NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY KEDAR KARMARKAR
Imagine a couple of F/A-18 Hornets flying in close formation, with afterburners screaming through a valley, vapor forming over the wings and fuselage, dispensing flares, with snow-capped rugged mountain in the background. That is one image that was etched in my memory for a long long time – after seeing it for the first time on an online watering hole for aviation photographers called Fencecheck.com. I never imagined myself traveling internationally to air shows around the world, but I had put that on my bucket list anyways.
Fliegerschiessen Axalp or loosely translated as Flyer shooting at Axalp is the event that provides the above spectacle. Axalp is a small village, located in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, near the southeastern shore of Brienzersee (Lake Brienz), east of the famous touristy town of Interlaken. It is close to the Meiringen Flugplatz (Air Base) from where the Hornets of FliegerStaffel 11 (Tigers) take off and land for the demonstration. This is an event where the relatively small Swiss Air Force hones and showcases its gun firing skills – shooting into the alpine mountain side at highly visible targets placed into the rock.
This event is held at the Ebenflüh firing range that is at an altitude of around 7,500 feet. Fast jets like the F/A-18 Hornets and the F-5E Tiger come screaming into the small valley with guns glazing, helicopters continuously flitting above the sharp jagged rocks on logistics missions the whole day and the other demo teams like the Swiss Hornet, the PC-21, the Cougar and the famous Patrouille Suisse in their red and white painted F-5Es performing against a jagged and snow-capped mountain backdrop – round out the small air show like event. It occurs twice daily – once at 0900LT and another time at 1400LT and goes on for 90 minutes of flying and blowing stuff up.
The origins of Axalp begin in 1942 during the height of World War II. General Henri Guisan, the chief of the Swiss Armed Forces at the time, ordered all crews that operated combat aircraft to get trained for combat and regular firepower practice to provide close air support for the troops on the ground, as well as defending the skies over Switzerland. The Ebenfluh-Axalp area was found aeronautically suited for conducting such a practice. The initial shooting trials were conducted by Morane fighters. The same year the training of military pilots went through in the first phase. In 1944 the Swiss Air Force trained with Fieseler Storch aircraft that could land and take off in the mountains. In December 1949, the first air to air and air to ground shooting by a jet fighter took place at Axalp – deHavilland Vampires were bought from the UK and served with the Swiss Air Force at the time.
Normally getting to the firing range and back is a complex journey. Shuttle buses ply from the train stations nearby to the ski lift in Axalp village. It is almost an hour journey for the shuttle buses. It is another 20-25 minutes on the ski lift that takes you up around 1250 feet to the base of sheer cliff like rock. Then the “arduous” hike begins up the mountain to various spots which might take 2-3 hours depending on the stamina and physical fitness.
Monday and Tuesday are practice days, and Wednesday and Thursday is the actual event. Monday started out cloudy and foggy up in the mountains. That day there were some people who had made it up but not too crowded since it was just the practice day, and the weather being foggy up top, didn’t help for any flying either. One EC-135 just buzzed up some of the mountain tops and landed at KP where the control tower for the event is. We heard the Hornets taking off from the base at Meiringen below and saw them fly over the mountain tops only to disappear. Some moments later we heard some jet noise but it was only the Hornets returning back to base
Moments later, we heard a lone F/A-18C Hornet buzz us – it flew lazily over the tops popping flares but was nothing concerted.
This was the Swiss Hornet demo out on a recce to see if the weather had improved. It had not 🙁 There was too much fog in the valley for any flying to occur so it made couple of passes and that was it. It was late afternoon anyways and we decided to call it a day.
Tuesday was a real challenge – We had to do it all over – except it will be in darkness and it will be cold and freezing. The good news was it had not rained so the ground would be more firmer than all the mush and the mud. I got up there huffing and puffing egged on by my friends. This time we hiked up to KP, near the control tower. It was a great day with sunny skies and great light, with wispy clouds.
The helicopters were like a constant stream of taxis – bringing in people, supplies, toilets up to the mountains. I practiced some of my panning skills to get some blurry shots of the main rotors as the light shined upon them.
Then we all heard the jet engines spooling up the Swiss mountainside – the Hornets of FliegerStaffel 11 were firing up for the day – that was good news. Soon we could see them fly in the distance and bang at 0900 the four F/A-18C Hornets of the Schweizer Luftwaffe made their entrance – two Hornets powering in afterburners with the flame rings behind their tails, vapor forming over the fuselage as they turned tighter and then they began dispensing the flares – perfect – I had achieved my bucket list shot that I wanted.
The first pair raced away climbing up and behind Wildegärst. The two Hornets behind the first pair pitched up and rolled down as if going for a strafing attack, pulled up forming vapor and they too screamed behind the others disappearing behind the mountain. Initially they did some practice runs on the orange targets that were dug into the mountain – and then the live fire began. Flying in, guns blazing, a cracking sound as the bullets left the muzzle, some smoke and fire on the targets, and then they were gone in a flash up the mountain. Then they flew around the mountain range and flew towards us, firing their M61 Vulcan cannon and then rolled inverted, following the sheer drop of the cliff towards the ground.
This was followed by a pair of F-5E Tiger fighter aircraft – these aircraft were from Flieger Staffel 8 – and flew from their base in Sion. The Swiss Air Force flew two special scheme F-5E Tigers and two normal ones. The FliegerStaffel 8 is in the process of being disbanded by the end of this year and they were in town for some reunion as well. Majority of the Tiger pilots are “militia” pilots – meaning they have a normal civilian job but also need to spend time training – in times when they have to defend their freedom. They have a scheduled time when all the militia pilots come together for Training course or a Refresher course and they hone their skills including flying, Air Combat Maneuvers (ACM), and also brushing up on their sharpshooting skills that includes firing the cannon.
The F-5E Tiger was introduced in service around late 1970s. Initially the air sovereignty missions were flown by Tigers but some were also used for close air support to the ground troops. Around a 100 Tigers were ordered and were in service at one time. However as technology began to improve and situations began to change, F/A-18 Hornet fighters were ordered in 1988.
Then after the firing was done, it was the time for the PC-21 – the latest out of the Pilatus stable of training aircraft. The PC-21 is designed to be the advanced trainer as well as the initial jet trainer for fighter pilots – giving the performance of a entry level jet fighter while saving operational costs for the Air Force. Much improved and modified from the PC-7 family of trainers, it has had fair success in the trainer market worldwide, being bought by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Singapore, France, Switzerland, UAE and Australia. The display indeed was fast and sharp with the speed and maneuverability of the PC-21 being demonstrated by the Swiss Air Force crew who flew it.
Next up was the Cougar helicopter demonstration flown by the demo team of the Swiss Air Force. Liberal use of flares during the start of the routine and the helicopter being hurled around inside the valley was fun to watch.
This was followed by a Search and Rescue demo flown by a Swiss Air Force EC135. Up next was the Bamby water drop by couple of Cougar helicopters who dumped the water on the orange targets in front of us. The Parachute Reconnaissance Company 17 performed an air drop jumping from around 12,000 feet and sailed their way all the way down to Lake Brienz, at the foot of the Axalp mountains. Also known as the Fernspäh-Grenadiers, they are Switzerland’s Navy SEALs equivalent. They are organized as a militia unit. The Swiss Hornet display team flew next and the pilot flew the Hornet admirably in the valley and around the mountains going really fast in a high speed pass as well as going slow as 110-115 knots.
The end was brought along by the F-5E Tigers of Patrouille Suisse team. Flying six F-5E Tigers in special red and white paint scheme, the team thrilled the audience flying different formations and maneuvers in the valley between the mountains.
On Friday we decided to hang around the airfield of Meiringen and watch as the Hornets took off and recovered back. Only in Switzerland will you find a normal road crossing across the runway – and the road closing for the fighters to taxi out and take off and land back – otherwise its business as usual. The surrounding mountains provide great fall colors of foliage as a background for the Hornets taking off.
Axalp presents a very unique experience to military aviation enthusiasts – not many air shows occur where the aircraft are flying in a valley up in the mountains – snow-capped peaks on one side and a sheer cliff on the other side. Add to that the live gunnery action that takes place right above your heads, is a rare sight. If you optionally add the “thrill” of the climb, that makes Axalp special.