A bracing mountain walk and an eardrum-blasting kaleidoscope of aviation fuel and monstrously powerful engines jolting your senses might sound like an unlikely adrenaline fix. But for many people Wales is THE place to sit cheek by jowl with military aircraft going through their paces without the risk of actually venturing into a warzone.
Most of upland Wales is used by various states’ air forces as a low flying training area, going by the James Bondian pseudonym of LFA7. And while farmers, other locals, mountaineers and pacifists are often quite justifiably aggrieved by this physical and moral intrusion into their holistic space, others enjoy getting up close to their very own highly personalised air display.
We have been shocked and excited in similar measures to be at times standing on a hillside actually above military jets going through their paces in the valley below, close enough to imagine that you can see the pilot scratching a mole on his nose. Other disconcerting times have seen aircraft seemingly coming head on towards our car over the brow of a mountain pass. And ducking behind the steering wheel, whilst obviously stupidly pointless, is an instinctive reaction that you can laugh about afterwards.
It’s a hobby, pastime or bit of lunacy – call it what you will – that can entail waiting for a seemingly interminable time knee-deep in mud and dew with camera at the ready waiting for that elusive shot. It’s plane spotting on steroids, as they hurtle past at speeds in excess of 500mph and at times as low as 30m in altitude, if that deserves to be called an altitude. But it really is a photographer’s wet dream to catch that glinting bit of fuselage flashing past that startled sheep’s nose.
A quick look at the Westminster government’s low flying timetable might help you plan your day’s plane spotting, but be aware that it’s very weather-dependent and not always totally reliable.
The best known area of low flying military training activities – by jets and propeller-driven aircraft – are a circuit of valleys in the Cader Idris area in southern Snowdonia that have earned themselves the sobriquet the Mach Loop. This is nothing to do with mach being a single unit denoting the speed of sound (pronounced like the name of an ubiquitous burger chain), but rather that the ancient capital of Machynlleth sits near the centre of the training area. Do pronounce it as Mach, with the ‘ch’ sounded gutturally as in the Scottish loch or the x in the Spanish pronunciation of México, if you can’t get your tonsils around the full name.
The somewhat compact car park at the summit of the Bwlch yr Oerddrws pass on the A470 just north of Dinas Mawddwy is one popular stopping off point, from where people set off into the surrounding hillsides in search of their fix. Others just stand outside their cars with cameras poised, and are often not disappointed. This spot was once where justice was dispensed for the surrounding areas, a sort of no man’s land, so do behave yourselves.
Another popular stopping off point is on the other side of the mountain, an extended lay-by near the top of the Talyllyn Pass on the A487, some 2.5 miles south of its junction with the A470 at the Cross Foxes Inn.
Plane Spotting For Anoraks
Don’t be coy about your hobby. After all, there’s something infinitely entrancing about such marvellous bits of engineering. And there are a myriad airports and aerodromes across Wales that offer something to entice the aficionados of aviation of all levels of anorakism.
The country’s only international terminal is Cardiff International Airport, based some 15 miles south west of the capital at Rhoose. A nationalised concern run by the Welsh Government, it offers everything you’d expect of a major airport, and is well served by bus links to and from the city centre as well as a train link to the station with the longest name in Wales, Rhoose Cardiff International Airport Rail Station.
Swansea Airport offers flying lessons and pleasure flights over the stunning Gower peninsula. Meantime Hawarden Airport in Flintshire, although owned by airliner manufacturer Airbus, is open to the public seven days a week and offers a fascinating insight into the world of aviation. You might even catch sight of a gigantic Beluga transporter plane coming in or taking off.
Caernarfon Airport is a base for the Wales Air Ambulance and the sea and mountain rescue helicopter service covering the Irish Sea and Snowdonia. It offers full catering facilities at its Air Ambulance café, and also boasts an intriguing aviation museum.
Other Welsh facilities worth a visit include the Mid Wales Airport at Welshpool , another one of the Air Ambulance’s bases, Anglesey Airport from where you can link to the rest of Europe via Cardiff, and Haverfordwest Airport in Pembrokeshire.