Fondue on the firing range
In early October, fresh from working on a NATO exercise off the French Riviera, I took a train to the middle of Switzerland. I found it hard to explain what I was up to, even to military people. The best I could do was to say that I was “going to an airshow up an alp”.
Actually, that doesn’t really describe it. The full name of the event I was attending is Fliegerschiessen Axalp or Air Force Shooting Axalp, held on a firing range 2240m above sea level in the Swiss Alps east of Interlaken.
Neutral Switzerland maintains a small but well-trained air force equipped with F/A-18C Hornet and F-5E Tiger II fighters, mainly used for air defence and air policing. The F-5s are flown by reservist pilots. The Schweizer Luftwaffe has limited air-to-ground weapons but emphasises aerial strafing, which is fairly old-school in this day and age.
The Axalp event is the annual opportunity to demonstrate to VIPs, the public and potential aggressors their capability to blast mountain passes accurately with small amounts of lead. If the Austrians ever choose to invade via Liechtenstein, they had better watch out.
There are several ways to do Axalp, which usually has two training days and two public days, although this year one of the latter was rained off. If you can find a room, stay in the village of Axalp on an alpine clearing 1.5km above the valley and start the climb to the viewing point when you like.
Otherwise you have to get up early.
As the narrow road to the village closes to cars at 5am, the keen visitors will have driven up earlier and started their walk in the dark. For me, staying in the chocolate-box lakeside town of Brienz, 566m (1857ft) above sea level, I caught the 7am shuttle bus to Axalp village (1539m/5050ft) and then a chairlift to 1905m (6250ft). Many people decided to forgo the lift and its queue for a hike on winding paths, adding another 90min to the climb.
Then the hike began, following the crowds along muddy paths and over loose rocks. The surface is pockmarked by frost action, so the going is sometimes more jumps from hummock to hummock than walking. Despite the terrain, I fell over only once.
At about 9am the first jets appear overhead for their practice runs. This is why the real enthusiasts start before dawn, so they can get into the best photo positions before the first aircraft arrive. Pairs of F-5Es dive for the mountain above. Short crackling burps from their 20mm cannon can be heard as they disappear from view.
The hikers plough on between runs, inspired by the spectacle above. The F-5s are followed by Hornets, whose M61 rotary cannon makes a different noise — a rattle, a pause and a viiiiip, leaving a thin white trail punctuated by smoke puffs. The steepest part of the climb has a gradient of 55 percent, broken by some permanent metal steps and a guide rope through a narrow rocky channel.
Now I can’t claim to be that young any more or ever having been very fit, but with a few short rests and regular restorative fruit juice and chocolate I made it to the top without dying. Some other people found it harder going and an American boy was heard to tell his father he’d rather be at school.
It reminded me of climbs around Arthur’s Pass when I was a geography student at Canterbury many moons ago, but as far as I can recall the Sugarloaf at Cass didn’t have a tent selling bratwurst and beer at its summit.
The first viewing point and food tent is on a hilltop called the Brau, and many choose to stop here for the day. Beyond that is another steep slope to the Tschingel, which looks down to a saddle and back up to the observation post or KP.
Here is a permanent building for the range observers and a fenced-off enclosure, reached by a cable car with very few gondolas, or by helicopter, which is how the majority of VIP guests have arrived. A steady succession of Eurocopter Super Pumas and Cougars shuttles people from Meiringen air base nearly 2km below.
The morning fog over the valley below eventually burns off, giving an excellent view of the turquoise blue lake below and Brienz, where I started this morning. All around are jagged peaks, most of them bare in the early autumn, but there is plenty of snow on the higher north-facing slopes.
By 11am, although events don’t start for two hours, about 7000 people are settling down for the show, admiring the view and watching the helicopters, drinking beer and eating bratwurst bought from the tents.
A distinctive smell suggests at least one person is indulging in something a little stronger. With a gunnery target as close as 130m away on one side and nothing but a flimsy plastic fence preventing a tumble to oblivion on the other, I stick to a local soft drink, which turns out actually cheaper than at Geneva airport, despite having been delivered by helicopter.
The hardy Swiss bring all sorts of picnic equipment up the alp. Several people set up fondue sets supported by walking sticks and break out bottles of red wine. Another starts a small log fire. They probably laugh at those photographers, many of them from mountainless Holland, who are carrying 15kg of cameras and lenses and a squashed sandwich.
Finally, heralded by a pair of Hornets flying through the valley pumping out flares, the show proper begins and the F-5s begin their firing runs.
Aircraft can approach from six directions to attack at least four targets, some flying and firing maybe 100m above the crowd. As most attack in pairs, in quick succession, things happen very quickly. Approaching along the main axis, the jets line up quickly, fire a short burst, cross the saddle and then climb the face of the Wildgärst mountain, rolling inverted and diving down the far side.
It’s then when you notice that there are people up there too, the ones who started walking at 1am. They are getting spectacular photos of inverted jets coming at them with the lake behind, but I wonder about their chances should the weather change. Hidden by the landscape, the fighters line up again for another approach, the target is briefly obscured by grey dust as the shells strike home and they are gone again, rolling inverted and diving into the valley below.
You can see when the jets are firing by a thin trail of smoke behind them. The sound follows a second or two later. At least one photographer managed to capture the cannon shells and the supersonic shockwaves they formed as they travelled at 900m a second from an F-5’s twin cannon. Admittedly he did need a 1300mm lens and a very high shutter speed for that.
It’s not all gunfire, however. There are displays from a turboprop PC-21 trainer, helicopters and paratroopers and liberal use of self-defence flares for added spectacle.
Aircraft participation is usually an all-Swiss affair at Axalp, but this year there was a special guest in the form of the Swedish Gripen Demo, flown by Swiss pilots. This is the prototype for the Saab Gripen NG (New Generation) fighter, which Switzerland has selected as a replacement for its F-5s.
The Gripen Demo didn’t shoot — mainly because, in common with other two-seat Gripens it doesn’t have a cannon — but the 22 single-seat Gripen Es that Switzerland is buying should be bringing their 27mm Mausers to Axalp from about 2016.
The show ends with a highly impressive solo Hornet display and the red-and-white F-5s of the Patrouille Suisse, apart from the arrival of eight Cougars to start lifting the VIPs down again.
Along with much of the crowd, I had already started the walk down, in what proved to be a futile attempt to catch my train to Geneva. One surprisingly elderly gent got a lift under the rescue helicopter, not because the walk was too strenuous but because he chose a direct route down a slope that even the younger ones felt was too steep, demonstrating the old joke about how to make a Swiss roll.
Another chap brought himself to the chairlift by parasail, which was still only half way. The image of Switzerland may be one of high taxes and rules against everything, but they seem to allow a fair bit of personal responsibility as well.
Axalp must be the only public air event where live ammunition is flying about and you look down on the participants. Getting there is a bit like a pilgrimage to a mountaintop shrine, which is of course half the fun.
The event will be held next year on 9–10 October but will take a break for 2014. It’s one of those things that should be on every aviation enthusiast’s must-do list, although it can’t really be called a cheap day out. I may go again next year, but might see if there are any press seats on one of those helicopters first …
- Report and photographs by Jim Winchester
» Summer success at the Walsh
» The luxury of living in the Ivory Tower
» Comper moves swiftly
» UAV usefulness increasing
» Woodville’s even dozen
» 60th birthday party for ZK-BNL
» New airline MRO facility
» Hands across the Southern Alps
» Praise earned in tough place