part of the UK. Typically, a Jag could fly no more than 100 ft off the deck, so low in fact that you could see all the markings on the side of the aircraft, what sort of stuff it was carrying, etc. The idea was to get under the opposition’s radar. These aircraft were practicing the sort of flying that would be needed against the-then Warsaw Pact ground forces of the time. (The Jaguar was a very effective strike aircraft).

But nothing, absolutely nothing, compares with flying as low as this. Ye gods!

Here’s another.

20 comments to Incredibly low flying

  • Bruce Hoult

    The F111’s have had automated terrain following using radar forever, which make it easy for the pilot, but I think they typically go at 200 ft.

    Those guys in the video seem to be flying along either runways or roads, and pulling up afterwards. I don’t think they’re flying large distances over random countryside at those heights! Also the ones flying down the road are very nose-high (slow).

    I went for a flight in a Harvard/Texan in Arizona once. The guy who owned it flew us back to the field at low level, below the tops of the cactuses!

    Jet jockeys aren’t the only ones who like to fly fast & low. We glider pilots do it too, though only at around 140 – 160 knots, not 250 like those jets probably are. OTOH, no training. And no engine.


  • Frank S

    I would say the low flying is ‘astonishing’, or ‘remarkable’, or ‘impressive’. But not ‘incredible’ since I do believe it actually happened.

  • I think the second is a fake, a montage of two shots.

    My favourite is still the Spitfire(Link), and you can see the pilot makes a last minute nudge up…and it was needed.

    ‘k’me! ‘k’me!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Frank S, the term incredible is a figure of speech. Such as, “that’s an incredible achievement”, etc. It is not meant to signify that what happened was against the laws of nature.

    Oh well.

  • Brian Swisher

    The Argentine pilots who took out the Sheffield during the Falklands war flew so low that they were at wave crest level with the huge South Atlantic rollers…one of their major problems with such low flying for a prolonged period was salt encrustation on their canopies…

  • Cool, but essentially a peacetime stunt.

    In the 1991 Gulf War the RAF tried to put its low level doctrine into practice. They lost quite a few Tornados to the old “Magic BBs” and moved up to medium altitudes with the Yanks.

    I think that the British Government never wanted to invest in electronic warfare systems and Wild Weasel type defense suppression aircraft. The RAF decided to try and substitute skill for investment. The skills were fantastic, but for land warfare purposes, against an enemy with lots of small caliber AAA, irrelevant.

  • James

    I was stationed at RAF Bentwaters (also East Anglia) in the late 80s, and remember Johnathan’s anecdotes perfectly. Whilst we only saw the Tornados, etc. on rare ocassions, there were plenty of opportunites to see the A-10 flying low and slow. Easy for the Warthog, knowing its mission (tankbusting) esp. as it was equipped with non-afterburning turbofan engines.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    The F-111’s TFR had one problem, a tendency to go into ‘failure mode’ for no reason, which made the plane go into a sharp climb. To counter this, there was an override to return it to low level and pilots got used to automatically hitting the override switch when the plane spontaneously pitched up.

    All went well until the plane was deployed during the Vietnam war. It seems that parts of Southeast Asia have many tall spires of rock rising abruptly out of the jungle (‘karst topography’). Approaching one at night, the plane would pitch up, the pilot would hit the override switch, and splat!…

    War stories aside, the fact is that air forces are run by pilots and do pilot-ish things, like ‘flying under the radar’ rather than sensibly buying ECM gear that will let them fly in radar coverage and survive. Never underestimate the appeal of the ‘sexy’ option for even the most staid organization.

  • llamas

    James – that brings back memories. I used to know a girl . . . .

    As it happens, those A10s you saw allatime in East Anglia were part of what amounted to an entire USAF wing of the things, which were circulating constantly between Bentwaters/Northbridge and 3 forward bases in Germany. One of them was at Leipheim, at this distance of time I don’t recall the others. So many days on the line, so many days back at Bentwaters for service, repair and R&R. This was truly forward readiness.

    I have heard tell that if you knew the right people, you could visit with these fine aircraft up close and personal. Of course, I couldn’t possibly comment on that . . . .



  • ian

    Can’t compare with the spitfire, but this(Link) was pretty low.

    I also recall looking down onto what was I think a Tornado flying up a valley in mid Wales.

  • AKM

    Taylor: “Cool, but essentially a peacetime stunt….”

    Not quite, as I recall the RAF losses during GW1 were mainly during loft attacks when the Tornados pulled up to release the bombs short of the target, not during low level flight. Also at the time the medium level weapons wern’t nearly as good as today: laser-guided and EO-guided weapons didn’t work through clouds so trying to use them somewhere cloudy (like on the European front) would significantly reduce the effectiveness airpower as the RAF found when trying to use LGBs over Serbia. Today we have JDAM and enhanced LGBs that do work through cloud, so it’s true that low level is much less important, however those weapons are post GW1.

  • Kevin B

    While I got a distinct ‘Independance Day’ vibe from the second video, the first one reminded me more of a scene from ‘Catch 22’.

    War stories time: I’m so old, I used to go to Farnborough before they banned supersonic or even fast sub-sonic flight. The trick they used then was to keep the crowd watching a display of helicopters while a fast jet would come up behind them at mach 0.9.

    Of course, you wouldn’t hear it coming until it was right on top of you, and they flew them things pretty low as well. Then John Derry flew his DH110 through the ‘Sound Barrier’ one too many times and bits of the wreckage, including the engines, crashed into the crowd.

  • Alice

    “The trick they used then was to keep the crowd watching a display of helicopters while a fast jet would come up behind them at mach 0.9.”

    A few years back, a friend invited me to the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for her son’s graduation. Vice President Cheney personally shook hands with every member of the 1,000+ graduating class, than had them lined up in formation, and pronounced them graduates of the Academy. At this, all the students took off their caps & threw them in the air, with a giant shout.

    At the very moment those caps reached their apogee, 5 Air Force jets screamed over the stadium at close to the speed of sound, just above cap height, burying the shout in their engine nose. Before the caps hit the ground, the jets were lost in the distance. Heart-stopping. Literally heart-stopping.

    It must be hell to be on the receiving end of a close air support attack.

  • RAB

    I am a frequent visitor to North Wales, and enjoy walking in the beautiful countryside.
    One of my favorite walks is one called the Precipice Walk just outside Dolgellau. It is a few hundred feet up and not that arduous, but whenever you are there you have the added splendour of the RAF training by playing tag through the valleys around Snowdonia.
    Last time I was there a couple of Hawks came steaming through so close I could read the identification numbers on the pilots helmet, and I swear he waved at me. I was certainly waving at him.

  • I had the same experience off the coast of Cyprus. The guys nearly shaved the mast off…

  • My late mother grew up during World War 2, in a little town in Cheshire. She once told me that one of her memories of that time was watching a German bomber – she thought it was a Heinkel – flying above the railway line heading for Manchester.

    She said it had to climb to get over a couple of railway bridges, and then dropped back to the level of the cutting.

    That’s *serious* nap-of-the-earth flying, if her memory was accurate – but, given the absence of early warning radar in the area at the time, I wonder why the pilot decided to fly like that…

  • I remember watching a pair of Aussie F-111s flying over the ocean, lower than the headland I was on at the time. I couldn’t have been more that 30 or 40 metres above sea level at the time.

  • Well, maybe not low, but my favorite show off moment came while I was at Langley AFB, 2002, if I recall correctly.

    Langley is the home of Air Combat Command Headquarters, and by virtue of the setup, the airshow demo pilots, two for each type of fighter (One for east coast, one for west coast) must come to Langley for their “check ride”, when they are “certified” for their six month stint as airshow pilots by the ACC Director of Operations (2 Star General). Basically, they come and fly the ‘approved routine’, handshakes all round, very good, off you go. They’d usually make it a 2 day affair, flying once for familiarization of the area, then the ‘check’ ride the following day.

    Well, during the ‘fam’ sortie of one of the F-16 guys, I’m not sure if he got his speed calculations wrong, or was just a bit hot on the throttle, at any rate – there’s a portion of the routine where the pilot swoops the plane down to fairly low level and transverses the runway line – and this course brings them right over the ACC ‘Campus’ area – all the HQ buildings. So, I’m out having a smoke, watching this guy go through his paces, and notice he’s coming up to the part where he’s going to pass right over top (actually about 100 yards off center of his travel line), and see him coming. Absolutely silent. Even to the point he drew even, and a little. bit. past. BOOM!

    Nice sonic boom cracked off about 300 feet over the main headquarters building.

    Little while later I walked over to the Standardizations and Evaluations section, and started to say ‘about that F-16’. . .three guys spoke up in unison. . .

    “He failed”


  • @RAB: Nice to read your tale of our guys honing their skills by playing tag through Snowdonia :-). I assume they’d be flying out of Valley?

    Speaking of Valley, while they weren’t flying particularly low, I remember getting a lift from my parents, down the M5 back to Bristol Uni some years ago – there were A10s criscrossing the M5, and my late father and I wondered what they were up to.

    4 weeks later, Gulf War 1 started. I can only imagine they were practicing obtaining weapon lock, being fitted with dummy loads and using cards as targets…

  • James

    “As it happens, those A10s you saw allatime in East Anglia were part of what amounted to an entire USAF wing…circulating constantly between Bentwaters/Northbridge and 3 forward bases in Germany. One of them was at Leipheim,…I don’t recall the others.”

    Well, yes, llamas, having actually been stationed at Bentwaters, I knew all that. 🙂

    And, since your memory is failing you: