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.
- By Carl Posey
- Air & Space magazine, March 2001
(Page 3 of 9)
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.
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.