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What it’s like to fly the UK’s famous Mach Loop

There are few places in the world where aviation photographers and enthusiasts are able to capture unique views of aircraft flying underneath them. And although many readers may be familiar with Rainbow Canyon (nicknamed "Star Wars Canyon") in Death Valley National Park, California - often frequented by fighter jets from the United States Air Force and Navy - there is another location where fast-flying aircraft can be seen ‘up close and personal'. Visualize the British ‘Mach Loop', a series of valleys in northwest Wales famous for their low-flying opportunities, and your initial images are likely to be of fast jets tearing through stunning scenery. Often used as a low-level military training course, many people assume the name to reference the speed the aircraft that regularly fly its route are capable of achieving. However, the moniker actually derives from the Welsh village of Machynlleth, located to the south of the Loop itself.Related: WATCH: Falcon 8X flies through Star Wars Canyon - photos, video, reactionWhat sets the Mach Loop aside from other areas is undoubtedly the low level at which aircraft may traverse its circular corridor. In 1979, several Low Flying Areas (UKLFAs) were established in the UK, extending from the surface to 2,000 ft AGL. There are 18 in the UK (although bizarrely, no number 15 exists), and the Loop sits within LFA7.Popular with pilots and enthusiasts alike, the Loop is one of few places in the world a photographer can capture an aircraft as it passes beneath their vantage point (the other being Star Wars Canyon). Hawks, Typhoons, F-35 Lightning IIs, Strike Eagles and F-22 Raptors - to name but a few - have all been snapped by an adoring audience keen for an unparalleled experience of seeing these machines in motion. Spectators often camp out at vantage points ‘Cadair' or ‘Corris Corner' for an up-close experience of the action. Seriously: This place has a dedicated fan base, many of whom come armed with airband radio and cameras, chancing their luck in the hope of spotting something exciting. But it's a long walk to lug a camping chair, so today I'm going one better and arriving by air. Flying in Mach Loop is an experience like no other Despite its relative proximity to RAF Valley - an hour or so drive northwest - one might assume the Loop exclusively entertains military airframes. This is not the case, and with airspace open to all, we decided to make the most of the opportunity. I ride in the Nanchang CJ-6, a Chinese military trainer and ground attack aircraft designed in the 1960s and still in limited production today. We depart from just outside London and before long, we're in the shadow of Snowdonia, the highest mountain in Wales (at 1085 meters above sea level). We couldn't have asked for better weather, and visibility is excellent as we reach the Loop itself. The inevitable paparazzi are waiting for us at the most famous vantage point, including our own party, waving from a bright orange blanket. The Nanchang is already somewhat of a rarity in the UK- being slightly too large to fit in a shipping container, not many of the planes have made it over here - and if our Sri Lankan Air Force's color scheme doesn't catch the photographer's attention, our smoke system certainly does. But the photographers' clicking cameras aren't done yet, as a voice on the radio confirms the imminent arrival of two unique visitors: an ex-RAF Vampire T.11 and a Jet Provost T.52, both the last airworthy examples of their type, who have also flown across from England for the weekend. Having made our first run through the Loop, it's time to land. Located in an area owned by Snowdonia National Park sits the village of Llanbedr, and despite the wonderful walks nearby - not to mention the beach - the views are best appreciated from the air. The airfield itself was first opened in 1941 as part of the RAF Fighter Command's 12 Group, where it was home to 32 squadrons on rotation. It later became a V-bomber dispersal airfield and military weapons training site before closing its doors in 2004. A decade later, Llanbedr airfield re-opened to serve the GA community. We land and refuel, with the vintage jets not far behind. We head back out to the airfield the next morning, where I'm told there's another treat waiting in store for me: it's my turn to actually fly the Loop. I have control! We strap into the Nanchang and taxi out. This ‘Chang was re-engined with a Russian 400-hp radial engine (an improvement on the original 285-400 hp powerplant) and as I open the throttle, I can certainly feel the power. Keeping her straight with a fair amount of left rudder, we're soon airborne and climbing out at 2000 fpm. Barmouth estuary slips below us and then we're in, cruising at 170 knots, navigating the twists and turns of a unique airborne experience. The sides of the valley seem a lot closer than they probably are - a landscape looming above and around - and I'm concentrating hard, anticipating my maneuvers with just a hint of incredulity at what I'm doing. Although some say civilian pilots shouldn't be ‘playing around' in areas such as the Mach Loop, I beg to differ. The airspace is everyone's (although the military never train here on weekends) and as long as due diligence is observed - recognizing your own skill level and acting appropriately - it needn't be an area to avoid. In particular, the new low-level VHF 134.90 frequency - available to both military and civilian aircraft below 2000 ft AGL - is of particular importance to make blind calls on. There are definitely worse ways to spend a weekend. Previous stories from Charlotte Bailey:The Weather Divert: 'time to spare, go by air'From his aircraft's capabilities to his physical fitness: An aviator's look at Santa's Christmas flight
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