I walked from the house this morning, picked up the paper and looked up at the moon. It was still quite dark. I thought of a friend skiing last night, thoughts of snow and moonlight, my mind reached back to the mid-70s. We lived in Idaho, based at Mountain Home AFB. I was flying the F-111, it was the first jet designed for automated low level which gave us the ability to fly low through the mountains at night. I was far too young to be frightened by the adventure and, on most nights, racing through the mountains at 500 feet watching green lines on a screen and dials move was like being in the simulator. The exception to this experience was fresh snow and moonlight. It was quite beautiful, actually distractingly beautiful, and it created the illusion of daylight flying. I was doing a job that demanded my full attention and I wanted to watch the scenery. When I did look outside I always wondered what I was not seeing. What in front of me was not covered by snow and what was hidden in darkness and shadows? The thought was always enough to pull my attention back where it belonged. I also knew the jet would not ‘see’ a gentle icy upslope. Like a modern stealth aircraft an icy slope did not return radar energy, we could not detect it. If we were flying towards rising terrain and did not have good radar returns we would abort the low level and climb to a safe altitude.
Inside the F-111 Night Low level
I flew a lot of night low levels, with one exception ‘snow and moonlight’ flights stand out in my memory. The exception was a ‘night’ low level in Scotland. I was in the left seat, the guy in the right seat was a pilot and I was checking him out as an instructor pilot. It was officially night but it was summer and Scottish days were long and their nights were very short, we could see very well. This ‘night’ was different, Scotland’s valleys were filled with fog. We began our low level flying in fog with mountains around us. We crested the first ridge with a clear view of the surrounding peaks and settled back into a fog filled valley, the mountains disappeared from view, replaced by green lines on a logarithmic radar display. Another ridge momentarily brought back peaks before we again traded the magnificent view for green lines.
This repeated itself for about five minute or 40 to 50 miles of low level when I had enough. I was doing what we always did but somehow the intermittent visual reminder of what was around us was a bit unnerving. I pulled back on the stick, looked at the other pilot and said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, do you’. He said ‘no’ and we went home.
This flight contrasts sharply with another low level I flew in Wales, it was a day low level. I had been flying a lot of automated low level, my instrument crosscheck was very good and I knew it. This time the peaks were in the clouds and the valleys all had very low ceilings. Visibility out of the clouds was excellent. I was racing down a valley about 200 feet above the ground with the clouds barely above my jet. At the end of the valley the ground began to rise disappearing into the clouds. The jet was set up for automatic low level flight but I was hand flying, my pinky finger holding a switch on the stick that disengaged the auto system. As we approached the point where the rocks and clouds merged I released the switch and brought my focus from outside to the green lines inside the cockpit and monitored the jet as it crested the ridge and settled into the next valley. As soon as I could see rocks, my pinky was back on the switch and I was hand flying again until the next ridge demanded I relinquish control. Sandwiched in a narrow band of very clear air between clouds and rocks made our speed very real. Normally we were focused so far in front of the jet that we didn’t notice the speed but the narrow confines of that day made it exhilarating.
It was all over 30 years ago, and I am envious of what my friend did last night. I have flown over many national parks, back before Lake Powel was Lake Powel we had a legal low level that let us fly below the rim of Glen Canyon. We had low levels in the Cascades and the Saw Tooth mountains, I flew all over the US and many other parts of the world. I flew by Denali and marveled at its height and magnificence. None of it compares to the intimacy of walking on a trail and touching the dirt that makes a mountain or a canyon. It cannot compete with the emotional pull of nature.