This is a photo report about the Axalp Fliegerschiessen Airshow. Fliegerschiessen at Axalp is an air show 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. Fortunately, despite the COVID situation, the Swiss Air Force decided to let the Axalp 2021 demo take place.
Combined with the shooting demo there is a small air show with paras, SAR missions and Patrouille Suisse. Axalp is legendary among enthousiasts. It showcases the skills of the Swiss Air Force in all its facets in a stunning alpine landscape. If you are planning a visit to Axalp yourself, please find all the information about Axalp Airshow 2023 here.
Every year, stuck in traffic, somewhere between Mannheim and Karlsruhe, I ask myself why I bother making the same trip. The show is the same, so is the spot, and so are the people.
And then the next morning, when I arrive at Ebenflüh. I see the sun rise over the mountain tops, hear the afterburners from the first Hornet taking of from Meiringen. 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 third week of October the public is welcome to see live firing event on the three designated targets. This week in October is blocked in my agenda every year. 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.
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. This shooting range has been in use for target practice by the Swiss Air Force since 1942.
During WW II Switzerland succesfully defended 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 entered service in October 1942. The range has been used 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 the Air Force uses incendiary shells as well.
The training area is perfect for the many skills that are required for mountain shooting. Examples are: maintaining minimum and maximum altitude and aiming and firing in a very short time frame. All of this while maintaining cover. Combine this with 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.
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 make the trip.
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 the Swiss Air Force uses around six Super Puma and Cougar helicopters. 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. That is the moment when you get reward for your exercise.
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. You will have time to soak up the atmosphere in anticipation of the flying activities.
If you only want to soak up the atmosphere you can consider staying at the lower plateau called Brau, but most choose the higher vantage points of Ebenflüh and Tschingel. Some even prefer the even longer and steeper walks to Wildgärst and Äbeflüe 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 takes control of the Tschingel summit for the day. In the distance two Swiss Northrop F-5E Tiger fighters approach the area. Camera’s ready. The Axalp Fliegerschiessen Airshow is about to start!
Half a day after you have left the comfort of your bed the flying action usually starts. And it’s only 08:30! The Hornets Hornet have a habit of sneaking up from the lower valley up to the firing range. When they do they pop out a long bursts of flares. The approach is rather sneaky, sometimes even catching out veteran visitors.
After this the sorties of F/A-18 Hornets and Northrop F-5E Tigers commence with their firing practice in earnest. 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 3 currently. Initially the fighters perform a dry run. This means that they fly the pattern 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. They repeat this sequence before finishing their training run. After this the formations fly back to their base at Payerne, Emmen or Meiringen.
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. It includes a cable car to transport personell and supplies efficiently from 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. On the next run they can improve. In fact every move and every run is carefully directed and coordinated over the radio.
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. While they do this they leave an impressive plume of smoke in the wake of the plane. In the mean while the target is covered with the ordnance. The sound of the guns comes in a second later due to the distance of the plane.
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 Swiss Air Force currently have 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. Boeing’s 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. Switzerland initially ordered 22 Saab Gripen aircraft as a replacement for the Tigers, but the order was cancelled after a people’s referendum.
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. Switzerland has made the choice to fly with the Lockheed Martin F-35 from 2027 onwards. All other contenders, the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet have not made it through the selection process. Saab withdrew their Gripen E earlier from the process already.
The agricultural cultivation of Axalp goes back as far as the 12th century. 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, the town 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.
If you enjoyed reading this photo report make sure to check out my other photo reports as well. I have created one for the Dutch Low Fly Area GLV V and one for the KLM Boeing 747. If you are planning to visit Axalp Fliegerschiessen, I have created a very extensive Axalp Guide. Make sure to read it here.
© 2003-2023 MARTIN BOSCHHUIZEN - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED