Tuesday, 1 July 2008
The C130 was put through its paces above the Scottish Highlands
BBC Scotland reporter Craig Anderson joined some of Britain's top gun pilots during an exercise to prepare them for action in combat zones.
Here he looks at the rigours of low-flying training over the Scottish Highlands and the criticism it draws.
Our plane flew in low.
Very low. Hugging the landscape, the huge Hercules C130 transporter was often no more than 300ft above the heads of the startled sheep below.
The task was to rescue an infantry unit trapped in enemy territory.
We had only seven minutes on the ground to complete the pick-up while firepower from Typhoons and Tornadoes kept hostile combatants pinned down.
Happily, the landing zone was Wick airport in the far north of Scotland. This was merely an RAF training exercise.
"Of course we need defence but we must make sure it's proportionate."
-Rob Gibson, Nationalist MSP
This week some 30 extra aircraft and 500 air crew and ground staff have descended on the twin RAF stations at Kinloss and Lossiemouth in Moray.
They're taking part in the Combined Qualified Weapons Instructors Course.
It's a bit of a mouthful but the 10-day series of exercises is the culmination of six months of training for Britain's top guns.
The aim is to prove the battle-readiness of not just the high fliers but also their strategic warfare planners on the ground.
"We're testing their ability to assemble large packages of aircraft to solve particular tactical challenges," Wing Commander John Sullivan of the RAF's Air Warfare Centre explained.
"We've asked them to go and extract some British troops that have been compromised in a forward position."
Some people are concerned about low flying in the Highlands
The aerial acrobatics of the Typhoons - previously known as the Eurofighter - flying together with Tornadoes, Hercules, Nimrods and various other aircraft create a plane-spotter's delight and quite a few enthusiasts will head for Morayshire to indulge their passion.
Other observers are less convinced of the need for so many low-flying training missions over Scotland's more remote areas.
Criticising the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) recent admission that pilots deliberately use people's homes and vehicles as dummy targets, Nationalist MSP for the Highlands and Islands Rob Gibson complained that the north of Scotland gets most of the pain and little of the gain from low-flying.
"We see the MoD's behaviour as arrogant because it feels it can use the Highlands as a military playground and I believe that's got to be challenged."
Part of the objective of low-flying is to remain invisible to enemy radar and attack aircraft.
And it's not just fast jets that employ the tactic.
The Hercules seemed so much faster and more manoeuvrable than I'd expected as we dodged along glens I knew from the ground but not from the air - such as Strath Halladale in Sutherland.
On the flight deck of the C130, Flt Lt Mark "Dutch" Holland insisted the experience offered by Scotland's topography was second to none.
He said: "Scotland's ideal because when we go out to Iraq there's often large numbers of aircraft operating in a very small bit of airspace.
"Also in Afghanistan there's very large mountains and very bad weather and Scotland has both of those."
The RAF argues that for as long as crews are required to fly genuine missions in such hostile areas, then low-flying training is vital.
So Scotland looks likely to remain an invaluable training ground.