The “Mach Loop” experience

2017. Without a doubt one of the best vacations I’ve ever had as a person in general and as an aviation nerd in particular: the Mach Loop in Mid-Wales. Staying in a lovely Bed & Breakfast annex pub called Y Llew Coch (The Red Lion) in the tiny village of Dinas Mawddwy, I have felt like being taken in as a resident by its family, headed by Berwyn Hughes. The folks here are decent, honest, direct, hardworking, lovely people. The scenery of Wales is just stunning.

On top of that, and to me really a bonus, plenty of military planes are screaming about in LFA7’s (Low Flying Area 7) Mach Loop. If you’re not on one of the Loop’s hills by then, the jets will almost literally tear the roof off of your B&B. Otherwise you may hope to be on one of those hills (orange names and numbers on my map here), armed with a camera and decent lens, plenty of clothing, several layers, heavy-duty boots and a good physical condition.

Not going to talk camera and lens technology here, since I still regard myself an amateur. Suffice to say that my Canon EF 100–400mm 5.6 lens was adequate for the job, capturing fast jets screaming at speeds up to, I’m guessing now, max. 500MPH at 100–200ft altitude. It all boils down to the skills of the photographer operating the equipment. And I can tell you: this is difficult! Out of hundreds of shots, I managed to squeeze off about a dozen decent pics.

Regarding those planes, it’s like a casino. It’s a gamble whether you catch some or not. There are no official timetables. And, despite Air Force notices and plenty of photographers with scanners, they hardly stick to any schedule. So, the smart move is to be up one of those hills at least around 0900AM, with your clothes, boots, ponchos and cameras, and be patient. Do not be on a hill alone. Not only for safety during ascend and descend, but also for good company.

That patience provides for great conversations with fellow ‘hill monkeys’. I’ve been between four nationalities, and we didn’t just talk about planes but also about life. Provided that the company is good, the sum of all of the above is what I call ‘quality of life’. In the meantime you may photograph some Hawks, Typhoons, Tornadoes, Grobs, Kingairs and what I call my Holy Grail: some USAF F-15 Eagles from Lakenheath. The latter I didn’t get. I was driving.

And yet, since I regard some planes present as a bonus, with about six Eagles ‘strafing’ my car while I was burning rubber on my way to the Bwlch, arriving too late, sky closing up and rain pouring down, returning to The Red Lion, I didn’t cry about it. That’s all in the game. Misinformation, a last-minute change of heart on the Air Force part, it can happen. I enjoyed the Mudhen attacks on my Opel nevertheless. Next time be more vigilant, I guess.

As I said, the Welsh landscape is stunning. While you’re there, you might as well tour around and take in the scenery. Don’t get just stuck on a hill. Follow the weather. When it’s going to be raining cats and dogs in the Loop, you more or less can be sure there will be no flying. Plan trips around the countryside. Or drive up to the direction of Wolverhampton and visit the RAF Museum at RAF Cosford. Great collection there. Especially the Experimentals.

So, I’ve been ‘blooded in combat’ now, still growing from ‘hill virgin’ to ‘hill monkey’. It doesn’t take that much to have the time of your life there. I know I have. I’ve met some great folks. Some I knew from Facebook, some new ones. Glad to have met them all. It shows that Facebook sometimes becomes real life, talking to FB Friends for years, and finally meeting them in person. A huge ‘thank you’ to one of them, my friend and tour guide Neil Bates.

I’ll be back! (spoken in 2017)

Me on the high end of the Bwlch

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