In October 2022, I headed to Switzerland for the first time for the annual Axalp Fliegerschiessen Airshow that goes on at the Ebenflüh Shooting Range. The Ebenflüh Shooting Range is located in the Swiss Alps at an altitude of about 2,200 meters and is used by the Swiss Air Force as a training and shooting ground for Swiss fighter aircraft. Because this military shooting exercise attracts a lot of sightseers and aviation photographers, the Swiss Air Force organizes several official visitor days every year. During these visitor days, several thousand people will have the chance to see this military exercise up close from various unique locations that are part of the exercise site. The Swiss Air Force also uses these visitor days to demonstrate the capabilities and various tasks of their aircraft and helicopters in a beautiful setting. Due to its unique location and the fact that the Ebenflüh Shooting Range features real ammunition shooting at various targets, this event has attracted a lot of spectators over the past decades. Only a portion of them get the chance to go to the Ebenflüh Shooting Range by helicopter while the many thousands of others may make their way to this beautiful location on foot. This makes the Axalp Fliegerschiessen Airshow quite an experience for everyone who loves airplanes and beautiful nature.
For visitors and photographers, not only is the air show the highlight of this annual event but also the journey to this impressive and remote location. After you arrive early in the morning by bus in the small village of Axalp and you take a chair lift up to Windegg, a steep hike to the Ebenflüh Shooting Range begins. This not-to-be-underestimated climb will take you up to the Brau hill after which you can walk through to Tschingel. From the top of this steep mountain flank you have a magnificent view of the Swiss Alps at sunrise and you can hike even further to the KP (Command Point). From this military tower, shooting exercises and flight activities are coordinated. Once you arrive at Tschingel or KP, you have an impressive view of the 2,890-meter-high Wildgärst in front of you. Despite the fact that the ascent to this unique location is intensive, you soon forget what effort you have put in once you see the sunlight rise over the beautiful Swiss Alps and the mountain sides become more and more light and color. Both from Brau as well as from Tschingel and KP you have a great view of the approaching fighter aircraft flying at high speed into the Ebenflüh Shooting Range to hit various targets with their onboard guns.
As soon as the first sunlight hits the mountain sides and weather conditions permit, the demonstration began at around 09u00 with a fly-through of four Boeing F/A-18C Hornet fighter jets firing flares. After their fly-through, the fighter planes began their impressive live firing exercises. These planes flew along different directions to the Ebenflüh Shooting Range where they had to hit static targets. Once they had fired their bullets, the fighter jets flew away from the exercise area in a spectacular way after which they immediately repositioned themselves to hit another target. Flying in pairs they perform a fixed pattern of several approaches to fire on one of the three targets. They repeat this sequence many times before finishing their training run. All these maneuvers are carefully monitored from range supervisors in the Command Post (KP) and the approach, flight angle, shooting distance and target accuracy are observed by firing range supervisors. Shooting at the targets of the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets is particularly impressive because, as a spectator or photographer, you stand quite close so you can see the bullets hit their targets and hear the sound of the onboard cannons clearly. In the past, the Ebenflüh Shooting Range was also used to practice bombing runs with the legendary Hawker Hunker aircraft of the Swiss Air Force.
After the shooting exercise with the Boeing F/A-18C Hornet fighter aircraft, spectators and photographers were shown demonstrations of the Pilatus PC-7 and Pilatus PC-21 aircraft used by the Swiss Air Force to train pilots. The Swiss Air Force also demonstrated a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) using a Eurocopter AS532 Cougar helicopter and two Boeing F/A-18C Hornet fighters. During this QRA, the Eurocopter AS532 Cougar helicopter and the Hornet fighters each intercepted a small aircraft and a business jet that had entered Swiss airspace without reporting it. In addition to aircraft, the Swiss Air Force also demonstrated the capabilities and flying skills of the Eurocopter AS332 helicopter with their famous Super Puma Display Team. During this impressive display the Super Puma helicopter performed several stunning maneuvers such as a hammerhead, tigh turn, lazy eight, back turn and a screwdriver down.
The biggest surprise for the spectators during this edition of the Axalp Fliegerschiessen Airshow was the passage of two Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jets. The Swiss Air Force placed an order of 36 of these fifth-generation fighters in 2022 to eventually replace the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet fighters. Therefore, this was the first time this new generation fighter aircraft participated in the Axalp Fliegerschiessen Airshow. The two F-35A fighters were from the Italian Air Force's 32º Stormo and performed some stunning fly-by’s and high speed passes at the Ebenflüh Shooting Range. The Axalp Fliegerschiessen Airshow finally concluded with a fantastic show by the Swiss military aerobatic team Patrouille Suisse. This legendary aerobatic team was founded in 1964 and became one of the best formation teams in Europe. The six Northrop F-5E Tiger II fighter jets performed stunning maneuvers along and over the impressive Swiss Alps for half an hour.
Text & Photos: Kris Christiaens