It is not the lightning-quick launch depicted in comic books, and the pilots will not spend very long in the air, at the ready; instead, they will fly their sortie and return to another nest here in Buochs or in one of the other military fields dotting the country. And then everyone but Vienne will go home. The cavern is a wartime base, in a nation that has not been at war for centuries, and yet has been armed the entire time, just in case.
Years ago, signs near Swiss military air fields warned passersby against photographing anything. Then, in 1991, the signs were changed, allowing photos of anything visible from public ground. And then the signs just disappeared. Now Swiss air bases are among the most open in the world, and U.S. journalists are welcomed into secret caverns. The gradual thaw is the result of global changes, certainly, but also of events in Switzerland’s history.
In the 1980s, the Swiss air force’s frontline interceptors were Dassault’s Mirage III and Northrop’s F-5 Tiger. The Mirage is a 1960s design but formidably supersonic, and the F-5 offered simplicity, speed, and a radar cross-section so small that the fighter is still hard to hit. But in a world awash with supersonic BVR—beyond visual range—shooters, the Tigers and Mirages were inadequate. In 1986, the Swiss air force went shopping for something better and, in October of 1988, opted for the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) twin-engine F/A-18 Hornet. Parliament duly appropriated funds for a buy of 26 single-seat C models and eight two-seat D models. Whereupon little Switzerland became a Hornet’s nest of controversy.
Groups the government characterizes as left-wing and environmental mounted an intensive anti-aircraft campaign, gathering signatures for a national referendum on whether the country should modernize the air force. In June of 1993, not quite five years after the decision to buy the Hornets, the matter was put to a popular vote (the question phrased, as referenda often are, so that a “no” vote actually said “yes” to the Hornets). The new aircraft carried 57 percent.
The first Hornet, a D model, arrived in Switzerland in December 1996, followed in early 1997 by a C model, and then by 32 kits for assembly at the sprawling government-owned Swiss Aircraft and Systems Company, once a federal factory, in Emmen, near Lucerne.
The delay proved to be no bad thing, for it allowed the Swiss to acquire the superior APG-73 radar and the more powerful General Electric F404-GE-402 engine of the C and D models. Coincidentally, 1997 was the year the Swiss air force phased out its cold war tactical language, an argot called Bambini, fashioned from German, French, and Italian, in favor of a new Bambini, called English.
The Swiss flying service was established just before the 1914 assassinations of Austrian royalty in Sarajevo. Nine pilots reported for duty near Bern’s Wankdorf stadium, some with their own airplanes and mechanics. But this fledgling air arm was a mere peripheral until the 1930s, when all the surrounding countries began strapping on winged weapons. The Swiss elevated their air force to branch status and began purchasing equipment: Messerschmitt 108s and 109s from Germany, along with three Junkers 52s and nearly 300 French Morane D-3800 and -3801 fighters, the last assembled at Emmen.
This invigorated force saw action early in June 1940, when it destroyed nine Me 110s violating Swiss air space. Three Swiss airmen were lost in the Luftwaffe vs. Luftwaffe skirmishes. After that, air combat was forbidden until October 1943, and no Swiss fighters have engaged an enemy since. Military fields moved into narrow alpine valleys—to Meiringen, Alpnach, Turtmann. The pastoral fields were cut by runways and dotted with low concrete and steel bunkers called Unterstands, covered with a layer of sod thick enough to root a stand of trees. By war’s end, the Swiss border had reportedly suffered 6,501 violations, and 244 foreign aircraft had landed, crashed, or been shot down.
In the late 1940s, the Swiss air force moved boldly into the Jet Age, buying 182 British de Havilland Vampires, a Barney Baxterish, twin-tailboom design. The Vampires joined some remnant Messerschmitts, Fieseler Storchs, Ju 52s, Morane C-3603s, AT-6s, and Mustangs, these last bought at a bargain-basement price from the U.S. Air Force. Soon the original Vampires, which would serve until 1990, were augmented by 250 de Havilland Venoms, flown until 1984.
If there has been a golden age of Swiss fighter aviation, however, it would have begun in the 1960s, with the arrival of the first Hawker Hunters. Long after the Vampires and Venoms and the rest had been consigned to the Swiss museum of flight in Dübendorf, or mounted on pedestals outside air bases, or scrapped, the Hunters would remain Switzerland’s all-purpose fighter—until the Mirages and Tigers took over.