Low flying and landowners in the Midlands

In an age of GPS and drones, is low flying really necessary?
Landowners get the lowdown on low flying
Landowners are regularly invited to RAF Shawbury

The technology used in aviation today is far removed from the cloth and cables of 1918. So, in an age of GPS, robots and drones, is low flying necessary?

The CLA’s Mike Ashton went along to a special event for landowners and horse riders at RAF Shawbury in Shropshire to find out.

To many, low flying conjures up an image of jets thundering through the valleys of Wales, Scotland and the Lake District.  The UK has 20 dedicated Low Flying Training Areas though not all are specifically for fast jets.  (You will surely know if you are in a LFA, but details on all aspects of low flying can be found on www.gov.uk - just search for ‘low flying’).

Some parts of the UK have training areas dedicated for use by military helicopters; and all 3-Services basic rotary wing training takes place at the Defence Helicopter Flying School based at RAF Shawbury.  This is in the centre of LFA 9 – an area that covers most of Shropshire and parts of the bordering counties of Powys, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Wrexham.  RAF Shawbury first welcomed the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and now, each year, around 300 students learn to fly at the base, being trained as instructors as well as being prepared for the front line.

The need to fly low is a legacy from war, where often the only way to avoid enemy fire was to fly under the radar, using terrain as a screen. Some of that requirement has been reduced with the increased use of guided bombing at medium to high altitude, but while fast jets can stay out of harm’s way, it’s a very different situation for helicopters.

Group Captain ‘Chuck’ Norris
Group Captain ‘Chuck’ Norris

Group Captain ‘Chuck’ Norris is RAF Shawbury’s Station Commander and the Commandant of the Defence Helicopter Flying School.  He is crystal clear about the need for helicopter aircrew to be at the very top of their game. He explains: “We’re there to support troops on the battlefield. We need to get them onto the ground and we need to pick them up. So, the threats we face are likely to be from small arms – people with machine guns, rocket propelled grenades or just a rifle. All those threats we saw, for example, in Afghanistan are prevalent on deployed operations today.

“If we climb out of that threat band we end up becoming a potential target for surface to air missiles. The only way we can avoid all that is by going as low as we can, using terrain to mask us and having an element of surprise to counter the threat and give any enemy a smaller window of opportunity to target us. That is the reality of war and underlines why there is so much focus on training for the low flying environment.”

RAF Shawbury is about to realise the benefit of a huge investment into the UK Military Flying Training System, which includes state-of-the-art simulators. These simulators are as close as you can get to real life situations without leaving the ground and will reduce the amount of actual flying time required; however, they will never be a complete substitute for the real thing.

Land is key

James Nason, Rowena Colthurst and family at Pitchford Hall
James Nason, Rowena Colthurst and family at Pitchford Hall

James Nason of Pitchford Estate, near Shrewsbury, is one of a growing number of landowners in Low Flying Area 9 who allow crews from RAF Shawbury to practise operations on their land.

He said: “My father was in the Army so our family is naturally very aware of the need for the best possible training for all the armed forces.

“I am delighted to be able to help in some small way by permitting helicopter crews to train on suitable parts of the estate; indeed helicopters are a welcome sight here as they hover over the fields.  There is no disruption to our daily lives or business and I’m sure our holiday cottage guests enjoy the impromptu air shows.”

As Group Captain Norris says: “Helicopters don’t go from airfield to airfield.  We’re always flying in and out of fields, clearings and woods, which is why these parcels of land are so important. We want to put troops somewhere they can’t be seen by the enemy. We sneak in at maybe ten feet, following river tributaries and valleys to make the best use of that terrain. We simply couldn’t undertake the necessary training without the generosity of local farmers and landowners who provide us such a variety of differing landing areas. “

But low flying isn’t just about war. Landowners have many reasons other than the defence of the realm to be grateful to our aircrew, who are called on to assist with search and rescue and supply during floods, snow and emergencies such as foot and mouth. Delivering humanitarian aid overseas also keeps our troops busy, even in peacetime.

And even without the risk of enemy fire, there are other hazards to be aware of, such as pylons, power cables, wind turbines and people using laser pens, sky lanterns and drones (RAF Shawbury has been working with Harper Adams University on ways of making working drones more visible for agricultural use). 

Military helicopter aircrew are also trained to recognise specific rural situations such as avoiding recently ploughed and seeded fields. Event organisers can request temporary no-fly zones by notifying the MOD of specific activities that could be affected by low flying training, such as agricultural or horse shows; being a good neighbour RAF Shawbury also works with local undertakers to avoid churches close to training areas when funerals are being held.  A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) can only be issued if the MOD has been made aware of these events.

You can contact the MOD on 01789 417558 or email SWK-LowFlying@mod.gov.uk to request low flying to be temporarily stopped in your area.

Be Seen Be Safer

Be seen, be safe
With hi-vis riders can be spotted by aircrew up to half a mile earlier. Image Crown Copyright

Now you see me….. Wearing high-visibility clothing means more chance of avoidance. 

As well as all the other factors, there is the crucial matter of ensuring the safety of riders and horses. As horses have a highly developed sense of hearing, they can detect even faint noises up to 4 km away. A horse that is spooked can lead to injury or worse, and avoidance of such circumstances forms a major part of all aircrew training.

The easiest and most important way in which riders can help is by wearing high-visibility clothing – for them and the horse; not only on the roads but also in ménages and whilst out on a hack. Crucially, this means riders can be spotted by aircrew up to half a mile earlier; this would enable aircrew to alter their flight path to avoid any surprises. This is borne out by trials conducted in conjunction with the British Horse Society, who are instrumental in getting the message out to riders.

To further raise awareness, RAF Shawbury launched a 'Be Seen, Be Safer' campaign in 2015 and has since distributed over 5,500 items of high visibility clothing to riders and horses - a scheme now running in many LFAs.  

Major “Woody” Woodhouse, Senior Flying Instructor and O/C 606 Sqn AAC.
Major “Woody” Woodhouse, Senior Flying Instructor and Officer Commanding 606 Squadron, Army Air Corps.

Major “Woody” Woodhouse, Senior Flying Instructor and Officer Commanding 606 Squadron, Army Air Corps.

“It is an inconvenient truth that we have to train somewhere. Helicopters don’t need airfields, they need challenging environments with low populations, and that will bring us into the same countryside that riders enjoy.”

Wearing high-visibility kit is an absolute game changer. If we can see you early enough we can make a gentle manoeuvre either horizontally or vertically and pass further away. However, a late sighting may mean that we choose not alter our flight profile as a sudden climb or change in direction would cause an increase in noise and greater risk to horse and rider.

Major Woodhouse
Clare Gabriel, Health & Safety Manager, The Pony Club
Clare Gabriel, Health & Safety Manager, The Pony Club

Clare Gabriel, Health & Safety Manager, The Pony Club

“Of course, some people - especially the older generation - don’t like to wear high-visibility kit, so it is even more important that work very hard to promote the wearing of high visibility clothing among our 55,000 young members. Today’s event has really brought that home.”


“Safety is paramount in everything we do and all helicopter crews who come through the Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury have this instilled in every element of their training.  What I can absolutely guarantee is that if we think you were compromised in any way our helicopter crews will note the location and time and inform our Air Traffic Control of the incident.  Any incidents will be investigated and other crews fully briefed at the earliest opportunity to ensure that we learn from these events.

“Likewise, if you think you have concerns or would like to tell us about an event in Low Flying Area 9, please contact me directly at RAF Shawbury on 01939 251510; other areas of the country should call 01780 417558. We will follow up every call to work together to see if any further actions are required and whether lessons can be learned.”

For information on all aspects of military low flying visit www.gov.uk and search for low flying or call 01780 417558. For RAF Shawbury call 01939 250351. 

First Published in CLA's Land & Business Magazine September 2018