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Don't Mess With Switzerland

To the world's most formidable natural defenses, the Swiss have added F/A-18 Hornets and a new slant on neutrality.

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For the last half of the 20th century, the Swiss military comprised, on the one hand, a fully democratic citizen’s militia, in which truckdrivers ordered bankers around, and, on the other, a gentleman’s club of officers whose success in the military and success in the civilian realm were as thoroughly intertwined as strands of DNA. Today Switzerland’s military and civilian worlds are decoupling.

Colonel Rudolf Wicki started flying jets for the Swiss air force more than 30 years ago, starting in the indestructible Hawker Hunter. “I flew them from ’66 to ’94,” he says. “The best ever Hunter. We could have sold them for the same price as new.” He shrugs. “Mostly they gave them to museums and the like.”

Wicki is the commander of the pilot school at Emmen. He has the aura of a stern friar until he smiles, and then you see that the friar may have a streak of mischief. He trains only about a dozen novices a year, and they arrive at his school only after a long gauntlet of screening and evaluation. In Switzerland, you settle on flight early—applications go in at age 16. For males, it’s one way to shape one’s inevitable military destiny. For women, service is voluntary. But, Wicki explains, “Once in the system, she stays in the system. She becomes like a male.” (About 10 percent of the 18,000 people in the Swiss air force are women, and some of these have joined the very small cadre of pilots, mainly in helicopters.)

Most years about 900 applications come in. These are winnowed by physical and psychological testing, the survivors given preparatory flying experience with the Swiss Air Club, which is led by the air force. “After the two courses, students have additional tests. Coordination. Five flights in the PC-7 simulator,” Wicki explains, referring to the Pilatus turboprop that has been Switzerland’s basic trainer since 1982. Candidates must also pass a “so-called social assessment by a 15-person board,” Wicki adds.

Only the serious survive. They then undergo 15 weeks of basic training and five weeks of flying, with 12 flights in the PC-7 at Locarno. Thereafter, they have seven weeks of training in PC-7s and six weeks at noncommissioned-officer school before they are graduated as corporals. Only then do they proceed to training in jets.

The move to jets is a big commitment that not everyone is willing to make. It requires a further 18 weeks of training—in British Aerospace Hawks. Student pilots then move up to F-5Es and –Fs for another 21 weeks. Some of the Locarno students skip the jets and move instead to transports, of which there are few—several Pilatus Porters, a few bizjets, and, soon, a couple of middle-size cargo transports. Others go to helicopter school to fly Sud-Aviation Alouette IIIs and Aérospatiale Super Pumas, which have become important not just for the military but for rescue, firefighting, and humanitarian airlifts.

Students transitioning to jets go from Locarno, in the southeastern lake country, to Sion, east of Lake Léman in the valley of the Rhone, or come here, to Emmen. On this day, a couple of pilots who look about 13 crouch on the wing of a Hawk as their instructor—a tall fellow about their age with a bleached carrot top and earring—introduces them to the aircraft with which they’ll spend the next 18 weeks.

Graduation is a watershed moment, for it is as fresh lieutenants that jet pilots must decide whether to opt for the militia—and perhaps a job as a Swissair pilot—or for a career as a professional military aviator. If they choose the latter, Wicki says, they are in for another three years, attending the professional pilot school at Dübendorf, where they qualify as flight instructors. Militia pilots stop flying at age 36, says Wicki, but professional pilots can continue flying jets until they are 55.

But times are changing. After 2001, pilots in the Swiss militia will be flying helicopters and transports, and only professionals will be in jet fighters. The Hornet is already restricted to professionals, who spend six to eight months training at bases in Payerne and Dübendorf, and in such foreign drills as Norka. The new airplane has become the heart of Swiss military aviation. The first increment of 34 Hornets, one supposes, is just the beginning.

Lieutenant Stefan Jäger, who on this day demonstrates the Hawk simulator to a visitor clinging to a catwalk behind his faintly illuminated cockpit, offers a case in point. He is just at the 800-hour mark, an instructor pilot in Hawks and F-5s. When he graduates from Dübendorf, he’ll go to the Hornet. Will he stay on? “I think,” he says, “I will do 10 years, then move on to Swissair.”

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