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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According to aviation myth, Swiss fighter pilots wait in their cockpits around the clock in secret mountain caverns, ready to yell “Chocks out!” (or the French, German, or Italian equivalent) when word comes of an intruder. Then they burst from their caves like bats on afterburners, airborne and wheels up a few meters from the granite wall. It is a wonderful image, but reality is better.

Reality, on this hot, hazy spring afternoon, is a cavern at the Swiss air force base at Buochs, south of Lucerne. You reach it by taking a left between the Evinrude and Volvo-Fiat dealers, then another left along the base of the mountain that flanks the aerodrome. And there, almost hidden in an embrace of trees, a net made of artificial leaves floats above a recessed concrete and metal face cut into the mountain. Dappled light blurs the rust and green camouflage. A sharply contrasting red sign attached to the steel wall yells STOP! at any unauthorized wanderers, and, by an open door in the metal face, a young sentry in battle fatigues reinforces the idea with a cradled Sturmgewels 90 assault rifle.

The cavern belongs, more or less, to Jean Vienne, whose fatigues bear the collar patch of a warrant officer. He is a military instructor at Buochs, where a 150-hour training course on cavern operations is just coming to an end. Most of the people in the class—pilots, ground crew, armed sentinels—are militia, part of Switzerland’s citizen-soldiery, doing their compulsory military service at a rate of a week or three a year.

Not Vienne. He is a professional soldier, one of the relative handful of lifers who are the reliable heart of the Swiss armed forces. He has spent 25 years in the army, which owns and operates the caverns in which the air force caches its fighters, and he specializes in aircraft electrical systems. Born in the Netherlands of Swiss parents, Vienne speaks the three main languages of Switzerland, plus Dutch and English, which makes him a good man to have with you in the field.

The narrow, guarded entrance opens into a hall about the size of a two-lane tunnel, of the kind that abound in Switzerland’s road system, its arched ceiling illuminated with banks of lights. The difference is that this tunnel has a polished concrete floor, painted with curving tracks of red and green, labeled “Tiger” and “Mirage.” The smooth curve of the ceiling is broken here and there by thick hanging bulkheads with spaces cut out to allow the passage of airplanes.

Farther into the cavern, the tunnel snakes off to the right—a protective offset, should anyone toss a bomb through the cavern door—and then straightens to a second metal door painted with yellow and black chevrons that blocks the way like a great cork in a bottle. Beyond this seal lies the amazing vault where the aircraft wait.

Here the arched ceiling seems to reach to the vanishing point in a haze of light. What look to be a dozen gray Northrop F-5 Tigers bearing the Swiss cross stand on the gleaming floor, arranged in closely packed echelons, noses forward. The front four aircraft have pilots in the cockpits, preparing the Tigers for flight, and also ground crew crawling busily over them.

The cavern, Vienne notes, penetrates about a thousand feet into the mountain and is designed to withstand overpressures (from bomb blasts) of 15 bars—that is, 15 times the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level—which is about 220 pounds per square inch. Racks on the walls hold drop tanks and other external stores. Overhead, a crane that can lift, transport, and rotate airplanes in the narrow tube rides on a track along the centerline of the tunnel. Beyond the farthest airplane is another bulkhead, and, beyond that, one presumes, are quarters, supplies, arsenals—the airplanes can be fully replenished with fuel, oxygen, and armaments in this enormous, hidden hive.

Now the chevroned metal door splits in the center, and the two halves glide into the cavern walls. What had seemed to be metal blast shields along the bases of the doors are covers for the groove in the floor, and, as the doors slide outward, the covers drop into place—plop, plop, plop—as precisely as the steps of an escapement in a fine watch.

Four tractors hitched to the manned Tigers’ nose gear begin towing the airplanes toward the light, careful to follow the painted floor line marked “Tiger,” as clearances are tight. Each airplane is trailed by its ground crew, through the narrow curve of the “S,” out through the huge entry doors. A few hundred feet from the cavern, the four Tigers fire up and are sent on their way. Within three minutes, they are climbing out of the valley, two by two.

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