Low-level flying is one of the most important techniques used by the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm during military operations, but practicing such a skill can sometimes come at a cost, as reporter MICHAEL MARSH found out at RNAS Yeovilton.
PERFECTING the art of helicopter low-level flying is no mean feat.
Get it wrong and the enemy will shoot you down – if the electricity wires haven’t already snared you.
But pilots risk their lives getting the technique down to a ‘T’, ready to fend off potential attacks in some of the world’s most hostile war zones.
I’m at RNAS Yeovilton – one of the Navy’s two main air bases – to learn how this finely-tuned skill protects our troops abroad and witness first-hand the dangers it brings.
If I wasn’t aware how risky low-level flying was before my visit, a stark introduction from the station’s Commanding Officer, Jock Alexander, helped ram home the point.
“People have died doing this,” he said. “We don’t just do it because it’s fun – we do it because we have to. It’s not willy-nilly, there are reasons why.”
Soon it’s not hard to see what Cdre Alexander is talking about.
Trees, wires and horses mean training day in day out over Somerset’s countryside is taken as seriously as a tactical operation in Afghanistan.
With training come hazards, making it one of the most rigorous learning processes on the Navy syllabus.
RN Commander (air) Neil Thompson said: “It’s a high-demand activity for our pilots. It requires a lot of training and a lot of time is taken perfecting the art of low-level flying.
“The threat we face every day on operations is very real. They’re real threats we have to prepare for.”
In 2003, rider Heather Bell, 38, was killed when her horse was spooked by a low-flying Chinook in Lincolnshire, causing it to bolt and throw her to the ground.
There are on average four to six horses per kilometre on British soil and Somerset’s large riding community means it is no exception.
It is illegal to low fly over built-up areas, controlled air space and restricted areas, such as Hinkley Point nulcear power station, but it is virtually impossible to fly low and avoid livestock at the same time, as I found out while cruising over the countryside at a little over 100ft in a Sea King Mk4 helicopter.
The Commanding Officer of 848 Squadron, Richard Sutton, who has flown in the Navy for 20 years, and seen frontline service in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, said: “It’s a very, very fiercely regulated environment to operate in.
“We take the regulations very seriously – you can go to prison for two years for illegal low-level flying – so we don’t do it ad hoc or for the hell of it.
“Safety is paramount. We invest an awful lot of time, energy and money on getting pilots to the right standard.
“Wires are helicopter killers. A lot of us have lost friends to wires over the years. There’s nowhere in the countryside where there are no wires. They’re very hazardous.
“This is a high stress, high workload environment. We all have families who we want to go back to at the end of the day.
“Even in a tactical operation we don’t want to fly over populated areas. People get on their phones and say ‘hey, guess what – there’s a helicopter coming.’”
While the Navy often comes under fire for straying too close to horses, some riders accept that they must themselves take responsibility.
Sheila Hardy, head of safety at the British Horse Society, said: “The biggest issue is making ourselves seen as riders. So many seem to think ‘why should we?’ ”
Michael ‘Pepsi’ Kohler, who runs an equestrian centre at Bridgwater College, said he has made provisions in a bid to make riders more aware of passing aircraft.
He said: “We can hear helicopters coming. It’s an unwritten rule that if you can hear one we stop riding until it has passed.
“The lack of high-visibility vests comes down to people being lazy, but I think it will change.”
During my 45-minute flight from Yeovilton to Westonzoyland, via Ministry of Defence-owned Merryfield at Ilton, the intensity of low-level flying was apparent.
The risks for pilots and horse riders alike are there for all to see, but the two hope they can continue to work together while our armed forces train for their next call of duty.
A freephone advisory service is available for horse riders – call 0800-515544 for helicopter traffic information or visit www.mod.uk/issues/lowflying