In the age of Google Earth and satellite pictures freely available on the Internet, hiding military installations or denying their existence is at least anachronistic.
“Confusing and camouflaging”, favoring the osmosis of the base with the surroundings urban conglomerate, it is much more effective than “hiding” and this is the philosophy that seems to have inspired one of the most atypical airports of Europe: Meiringen, in Switzerland.
Located at an elevation of 570 meters between the Alps of the Bernese Oberland, the base is so permeated with the nearby villages that it is nearly invisibile to the people that visit it for the first time. If it were not for the futuristic control tower and for some helicopter parked in the large apron aside the main runway, it would be rather difficult to even notice its presence.
Unlike in Italy, the airport is surrounded by fences that are usually “symbolic”, sometimes almost absent, and from a system of level crossings activated during flight operations to prevent runway or taxiways incursions. Indeed, the local roads cross the field from North to South and from East to the West: a couple of lights regulate the crossing of the runway that is granted until a few moments before the take off of any aircraft. The base is a sort of large “open space”, with the locally based aircraft located inside the mountain shelters and maintenance hangars located in modern buildings along the main strip.
The airport is interested by heavy traffic of both jets and helicopters that operate in accordance with a standard “office timetable”: missions fly from Monday to Friday, both in the morning and in the afternoon, with a short break for lunch. Meiringen is the main operating base of the Fliegergeshwader 13 that is made up of two squadrons: the Fliegerstaffel (FlSt) 8, equipped of F-5, and the FlSt 11 that flies the F/A-18.
The base is wide and has free space to also accomodate transiting aicraft that are usually parked in the apron next to the threshold of the RWY 28 Obviously, being located in such a beatifull scenery, with two squadrons that fly many sorties each day, and free of the restrictions that characterize the majority of the European airports, Meiringen is a kind od “Eden” for spotters and photographers. The base has at least three main spotting points from where flying operations can be observed and photographed in favor of light.
To the Eastern one, it is possible to photograph the aircraft coming and going from the shelter area; more or less at the middle of the runway, it is possible to observe take-offs and landings, while the spotting point West is ideal for taxiing and departures from the nearby threshold of RWY 10. Even the Northern zone is full of spotting points, but they are less crowded because from those areas, aircraft are constantly backlighted. Indeed, sunlight enters the valley exclusively in “the warm” season, that is to say that from the end of October to April the Alps prevent the light from enlighting the base.
Usually, from September to mid spring, the tops of the mountains that surround on all sides Meiringen are whitened by the snow thus giving the alpine base a spectacular background.
Each spotting point has its own parking area: some are official and are clearly marked, others are improvised and require a simbolic fee (1 Swiss Franc) for the owner of the land. Dealing with the photografic equipment, the 100-400 mm range is optimal for the flying activity taking place in Meiringen, while a grandangular is ideal for taxiings.
The base is situated a few kilometers from the most famous range of the Swiss Air Force: Axalp Ebenfluh. The range, placed in a valley at 2.300 meters and made up of targets located on different slopes, is managed by a sort of small control tower that has the responsibility on the deconflictions of the formations involved in air-to-ground-shooting.
Once a year from 1942, in mid October, the Schweizer Luftwaffe opens the range to the public. The event is not limited to the shooting sessions of the Hornets and the F-5s but it comprises also Search And Rescue demonstrations, dogfight simulation (with huge use of flares) solo exhibitions and always ends with the display of the Patrouille Suisse.
The most important novelty of the 2006 edition of the Fliegerdemo was the participation of the Armée de l’Air, that took part in the shooting activity with a pair of Mirage F1 CR temporary deployed to Payerne. Even if this was not the first time a foreign air force used the Axalp range, it was the very first time foreign aicraft took part to the Demo.
For many years, the Fliegerdemonstration is carried out with the same timetable in both scheduled day (a wednesday and a thursday); should bad weather conditions occur causing a cancellation, the Demo is performed in a back-up date that is generally the following friday.
Obviously, in case of bad weather conditions, the event might be cancelled without prior warning. The display program is exactly the same in both days of the Demo, beginning at 2.00 PM local time and lasting more or less 1 and one half hours.
Actually, an interesting preview of the afternoon show takes place in the morning, when formations of F-5 and F-18 engage the range for the practice shooting sessions. Although such practices do not comprise the exhibitions of the Swiss team, neither helicopters or parachutists displays, the rehearsal session is even more spectacular than the Demo itself: for example, on October 12th, at the end of their morning training, the two French Mirage executed two “low and fast” passages on the crowd that will be long remembered.
Another reason to not lose the rehearsal is that before returning to base the aircraft generally execute a formation fly-by to the North of the Command Post allowing spectators and journalists to photograph the jets in favor of light as they fly along the Northern slope of the Axalphorn with the Brienz Lake in the background. The only problem is that to attend the morning practise, you must face before dawn (possibly without even knowing if the show will take place) a difficult and steep hike in the chill, that is even worse if undertaken with a bag full of photographic equipment, food and beverages.
In fact, unfortunately, the helicopters that enable VIPs and journalists to go up to Axalp from Meiringen begin their shuttle flights just after the end of the practice; consequently, the only way to reach the peak in time for the morning rehearsal is hiking.
Obviously, since you have to climb for a few kilometers, sometimes even in the snow, if you go up to the Axalp range on foot, you have to be very fit and dressed with a waterproof jacket, trekking boots and gloves.
As happened in the previous edition, 2006 display began with an AS 532 UL Cougar simulating an evasive maneuver with release of its entire load of 128 flares. Then the show went on with the dogfight of two Hornets (that finished their display with a steep climb to an altitude that rendered the condensation trails visible), with a SAR demonstration performed by a Alouette, with the shooting activities of F-18s, F-5s and Mirage F1s, a firefighting demostration, the solo display of the F-18 (piloted by Capt. Reiner the same who won the “Paul Bowen Single Jet Aerobatic Trophy” prize for the best solo display at RIAT), the interception of a “renegade” Learjet by two Horners and the exhibition of the Patrouille Suisse.
Despite the pain of the difficult hike, blessed with very good weather, Axalp Demo 2006 was once again a show worth seeing. For Axalp 2006 and Meiringen pics click here.