Low level flying, flares, live firing… The demonstrations are spectacular and the location is unique in the world. Centrally located in the heart of the Alps at an elevation of more than 2250m is the Axalp-Ebenfluh shooting range. During the traditional flight demonstration, fighter jets perform their live firing training only a few hundred meters away from the audience. After a two-year break, the Swiss Air Force event again attracted thousands of visitors to Central Switzerland in October.
Where? Axalp, central Switzerland
Far away from being an insider tip anymore, Axalp has long since moved towards into an internationally known event. In previous years, a total of more than 10,000 visitors flocked to the shooting range. This year the number of tickets available per day was limited to 4,000 due to COVID-19 pandemic limitations. Still the area is literally overrun during the two official days of the show. To ensure the comfort and safety of the audience, helicopters fly toilet containers, loudspeakers, beer and sausages, to the area. Even a staircase is flown in and installed at the steepest and narrows part of the ascent. This is mainly done for the safety of the not-so-well equipped visitors who regard the climb in mountainous terrain more as an easy excursion. Early in the morning however, it is still as quiet as you could imagine.
The terrain is demanding. Visiting spectators have to cover a few hundred meters of altitude difference from the cable car station to get to the official spectator area. Sturdy shoes and a good physical condition are required to climb up in the specified one to two hours. The most ambitious visitors start the ascent at sunrise. The reward for this is not only a healthy hike in front of the unique mountainous backdrop of Central Switzerland, but also a seat in the front row and the opportunity to witness the shooting training in the morning hours before the actual big show begins in the afternoon. At the Tschingel area, the highest and largest of the three spectator areas, visitors are at eye level with the pilots and can even look down into the cockpits during some of their maneuvers.
Low Level Flying and Live Firing
The alpine terrain of Axalp is of course also demanding for the pilots. This does not only apply to the airshow presentations, of which the sequence and maneuvers have been especially adapted for this unique location. Steep rock formation and the narrow (at speeds of up to 800km/h…) valley basin offer a unique backdrop, but they also leave no room for mistakes.
Even during the regular shooting practice, young pilots have to get their feel for the shooting range and the flying circuit that covers all of the ground targets. It has a shape similar to a clover leaf. Pilot will use mountain ridges as natural cover to approach the targets marked with orange banners on the steep walls to stay undetected as long as possible. The target approach must be carried out with extreme precision. When the target is in sight, only seconds seconds remain to correct flight parameters such as the approach angle and speed and to fire a salvo. The approach maneuvers are observed by an officer from the ground. He also rates them on a scale from one to five, depending on the approach angle, shot distance and accuracy.
During the airshow, flares are generously being used during the opening of the flight program or during the final fly-bys. They add a great special effect, equally to the use of the afterburner and „high g“ pulls that produce a clearly visible condensation over the wings when the jets disengage the target and head for terrain cover once again.
Since very recently, however, the F / A-18 Hornet remains the only ‚sharp shooter’ at Axalp. The second jet in the inventory of the Swiss Air Force, the F-5 Tiger II, made its last live firing appearance back in 2018, when the militia squadrons showed up at the shooting range with up to eight jets. Nowadays, this type is no longer used in the air-to-ground role, ammunition is supposedly no longer available and their 20mm on-board cannons are deactivated. Additionally, their fleet has meanwhile been greatly reduced, the remaining 20 single-seaters are only used for aerial training such as intercepts or target towing, and the Swiss display team Patrouille Suisse.
Swiss Air Force Aerial Displays
This gap in the flying program has been filled with many new show elements for a welcome change. For example the mixed formation of PC-7, PC-21 and F/A-18C Hornet stood for the training path of the jet pilots of the Swiss Air Force. And two Hornets were also used in the simulated interception exercise of the Pilatus PC-24. The usual procedures of such an air police operation was demonstrated to the spectators at Axalp at a lower than usual altitude.
And there was yet another mixed formation, which caused a lot of sadness, especially among the Swiss spectators this year. Four Hornets from Fliegerstaffel 11 “Tigers” from Meiringen gave the two-seater Hawker Hunter MK.68, also known as the “Tiger-Hunter”, registered HB-RVV, a final escort. On the weekend after the Axalp event, the aircraft made its final landing and became part of the exhibition at the Altenrhein Aviation Museum. New legal provisions and also the lack of the mechanics required for the maintenance of historical military jets made the further flight operations with this Hunter an unsolvable task.
New to the Axalp show in this year was further the demonstration of capabilities by the special operations forces (KSK), who slides down the rop from a Cougar helicopter and then shot at the targets in the mountain slope with rifles and even a bazooka. Furthermore, two Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter set down parachutists and then descended past the spectators in an impressive manner and disappeared down into the valley. Further the well-known solo displays of the Super Puma and PC-21 rounded off the varied program.
Patrouille Suisse – Swiss Flying Precision
And still, the F-5 Tiger II made its appearance on the Axalp. To conclude the event, the Patrouille Suisse presented Swiss precision aerobatics with its six jet aircraft in front of the ever impressive alpine backdrop.
The Patrouille Suisse’s demonstration at the end of the first day of the show was also the end of the Axalp Firepower event 2021. The second day of the demonstration had to be canceled due to weather reasons.
‘Safety first’ does not only apply during shooting on the Axalp, but also for visitors to this unique air show in front of an alpine backdrop.