AXALP

AXALP

AXALP

The Swiss answer to XTC

Fliegerschiessen at the Ebenflüh shooting range

Fliegerschiessen at Axalp is an airshow where Swiss F/A-18 Hornets and formerly F-5E Tiger jets practice target shooting with live ammunition. The demo takes place every year in October. But we have to see if the Swiss Air Force will not cancel Axalp 2021 due to COVID-19, as the show of Axalp 2020 was cancelled as well. Combined with the shooting demo there is a small airshow with paras, SAR missions and Patrouille Suisse. Axalp is legendary among enthousiast. It showcases the skills of the Swiss Air Force in all its facets in a stunning alpine landscape. You will find updates on the 2021 Axalp Airshow here

The magic of the Axalp Airshow

Every year, stuck in traffic, somewhere between Mannheim and Karlsruhe, I ask myself why I bother making the same trip, for the same show, to the same spot, and the same people.

And then the next morning, when I arrive at Ebenflüh and see the sun rise over the mountain tops, and hear the afterburners from the first Hornet taking of from Meiringen Unterbach Air Force Base. Then I will remember again: Because It’s Axalp!

There is not much like it. The Ebenflüh Shooting Range of the Swiss Air Force, at 7365 feet above sea level. Every year in the second week of October the public is welcome to see live firing event on the three designated targets. Every year this week in October is blocked in my agenda. From the climb up in the dark to the great atmosphere on top of the Mountain. In this story I will try to explain what I consider the magic of Axalp.

AXALP

The hard to get to airshow

Climbing towards sunrise

History of the Axalp shooting range

The Axalp Fliegerschiessen airshow takes place at the The Ebenflüh Shooting Range of the Swiss Air Force. It sits in a natural amphitheatre at 7365 feet ASL, and roughly 750 meters above Axalp. The shooting range has been in use for target practice by the Swiss Air Force since 1942.

During WW II Switzerland was able to succesfully defend its neutral status. To do so though, the Swiss mobilized their military to secure this neutrality. In 1942 it became apparent that flight crews mountain flying skills were inadequate. As a result the Axalp firing range was put into service in October 1942. The range has been into service ever since and the area has been the subject of many types of tests and exercises. In previous decades bombing runs were part of the demo as well, but currently only the shooting with the board cannons remains part of the program, occasionally with incendiary shells as well.

Climbing towards sunrise

The training area is perfect for the many skills that are required for mountain shooting. Examples are: maintaining minimum and maximum altitude, aiming and firing in a very short time frame, and maintaining cover. All while sustaining G-forces up to 7.5G. Needless to say that this is an incredibly impressive sight to watch in real life.

So the entire proposition sounds very inviting and a nice place to spend an Autumn afternoon. Until you hear that you have to climb all the way up the mountain. From the Axalp village yourself this is a two to three hour walk depending on your condition. Even when you take the chair lift up to Windegg, you still face a brisk climb towards the Brau hill initially. After that  Tschingel awaits you before reaching the Command Point (KP) at Ebenflüh.

Axalp is very popular

Over the past two decades the amount of visitors to Axalp has dramatically increased. From a few hundred, mostly local, visitors in the nineties, nowadays well over 10.000 visitors walking up.

Only a fraction of these visitors have the opportunity to use the air bridge that the Air Force sets up to transport invited guests and press up the mountain. For this purpose a half a dozen or so Super Puma and Cougar helicopters are used. The rest have to settle for the other option: walk! For the untrained mountain climber the hike up can be tough. Although it has to be said that anyone with a reasonable condition can make it in a few hours.

Just before sunrise though, as you see the Hochnebel (fields of low stratus clouds) covering the valleys of the Berner oberland and the plains of Switzerland that lie to your north, you get instant reward for your exercise.

The view from the top

When climbing up it is easy to forget the amazing scenery that engulfs you. The approaching morning light, eventually the rising sun usually makes for an experience that is worth the trip itself. After getting on top of the mountain, it is time to warm up with some coffee, and soaking up the atmosphere in anticipation of the flying activities. 

Those that find it enough to soak up the atmosphere could consider staying at the lower plateau called Brau, but most choose the higher vantage points of Ebenflüh and Tschingel. While some prefer the even longer and steeper walks to Wildgärst and Äbeflu on the other side of the mountain. Over the years I have never found the motivation to do so. But, for sure certainly unique shots can be made there, especially at Wildgärst. During the second run, the fighters come flying directly towards you, after which they fly inverted over your head.

At the summit of the northern ridge of the valley, the views over the Alps and Lake Brienz are breathtaking. Here watched from Ebenflüh towards the west (direction Interlaken). The crowd is taking control of the Tschingel summit for the day. At the same time two Swiss Northrop F-5E Tiger fighters are approaching fast top left. Camera’s ready. Action is about to start.

AXALP

Showtime

Fliegerschiessen in real life

The Axalp Fliegerschiessen Shooting demo

Incoming!

Half a day after you have left the comfort of your bed the flying action usually starts. And it’s only 08:30! Both the Tigers and the Hornets Hornet have a habit of sneaking up from the lower valley up to the firing range while popping out a long bursts of flares. The approach is rather sneaky, sometimes even catching out veteran visitors.

The patterns of Fliegerschiessen

After this the sorties of F/A-18 Hornets and Northrop F-5E Tigers commence with their firing practice in earnest. The Fliegerschiessen is on for real! The valley offers a near perfect natural amphitheatre for the fighter pilots to practise their skills in alpine flying.

In multiple different approaches  they attack one of the three ground targets that are painted bright orange dayglow. The  number of targets has decreased over the years from an original number of 20 to four currently. Initially the fighters can perform a dry run. This means that the pattern is flown without firing, but the range supervisor can still assess the angle and shooting distance. Before commencing for real they request a hot run. Flying in pairs they perform a fixed pattern of six approaches to fire on one of the three targets. This sequence is repeated before finishing their training run. After this the formations fly back to their base at Payerne, Emmen or Meiringen.

Kommandoposten (KP) Ebenflüh

Every move that the pilots make during the exercise is carefully monitored from range supervisors in the Command Post at the Ebenflüh summit. Initially housed in a building on the southside of the range, the current location was built in the 60’s and includes a cable car to transport personell and supplies efficiently form the Haslital to the summit.

The firing range supervisors observe and rate the approach, flight angle, shooting distance and target accuracy. Based in the Command Point (KP), they give instant feedback by radio to the pilots to improve on their next run. In fact every move and every run is carefully directed and coordinated over the radio.

Bombs away

When the legendary Hawker Hunter was still in service with the Swiss Air Force the practice also consisted of bombing runs with 25kg fire bombs on the Hinterm Horn. Rocket attacks on the Grätli hill also used to be part of the exercise but action here has also stopped. Observing the shooting practice is nothing short of impressive. You can clearly see the pilots fighting to keep aim if there are strong winds. The nuzzles from the gun burst with fire after a firing burst leaving an impressive plume of smoke in the wake of the plane. In the mean while the target is covered with the ordnance as the sound of the guns comes in a second later due to the distance of the plane.

The Boeing F/A-18 Hornet

Without a doubt the star of the day is the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet. Both for their demonstration of firing power but also for the brilliant solo demonstration that Captain Nicolas “Vincent” Rossier from Fliegerstaffel (Fighter Squadron) 17 has performed at Axalp since 2017.

The last of the mohicans

The Swiss Air Force currently operates three squadrons of F/A-18 Fighters: Fliegerstaffel 11 based at Meiringen Unterbach Air Force Base, and Fliegerstaffel 17 and 18 based at Payerne Air Force Base. The Boeing F/A-18 Hornet is Switzerland’s most advanced fighter since it entered service with the Swiss Air Force in 1998. And after the final appearance in the Axalp Demo of 2018 of the Northrop F-5E, it is the only Swiss fighter that performs live shooting at the Axalp range. The Axalp Airshow in 2020 was cancelled and it has yet to be seen if the Swiss Air Force finds it responsible to let the Fliegerschiessen 2021 continue. But if this goes through then most likely we will only see the Hornets shooting. Switzerland initially ordered 22 Saab Gripen aircraft as a replacement for the Tigers, but the order was cancelled after a people’s referendum. 

AIR 2030 to replace the Hornets

After more than two decades of faithful service the Hornets are reaching the end of their operational lifetime. The AIR 2030 program by the Swiss defence ministry looks to replace the Hornets by 2030. Over the coming years the choice will be made between the Lockheed Martin F-35, The Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet. Saab have officially withdrawn the Gripen E from the bid.

Weather will play its part

That is one thing you can be sure of. The seasonal placement of the venue in October combined with the high altitude of the shooting range, means that weather wise you can basically expect anything. Snow, high winds, rain, mountain fog with 2 meters visibility are just as likely to be had as beautiful sunshine with 20 degrees. But as they say in Norway: there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. So as long as you put enough enough layers that are water and wind tight and good mountain hiking shoes, you should generally be fine.
 
Below you see an Example of the breath taking views that can be had on top of the Tschingel ridge. Here two cloud layers spoil the views but add to the drama. The white buildings on the right form the cable car station and the Command Point (KP) at Ebenflüh. The peaks  to the left of that are Axalphorn and Oltschiburg. These peaks are off limits during the Axalp demo week.

AXALP

The Village

splendid isolation

The agricultural cultivation of Axalp goes back as far as the 12th century, while tourism became the main source of development in the late 19th century. Today the village is exactly what a remote alpine village should be. Apart from the yearly flow of  tourists has a very low number of inhabitants. In many aspects I always feel as if you enter another world if you visit Axalp.

Only adding to this sensation is the remote location of the village high up on the hill. This means that you need to make the 900 meter climb up a rather narrow road towards the village. After that you enter a world where it sometimes seems time has stood still. And a world where you are almost instantly detach from the hassle of everyday.

Obviously this effect only works if you are in Axalp outside of the Week that the Axalp Fliegerschiessen Airshow takes place. Naturally during this week all the Hotels, chalets and Airbnb in the village are completely booked. 

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