Low-flying military aircraft can provide a welcome break to the monotony of the day
High-speed, low-flying military aircraft passing overhead can provide a welcome break to the monotony of the day for those engaged in field work but the aircraft can be very unwelcome to livestock farmers, with the potential for frightened animals to cause injury and damage. David Williams visited some of those whose jobs it is to fly low and at high speeds over our fields to find out why they do it, how to request that they don’t and what to do if damage is caused.Strict rules govern the low level flying of aircraft, particularly over centres of population, and the open countryside of farms and estates makes an ideal practice area. “We try hard to minimise the impact of our activities, and use simulators where possible, also because they offer much cheaper training,” said RAF Benson public relations officer, Nikki Hamilton. “But our crews have to practice their skills regularly, or they will lose them, and being able to fly low and at high speeds at day or night, is essential when preparing for hostile action.”RAF Benson, in Oxfordshire, is home to two-thirds of the RAF’s support helicopters and operates as part of the Joint Helicopter Command. Based at Benson are four squadrons which, between them, operate up to 50 large Merlin and Puma helicopters that can be flying 24 hours per day. The local area includes many farms and small villages and along with sheep and cattle there are large numbers of equestrian businesses as well as game shoots, all of which are sensitive to the aircraft.UK low-flying co-ordination
At Benson, as with all other military flying operators in the UK, low flying (below 2,000ft for fixed-wing and 500ft for rotary aircraft), has to be ‘booked’ through the Low Flying Operations Squadron at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire.For administrative purposes, the UK is divided into 20 low flying areas and a team of staff record details of the number and type of aircraft expected, proposed minimum operating heights and the times of entering and exiting the areas.The same booking-in system is used by all military aircraft from fast jets to helicopters and by foreign aircrews operating in the UK as well as British. For most low flying exercises fast jets are not allowed below 250ft, with the exception of three areas where flying down to 100ft is permitted, but helicopter flights down to 50ft can occur in any of the low flying zones, during training exercises and in suitable areas.The various low flying areas have different rules, some having a limited number of flights allowed per month, and farmers can easily find out when low flying is planned in their area from the GOV.UK website – just search for ‘military low flying’ and a monthly timetable is available to view or download.Farmers Guide was invited to visit the Low Flying Operations Squadron to see the flight booking team at work. Large-scale wall maps highlight areas to avoid, with explanations as to why these locations need to be avoided. At the time of the visit several game shoots that had previously experienced problems due to low flying were marked as having requested avoidance – along with shoot dates. There were also county show dates marked, along with local air displays, environmental features such as wildlife reserves, and activities such as large construction projects.During the call to book use of low flying areas, the flying unit making the booking is advised of any restrictions affecting use of that area; which informs the flight crews’ route selection. “We deal with enquiries and complaints regarding low flying activities as well as co-ordinating use of the airspace,” explained Wing Commander Butterfield.”If there is a particular problem caused by low flying aircraft over a location then we will review the situation and, if necessary, we will request that low flying aircraft avoid the area. However, low flying practice is a necessary part of the crews’ training, and locations avoided means extra flights for others, which could lead to other complaints.”For those needing to make a complaint the Low Flying Complaints and Enquiry Unit (LF CEU), also located at RAF Wittering, is a single point of contact for all low flying military aircraft enquiries. “The UK has a bi-lateral agreement with the USA and France regarding low flying aircraft, all of which operate under the same rules and we can deal with complaints regarding any of them,” explained the Wing Commander.“These will cover most flights but, occasionally, the UK will be engaging in joint exercises with other nations whose military aircraft will fly in our airspace, and these flights are specifically authorised. For the LF CEU to successfully investigate complaints, accurate information from those affected is essential; precise times, location, and direction of travel.The strict rules governing the flights mean that if rules are broken, this is viewed very seriously, and where breaches are believed to have occurred, the Defence Flying Complaints Investigation Team, (based at RAF Henlow), will be asked to investigate and will go to great lengths to analyse all the data available to determine whether rules were, in fact, breached,” he added.The department aims to investigate the circumstances and report back to the complainant within 15 working days, but if it has to go through the Henlow team, the response might take several weeks or more. Where low flying aircraft can be proven to be responsible for damage to livestock or property, the owner may be able to apply for compensation from the MOD.During an average week the enquiry unit receives approximately 20 calls. If the call is a complaint, a letter and information leaflet explaining low flying is posted to the complainant and, if the issue has been caused by an aircraft from a base local to the incident, the complaint is referred to the Unit concerned to be dealt with where possible. If it turns out that the aircraft concerned is not military, the matter is referred to the Civil Aviation Authority.During the visits by Farmers Guide, it was apparent that a good relationship between the MOD and landowners is very important to the organisation, which is aware that every low flying exercise has the potential to annoy those on the ground, particularly those whose livelihoods might be affected.At RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, home to two squadrons of American F-15E Strike Eagle, a squadron of F-15C Eagle fighter aircraft and a squadron of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, flight planning involves the same procedures as those used by the British forces.
“We try to pass over a point just once during a flight, and a maximum of twice if we are booked into a low flying zone,” explained F-15E pilot, Captain Ryan Goodpaster (above left). “When we are flying over rural areas at low level at night and see lights from farms or individual properties then, if possible, we try to fly around them rather than directly over the top to reduce the noise nuisance. We know that when we are flying at high speed then the sudden noise as we pass overhead can be unexpected for those nearby. We respect that and try to minimise the problem,” he said.A crucial part of helicopter flight training is landing in unfamiliar areas and, for this, the MOD relies heavily on the goodwill of landowners. RAF Benson has approximately 70 fields available for use by its pilots, some of which are available all year round and others which have more restricted access.“We get on very well with many of the local landowners and we respect their wishes regarding use of the land,” explained Squadron Leader Chris Royston-Airey of 28 (Army Co-operation) Squadron, based at RAF Benson. “There are some which we have permission to use only during certain hours of the day, and others which are available most of the time, but which the farmers will call and tell us we can’t use for a period, either due to cropping activities or because there are sensitive livestock nearby.Even when we have full permission to use a field, we will still check before landing to make sure we won’t damage a crop. Making last moment decisions as to whether to land or not adds to the reality of the training.”Also, having fields we are asked not to overfly due to livestock or game shoots taking place adds to the value of the flight for training. When flying in a hostile zone we would have to avoid risk areas from which we might be attacked, and planning a route in to a specific field while avoiding these locations is no different. It all adds to the reality,” he said.As well as maps of the local fields available to the Benson aircraft, with details of access restrictions and hazard warnings, there is a national directory of landing fields for use by military and specialist aircraft users. This is updated continually and includes details as to whether permission must be sought for each use as well as contact details for the landowner.The system in practice
Farmers Guide was invited to take part in a low-flying exercise with a crew from Benson to see how the system works in practice. The initial briefing for the crew selected the field in which the 6,700hp Merlin helicopter with its 18m rotors would be landing; access requirements were checked, and the owner contacted for permission. The route from Benson to the field was selected for its suitability bearing in mind that the helicopter would be travelling at high speeds at just 500ft for much of the journey. ‘Avoids’ or locations to be avoided on the route were identified and marked on the pilots’ maps.Having left Benson, travelling west across open farmland towards Wiltshire, the crew was constantly on alert for hazards; large flocks of birds pose a potential danger at the low height, while also watching for livestock, diverting to fly around them rather than over, and always vigilant for horses and anyone riding. When two farms appeared a few miles distant, the helicopter was positioned mid-way between them to reduce the noise nuisance to both.Arriving at the target field, with its crop of freshly-cut grass, the crew flew around the landing area checking for hazards and ensuring suitability for landing before touching down to drop off the reporter and a crew member.The aircraft took off for a flight around the field before landing again to collect its passengers and then returned to Benson, again avoiding sensitive locations on the way.
“The latter stages of approach and then departing the landing area are the most difficult part of the flight,” explained Chris, “so training has to be representative. In operations we will approach at high speed to reduce the risk of attack, and that is very challenging so experience of landing in different locations is essential.”Chris explained the base is always looking for more fields to use for training; fields with obvious distinguishing features such as a building in one corner, or overhead cables nearby, or even odd-shaped fields which make them distinctive are particularly welcome. Confined landing areas are especially useful, where crews are forced to approach and depart more steeply than usual, as well as sloping fields up to approximately six degrees. “Where we have been offered unrestricted use, we will use a field up to a maximum of around 60 times per year, but sometimes we might land in the same field five or six times in succession to help get a trainee pilot into a routine.There are four main locations in the UK, close to the main bases, where the majority of helicopter training is carried out and these are Hampshire and Oxfordshire encompassing RAF stations, Benson and Odiham and Army Air Corps base Middle Wallop; Suffolk where Wattisham Airfield is located; Somerset – home to RNAS Yeovilton, and Shropshire at RAF Shawbury. We are always keen to receive offers of use of land in these areas, but land anywhere in the country, and suitable for single or pairs of aircraft, is useful to us.”The field in which Farmers Guide landed with the Merlin and its crew is at Moor Mill Farm, Uffington, near the Oxfordshire/Wiltshire border, and is owned by farmer Stephen Green. “The crews have to practice somewhere,” he commented. “We get on well with them and they appreciate the use of the fields. After all, if no-one allows them to use their land then the crews will struggle for effective training.They do their best to minimise their impact on our farming activities and we haven’t had any major problems. On one occasion a helicopter hovered low over some wheat which flattened a small area and another time two landed in a hay field when the hay was about to be baled, but generally we don’t have any issues.We have some arable crops and grass now but years ago, when we first started allowing the helicopters to land, we had dairy cattle but they didn’t seem to be upset by the aircraft. We have horses on the land now and they seem to get used to the helicopters quite quickly too.”We used to ask that the crews call us before landing, but because there weren’t any problems we decided that this was unnecessary. They use our fields occasionally at night, but we have asked that if they are planning to land after 11pm then they let us know in advance. We have a good relationship with the base and enjoy the farmers’ lunch they arrange most years as a thank-you to local landowners,” he added.Night flying
Chris said the night flying is more of an issue in the summer. “Practising flying in the dark is an essential part of training, but in the winter we can do this in the evening. However, in the summer when it isn’t dark until 10 or 11pm, then flying late at night can’t be avoided and, while we try to alert the local population to night flying training, we are aware it can be an inconvenience. To be honest, our crews don’t like flying late at night either, but we have to maintain our night flying competences so the short summer nights do cause us problems.Offering land
Chris suggests that anyone willing to offer the use of their land contacts their local military helicopter base and speaks with the Stations Operations department. Details of the location will be taken and, if it is useful, then an inspection team will visit and check for suitability.A field plan and notes regarding local hazards will be recorded and the owner will be asked whether access to the field is restricted to certain times of the day or months of the year, and whether he needs to be contacted before it is used. The permission can be revoked at any time, either temporarily or permanently. “RAF Benson is one of the more active stations in terms of reaching out to people locally,” explained Nikki. “The base is a community within a community and we realise that our activities impact on others so try to minimise the problem, and to show our appreciation to those who work with us.We have a policy that if there are specific issues with low flying, Chris and our engagement team will make contact. As a member of the flying crew, he can explain what we were doing when we caused the problem and why we needed to do it, and usually, taking this time to explain is appreciated by the complainant. Generally people understand the need to train our aircrews but we do appreciate that sometimes there are legitimate complaints regarding our low flying activity.”Low-flying aircraft can pose a particular hazard to horse riders in rural locations, and the MOD, working with the British Horse Society, previously ran its ‘Bright Eyes’ campaign during which high visibility jackets were issued to horse riders free of charge.”Most riders wear fluorescent jackets when on the road, but few bother when on their own land or fields. A fluorescent jacket is usually visible to the flight crew of high speed, low flying aircraft from at least a mile – in time to avoid flying over the rider, but without the jacket then that distance is less than halved, and often too late to divert,” explained Chris.”Sudden changes in direction when we are almost directly above the rider greatly increase the risk of startling the horse as the extra noise generated by the blades in a steep turn is quite dramatic. Therefore we encourage all riders to wear fluorescent jackets even if they are not on public roads.” A very useful safety guide is available, published by the MOD and British Horse Society, available from the Gov.uk website, containing practical advice for riders. A daily forecast of activity is also available by phone and on the Gov.uk website.As is the case with most large organisations, getting hold of the right person to deal efficiently with an issue is the most difficult part of making an enquiry or complaint, so numbers and contact information are provided in the fact box below.”We are keen to work with landowners and farmers and the general public to ensure our training activities cause as few problems as possible, but due to the type of aircraft and nature of the training, the noise may still affect people to an extent they find unacceptable. When this happens we endeavour to determine whether we can minimise such disturbance in the future and if not, why this is the case,” said Wing Commander Butterfield.”Generally we enjoy an excellent working relationship with landowners and farmers and very much appreciate the use of fields granted to us by some of them. Good training is essential, and in allowing us the use of that land, not only are the owners being obliging, they are also contributing to our national defence.”Complaints and information
A daily (Mon-Fri) forecast of planned low flying activity is available for most parts of the UK on Freephone 0800 515544 or through the Gov.uk website. Complaints
If you intend to make a complaint try to record precise information; type of aircraft, location, direction of travel, and exact time the incident occurred.If it is known that the problem aircraft are based locally, then the base concerned should be the first point of contact as local knowledge will make it easier to deal with the problem. On contacting the base, ask to speak with ‘Operations’, usually available 24hrs/day, or the Media Communications Officer.Otherwise, the LF CEU team at Wittering can be contacted from 8am-4pm Mon-Fri on 0845 6007580 or by e-mail; [email protected]To claim compensation for damage caused to livestock details of the flight, (as above) will be needed, plus evidence from a vet. The claim should be made through the MOD Common Law Claims and Policy Division, MOD Main Building, Whitehall, London SW1A 2HB, telephone 0207 218 3545.Avoidance requests
To request that a location be temporarily avoided then the LF CEU team at Wittering should be the first point of contact – details as above.Publications’Military Low Flying in the United Kingdom – The Essential Facts, and ‘Military Helicopter Low Flying Safety – A Guide for Riders’ both available from the Gov.uk website – just search under ‘low flying military’.To offer use of land
To offer the use of land for helicopter landing practice – contact your local helicopter base and ask to speak with the Station’s Operations department.