Flight instinct

  • Low flying, which is restricted where possible to daylight hours on weekdays, is defined as 250ft for fixed-wing aircraft and 50ft for helicopters – or, occasionally, to close to ground level.

    The MoD logged 167 incidents involving helicopters and horses from March 2002 to April 2003.

    As part of their training, pilots use terrain to mask their approach, so they appear without warning. And whereas jets scream over in a split second, helicopters are slow, loud – and big.

    Low flying takes place over 78% of the land mass of England, Scotland and Wales, discounting “avoidances” such as built-up areas, large airports, industrial sites and even certain hospitals.

    There are 19 low flying areas (LFA) in the British Isles, including LFA 6 (“most of Wales”) and LFA 13 (“most of Scotland”). These include “dedicated user areas”, such as Salisbury Plain, and three areas – the Borders, Central Wales and Northern Scotland – for particularly low jet flying. From March 2002 to April 2003, 47,058 hours of low flying were booked, and the RAF typically flies 400 sorties – at all altitudes – per day.

    The MoD admits on its website: “However hard we try, there will never be a time when the activity can be truly evenly spread. Factors affecting distribution include the location of bases, air weapons ranges, training areas and weather conditions.”

    Hot-spots include the Borders, the south coast and a stretch of the north-east, but problems are reported countrywide.

    John Newman, manager at Pat Eddery Racing in Oxfordshire, says: “Every couple of weeks, heavy-duty helicopters come over so low that they rattle the windows. The terrain here is undulating, so you don’t hear them until they’re on top of you. It’s nerve-wracking bringing in yearlings from the paddock.

    “To be fair, we’ve had no accidents and the pilots do have to train. But if only there were some kind of schedule.”

    Alison King, who breeds Arabs in Dumfries and Galloway, says: “Jets are flying lower and lower. I’ve filmed them banking just over our trees, which are 60ft high. We get one every other day, as late as 10pm, and the noise is like a bomb exploding.

    “We’ve had people trampled and run away with and all of my horses have been injured. One came through the stable door and put his eye out. I’ve been injured too.”

    Last month a Connemara/Welsh pony jumped out of her paddock at Harlington, Beds, into the path of a car after a Chinook flew over. The helicopter, on exercise from RAF Odiham in Hampshire, was authorised at heights down to 50ft. No one was hurt, but the pony died. Its owners are pursuing a compensation claim, during which, they say, the MoD and RAF policemen have been very efficient.

    Others have found the MoD less helpful. Event rider Sasha Jane Smith’s horse reared after being scared by a low-flying jet, crushing her in a ditch (news, 4 March and 10 July 2003).

    Sasha is negotiating compensation, but admits: “I was put out when the MoD’s initial response was a leaflet explaining why low-flying training is vital.

    Then an RAF spokeswoman asked: ‘Did you see the serial number?’ I nearly said: ‘No – I was under half a ton of horse!’”

    And it is not just military low flying that can cause accidents. In 1998, Joanna Day successfully sued the South West Electricity Board for £5,000 when her mare Primmore Hill, the dam of Pippa Funnell’s Olympic contender Primmore’s Pride, died after being scared by a helicopter that was flying low to check electricity lines on their farm near Taunton.

    “Our buildings started shaking,” recalls Joanna. “I stopped teaching a cross-country lesson and got my pupils into the indoor school; my husband ran out of the office, still clutching his papers. After we’d caught all the young horses, we thought ‘Where’s Prim?’

    “We found her, rooted to the spot, in deep shock. She was 23, but fit and three months off foaling. She aborted and never really recovered. We put her down six months later. Now I try not to leave the horses out if I’m not there, and keep a video camera handy so that I can film when helicopters come over.”

    Major Gary Walker from the RAF gives a pilot’s perspective: “The crews cut their teeth on low flying and there’s no substitute for it. Every second of each flight is carefully planned and involves some training objective. I see why people ask ‘Why can’t they give us some warning?’

    “But plans change up to the last minute – even on big exercises – according to the weather, and we might go 500 miles in the other direction. And with the best will in the world, pilots don’t see horses – it’s not what they’re looking for.”

    An MoD spokeswoman adds: “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t fly over livestock. It’s not only horses: there’s lambing, game rearing, all sorts. We receive masses of requests for new avoidances, but it would be impossible to meet training objectives if we acceded to all of them, and would only shift problems elsewhere.

    “We consider temporary avoidances for specific events [which include, for example, RDA lessons] and look seriously at all complaints.”

    It is a real catch-22 situation, with no obvious solution. Yet horses would seem to present a special case – not just because of their unpredictability, but because they can cause accidents that involve others, too.

    Nobody disputes that pilots have to train, especially in the present climate, but as Sandra Johnston-Murphy says: “Why do we have to lose our lives?”

  • This article first appeared in full in Horse & Hound (10 June)

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