Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lower than a Snake's Belly

This week's aviation feature

Lower than a Snake's Belly

Lower than a Snake's Belly in a Wagon Rut

On a particularly hot day, a Royal Australian Air Force English Electric A84 Canberra bomber drops to within 25 feet as thrill-seeking mechanics get ready for the visceral experience of 13,000 lbs of Rolls Royce Avon power full in the face. RAAF Photo

By Dave O'Malley

For the past few years, I have dumped any good shots of low level that I came across on the web into a folder on my hard drive, never knowing what to do with them. Last week, my great friend Ian Coristine sent me an e-mail with a collection of low level photos someone had put together. Many were already in my folder. So, here finally is the contents of my folder, in tribute to my friends Greg “Hard Deck” Williams, whose aggressive attitude once made him engage a pair of A-10s in ACM with his Moonie (and win) and Ian Coristine, who never felt he was flying unless his floats swished in the long grass in a morning sunrise.

Ian Coristine inspects the alfalfa in his Quad City Challenger ultralight.

• Crayfish, crawfish, crawdads

They loved to fly low in World War Two

A Douglas A-20G Havoc night fighter of the 417th Night Fighter Squadron does a little daylight low flying down in the weeds possibly near the Orlando, Florida base where they were formed. Their first deployment was to Europe where they immediately re-equipped with Bristol Beaufighters. Today, the unit still trains for a night time job, but flying the F-117 Nighthawk or so-called “Stealth Fighter”.

P-40 flies down the beach at extreme low level, as Marines practice an amphibious landing somewhere in the Pacific. In order to get this photo, the photographer standing on the beach would have had to have his back to the oncoming P-40 trusting that pilot would do a “buzz job” of the beach and not his hair. Photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik

A squadron of Luftwaffe Ju-52 Junkers stream low over the Russian countryside near Demjansk, south of Leningrad. In February to May of 1942, the Germans were surrounded by the Red Army. Supplying the Germans during and after the "Demjansk Pocket”, was the role of the air force. Here, low flying in the slow transports was more a survival tactic than a joyride. Photo via Akira Takaguchi

Thought to have been taken in the region of Canterbury, New Zealand in 1944, this shot of an Airspeed Oxford scaring the beejeesus out of half the waiting airmen while the other half remain calm, is a beauty.  Photo via Joe Hopwood.

A USAAF P-47 Thunderbolt at extreme low level. Note that the sweep of the camera's pan has bent the buildings in the background

Another shot that has the same effect of bending the buildings in the background (see previous photo).  Li
ke our own Spitfire XIV RM873, Griffon-powered PR Spitfire XIX PS890 was sold to the Royal Thai Air Force after the war. She is seen here with 81 Squadron markings and being put through her paces down low at RAF Seletar, Singapore in the summer of 1954 just before her sale. In 1961, PS890 was donated to the Planes Of Fame Museum in California. It was eventually restored and took to the skies again in 2000, albeit with clipped wings and contra-rotating props. It was then purchased by Frenchman Christophe Jacquard and taken to Duxford for the wingtips to be added and a single 5-bladed propeller installed.

While researching images for our P-40 stories over the past year I came across a massive collection of marvelous wartime photos - mostly of P-40s collected by Steve Reno. This P-40 pilot is risking his life only a little less than the man taking the photo of this ridiculously low level pass across the runway. He’s not much higher than he would be if he was standing on his landing gear! If you trace the invisible line of his prop arc, this skilled numbskull’s tips are only about 4 feet off the ground. Photo via Project 914 Archives, Steve Donacik

For many attacking aircraft, safety lay down low in the wave tops beneath enemy radar coverage. Here, a squadron of Douglas A-20 Boston bombers of the RAF
's 88 Squadron head to the target over the North Sea. 88 Squadron crews became highly proficient in low-level bombing.

In December 1942, almost 100 aircraft from 2 Group attacked the Philips Valve Factory at Eindhoven including 12 Bostons from 88 Squadron at RAF Swanton Morley.  They were led by W/C Pelly-Fry, the CO of 88 Sqn. Pelly-Fry's
aircraft was hit just after he had released his bombs. With much-reduced hydraulic pressure, a large hole in the starboard wing and a coughing and spluttering starboard engine, he narrowly avoided the rooftops but found that the aircraft could not climb above 800 ft, nor could he keep up with the others on the way home. Despite his difficulties, he fought off two FW190s before eventually managing a belly-landing back at Oulton. Deservedly, he was awarded a DSO; the raid also resulted in the award amongst the other crews of another DSO, two DFMs and eight DFCs.

But not all the low-flying was "in the face of the enemy". A former 226 Squdron flight commander, a navigator, related to me one such series of antics by which his crew 'nearly came a cropper'. The pilot and captain of his Boston was Sqn Ldr Shaw Kennedy (who became, after the war, the Air Attache in Prague). Kennedy was a brash Irishman with a wild and wicked sense of humour. His favourite jolly jape was to buzz the German and Italian prisoners of war working the fields around the perimeter of Swanton Morley airfield.

At this point in the story, it helps to understand that Swanton Morley airfield is situated on the top of the only significant hill in central Norfolk. Despite being a mere 150ft or so above sea level, the ground falls away significantly on the north and eastern edges of the airfield into the valley of the River Wensum. Kennedy's "standard approach" was from the east, hugging the bottom of the river valley before banking sharply to port and roaring up the slope at full power over the startled POWs, who immediately hit the dirt to avoid getting a haircut.

Kennedy would then stay low, heading south across the grass airfield, before banking steeply to port again across a small pond, surrounded by trees, to the south of the hangars. He would shave the tops of the trees which, to this day, are shorter in the middle than at the outside, due to his "pruning". This unorthodox procedure worked fine until one, almost fateful, day. As Kennedy rolled out of the left bank to scare the POWs again, his navigator (sitting in the nose) noticed that the POWs had all ducked down well before the Boston would be on them. Sensing that the POWs were up to something, he had no time to tell Kennedy to pull up as all the POWs threw their farming tools in the air as high as they could - straight into the path of the Boston. There were fleeting visions of rakes and spades flashing over the wings and the faint ping of something ricocheting off a prop. Fortunately, Kennedy managed to land the Boston safely. He never buzzed the POWs again! (Story from Squadron Leader Alan. R. James (Ret'd)

Three Japanese Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers with torpedoes aboard, scream extremely low in to the target at Guadalcanal.  At this height, the bombers are well set up for a launch of their “fish” and at the same time, as witnessed by the flak explosions above them, somewhat safe from AA fire.

There is often a price to pay.

'One more beat-up, me lads.' Flying Officer Cobber Kain, DFC, a New Zealander and the RAF's first ace of the Second World War makes a fatal mistake.  On the 6th of June 1940, Kain was informed he would be returning to England the next day. The following morning, a group of his squadron mates gathered at the airfield at Échemines, France to bid him farewell as he took off in his Hurricane to fly to Le Mans to collect his kit. Unexpectedly, Kain began a "beat-up" of the airfield, performing a series of low level aerobatics in Hurricane I L1826. Commencing a series of "flick" rolls, on his third roll, the ace misjudged his altitude and hit the ground heavily in a level attitude. Kain died when he was pitched out of the cockpit, striking the ground 27 m in front of the exploding Hurricane. Kain is buried in Choloy Military Cemetery.

Some aircraft, such as this Spitfire, reach that fine line between crashing and flying low... about 12 inches too low in the case of this 64 Squadron Spitfire with shattered wooden blades. The aircraft, no doubt shaking badly was nursed back to the safety of an Allied base.

An Allied pilot flying a Macchi  200 buzzing Taranto, Italy. It sadly proved that these kind of stunts aren't without danger as the pilot hit a member of the ground crew and more or less decapitated him. The pilot hadn't noticed a thing and after landing was confronted with a dent in his wing's leading edge, containing skull  fragments.

I didn't want to include any shots of an aircraft landing or taking off, just low level flight, But this shot of a Lockheed Lodestar dragging its wing in the turn out is interesting enough to include
. The aircraft crashed and burned.

A P-47 of the 64th Fighter Squadron, while on a mission to Milan, struck the ground during a low level strafing run. Despite the bent props and crushed chin, the pilot nursed the Jug 150 miles home to Grosseto. Photo via Hebb Russell

The strange end of Donald Scratch

Not an extreme low level shot, but this image of a P-40 chasing a B-25 Mitchell over buildings in the Vancouver area is worth a lengthy explanation. Jerry Vernon explains:

"Sgt. Scratch was born in Saskatchewan, July 7, 1919, and enlisted in the RCAF in Edmonton, as R60973 AC2 on July 20, 1940. He earned his wings as a Sergeant Pilot and flew with that rank for a long time. He flew Liberators from Gander, Newfoundland, as a co-pilot on anti-submarine patrols. Scratch was good at his job and was eventually raised to commissioned rank. On two separate occasions, Scratch stole multi-engine bombers and engaged in lengthy low-level and dangerous flying/ Jerry Vernon explains:

“Scratch had injured his leg in a previous Bolingbroke accident, and the powers-that-be felt he did not have enough strength in the leg to control the rudders on a Liberator if he lost an engine.  For that reason, both at Gander and at Boundary Bay, they would not give him a captain's qualification, which is what pissed him off.

On the first occasion, they were concerned that he was going to fly the aircraft down to New York City, but he thought better of it, and returned to base.   He later told classmates at Boundary Bay that had been his intention.  He had taken a Liberator without authority at 0345 hrs on 20 Jul 44, and "for 3 hours and 10 minutes engaged in an exhibition of dangerous low flying over the aerodrome and vicinity."  He told the Court of Inquiry that, after 3 years of operational flying on the East Coast, he was determined to participate in another theatre of war.

I suppose that qualified pilots were in such demand that they allowed him to re-enlist as a Sgt. Pilot less than 3 weeks after being dismissed by General Court Martial.  Former CPAir PR head Jim McKeachie, a member of the Quarter Century in Aviation Club and 801 Wing, Air Force Assn. of Canada, was on the same course as Don Scratch at Boundary Bay, and had dinner with him in the mess that night before the event here.    McKeachie then went off on a leave pass and was not on base the next morning when the Mitchell escapade took place....however, Jim does have his own version of the story, which I have heard from him several times!!

Scratch began a 6-week course at No. 5 OTU as a Mitchell 2nd Pilot and was due to graduate on 11 Dec 44.  His Flight Commander regarded him highly and stated in evidence that  "He was a very keen, average pilot.  He was neat in his appearance and had a pleasant personality.  He was very quiet and generally well-liked."

Apparently Scratch wasn't normally a heavy drinker, but got drunk that night before attempting to steal a Liberator and then stealing the Mitchell.  Others in his barrackroom stated that they had never seen him drunk...but the Bar Steward testified that he had sold him between 12 and 18 bottles of beer that night!!   He attempted to persuade a WD to come with him, but she wisely refused.  There is no mention in the file of the Liberator hitting a bridge....the file says it was bogged down in the mud, and a 2/3 full mickey of Jamaica Rum was found dropped down between the pilot seats, with Scratch's fingerprint on it.

The Court of Inquiry notes that he had been drinking beer in the Mess and did not occupy his quarters that night.  At 0200, he visited the Stn. Signal Section and offered a drink to the WD on duty.

He did not fly down to Seattle, but the RCAF were afraid that he would, and the P-40s had instructions to shoot him down if he crossed the border, which he did not do.  Otherwise, if he stayed inside Canada, they were to stick with him and try to force him to land.  He did not fly down Granville St. downtown below the level of the building....as far as I am concerned, it would be physically impossible to do with a Mitchell!!  However, per statements from the CO, it sounds like he did fly over parts of the city.

He did fly around and "visit" several of the RCAF stations in the area, possibly Pat Bay and I think Abbotsford for sure....the Court of Inquiry file only mentions Abbotsford and an extensive beat-up of Boundary Bay.   In fact, as a  kid during WW II, I lived on 176th St., several miles due West of the Abbotsford Airport, and one morning a Mitchell came over our farmhouse at chimney-top level, and I have suspected it may have been Scratch.  However, the date seems to rule it out, unless I was back visiting with my grandparents at the time.  I moved into Vancouver in the Summer of 1944 and I don't know when my grandfather sold the farm, as he was living over near Cloverdale by the Summer of 1945, as I recall being there when VJ-Day occurred.

I have seen a photo of him buzzing the CO's morning parade at Boundary Bay, well below tower and hangar height.  It is in the  C of I file in Ottawa, which as I recall also contains some newspaper clippings.

The C of I file says that he beat up Boundary Bay from about 0600 to 0700, then headed for Abbotsford.  He then returned and beat up the buildings, runways and parked aircraft at Boundary Bay, incredibly missing some objects by inches.  At one point, he flew the entire length of the tarmac between the line of parked aircraft and the hangar, with his props inches off the ground.  He could be seen in the cockpit without headphones on, so he could not hear tower transmissions to him.....the CO had gone to the tower at 0630 and taken personal charge of the situation.

The Court of Inquiry decided that, even if he had been drunk when he started out, after several hours of flying and strenuously throwing the aircraft around, he was probably cold sober by the time he crashed.

The C of I ruled that it was not a suicide, as some thought it was.  He had flown the aircraft for several hours, up to the point that the fuel should have been exhausted.   Mitchell HD343 had taken off at approximately 0454 hrs from the unlit runway and flew around for 5 hrs and 15 minutes until crashing at 1010 hrs, after about 5 hrs and 15 - 20 minutes flying.  The Court felt that, as he pulled the aircraft up sharply, one of the engines was starved of fuel and cut out or faltered, thus causing a wingover and the aircraft dove vertically into Tilbury Island, not far from the present Deas Island highway  tunnel and the Deas Island Park.    I wonder if there is still any trace of the large water-filled crater that is shown in photos??

It had been calculated that the aircraft would run out of fuel about 0930, but it did not crash until 1010 hrs, so that lends some credence to the theory about it running out of fuel.

The Court had considered several possibilities....

Pure accident, ie: loss of control at high speed.  No.

Failure of fuel supply to lower engine when wings of aircraft were vertical in last pull-up.  With one engine running and the other cutting out, the aircraft would have done a wingover and dived towards the ground.  The aircraft was at high speed and flying at 800 - 1000 ft. at the time and the Court felt it would have been impossible to pull out.  This was the accepted findings of the Court.

Loss of control due to physical exhaustion....no sleep that night, heavy drinking, 5 hours of violent aerobatic maneouvers, etc. could have resulted in a physical collapse.  No.

Suicide.  No evidence that he was suicidal, so "No" again.

Insanity.  No.  He had been examined by RCAF shrinks and the Court had no alternative but to find him sane. 

However, the remarks of the CO suggested that Scratch must have been suffering from some sort of mental depression or an inferiority complex.  He felt that the flying was so dangerous that no-one in a balanced state of mind would fly that way for such a long period. The CO and several experienced pilots felt that a pilot in a balanced state of mind would have frightened himself so badly that he would have quickly stopped flying this way.  

No. 5 OTU operated out of both Boundary Bay and Abbotsford.  In general, Mitchells were used at Boundary Bay and Liberators at Abbotsford, and the basic 4 or 5 man crew trained first on the Mitchells and then were joined by the Air Gunners at Abbotsford on Liberators for further work-up..  There wouldn't normally have been many (or any) Liberators at Boundary Bay, but there apparently was at least one there that day.   5 OTU used the Boundary Bay-based Kittyhawks for "Fighter Affiliation Training" for the Liberator Air Gunners, so perhaps that is why one would have been at Boundary Bay.”

Film makers love low level flying!

Not actually a scene from the Second World War, but rather the opening scene in the great film A Bridge Too Far. A school boy watches over his shoulder as a recce Spitfire rips up a cobbled road in the Netherlands.

Modern day photographer Murray Mitchell captured this action shot super low B-17 Flying Fortress performing for a film crew and followed by a P-51D Mustang and a P-47 Thunderbolt. Photo via www.murraymitchell.com

A low flypast during the filming of the Steve McQueen-Richard Wagner film, The War Lover. Nothing like a good buzz job to get the juices flowing, in this case one of the War Lover ex PB-1Ws being flown by John Crewdson for a key scene in the movie. Crewdson reportedly flew the airplane solo for the sequence. Photo by David M. Kay

The legendary Don Bullock was well known for his low level flying... in particular in B-17s. Here, he beats up the field at Biggin Hill.

Also at Biggin Hill, Don Bullock coming "out" of the valley at the 1979 Biggin Hill Air fair in 1979. Bullock would eventually kill himself and six others in a B-26 Invader in this very spot after a botched manoeuvre at low altitude.

Unoccupied desert and sun-baked boredom causes low-levelitis

A particularly heart stopping photo of a Hawker Hunter of the Sultan of Oman's Air Force beating up the base at Thumrait. The Sultan employed former RAF pilots to fly Hunters and Strikemasters to help put down the Dhofar rebels in the south. They clearly were bored from time to time! The rebellion ended in 1976, the same year I visited Oman. One of our readers, Kevin Turner writes: I used to work at Thumrait back in the 1980's and 90's and this was standard practice when returning from a sortie in those bad old days, most of the pilots were seconded from the RAF or contract pilots. I think the Jaguar was being flown by Dick Manning, an ex-Phantom jockey from the RAF and a regular low level "offender". He used to aim for anyone walking out on the pan! You could hear the Hunter coming as it had this low frequency howl before it arrived, but the Jag was totally silent until it arrived and your senses were shattered by the noise! We even had a Jag hit a car being driven by one of the Hunter pilots coming back from Salalah. That was Dick Manning again. The centreline pylon caved the roof in and the ventral strakes on the engine doors took the A, B and C pillars out on the car. Dick said he didn't even know he'd hit the car!!! Another Jag hit the Range Safety Officers walkway handrail with the outer section of the port wing during a beat-up. Other versions of this type of flying in Oman are on YouTube I think.

A Hawker Hunter pilot of the Sultan of Oman's Air Force (SOAF) shrieks across the ramp on an Omani air base. Photo via PatricksAviation.com

In the shimmering white heat of an Omani summer day, a Sepecat Jaguar adds superheated jet exhaust to the miserable mix as its pilot shows off for the ground personnel watching from the shade. In 1990, the SOAF was renamed the Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO). It is not known if this is a SOAF or a RAFO Jag,

But forest, buildings and mountains make it more exciting

A Dutch F-16 with burner lit seems to follow the turn in the road. On the ground, Dutch airmen stuff fingers in their ears as he passes over head.

Testosterone fired, speed addicted, and happy-to-still-be-alive youth were the primary source of pilots of the Second World War.  At 6 foot, 4 inches, I wouldn't want to be standing up on the runway for this beat-up by a Mosquito. This aircraft had the military serial number RR299 and was built as an unarmed, dual control trainer at Leavesden in 1945. It served in the Middle East until 1949, when it returned to the United Kingdom. It then served with a variety of RAF units, this service being interspersed with periods in storage. The aircraft was retired from the RAF in 1963 and was acquired by Hawker Siddeley Aviation (now British Aerospace) at Chester. The first Permit to Fly was issued on 9 September 1963. The aircraft continued to be based and maintained at Chester and typically flew around 50 hours per year. The Mosquito crashed in 1996 with the loss of the crew. Photo RAF

Saab test pilot Ove Dahlen flies a mini-counter-insurgency aircraft variant of a trainer, known as the Malmo MFI-9B, between houses in Sweden. The concept of a super-light, super-cheap attack aircraft with hard points for rockets was not well received and SE-EFM was eventually sold (as all other MFI-9B trainers were) as a civilian sport/general aviation aircraft, but for a while it was a bad-ass attack aircraft clearly capable of sneaking around buildings. Though SE-EFM and the purpose-built mini-COIN concept did not take hold, 5 airframes of the MFI-9B trainer, known as the Biafra Baby, were fitted with rockets and employed in the conflict in Biafra.

Bombers do it.

This is my favourite of all the low level shots, as the people (except the man on the left who is smartly covering his ears) have no idea how low this Avro Vulcan really is as it sneaks up behind them. Though this was a formal and serious occasion at RAF Swinderby (a graduation ceremony), there were no doubt some shrieks and some Olympic flinching when the sound reached them.

A British-based B-17 flown by Don Bullock beats up a grass field.

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Lancaster drops down to the infield of the Saskatoon airport.

Royal New Zealand Air Force Short Sunderland doing a touch and go at Wellington airport in 1959 -  Surely no-one can go lower than that!  A touch an go in a wheel-less flying boat is not recommended. You couldn't get a damn slice of pastrami between the hull and the runway.  There exists a crystal-clear shot in  one of the RNZAF flight-safety publications that showed the aircraft just after it had done the "touch and go" clearly showing the bilge water escaping. Spectators were treated to a shower of dirty bilge water as it climbed away.

Another Sunderland being 'demonstrated' at Port Elizabeth, South Africa, may not be as low, but the pilot gets full degree of difficulty points for having two props feathered!

Thought two feathered engines on the same side was impressive for low level flight? How about three feathered and 20 feet below? This Avro Lancaster appears to be post war with the nose turret de-actvated and a dome in the dorsal position. This is a very foolish maneouvre.The aircraft can't be flown on a single engine. It's done by a dive, a high speed pass and a zoom climb at the far end of the runway with a mad scramble to unfeather. The situation gets serious if the first unfeathering knocks the generator on the good engine off line, leaving only battery power. Photo via Blake Reid

Rhinos LOVE to do it.

An RAF Phantom II in full burner passes between two hangars at an RAF base. There isn't a Rhino-driver alive who didn't love dropping his locomotive-sized Phantom down to the hard deck and pushing the throttles right past the detents.

Like I said before, Phantom drivers love it down low

Flying even lower than the Greek economy is this GAF F-4 Phantom II picking its way through the bushes.

Down low, add in a little rock and some flat water and the fun escalates. This picture was taken in Goose Bay, Labrador and the aircraft is from the Luftwaffe's FBW 35, where Oberts Dieter Reiners was commander of the flying group at the time. Oberst Reiners tell us, “We used one set of aircraft the whole season and the different wings would paint their crest on the aircraft, when they took over. The crest from Flugplatz Pferdsfeld was blue and yellow and my maintainers had forgotten to bring blue paint, so I ordered to use red paint!! And that is what you see. It could have been me, flying that aircraft over Harpers lake, but I can not tell the tail number. It was legal, by the way, to fly that low!!”

A Panavia Tornado spews heat, gas, and vapour as she howls from the runway with her wingtip a few feet off the ground.

During an air show at RAF Wethersfield in 1964,  Belgian Air force pilot Jo Marette in a Republic Aviation F-84-F Thunderstreak flies not only feet off the ground, but apparently just feet from the crowd. Times have changed. While perhaps not as exciting for the spectators, it is certainly safer.

The legendary Ormand Haydon Balllie checks our wheat production at a farm outside of Duxford in 1974 in his T-33 (RCAF 21261) The Black  Knight.  Born in Devon, England during the Second World War, OHB moved to Canada in 1962, joining the RCAF. He would become a well known warbird collector and pilot after his service.

Another crazy low pass by Ormand Haydon Baillie in his Black Knight T-33 Silver Star.The spectacular paint scheme is based on an RCAF design for 414 Black Knight Squadron that flew the type. Vintage Wings of Canada is proud to have been part of 414's history. The squadron was disbanded in the 1990s. However, in December of 2007, approval was received for the squadron to stand up once more, this time as 414 EWS (Electronic Warfare Support) Squadron. Belonging to 3 Wing Bagotville, the squadron is based in Ottawa and is composed of military Electronic Warfare Officers who fulfill the combat support role, flying on civilian contracted aircraft. The squadron was re-formed at the Vintage Wings hangar at the Gatineau Airport on 20 January 2009 to operate the Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet provided by Top Aces Consulting.

Haydon-Baillie died in Germany in a P-51 Mustang on July 3, 1977.

A fine shot of an RCAF Golden Hawk Sabre burning the concrete ramp.

With speed brakes out this is neither a landing nor a take-off. This low flying Lightning is an F6 in 5 Sqn markings. The photo is definitely of a low pass since wheels-up landings were not to be attempted in a Lightning due to the large ventral tank underneath. In the event of the 'cart' not coming down, the standard Lightning action was to point the aircraft somewhere safe (eg the North Sea) and eject. Indeed, quite a few Lightnings ended up in the North Sea, mostly from RAFs Binbrook, Wattisham and Leconfield!

This Sukhoi Su-30 could be going Mach .98 or it could be hovering.

Even airliners do it

The Human Fly, a stunt man by the name of Rick Rojatt, makes a low pass on top of a DC-8 flown by the legendary Clay Lacy in front of the grandstands between events at the 1976 California National Air Races at Mojave. The aircraft is ex-Japan Airlines JA8002. It was owned and operated by American Jet Industries in 1976.

A Boeing 707 of Air Zimbabwe, flown by Darryl Tarr doing a low level, high speed flypast in Harare in 1995. According to witnesses, this was not the lowest the pilot flew. Tarr says that his radar altimeter read 6 feet beneath his keel at one time. Many believe that the flight was unauthorized and that Tarr was fired because of it, but he states that he made two flights) and they were both authorized. He recounts the facts of the flight in fine detail: 1. Three Crew members only on-board (Flight Engineer, First Officer, and myself) 2. Non- Revenue Flight (or non-commercial flight as some prefer) 3. 12,000 KGs of Fuel (2.0 hours endurance) 4. VREF Approach Speed Flaps 40 was 116 Knots (I was flying at 125 Knots) 5. Radio Altimeter call of 30 feet (from the FE), will be my cue to initiate a Go-Around 6. Back-up call from the F/O, plus visual cues (outside references due to the pitch attitude)  7. Rising ground and the fact that the aircraft is rotated towards +15 degrees in a Go-Around, the empennage will initially rotate downwards and get lower to the ground which was accounted for (as depicted in the photo, the aircraft is climbing) 8. High Speed Fly Past (which is not shown here), was at the Barbers Pole of 375 KIAS (due to the density altitude at Harare True Air Speed was 400 Kts)

A beach makes a good open area to fly low in.

I can't even imagine how amazing it would have been to be on the beach this day to see a Consolidated B-36 “Peacemaker” fly down the line between water and sand. If he passed right overhead, both wingtips would be a spectacular 115 feet away in both directions. Designed for altitudes in excess of 35,000 feet, the Convair was a rare sight this close to the ground in level flight.

A spectacular shot of a Fairchild C-119 Flying Box Car flying low over sunlit waters... one of my favourite shots! via Blake Reid

Another great shot of a Belgian Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar executing a super low level flight at Deurne Airfield ... with just one engine!  You get the feeling that the loadmaster could just step out that rear crew door on to the field. Photo via www.belgianwings.be

Mathematically, you can't get much lower than two inches below the hard deck. This South African Harvard aerobatic team set the bar as high (or is it low?) as is physically feasible with this wheels in the water formation flypast.

Sometimes, the difference between ground and aircraft is quite literally... inches. A Piper Cub comes as close as possible to a wing strike without damage.

The twin-engined Diamond Star Twin rips along a beach. Judging by the number pf cameras at the ready, this was not an unauthorized fly by.

The Navy loves to do it

Down under, a Royal New Zealand Air Force A-4 Skyhawk flies well below the deck of HMS Invincible (the Harrier “ski jump” can be seen at the right). The photo dates from the deployment of NZ A-4’s to Singapore for the ‘Vanguard’ Five Powers Defence Agreement exercise in March 1989. Many thanks to Sam Hall of Wellington New Zealand for the information.

One of the most celebrated images of a low pass is this shot of F-14 Tomcat driver Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass making a curving pass alongside USS America.  Many web-wags have stated that this was unauthorized, dangerous or that it even was a photo of a Tomcat about to crash. However, Snodgrass explained: "It's not risky at all with practice. It was my opening pass in a Tomcat tactical demonstration at sea. I started from the starboard rear quarter of the carrier, slightly below flight deck level. Airspeed was about 270 kts with the wings swept forward. I selected afterburner at about a half-mile out, and the aircraft accelerated to about 315 kts. As I approached the fantail, I rolled into an 85-degree bank and did a hard 5-6G turn, finishing about 10-20 degrees off of the boat's axis. Microseconds after this photo was taken, after rolling wings-level at an altitude slightly above the flight deck, I pulled vertical with a quarter-roll to the left, ending with an Immelman roll-out 90 degrees and continued with the remainder of the demo. It was a dramatic and, in my opinion, a very cool way to start a carrier demo as first performed by a great fighter pilot, Ed "Hunack" Andrews, who commanded VF-84 in 1980-1988.

A B-52 slides down the port side of USS Ranger (CV-61) in its typical nose down cruise attitude. Though it looks like it, this is not photoshopped. It happened in early 1990 in the Persian Gulf, while U.S. carriers and B-52s were holding joint exercises. Two B-52s called the carrier Ranger and asked if they could do a fly-by, and the carrier air controller said yes. When the B-52s reported they were 9 kilometers out, the carrier controller said he didn't see them. The B-52s told the carrier folks to look down. The paint job on the B-52 made it hard to see from above, but as it got closer, the sailors could make it out, and the water the B-52's engines were causing to spray out. It's very, very rare for a USAF aircraft to do a fly-by below the flight deck of a carrier. But B-52s had been practicing low level flights for years, to penetrate under Soviet radar. In this case, the B-52 pilots asked the carrier controller if they would like the bombers to come around again. The carrier guys said yes, and a lot more sailors had their cameras out this time.
  Photo was taken from the plane guard helicopter

One of our readers, former USAF B-52 commander Doug Aitken sent us this photo oh two Guam-based B-52s flying low past USS Nimitz. The caption on the back reads "Grand Forks bomber over the Nimitz, winter of 81". The story that comes with this photo makes for a long but very interesting caption:

I am a retired USAF pilot who also flew for AA for 17 years. I was an OV-10 Forward Air Controller in Vietnam and got into the B-52 in the second half of my career.

I was the Ops Officer for the 37th BMS, 28th BMW,  at Ellsworth AFB in 1979, during the Iranian Hostage crisis. We were surprised with a no-notice Operational Readiness Inspection from SAC Headquarters in early Dec 79. During the prep for that ORI mission, we were halted in our tracks and told to prepare for a deployment to Guam. Six hours after that notice, the first KC-135s were airborne and three hours after that the first three B-52H's deployed.

We ended up sending a Squadron's worth of B-52H's to Guam -- a mixture of crews from the 77th BMS and the 37th. The deploying crews were led by the 28th BMW Vice Commander, Col Wayne Lambert, and the 37th BMS Commander, LTC Jim Dillon and 77th BMS/DO, Major Bill McCabe.

LTC Bob Murphy, 77th BMS/CC, and I stayed behind with the remaining crews who flew that ORI mission.

At Guam, the deployed crews immediately began training in the conventional missions they were not proficient in -- sea surveillance, mine laying, and conventional "iron bomb" missions. The B-52s stationed at Guam permanently were the "D" model, and while those crews were specifically trained to do conventional missions, their B-52's did not have the range to get all the way into the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf. Previously, the B-52H crews at Ellsworth only had a nuclear mission, so for most of them, this was new (we did have a few older members who had flown conventional missions during the Vietnam War.)

This effort went on for approximately a month until all the crews were trained. Then the majority of the crews returned to Ellsworth, and a small staff, led by Major McCabe, stayed with four of the Ellsworth crews. Around the first of the year, I led two more B-52's as we deployed with staff to relieve Major McCabe and two of the deployed crews. We continued his work in formalizing the training program and started training the new crews.

After being there about a week, we were tasked by the JCS to fly a mission deep into the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf to surveil the Soviet Fleet. At this time, the US 7th Fleet was in the area, being shadowed by the Soviets, and their Bear bombers, launching from Afghanistan, were harassing our carriers. The JCS evidently wanted to show the Soviets AND the Iranians that our strategic airpower could reach them that far out.

Our small staff, with some assistance from the local staff, planned this mission overnight and launched early the next day. Since the Soviets always maintained an intelligence gathering trawler off the coast of Guam, these two B-52Hs launched in darkness, filed as KC-135s to Diego Garcia, complete with bogus KC-135 crew lists on the ICAO flight plan. Gunners were instructed to leave their radar off, and radar navigators were instructed to use frequencies that KC-135s would use.

The Airborne Commander was Captain Wally Herzog (copied on this message), who was the most experienced pilot available from the local crews. An instructor pilot in the B-52D, he had been the person leading the conventional qualification of the B-52H crews. The two crews, one from the 37th BMS and one from the 77th BMS faced a total of  five air refuelings and 30 hours, 30 min of flight time (These missions eventually earned the name "Winchester" missions due to the 30-30 time.) After refueling with tankers based in Diego Garcia, these B-52s flew "due regard" (i.e. no flight plan) into the Persian Gulf.

At any rate, this deception was successful. The crews made contact with the US Navy and were vectored to the Soviet fleet. On their first pass, the Soviet crew were on deck waving, at first assuming the aircraft were their BEAR bombers. On the second pass, not one member of the Soviet navy was to be seen.

The BUFFS then went over and did a fly by for the US Navy, and returned to Guam. The following week,  two crews from the 319th BMS at Grand Forks AFB, ND deployed to Guam and we returned the two crews who had flown the original mission. We then flew a second "Winchester" mission with those 319th crews. After that success, I returned to Ellsworth as we were relieved by two more 319th crews and staff."  Doug Aitken

In 2009, a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet crew got permission for a low-level demonstration flight as part of the opening ceremony for a speedboat race on the Detroit River, This is what it looked like for Motor City residents. Officials waived rules to allow the Navy flyers to swoop under 100ft along the waterway. One resident said, "I couldn't believe how low they flew and how close they came to our building. I'm sure the pilot waved at me."  Photo: AP/The Detroit News, Steve Perez. Originally spotted at the Daily Mail.

A Belgian F-104 turns out after a high speed low level pass.

The Spitfire MK923, belonging to Hollywood actor Cliff Robertson of Baa Baa Black Sheep fame, and flown by Jerry Billing, does a extreme low pass over a grass strip at his home in Essex County, Ontario. From 1975 through 1994 the Billing air strip was a prime spot to see Jerry practice in MK923. People would line the 5th Concession Road to watch Jerry wring out the Spit. Cliff Robertson, famed for playing JFK in PT 109, died in September of 2011. Photo via Bob Swaddling

The legendary, extraordinary Ray Hanna makes an extreme low level pass in a Spitfire down pit lane at the Goodwood auto racing track in England in 1998. Sadly, with the death of Hanna, we will not see such feats again.

If you haven't seen this video over the past five years, you been living in a cave with Bin Laden. One of the best low level snippets anywhere... click here. Warning... contains high levels of "Fuck-me"

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  1. Hi, I've some correcting info about picture titled "down under" in section "the navy loves to do it". I'm the stoker in the picture waving. It was actually 1997 onboard HMS Illustrious during deployment OCEAN WAVE 97. I have the actual close up photo of the hawk ( NZ6217 ) as it goes by with pilot looking at Ships photographer ( La phot Paul Hanson ). Also the actual book with all deployment pics. Unfortunately don't have a clue about how to post these pictures onto this site. Any help?

  2. Hi! That is amazing information. It's the first time someone with first hand knowledge commented here. I will gladly post anything for you. Just send it to me. (crockerdh@aol.com)

  3. I could certainly help with the posting of pictures. You could start by contacting me at crockerdh@aol.com and we could go from there.