Aircraft

What is the Mach Loop and why is it ideal for fighter jet training?

The tight turns and bends of the Machynlleth Loop in Wales are perfect for combat training

What is the Mach Loop?

The Mach Loop is one of the UK's three Tactical Training Areas (TTA), mapped out for routine operational low flying training by fast jets and Hercules transport aircraft of the Royal Air Force and other allied nations.

Following a circular route through the Welsh valleys, the route provides an ideal location to train in the art of low flying – an essential skill that is practised by fixed-wing aircraft between 100ft and 250ft.

This is an altitude at which a pilot might fly in a combat scenario.

The US Air Force, which refers to the same route as The Roundabout, also uses the area for training as the loop has become known as an unrivalled space in which to fly for six minutes or more at top speeds for an uninterrupted run of low altitude/high speed flying through the twists and turns of a steep valley.

It is one of the few places in the world where this can be carried out in controlled, protected airspace and terrain.

Watch: Low-level flying through the Mach Loop (Picture: Department Of Defense).

Where is the Mach Loop?

Officially known as the Machynlleth Loop, the Mach Loop allows pilots to carry out tactical air combat manoeuvres, tight turns and bends, in the challenging terrain of a mountainous valley.

It winds over a circular route between Dolgellau, on the edge of Cader Idris mountain in Snowdonia, looping around to the Welsh market town of the loop's namesake, Machynlleth, in Powys.

Pilots fly fast through the skies over towns and villages such as Corris Uchaf, Ceinws, Glantwymyn, Cemmaes and Mallwyd.

They also manoeuvre over areas that have become known as top spots for photographers and plane enthusiasts at Corris Corner, Cad East and Cad West because of the stunning views 'topside' of aircraft as onlookers gaze down the valley from high up on the hills.

Mach Loop in the Welsh Valleys. JumpStory picture
The Welsh valleys provide an ideal training area for fighter pilots (Picture: JumpStory).

How fast do jets fly through the Mach Loop and at what altitude?

Fighter pilots fly at speeds of up to 450 knots or more than 500mph and at altitudes as low as 250ft, or in some areas as low as 100ft, as they speed through the loop.

Flight operations are guided by weather conditions and the RAF submits a timetable for scheduled training which is published via Government websites.

Some routine flights, which include a variety of military aircraft including helicopters, can take place at 500ft and 2,000ft.

Late summer tends to be the busiest time for low flying as squadrons make use of the good weather conditions to train.

A US Air Force Lockheed Martin HC-130J Hercules in the Mach Loop. Picture: JumpStory.
A US Air Force Lockheed Martin HC-130J Hercules in the Mach Loop (Picture: JumpStory).

Where else do RAF pilots train?

The Mach Loop training area lies within what is termed the Low Flying Area (LFA) LFA7, which covers much of the landscape across Wales.

The Mach Loop is just one of three areas of the country earmarked for fighter jet training.

Other areas set out as TTAs are Northern Scotland and the borders area of southern Scotland and northern England.

What aircraft fly around the Mach Loop?

Hawk jets, RAF Lakenheath-based F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, are all known to put pilots through their paces in the loop, as well as the RAF Airbus, Hercules, A400M and other aircraft, including US Air Force F-15C Eagles, Strike Eagles and F-22 Raptors.

Fighter jets in the Mach Loop. Picture: JumpStory.
Pilots train in a variety of fighter jets in the Mach Loop (Picture: JumpStory).

Plane spotters and aircraft enthusiasts

Given the unrivalled views of aircraft that can be clearly watched from above at sites in the hills as the jets race past in the valley below, the Mach Loop has become a magnet for plane spotters and anyone who loves watching fighter pilots at work.

There are a host of plane-spotting websites that give descriptions of the top sites to get the best views and guidance on where to find Government-published timetables.

A Hercules transport aircraft in the Mach Loop. Picture: JumpStory.
A Hercules transport aircraft in the Mach Loop (Picture: JumpStory).

Air forces only fly through the loop from Mondays to Fridays and do not fly on bank holidays or when poor weather reduces visibility – hence the summer months tend to be the busiest times for plane enthusiasts to gather.

Enthusiasts tend to park in places such as laybys on the A487 and hike up to locations at Cad West or Cad East, although this is not an official parking spot.

Local farmers have tended to be at odds with some who end up parking on the verges of fields in the area, while some motorists who have parked in such locations have found themselves getting stuck in the mud.

Mondays to Fridays between midday and 13:00, or until 14:00 on some days, are often peak times for flights during the current scheduled timetable for training, but times do vary.

Cover image: An F-15e Strike Eagle in the Mach Loop (Picture: JumpStory).