From August 23 to 30, 2019, six Mirage 2000-5 of the Groupe de Chasse 1/2 “Cigognes” participated in exercise Épervier 2019, from Payerne air base in Switzerland. This is an air training that allows French air defense pilots, to perform complex missions with the Swiss F/A-18 Hornet.
Arriving from Luxeuil Air Base, the 79 airmen joined the town of Payerne in northwestern Switzerland on August 23rd. For the 2019 edition of the exercise “Épervier”, the fifteen pilots of the “Cigognes” trained missions of a very high tactical scenarios alongside Swiss F/A-18 Hornet pilots of Fliegerstaffel 11. Organized by the Swiss Air Force, on their largest military air base, this bilateral exercise aims to consolidate the existing links between the two nations but also to carry out joint air defense missions: the main mission of the Mirage 2000-5 and Swiss F/A-18 Hornets.
To ensure the “first-in-first” air defense mission, the fighter jets trained four rounds a day for one week to deal with air-to-air threats during complex-level missions. mixed fighter forces operation (MFFO), also known as mixed patrols, composed of both Mirages and Hornets.
Fighting over the snow-capped Swiss mountains, the pilots, whether they are young qualified or more experienced patrolmen, play blue air (friendly forces) and red air (enemy forces) in turn.
On Friday 30 August one more mission was flown before the French contingent returned to their homebase in Luxeuil.
After our days at Payerne and Buochs & Emmen, we saved the best for last. On Thursday the 11th of October we visited the Fliegerschiessen at the Axalp – Ebenfluh range, one of the things that had been on my to-do list for a very long time.
Visiting Axalp airshow is not an easy thing to do, as the shooting range where this even takes place is located at an altitude of 2240m. This means that you can’t simply drive there, get out of your car and enjoy the show. There is a whole lot more effort required.
In order to be on the Tschingel mountain on time, an early start was required. At 05.30 the shuttle bus was taken from Brienz train station. This bus brought you in 40 minutes to the mountain village of Axalp at an altitude of 1540m. At this point we transited into the Axalp-Windegg skilift that brought us to an altitude of 1910m. from there on the “fun part” started, a 2 hour walk of about 2km, in which a further 300 meters were scaled. This is no walk in the park at all, as you start in the dark (it only starts to get light after 7.00) and the terrain is very unprepared/steep, there is no real track. You only know where to go because of the guidelines set out by the military and the lights of other climbers in front of you; a torch is absolutely needed.
So, after climbing for about 2 hours the destination was finally reached. The last part of the climb was for sure the toughest with a gradient of approximately 60%. At this point I was sweating like a donkey and was very happy that I brought an extra t-shirt, as the first one was soaked and there was a bitter cold wind. After I had regained my breath, I could finally enjoy the beautiful view over lake Brienz and the surrounding mountains.
We then waited for the first aircraft to arrive at the Axalp range. The Axalp-Ebenfluh range is a shooting area that was established in 1942. The Swiss Air Force uses this area to practice air-to ground gunnery, during which the Hornets and Tigers shoot their canons on ground targets mounted on the rock face. Every year in October this airshow is organized so that the audinece can also view the shooting exercises. Next to that, other aerial displays are also shown on these days.
The morning part
The airshow only takes place in the afternoon, but in the morning there is still plenty to see, as the shooting part is practised by the F-5s and F/A-18s. During these practice runs we got our first taste of what awaited us later that day. It all started with the arrival ofthe Hornets, this formation of four aircraft flew low though the valley, meanwhile dropping flares, to ensure they got our attention.
Then they approached the targets from all different directions, shooting their cannons and using the afterburners to manoeuvre through the area.
Once the Hornets had finished their part of the fun, it was time for the F-5 Tigers. The shooting from the Tigers was te main reason why I came here, as this was the final time that the F-5s would shoot their cannons at the Axalp Range. The F-5 will finally be withdrawn from service in 2026 (a replacement is currently being sought), but will already be disarmed this year. From then on, the F-5 will only act as an Agressor aircraft and will still perform target towing duties. The F-5 pilots surely wanted to leave in style, as already during the practice runs they showed up from behind the audience and shot their guns at the same moment. Compared with the full afterburners, this scared the hell out of you.
Then it was time for the lunch break, or as the Swiss probably call it Raclette-time. Everywhere around us we saw campinggaz burners coming out of the backpacks and soon people were enjoying their fondue or raclette at 2240m altitude. We came to the conclusion that it was much easier to walk towards the catering tent and just buy a Raclette Sandwich over there.
Towards the end of the lunchbreak Cougar helicopters started flying in from nearby Meiringen airbase to drop of the VIP guests, these guests did not have to walk up the mountain and had an easy arrival. At this point also the REGA helicopter and Swiss Air Force rescue helicopters arrived. They were both parked at the mountain in order to be ready to provide assistance for the several thousands of spectators, if need be.
Then it was time for the airshow to start. This started with the Hornets that we had already seen practising in the morning. Since we now already had an idea what to expect, we could try to get the best pictures of their display.
Next up was the Cougar display, this display was started with a huge amount of flares and then hugged the mountainsides. A nice extra was the wave from the crew, wearing orange gloves for this.
After the Cougar had left, 2 more Cougars approached. Both were carrying Bambi Buckets full of water, to display the fire fighting skills of the Swiss Air Force. Both of them dropped the water right on the target, so this must have been a succesfull mission.
Then narrator then warned us that an unidentified aircraft was approaching the area and that the Swiss Air Force mission control centre would scramble two QRA Hornets from Payerne. The fully armed aircraft quickly intercepted the intruder (in reality a Swiss Air Force Citation jet) and then showed all the techniques that are used in Air Policing. The goal of this was to establish contact with the intruding aircraft to ultimately force him to land at a desired airfield.
After the Citation had “landed” successfully, three aircraft showed up. These aircraft were the PC-7, PC-21 and F/A-18, as every fighter pilot will fly on all these types before becoming a qualified fighter pilot.
The formation was then split up, after which the Hornet Solo Display was performed. When the Hornet finished the display, the PC-21 display took over, showing the flexibility of this new training aircraft.
After this display was finished, the moment we had waited for came, the F-5s approached the area once more for their final shooting exercise. This display was even faster and louder than the one we had enjoyed in the morning. This did not make it easy to take pictures, but just enjoying the sights and sounds was already great. Finally two more F-5s joined the fun, and these had high-explosive rounds loaded into their cannons. Seeing them shoot at the targets was an absolute spectacle.
As this was the final F-5 round at Axalp, the organisation had arranged something special to close this era. The six F-5s that had been shooting at Axalp joined up with the six Patrouille Suisse F-5s and toghether this formation of 12 Tigers flew across Axalp. The Patrouille Suisse then continued to show their complete show, which is rather spectacular in this mountain environment.
The Patrouille Suisse show was also the final act of the day, so we could start the descent towards the skilift. If you thought that climbing the mountain was tough, then be prepared for this. As the mountain is very steep, only stepping dow carefully was possible (even though some locals were almost running down). This has a great impact on your legs, knees and ankles. Once at the skilift, it was finally time for some rest, which continued in the bus down towards Brienz.
Every year in October, the Swiss Air Force organises the Fliegerschiessen event at Axalp Ebenflüh. Because of this, plans were made to travel to Switzerland for the event. The first day was spent at Payerne airbase, from where most of the fighter aircraft would fly to the range.
Payerne airbase is home to F/A-18 Fliegerstaffel 17 “Falcons” and Fliegerstaffel 18 “Panthers”, as well as to the militia Fliegerstaffel 6 “Ducks” equipped with the F-5E Tiger and Lufttransportstaffel 1, using the EC.635 and Super Puma helicopters.
Payerne is also the location where the F/A-18 simulators are located. At this moment a large construction project is going on at Payerne, where a new flight building with air traffic control tower is being built.
Throughout the day, up to four missions were flown by the based units. Next to this, several smaller aircraft like the PC-6 and PC-7 were seen.
F-5F Tiger J-3210 is a special aircraft within the Swiss Air Force inventory. After its active training carreer, it is now converted into an ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) platform, sporting several underwing pods to fulfill this role.
Recently I had the opportunity to scan some of the slides that I took at Twenthe Airbase in the nineties and the beginning of the new Milennium. Looking at those pictures brings back nice memories, so why not share those pictures as well.
1996 Open House
The Open House usually brought many nice visitors to Twenthe and 1996 was no exception.
2003 Open House
The 2003 Open House was a great success, but it was also the last Open House for Twenthe Airbase. The day after the show, Defence Minister Kamp announced that Twenthe would be closed because of budget cuts.
Over the course of the years, Twenthe was visited by many aircraft. Some were spectacular and unique, some a bit less.
One of the things F-16 pilots had to practice was flying by night. This video shows some take-offs in the beginning of the evening, during the final months of Twenthe’s active period.