Payerne is Switzerland’s largest military field, spread across high, flat meadows southwest of Bern and, like most bases today, accessible to all. Civilians park along the drainage ditches near the runway to watch the comings and goings of Switzerland’s newest and hottest interceptors, the Hornets, which live in drive-through hangars called boxes. Earth-covered Unterstands rise like druid mounds but are almost invisible against the surrounding farmland.
Because in Switzerland one always looks for the object hidden in plain view, I note that the auto route paralleling the main runway lacks the usual edelweiss hedge along its centerline. The traffic streams are separated by a metal fence whose removal transforms the road into another long, unobstructed runway. Inside the base proper, which is guarded by a Vampire on a pedestal, a new glass and steel building, housing offices and the Hornet simulator, rises from a field of ancient wooden billets.
Perhaps the best known Hornet pilot in Switzerland is Major Stephane Rapaz, 39, one of two selected for training at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, and the pilot who showed off the Swiss Hornet at foreign airshows. But he is also an experienced Hunter and F-5 hand, with five years in the Patrouille Suisse, the national aerobatic demonstration team.
Talking over coffee in the base canteen, Rapaz moves seamlessly from his native French to German to the assured colloquial American you’d expect from a Swiss pilot who trained with the U.S. Navy and is carrier qualified. In four years he’s logged about 800 hours in the F/A-18, very little of it spent in transit. “The good part of our way of operating,” he says, “is we are close to training areas. Ninety percent is training.” On the other hand, it means pilots get little experience in air-to-air refueling. “We have no tankers, no buddy-buddy Hornet to Hornet. We had training in the U.S., but we didn’t stay current.” In fact, as he spoke, the Swiss were about to start a brief exercise with the French air force, in which Swiss F/A-18s would practice drinking from French KC-135s and fly against Mirages from Dijon.
“We have about 20 memos of understanding with every country around us for training,” he explains. Switzerland offers a narrow practice area about 50 miles long, which is not much ground for fast jets and imposes a host of other constraints. Going supersonic below 30,000 feet is forbidden—a sonic boom lights up the air force switchboard with complaints of shattered windows and cows gone berserk—and pilots may only rarely drop below a thousand feet.
Moreover, the airspace over Switzerland is the aeronautical center of Europe and is dark with traffic. If you superimpose a day’s flight tracks on a map of Switzerland, the country simply disappears. Controlling this mass of moving metal is a civilian system operating in parallel with a military one. “In the training area,” explains Rapaz, “the military guy’s coordinating with European Control Center. But when you’re four against four and they bring a guy across your area at flight level 300…” He rolls his eyes. A new system called HELCO (from Helvetica Control) is supposed to help by merging military and civilian air traffic control.
The only way the Swiss Hornets can break into the open is to go overseas, as they do each June for Exercise Norka. Run out of Royal Air Force Waddington in Lincolnshire, England, Norka offers space-challenged military pilots a chance to hone and measure their skills over the British Aerospace Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation range in the North Sea.
In the old days, the Swiss would arrive in their plump Hunters, lean Tigers, and swift Miros to fly against the best Europe had to offer. Now they travel to Waddington in a swarm of C and D Hornets and their company of F-5s, including a pair wearing the brilliant red and white livery of the Patrouille Suisse, to act the enemy.
Despite their reputation for doing everything their own way, the Swiss bought Hornets that are pretty much standard Navy issue. The differences are a stronger titanium alloy in the fuselage main bulkheads, to keep the Hornets in service 30 years, and the substitution of an Emmen-designed low-drag weapons pylon for the stock multi-purpose stump on the U.S. F/A-18, which, Rapaz says, “was close to a garage door” in terms of drag. In doing this, the Swiss Hornets effectively abandoned the “A” in F/A-18, with the air-ground role passing, for the moment, to the F-5. This is not to say they launch light. The Swiss Hornets can carry Sidewinders and as many as eight advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles.
Exercise Norka offers the Hornet drivers what the world cannot: war in the air, or at least a close approximation. On many days, four dozen airplanes are up, in various confrontational line-ups: four Tigers against two Hornets, or four Hornets against four Dutch F-16s, or pairs and quartets of Hornets against British Sea Harriers and Tornadoes.