Low Flying Aircraft

Make sure you are visible

Anyone operating low flying aircraft, whether it is for business or private use, should make sure they are aware of the dangers that horse owners and riders face when encountering a low flying aircraft. If safe and they are able to do so, pilots will try and take evasive action to avoid over-flight if a horse rider or carriage driver is spotted in advance.

A helicopter pilot may continue on the same flight path if they spot a horse rider late. This is to avoid the excessive engine noise and blade slapping which would occur if they took sudden avoiding action. 

We are aware of at least some aviation companies that have strict policies for encounters with horse riders and carriage drivers, however these companies have also experienced issues with spotting horse riders and carriage drivers in time if hi-viz has not been worn.

To give pilots advance warning we strongly advise that horses riders and carriage drivers ensure they wear hi-viz at all times whilst out, both on themselves and on their horses. This will give pilots the best possible chance to spot them promptly. A horse rider or carriage driver blending into their surroundings whilst wearing dark clothing is very difficult for a pilot to see.

Keep safe

We would recommend, if possible, horse riders and carriage drivers keep a minimum distance of a half mile radius from any Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) licensed airport. This is especially important when visiting a new area to explore if they have not seen or experienced low flying aircraft before. Before visiting a new area have a look at local information and check whether there is regular low flying activity, including military in the area. A list of CAA licensed airports can be found here.

Reporting an incident

All non military aircraft incidents should be reported to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). All UK registered aircraft tail numbers begin with a "G" and it is very unlikely for any non UK registered aircraft to be carrying out any surveyance work or similar.

If possible and safe to do so riders should try and record the last four letters of the aircraft's tail number and then immediately report it to the CAA so they can use it to help trace the pilot and take further action. Of course trying to record the tail number is not always possible or safe, especially if your horse reacts, but you can and should still report the incident to the CAA, although without the aircraft's tail number there may be little they can do.

Background - Ministry of Defence

After the tragic death of Mrs Heather Bell, which was directly attributed to an incident with a low-flying helicopter, the Coroner instructed the Ministry of Defence to undertake a review to make sure that an incident like this never happens again.

The major review was undertaken, working closely with the BHS following the Coroner’s instruction that the MoD should work closely with equestrians to resolve the matter. It quickly became obvious that the most economical and easy way for pilots to identify equestrians was for riders to wear hi-viz (fluorescent) clothing on both themselves and their horse.

Extensive trials were undertaken using two riders who acted as guinea pigs for the Chinook pilots, and it was easily shown that a rider wearing a hi-viz jacket, a hat band/cover and the horse wearing a hi-viz fly sheet, the pilot could see them up to half a mile sooner.

That was plenty of time for them to avoid over-flight and therefore avoid frightening the horse and rider. Many riders wearing appropriate hi-viz clothing have reported that they have witnessed pilots taking avoiding action and remained safe as a result of this.

In addition to wearing hi-viz equipment on horse and rider, the MoD issued countless amounts of hi-viz equipment to riders in areas known to be hot spots for helicopter activity and also raised the low level flying height limits where possible. There are still places where low level flying will take place at any time, but mostly the horses in these areas have become acclimatised to the noise and take little or no notice.

Reporting your concerns for military aircraft

Some still remain worried by low-flying activity. The MoD does not take complaints lightly; in fact, they take them very seriously. Whatever you do, if you and your horse are involved in any incident with low flying aircraft, please tell us about it by reporting it online. We want to make things safer for all equestrians – although we appreciate that our troops have to train somewhere!

In the event of an incident, please also contact the MoD Low Flying Complaints and Enquiries Unit:

Telephone: 01780 417 558
Monday to Friday, 8am to 4pm (excluding bank holidays)

MOD Low Flying Complaints and Enquiries Unit
RAF Wittering

To make a complaint, send the following information to the Ministry of Defence (MOD):

  • your name
  • full address and postcode
  • telephone number
  • date and time of the problem
  • location of the problem
  • type of aircraft, if known
  • a brief description of your complaint

They will listen to your concerns and you should get a response from MOD within 20 days.

Your complaint can be investigated by the Defence Flying Complaints Investigation Team if you make a complaint about serious injuries or damage.

Plan ahead

If you're worried about whether your ride will be affected by a low-flying helicopter, call 0800 515 544. This is a freephone MoD helpline which is manned at all times and the operator will ask for the postcode of the area where you intend to ride. They should be able to offer you some information on whether there will be any low flying activity in your local area.

If you are organising an equestrian event, it may be possible to have it recorded as a temporary exclusion zone for the duration of the event and the MoD are keen to discuss avoiding lessons when registered RDA lessons are taking place at RDA centres. Call 0845 600 7580 for more information.

More information is available on the MoD website.

The MoD has published information regarding any planned training exercises with low flying elements and the times when the Tactical Target Areas are active on their website. 

The Tactical Training Areas are areas where the fast jet aircraft and Hercules (C130) aircraft can fly down to 100ft above ground level (rather than the normal 250ft).  One of these areas covers most of mainland Wales but it is only active for one hour per day. This operational low flying may cause issues to horse riders but if riders are aware of activity then they can make their own decisions about whether it is safe to ride out at that time. Although the exercises are not particularly geographic specific they do at least give some idea of when to expect unusual activity. 

Military low flying: MoD sponsored air exercises - GOV.UK

Military low flying: RAF operational low flying training timetable - GOV.UK

For large equestrian events there is the possibility of requesting military aircraft to avoid the area temporarily, although it may not be approved for some locations. 

Contact the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to apply. They will grant the request if it doesn’t significantly disturb the low flying training.

When applying, the following information should be included:
name and nature of the event
location and ordnance survey grid reference 
contact details for the people holding the event
date and time when you would like low flying to be stopped

Currently all BE events and most county show type activities are already avoids for military aircraft. The MoD encourage use of this request for large activities, particularly when horses are coming from other areas of the UK who may not be so used to low flying aircraft.

Anglesey Residents: Please note for those based on Anglesey – the whole island is in what is called a ‘Military Air Traffic Zone’ and this means any request for avoids for events will come directly through RAF Valley rather than the MoD. 
For those that live on Anglesey or just off the island, it is suggested that riders join the RAF Valley Facebook and Twitter page. This gives information on night flying and any exercises being held at RAF Valley, which may have unusual aircraft such as Apache or Chinook operating from the base. The MoD try to avoid weekend flying but this occasionally happens and this is a good way to be aware of what is going on.  If anyone is organising a large equestrian event it is advise to contact RAF Valley so they can make crews aware.  They cannot obviously avoid every event but if there are particular events that is felt to be high risk please get in touch. 

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