AXALP tour: Day 2 "Flight to the top"

After the previous days hike to the mountain viewing spot, today was going to be more relaxed as I had a media pass and would be flown to the viewing area by the control tower on the AXALP range.

After breakfast we headed to Meiringen air base and parked on the old taxiway that leads to the mountain hangers. We wandered along the closed roads passed ornate woodwork and flower filled window boxes on the chocolate box houses, to the buildings near the restaurant where we would be collecting out media passes from. Before we got to the buildings we stopped at the road that crosses the airfield to watch the arrival of four F/A-18 Hornets that had been to the AXALP range in the morning. These taxied back to the hanger area in the morning sun allowing for some close up shots in great light.

We collected our passes and then decided to go to the viewing deck on top of the restaurant. On the way there the local F/A-18 squadron, Fliegerstaffel 11, was setting up to sell a wide range of merchandise from clothing and caps to models, patches and books at great prices.

The deck allowed for a great view of departing helicopters and the flight-line where the Super Pumas/Cougars were lined up ready to start ferrying people up to the range. After 15 minutes the pilots and ground crew started arriving at the helicopters on the flight line and beginning to prepare them for their days work. The first one to depart was an glossy red Augusta A109 from REGA 1414, who were providing the emergency medical assistance for the duration of the exercise.

Then the flow of Super Pumas/ Cougars started to taxi out to collect their passengers. The line of people being flown up seemed to be never ending with a shuttle service now in effect with one Super Puma/ Cougar departing as one arrived on the taxiway parallel to the runway. During this time a EC635 was flying military personnel to the range to support the days operations.

The time came for us to head down to the boarding area where we were taken through to a lecture theatre and given a presentation, about the exercise and the Swiss Air Force now and in the future, with the rest of the people in our time slot. With the presentation complete we headed out of the back of the theatre where we crossed part of the apron, handing over our ticket, before splitting into one of two queues. Once we were weighed with our bags the military personnel split us into groups of 15, as I watched another Super Puma/Cougar depart.

The group in front of us were escorted to their ride and I couldn't help feeling excited about the whole experience of flying in this large military helicopter. Looking back towards the Oltschibachfall (waterfall) I could see our helicopter inbound, running downwind and then banking down towards the taxiway where we were to board it. We moved closer to the taxiway as the Super Puma taxied towards its holding point. The side doors opened and the ground personnel moved us towards the still running Super Puma. Having never been this close to a helicopter with its rotors still turning it was exhilarating and the ride hadn't even started. I was the last to board and sat next to a member of the crew near the door.

I reached for my ear plugs as the high pitch whine from the engines was deafening inside the cabin. As the plugs expanded I felt the helicopter lift off the deck, the nose of the Super Puma lowered and the ground began to move faster and faster and we climbed higher until we passed over the end of the airfield. It was a stunning view out over the mountains and trees before the turquoise Brienzersee lake filled the window. The horizon lowered as we banked left towards the range, following the same route that I had watched the helicopters flying the day before. My view wasn't great on the final climb up to the landing area beside the control tower but as we drew closer to landing the crewman opened the door. Looking out the door it seemed we were nowhere near anywhere to land but then the ridge line came into view and i could see where we were going to be touching down. The crewman started talking to the pilots through his headset ,whilst leaning forward in his seat to look out the door, letting them know at what height they were above the mountain top. With a small bump the wheels touched down and the engines powered back and the ground crew came towards the Super Puma. I unbuckled my belt and was the first one out of the door and was ushered around to a stony path leading along the edge of the mountain towards the range control tower.

Once at the tower we were given our lunch and a drink and headed down to find somewhere to sit in the glorious sunshine. It was a fantastic view back down the valley towards where we were stood the day before and across the mountains beyond. The EC635 departed to complete its safety checks around the range and flew low past the crowd with a photographer in the back photographing the all of the spectators at the different viewing spots.

The countdown began to the start of the show as I looked out to the mountain tops to the east to see the two pairs of Hornets approaching the range. The first pair seemed to get lower and lower until they started to pull up towards the tower and where we were stood. Again it was an amazing sight and sound as the Hornets released their flares while on full afterburner.

The live fire exercise continued as it did the previous day but we could now see the targets up close and how well both the F/A-18s and F-5s hitting them. The final pass by the F-5s was using high explosive rounds fired at the southern target.

After the fighters completed their formation flypast the air show began. This time the action was happening right in front of us with the Super Puma circling and flying towards the tower. The F/A-18 fly around the tower on full afterburner for most of its display and the Patrouille Suisse looked amazing in their red and white aircraft with the mountain backdrop.

Climbing upwards towards the heavens releasing flares the Patrouille Suisse closed the show and it was time to pack all our equipment and get ready to head back to Meiringen. We waited until the queue had almost disappeared before we stood up and got our tickets out to ensure a place aboard one of the Super Pumas/Cougar. As we queued it was interesting to see people down near one of the targets searching for bullets.

The military personnel collected our tickets and counted 15 people to go into three separate groups to wait for our helicopter to arrive. We stood and watched another helicopter depart and dive off the side of the mountain heading back towards the base. We were then released to walk back along the stone path to walk towards another waiting point as the group in front went to board their ride. As that helicopter departed we walked to the landing area and could hear our Super Puma/Cougar coming up the valley. What a sight it was to see this large helicopter coming towards us and touchdown on the small landing area.

As soon as the engines powered down the ground crew waved us towards the helicopter and we walked past the front of it and clambered aboard.

The flight down was a real experience as we descended quickly passing close to the mountain sides and banking tightly on approach to the taxiway and landing site. We touched down on the taxiway and were soon stopped and the door opened. Jumping back down onto the asphalt I could barely hear, as the pressure had changed so quickly. I walked slowly away from our Super Puma/Cougar absorbing the unique experience that I had had throughout the day.

The walk back to the car was interesting with us sounding like we were speaking to our grandparents saying "What?" after each sentence. I would like to thank the Swiss Air Force for this opportunity and especially to Alina Gysin, Communication Swiss Air Force and Jürg Nussbaum, Chef Kommunikation Luftwaffe / TPL Komm Kdo Op. Also a big thank you to Thierry Letellier of Globalairpower.net.