Guidance

Military low flying

Find out why our armed forces undertake low flying in the UK.

Although military low flying in the UK has reduced since 1988, it remains an essential skill for military aircrew. It allows them to undertake various roles like:

  • reconnaissance
  • search and rescue
  • transporting troops or humanitarian aid

It also provides military aircrews with one of the best chances of survival. Whatever missions we ask our armed forces to undertake, the aircrew must be able to fulfil the task as effectively as possible, often without time for ‘work up’ training. They are only able to do this through specialist training gained through the use of the UK low flying system.

UK military low flying system

The UK military low flying system covers the open airspace of the whole of the UK and surrounding overseas areas from the surface to 2,000 feet above ground level (AGL) or mean sea level (MSL).

Major towns and cities are generally avoided by low flying aircraft; unless there are local landing sites situated in your vincinity. In some areas of the country, a combination of airspace restrictions and topographical features make it difficult for aircrew to greatly vary their routes. So some areas will experience a higher number of military aircraft then others.

Flight paths

There are no set flight paths. Aircrew plan each sortie individually, taking into account environmental and industrial hazards. Routes will be varied as much as possible to spread the disturbance to those on the ground, although this is not always practical.

Aircrew do not use specific properties as navigation markers, as this would severely restrict their tactical freedom. It is not inconceivable that aircrew might, on occasion; select an isolated/prominent building or static vehicle for this purpose, but it is most unlikely that the same marker would be chosen on a regular basis.

It is very unlikely that a low flying military aircraft will set off a burglar or car alarm however, if this does occur this is not an indication of a breach of military flying regulations.

Other low flying training

Flight simulators are also used as part of our training programmes; however there is currently no acceptable substitute for actual low flying. At present simulators do not provide the scope to safely further reduce the volume of low flying.

Some training is carried out over the sea, but the sea is flat and featureless and does not provide realistic training that is necessary to prepare aircrew for operations.

Further information about why low flying takes place can be found on our ‘essential facts leaflet

Operational low flying training

The UK is divided into 20 separate low flying areas (LFAs). 3 of these areas are also known as Tactical Training Areas (TTAs). These are in:

  • a small area of mid Wales
  • part of northern Scotland
  • the borders area of southern Scotland and a small part of northern England

TTAs are activated at specific times throughout each day and when a TTA is active, fixed wing aircraft can fly as low as 100 feet AGL. This is not the case with routine low flying training, which is conducted across the UK on a daily basis. Outside the published TTA times the airspace is classed as a normal low flying area where fixed wing aircraft routinely fly at a minimum height of 250 feet AGL and helicopters are authorised down to ground level.

The MOD publishes a monthly Operational low flying training timetable for the 3 TTAs.

The MOD is unable to provide a timetable for all low flying activity as the information can very quickly become outdated due to weather conditions and training requirements.

Safety concerns

Safety remains the highest priority during flying operations for all military aircrews and they do not wish to frighten or upset people and animals. All our aircrews are highly trained and procedures are in place to ensure that members of the public are protected at all times.

Livestock and wildlife

Livestock and horses are not always that obvious from the air, and can be obscured by buildings, trees and hedges. These obstructions and the nature of the terrain may prevent aircrew from identifying livestock or horses and taking early avoiding action. If livestock or horses are not seen until late, considerably more disturbance is likely to occur by taking violent avoiding action rather than continuing on the existing flight path.

For safety advice please see our safety guide for horse riders leaflet.

Fuel emissions

There is no evidence to suggest that fuel emissions from military aircraft have a significant effect on the environment, even in locations where intensive low flying takes place, such as military training ranges. Monitoring has shown that there is no significant exposure to individuals from contaminants from exhaust emissions.

Contrails

It is a common misconception that condensation trails in the sky are “chem trails”. They are in fact contrails (short for condensation or vapour trails), which are long, thin, artificial clouds that sometimes form behind medium and high level flying aircraft. Their formation is most often triggered by the water vapor in the exhaust of aircraft engines but can also be triggered by changes in air pressure. Depending on the temperature and humidity at the altitude the contrail forms, they may be visible for only a few seconds or minutes, or may persist for hours, and spread to be several miles wide.

Published 10 September 2013
Last updated 18 June 2014 + show all updates
  1. Added link to Joint Helicopter Command (JHC).
  2. Updated information about why military low flying takes place.
  3. First published.