And now we come to the true highlight of our trip to Europe, which we planned everything else around – the Swiss Air Force’s annual air power demonstration, known as the “Axalp Fliegerschiessen”. This being Switzerland, there is no convenient way to see this. At the very least, you have to take a ski lift up about 1,000 feet and then hike for 1.5 hours; if you stayed down in the valley, add a bus ride to that as well. Then do the same in reverse in the evening. Having said all that – we loved it!
This was my first air show, and I didn’t really know what to expect. According to Stu, the planes get a lot closer to the spectator areas than in most other air shows. It’s probably also the only public “live fire” event in the world. And you have the unique perspective of occasionally seeing the planes and helicopters below you as they skim through the valleys.
There were four days on which to observe the spectacle – unofficial practice day on Monday, official practice day on Tuesday, and the official event on Wednesday and Thursday. Stu having invested a small fortune in photography equipment in anticipation of this event, he wanted to be there on all four days. It is my considered opinion that we were the only ones insane enough to do that.
I had nabbed what was probably the last available chalet in Axalp, so we were saved the bus ride and getting up at 3am. Nonetheless, we were up well before dawn every day and hopped on the ski lift to take us part of the way up the mountain. Now at 6,300 feet, we picked our way over mountain meadows and up slopes to one of the three viewing areas at 7,340 feet. The twinkly lights in the picture are our fellow lunatics climbing the mountain ahead of us.
By the time we got to the top, we were hot and sweaty, and the sun had risen.
We’re not really used to the kind of hiking we did here – the vertical, no marked trail, the cold, the altitude, the heavy backpacks – and were pretty pleased with ourselves when we made it to the top in one piece. But those Swiss! There we were with our sandwiches and picnic blanket, while they unpacked their camping chairs, gas burners and fondue sets!
Grab your zoom lens, elbow your way to a good vantage point, and don’t forget your ear plugs as the air show starts!
The F-18 Hornets and F-5 Tigers of the Swiss Air Force unleashed their cannons on the target range above Axalp.
The F-18, used primarily by the US Navy, is the Swiss Air Force’s front-line fighter jet. Their version is powered by engines that are slightly more powerful than their US counterparts. It was especially thrilling to see them so close in the mountain valley, where sometimes they were below us. Flares, used to confuse infrared heat-seeking missiles during air combat, were used liberally.
The venerable F-5 Tiger is slowly being phased out of service due to its advanced age and obsolescence. Top Gun fans may recognize it as the black “Mig-28” that Tom Cruise tussled with. The jet is also used by the Patrouille Suisse, Switzerland’s equivalent of the US Thunderbirds and Blue Angels. Their red paint job contrasted beautifully with the snow-capped mountains.
It’s easy to take pictures of thin air, given the speed at which the planes whizz by, so we took the more is more approach and ended up with a few good pictures and some video.
We took a different, gentler, route back once the air show was over, which was a little kinder to our shredded knees, and took us past a barn that some enterprising farmers were selling Chasbrätli out of. This hard-to-pronounce delicacy is the Swiss version of a grilled cheese sandwich and tastes oh-so-good after a long hike!
A little paprika on top, and we were two happy hikers!