Swiss Air Force To Practice Highway Operations For The First Time In Three Decades

Swiss Air Force
A Swiss Air Force F/A-18C at Meiringen (Image credit: David Cenciotti). In the boxes, the highway segment selected for "Alpha One" exercise (SRF News); an F-5 Tiger during a similar exercise in the 1990s (Swiss Air Force)

The Swiss Air Force (SAF) will test the air defense system with landings and take-offs on a motorway as part of exercise “Alpha One”.

In June 2024 the Swiss Air Force will practice landing and take-off operations on a motorway as part of an exercise dubbed “Alpha One”. The goal of the operation is to assess the ability of the Swiss combat aircraft to operate in case airfields are unavailable or a decentralization of air defense is required.

In late 1950s, the Swiss Parliament approved the use of several makeshift runways on motorways, on which fighter planes could take off and land. The motorways were built exactly straight for two kilometer stretches and equipped with easily removable central barriers. This motorway sections were located in Münsingen (BE), Oensingen (SO), Alpnach (OW), Lodrino (TI), Sion (VS), Flums (SG) and Payerne (VD). During the exercises, these locations could become airfields in less than six hours, and about two hours after the last plane took off the motorway could be reopened.

De Havilland DH 112 Mk 4 Venom engine start during an exercise in 1970 (Swiss Air Force)

The last exercise of this type in Switzerland was on Nov. 14, 1991 on the A2 motorway near Lodrino (Ticino). On that occasion, the highway was closed for 36 hours to let two SAF jets land: a Hawker Hunter and a Northrop F-5 Tiger.

Hawker Hunters in 1985 (Swiss Air Force)
Swiss F-5 after landing on a highway. (Swiss Air Force)

List of Swiss Air Force (SAF) Exercises on highways:

Date Exercise name Place Motorway Truppe Remark
16.09.1970 «U STRADA» Oensingen N1 Flpl Abt 9 Alpnach Air Base: 12 de Havilland Venom
26.09.1974 «U STRADA» Münsingen N6 Flpl Abt 12 & 13 Flugplatz Interlaken: de Havilland Venom, Meiringen Air Base: Hawker Hunter
28.09.1977 «U NOLA» Flums N13 Flpl Abt 9 Alpnach Air Base: Hawker Hunter
01.06.1978 «U NOSTA» Alpnach N8 Flpl Abt 9 Alpnach Air Base: Hawker Hunter
06.05.1980 «U ABEX» Aigle-Bex N9 Flpl Rgt 1 Raron, Turtmann and Sion Airport: 36 Hawker Hunter
24.03.1982 «U TAUTO» Münsingen N6 Flpl Rgt 2 Meiringen Air Base: Hawker Hunter, F-5 Tiger – Flugplatz Interlaken: Hawker Hunter
15.10.1985 «U TAUTO» Flums N13 Flpl Abt 8 Ambri Airport: Hawker Hunter – Alpnach Air Base: F-5 Tiger – Militärflugplatz Mollis: Hawker Hunter
29.09.1988 «U TUTTI» Alpnach N8 Flpl Abt 9 Alpnach Air Base: F-5 Tiger
16.11.1988 «U NOSTASIO» Sion N9 Flpl Abt 4 Sion Airport: start of F-5 Tiger
14.11.1991 «U STRADA» Lodrino N2 Flpl Abt 8 Ambri Airport : Hawker Hunter, Alpnach Air Base : F-5 Tiger II, Mollis : Hawker Hunter
Flpl=Flugplatz (Airport) Abt=Abteilung (Dept) Rgt=Regiment Swiss motorways, in addition to the “A” numbering, have the “N” numbering which is used today only by the authorities to distinguish between national roads and cantonal roads.

Later this year, the SAF will resume this type of exercises and will do it near Payerne Air Base, where the highway is also connected to the air base by means of a taxiway.

The exercise will take place a little further from the base towards Avenches, with the intention of testing the efficiency of the military away from a prepared structure.

As explained by the Commander of Swiss Air Force Peter “Pablo” Merz, the goal of this exercise is to prepare crews and pilots to operate decentralized from military structures. In this way, in the event of a conflict, air defense coverage can be guaranteed even without being able to use actual air bases, but being able to use structures prepared if necessary.

A Swiss Hornet at Emmen (Image credit: Daniele Maiolo / Best Shot Aircraft)

Currently, the Swiss Air Force has three main air bases: Emmen (Lucerne), Payerne (Vaud) and Meiringen which keeps its Fliegerstaffel 11 fighters inside Cavernes (underground hangar) in the mountains of canton of Bern, the only active base with this type of setup in Switzerland (some old air bases with Caverns are in a “dormant” state). Alongside these bases there are also three bases dedicated to air transport: Dübendorf (Zurich), Locarno (Ticino) and Alpnach (Obwalden).

The runways of these air bases could be vulnerable to long-distance attacks in case of conflict, which is why pilots and crew must be prepared to operate from temporary and emergency airstrips.

Next June, with “Alpha One”, landings and take-offs of the F/A-18 Hornet fighters of the Swiss Air Force are expected on A1 motorway between Avenches and Payerne, with the closure once again for a period of 36 hours (also so as not to excessively damage civil traffic).

A Swiss F/A-18 taxies at Meiringen (Image credit: Daniele Maiolo / Best Shot Aircraft)

Highway operations were part of the standard training activities conducted mainly in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe during the Cold War, when the risk of a Soviet attack on NATO air bases would make them unavailable in a matter of hours. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, highway take-offs and landings remained more or less a standard practice in Finland and Sweden but became less frequent in the rest of Europe and the rest of the world.

With the war in Ukraine and the increasing tensions with Russia, many air forces are practicing again for highway operations, including the Polish Air Force, that launched the domestic ROUTE 604 exercise in October 2023; and the Royal Air Force, that deployed its Typhoon to Finland in September 2023, to leverage the existing infrastructure and procedures the Finnish Air Force has in place and routinely tests with the F/A-18 Hornets.

About Daniele Maiolo
Daniele Maiolo is a freelance photographer/reporter based in Switzerland. Editor and photographer at Best Shot Aircraft, he is a composite materials specialist and aeronautical technician at an MRO Company at Zurich airport.
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.