After a long hiatus (the previous exercise being held in 2011) due to a combination of overlapping events and unfavorable weather, on Oct. 11 - 12, 2017 the traditional Swiss Air Forces’ Live-Fire Exercise at Axalp-Ebenfluh finally took place.
This time around, the weather was indeed fine, and a large crowd of spotters and enthusiasts alike gathered at the Swiss Air Forces’ Axalp-Ebenfluh Firing Range, located at 7,365 ft/AMSL, in close proximity to Meiringen AFB, in the Bern Oberland.
Thanks to a favorable astral conjunction, and despite some untimely surgical “inconvenience”, I was fortunate enough to be among the happy not-so-few-after-all spectators, not only in the good company of old-time friend and master spotter Luigi Sani, but also as a fully accredited Press photographer on behalf of renowned Web Magazine www.giorgiociarini.com
This ensured that we could hitch a ride aboard one of the Super Pumas the Swiss Air Force had kindly tasked to transfer press and important guests from Meiringen AFB to the mountain Firing Range.
Having left Milano at dawn on the 12th, after crossing the border at Chiasso we engaged in a race against time (and speed traps!) to reach Meiringen via the splendid Sustenpaß and its breathtaking views (and scary overhangs…).
Upon arrival on Base, hardly discernible from regular cultivated fields, we barely made it to the registration desk in time to obtain our coveted Press badges, raid the gadget stand to obtain “proof positive” of our attendance, and sprint to the conference hall where Commander Aldo C. Schellenberg, C-in-C of the Swiss AF, quickly described to the avid audience the tasks and procedures of the Swiss Air Defence.
As the gates opened, we all eagerly swarmed towards the runway, where since the early morning half a dozen Super Puma had been ceaselessly loading the lucky few ticket holders for a free ride uphill.
On approaching the runway, we were led through a small cabinet where instead of the expected metal detector we were instructed to… climb onto some low-tech scales, to make sure that there wouldn’t be any overloading of the helicopters!!!
Boarding time had finally come, and as per instructions we filed as good-mannered ducklings towards “our” awaiting helo.
The 1,700m climb from airbase to firing range took only a few short minutes’ ride, and as we disembarked the helicopter we took in the one-of-a-kind view of the whole side of the mountain crammed with spotters intently setting up their camera positions to capture the best shots; luckily, the steep slope afforded all spectators an ideal, unobstructed view of the targets and of the zooming aircraft!
Promptly at 2PM, a spectacular twin flare discharge by a section of F/A-18C from Fliegerstaffel 11 “Tigers” kicked off the exercise, which featured two sections of Hornets alternating in live-fire strafing runs from all the directions offered by the target set-up, discharging short but very accurate bursts from their 20mm Vulcan guns.
Enter the Fliegerstaffel 8 “Vandalos’”, four F-5E Tiger II’s, for more strafing along similar patterns, but with the very different soundtrack provided by their twin M-39 single-barreled 20mm guns. Spectacularly close, with the final bursts fired with HE rounds to visibly demonstrate the Swiss pilots’ accuracy in hitting the targets.
An overwhelmingly thrilling, one-of-a-kind experience for your reporter, since Axalp Fliegerschiessen is the only such event in the world where laypeople can witness a live-fire exercise in such proximity, and experience first-hand the eyeblinking velocity of air-to-air combat.
The gorgeous Alpine backdrop only served to emphasise the Swiss pilots’ consumate ability in exploiting ridges and peaks to obtain the best tactical advantage.
Needless to say, once it was over all, the spectators, regardless of nationality for once agreed that it had definitely, positively been “too short”!!!
In stark contrast, the Pilatus Pc-21 turboprop advanced trainer took over centre stage and in a catchy bright red livery demonstrated its outstanding (albeit slower) speed and agility.
Cue the powerful Cougar and Super Puma for a spectacular demo of agility, tactical manoeuvers and lifting power, with a fire suppression drill that featured a very accurate drop of two large 4-ton water buckets right on the targets.
The rotary wing section also included an EC635 that performed a SAR (Search and Rescue) drill that featured insertion and extraction of a physician and a stretcher-bound casualty, displaying outstanding precision in positioning the loading hook, which was literally placed into the hands of the awaiting land-based operator.
As a welcome intermission between the two “powered” sections of the program, Company 17 of Explorer Paratroops jumped from a couple of Pilatus and delighted the audience with a coordinated drop flying Unit and Canton banners.
Burner back on, flares firing, the Swiss Hornet Demo Team’s F/A-18C made its thundering entry in the Axalp arena, proving once more the Hornet’s maneuverability and dynamic power in such a challenging environment as Axalp.
Alas, no cannon bursts this time!!!
No Swiss airshow would be complete without a demo by the excellent Patrouille de Suisse! Their garish red-and-white F-5E’s won all onlookers’ hearts right from the start by drawing a giant smoke heart in the sky above Ebenfluh and proceeding with a flawless execution some of their most classic figures, until the final round of applause.
The Patrouille’s last formation had barely gone by that the return flights to Meiringen had already begun, and faster than most of us really would have liked, we were all back on the tarmac close to the control tower, taking some last pictures and exchanging a few last words with our wonderful host, Cdr. Schellinger.
We barely had time to purchase some very final souvenirs before hopping back into the car, headed home to Milano, with our load of gadgets and pictures, but most of all with enduring memories of the emotions lived during Fliegerschiessen Axalp 2017.
Looking forward to meeting again for Axalp 2018!