Mach Loop

Prose & Photography: Robert Griffiths

 

As an aviation geek, there are always things on your list that you will want to see and do. As an aviation photographer, it is much the same, whether it’s a specific aircraft, air show or shooting location. With the advent of social media, these places are becoming ever more popular, with one such place being the Mach Loop. But what exactly is the Mach Loop? And before you think they break the sound barrier while going through this low fly area of Wales, you’ll be heading down the wrong path. The name is more of a happy coincidence, as it is located near a town called Machynlleth (good luck pronouncing that correctly). A series of interconnecting valleys creates a circle or loop and presto you have your name, but I’m sure a fighter jock started that name. Now, being a Welsh native, you would think this would be a frequent of mine, but alas, I had never made the effort for fear of pulling a blank day with nothing going through. Now, living in London and with a slightly different outlook on things, I decided to bite the bullet and finally check this item off my bucket list.

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Having contacts who frequent the ‘Loop’ really helped me prepare for my journey, but there are plenty of online and social media sources than can also help. Knowing the types of photos you want also helps, as each place has its own ups and downs for photos. Your choices are Cad East or West, Bwlch (again, good luck), Bluebell or Corris. Having spoken to a few regulars, I decided on Cad West, so that I could get some topside shots of anything that may come through. Charged up and ready to go; it was an early start. On social media, rumours of the French Rafale and Belgian F16s coming through early morning after their Cosford air show displays was intensifying, and it looked like many would be descending on the area. That meant a 3am departure and a near three-hour drive to the place I needed to be.

It was on the drive north to the Mach Loop that I would come to realise just how beautiful Wales can really be when the sun is rising. The photos say more than I ever could about the scene. Arriving at 0615, I was able to get a parking space to my relief, and took my time getting ready for the trek up the mountain. Speaking with some of those around their cars, they said it’s tough getting up purely for the sheer climb rather than distance… and boy, were they right. The initial part isn’t that tough, with a partial climb and horizontal track lasting about 300 metres. What this doesn’t prepare you for is the track upwards for over 300 metres. Once you conquer this, the view is impressive, with rolling valleys on your left and the Tal Yr Llyn reservoir on your right, with plenty of room to take photos without fear of getting someone’s head in the way.

We didn’t have to wait long before we were all taken completely unawares by a low and fast Hawk T.MKII, and where was my camera? Still in the bag. I wouldn’t make that mistake for the rest of the day. Before long we were hearing the scanners alert us that someone was entering the low fly zone, giving us some indication that something may be on its way. In the distance lumbered the outline of a C130 Hercules of the RAF. Unfortunately it did not head our way, but flew off in the distance and I started to wonder if we were going to get any passes. Less than half an hour after that first Herc had bypassed us, there came an excited shout from someone. Like a clan of meerkats armed with cameras, we rose and turned lenses towards this lumbering beast. It's hard to describe seeing a C130 down to less than 500 feet, meandering through the twists and turns of the Welsh valleys, but it is just awe inspiring to say the least.

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Within the next hour, we got confirmation that the French Rafales were airborne from RAF Shawbury, but it wasn’t long before we got the news both they and the Belgian F16s didn’t get air traffic permission to low fly. Oh well, that wasn’t the main reason I had chosen to go on the Monday, but it did force me to arrive very early. It would prove to be more than fruitful with so many different types giving passes throughout the day.

0954 and the next pass was from an RAF Valley based Bae Systems Hawk MKII. He was low, fast and gave us a brilliant topside from the student pilot. Once passed us on Cad West they flew left to do one further circuit. Within a couple of minutes, back around came the same Hawk, slightly lower than before. This time my panning wasn’t as smooth and I chopped off the nose a couple times, but hey, we all do it. That would be the last MKII Hawk pass for the day but boy, what a pass.

It would be another hour before the next excited shout from on the hillside, and this time it was the turn of the local United States Air Force RAF Mildenhall based MC-130J Commando II, codenamed Strix. Now this was one I didn’t want to miss, as it was quite the regular through the loop, well-known for having the rear ramp down and guys hanging out watching us as they pass. We wouldn’t just have one pass from the mighty Strix, not two or three but four high energy, low passes of Cad West. With each pass I decided to keep dropping my shutter speed to get that nice full disc on the props, getting down to 1/100 to show serious speed. The slower the shutter speed, the higher the challenge, but the rewards can be showstopping.

While all this had been going on, one thing we had been noticing was jets circling over the top of us, almost taunting us from above the clouds. A few of us had had a heads up that there were F15s in the area, and we were all hoping that they would pay a visit before the day was through. Boy, were we in for a surprise. Less than a half hour after seeing circling contrails in the sky to the south, there was another excited shout, and it was here we all got our wish; two F15s barrelling towards us after going by Bwlch.

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Expecting a second pass from the pair, I was surprised to see the next plane around the corner after Bwlch had bright red and white wings… that’s odd, I thought. It turned out the bright wings belonged to a Jet Provost conducting its own low-level training, something I really didn’t expect. We were treated to two wonderful and high energy passes from this privately owned ex-RAF trainer that probably once served in these hills training the next intake of fast jet fighter pilots a couple of decades before. It turns out that the JP was the reason the F15Cs had bugged out of the loop and held off until clear.

Right after the JP cleared the Loop, the Eagles really did descend into the Loop, all four in their single seat, air superiority glory, and boy, were they moving. At this point I’m not going to lie; I was as giddy as a school kid in a candy store. What a variety; and this really was the icing on the cake. It all ended way too quick for my liking, but my heart rate was still peaking, that was for sure. A quick bit of chimping (looking at the photos on the back of the camera) I confirmed that I got some I really wanted, and we just had to wait a couple minutes in the hope another pass would materialise. Shortly thereafter, two F15Cs, the ones who missed out going around the first time, came through with two more spectacular low passes. That was the finale of the F15Cs based out of RAF Lakenheath. It was at this point I started getting a few comments relating to this being my first time. "When are you coming next? Because you are clearly good luck!" It really had been a good day.

Over the next couple of hours, we would get another single pass by an RAF C130 and one to cap it off for me; I’ve always been a fan of the Bae Hawk MKI but with the MKII coming online more and more, the older model is starting to become rare. The Royal Navy turned up with one of their MKI Hawks for a fast topside pass that just iced the cake of the day. After that pass we didn’t get anything for a few hours and the tiredness from the early morning drive was catching up. With the long drive home looming, I paid my dues to those I had come to know on the hill and slowly made my way down the path back to the car. About an hour after I had left whilst on the road, I heard a low flying fast jet but did not sight it; I found out later this was the F15E Strike Eagles paying a visit… doh! But that’s the risk you take, hey? As my first time, I cannot complain with the amount of traffic and least of all the variety.

This will not be my last visit to the Loop, for certain. If I was to offer the reader any advice for the Loop, it would be go not expecting to see anything. The reason I say this is that aircraft coming through are not guaranteed and it is down to the training, serviceability and flight plans on the day. Get yourself some decent walking boots; it’s a rough ground trek up and having decent foot support is important. I would say also, wrap up warm. It was a sunny day, but there was a wicked wind that wasn’t exactly warm. Finally, I would say enjoy it. If you’re up there, you’re up there with like minded people: have a chat, ask them things, enjoy the company and the tremendous view.

I thought that was the end to this story, but a couple of days afterwards, I would find a post from a pilot’s wife asking if they had any photos of tail number 156, as this was his fini flight (last mission) before returning to the states. Getting in contact, I presented a few shots of 156 and inquired as to whether her husband would be willing to answer a few questions for Full Disc Aviation. I was later honored to receive an email from the gentleman himself, wilfully answering my questions. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jason ‘Trogan’ Vause…

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FDA: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Trogan:
I enlisted in 1994 right out of High School and signed on as an Aviation Mechanic on KC-10s.  I then transferred to a Flight Engineer position on C-130Hs.  From there I finished my degree and was accepted into OTS (2000). The rest is history.  

FDA: What made you want to be a pilot and specifically a fighter pilot?
Trogan:
Watching Bah Bah Black Sheep when I was a kid.

FDA: What has your aircraft history been like?
Trogan:
I was a Instructor on T-37s in Undergraduate Pilot Training and the F-15C.  

FDA: And what was your favourite to fly?
Trogan:
The F-15C... no question. 

FDA: How would you describe your tour in the UK?
Trogan:
Best flying of my career! Where else can you travel Europe on the weekends and fly over the Dover Cliffs, or the North Sea during the week?  

FDA: Have you always been stationed at RAF Lakenheath?
Trogan:
I've been stationed overseas for 9 of the last 10 years. Qatar, Okinawa Japan, Korea, and now here.

FDA: And have you enjoyed it?
Trogan:
Did I say I love to travel? 

FDA: How often have you flown the Mach Loop?
Trogan:
Because of weather and training priorities, that was only my second time. 

FDA: What made your flight descend to the Loop?
Trogan:
You're extremely busy focused on terrain clearance...you're excited about the great weather...that is rare, and then you want to make sure you put on a great show for those individuals that are camped out on the ridge.  

FDA: How was that final flight for you? How did you feel?
Trogan:
I was extremely blessed because of the weather.  That was the first time I was able to see Snowden Peak.  I've been to Wales 20 times and I've never seen the top of Snowdon Peak.  

FDA: If you could fly any aircraft in history what would it be? 
Trogan:
Besides the great opportunity to fly the Eagle, my second choice would be a P-38 and then a P-51.  I'm a big WWII [student] but especially the Pacific [theater of operations].  

FDA: What is the most meaningful thing to you about flying?
Trogan:
Plenty of things but a recent example... I had the rare opportunity to fly Air Policing missions...protecting sovereign airspace.   

FDA: What is next for you?
Trogan:
America.