I personally believe that a once in a lifetime experience is something that happens to everyone! Whether its seeing the pyramids, standing on the Piazza San Marco in Venice or diving in the Maldives – the list can be endless and what someone want to experience (and hopefully will) is of course entirely up to them. One item at the top of the list for any die hard aviation enthusiast is a yearly event conducted by the Swiss Air Force officially entitled FLIEGERSCHIESSEN or known within the aviation enthusiast community simply as AXALP. This event is not an airshow but a live fire demonstration which civilian spectators are allowed to attend. The whole spectacle takes place at almost 2,300m above sea level in the high alpine area of the Bernese Oberland where the Axalp-Ebenfluh weapons range is located. AXALP takes place every year in early October, a time of year when poor local weather conditions have previously lead to the events cancellation. However, this year, just like last year, luck was on the side of the Swiss Air Force and the tens of thousands of spectators in attendance – I was one of them!
For more than 20 years, a visit to AXALP has been on my personal to-do list but for various reasons I have never quite been able to make it – that is until today! My preparations for AXALP included a long phone conversation with Peter (a Dutch colleague with an estimated 100 years of experience regarding AXALP) who provided me with some important tips on what I need to take in addition to my normal camera equipment. My additional gear included some warm functional clothing, sturdy footwear and most importantly a good quality flashlight (preferably of the head lamp variety), as such I was very well prepared when I headed towards Switzerland following quite a busy day. After driving just 113km disaster took its course in the form of a huge traffic jam on the A99 (the orbital motorway around Munich) this made sure that I arrived very late at my hotel in the village of Giswil.
By the time I arrived at the hotel (at 2300h) it was closed, hotel staff were kind enough to leave a note at the front door with directions on how I could get to my room, but unfortunately this information was totally useless because they had forgotten to leave the door open! Any attempt to reach someone by phone was in vain as was trying to find another hotel nearby. The solution to the problem was “The Grand Hotel on Four Wheels" – or in other words to sleep in my car. This would have been ok for one night in a spacious SUV or even a normal sedan, but unfortunately I was traveling in a two-seat convertible - s..t happens!
Since it made no sense at all to spend the entire night in my car at Giswil, I drove the additional 24 km to the city of Brianz where I parked in one of the lots provided for visitors to AXALP. While waiting for the beginning of my "AXALP" experience, I tried to spend a few hours in a more or less comfortable position. From 0500h the bus transfer started from the parking lot to the valley station at AXALP, from where I was transported in relative comfort on a chairlift to the top station at 1,925m above sea level, the remaining 400 meters I had to walk. Doesn’t sound like much, right? At this time of the morning it is still pitch dark so this is where the afore mentioned headlamp comes into play for my ascent. If there was one advantage to the darkness it was that you couldn’t see the steep climb that was ahead of you! When Peter told me it would take between one and a half to two and a half hours to walk from the top station of the chairlift to the spectator area (depending on your physical condition), I actually thought he was joking! The rough, rocky terrain make it not an insignificant climb, this was further compounded by my heavy camera equipment and of course the steep slope of the majority of the track (use of the term "TRACK" was aspirational!). When you are overtaken by an estimated 2,000 people but you don’t overtake a single person you get a pretty good idea of the status of your own physical condition! However, more dead than alive, I managed to make it to the peak of the mountain in just over two hours - I don’t think my joy would have been much higher if I had reached the summit of Mt Everest!
Finally at the top of the mountain I had the choice to observe the events from three different (fenced off) areas, so I chose the area where the tower and the VIPs were located. From there I had a relatively good view of the targets but with the disadvantage of a limited view of any approaching aircraft - a timely warning from the Swiss Air Force commentator rarely took place as he was more busy doing advertising for the Swiss Air Force.
Demonstrations commenced at 1400h (according to Swiss precision and punctuality – something of which the commentator placed a lot of emphasis on!). By this time however the lighting conditions were already very poor and the backlit conditions were further hampered by relatively strong and gusty winds. The latter made it especially difficult for the pilots to perform their maneuvers with safety and precision. Due to the high winds a few of the highlights had to be canceled or flown at higher altitudes. For example, the fire fighting demo by two A‚rospatiale AS 332M1 Super Puma helicopters using a baby bucket did not take place that day. In addition to the obligatory demonstrations by a Swiss Air Force Boeing F/A-18C HORNET, the approach of the Northrop F-5E TIGER II was of particular interest. This was the last time in the history of the Swiss Air Force that spectators would be able to witness an TIGER II firing live ammo at AXALP. At present 53 aircraft of this type are still operational of which 27 are soon to be decommissioned. The remaining 26 TIGER II will be demilitarized (all armament removed) and used for targeting and as part of the Swiss national aerobatic team, the PATROUILLE SUISSE. This team also performed at the end of the AXALP demonstrations.
Following the end of the flying display by the PATROUILLE SUISSE (at about 1600h local time) I packed my camera gear into my backpack and together with a photographer colleague made our way back down the mountain. Anyone who believes that the only arduous thing is the ascent to the spectator areas has not yet dared the descent, as its here that lies the greatest risk of injury (more than a few "mountaineers" have been injured during this descent). It took a good one and a half hours to reach the valley station and it is here that the last drama of the day took place (at least for me). Together with thousands of enthusiasts, we waited for hours to finally get on a bus that would take us to the parking lots at Brianz. The problem was not with the organization of the event (which was perfect through and through as was to be expected from the Swiss), but was due to the fact that the road from Brianz to Axalp only allows for one-way traffic!
Once in a lifetime – This was the adage that served as an introduction to this article, so is AXALP really a one-time thing or would I dare to tackle it all again? Anyone who had the dubious pleasure of being near me when I had to wait for hours on a bus knows my answer. However, here too: never say never! To attend FLIEGERSCHIESSEN of the Swiss Air Force is definitely a very special experience. The magnificent Swiss mountains combined with the possibility of photographing a live fire demo at a relatively close distance is a very attractive proposition.
At least I've learned that I have to do something about my own physical fitness. If it improves significantly between now and next year - who knows, maybe I'll try it again? (or I might just take a helicopter) - Over & out!
Robert Kysela / CHK6
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