On July 31, 1914 the government of Switzerland took the first step in founding an air force. Some idea of the difficulties involved may be gleaned from the fact that, when the 8 pilots invited to form the initial flying personal attended their first meeting, they were asked to bring their own aircraft. (A citizens’ air force indeed!) During the war, there were only periodic reconnaissance flights carried out and it is safe to say that there was more activity on the part of Swiss pilots serving in the French air force during this period than there was at home.
In 1936 the Swiss government took a major step by turning their air force into a separate unit of the country’s armed forces. Given that the most modern aircraft used at the time was the obsolescent Dewoitine D27 purchased from France, the move was a wise one in that it provided the impetus for a modernisation program. This gained momentum when, in 1937 the MS 406, a relatively modern fighter aircraft, was chosen, with the majority of the order built under license in Switzerland and called the D3800. This decision was followed shortly afterwards by the selection of the German Bf 109D
With the latter the Swiss may have wondered if they had picked the right plane. The 109 series never claimed landings as one of their strong points, due mainly to the narrow landing gear. At any rate the first 109D to arrive ground-looped at Dubendorf, the second crash landed near Frauenfeld on its way, the third crashed into Lake Constance on its first flight after arrival and the fourth crash landed near Mollis less than one month after delivery. . When the E model became available, it replaced the D model in deliveries to Switzerland. By the beginning of the war, both the MS 406 and the Bf109 were in squadron service.
With such modern aircraft activity on the part of the Swiss air force was much more pronounced than in World War I. The main problem was the repeated incursion of Swiss air space by German fighters and bombers, mostly on their way back from France, and it was not long before 2 He111’s were shot down by Swiss Bf109E’s, the first time that the Germans had one of their own aircraft brought down by a German fighter. albeit in Swiss markings. This was to go on for most of the war, punctuated only by Allied aircraft crossing the country on their way to and from bombing runs or, because of battle damage, attempting to land at Swiss airfields. By the end of the war over 50 American bombers sought refuge at Dubendorf, near Zurich.
In 1944 the Swiss were able to supplement their MS406’s and the Bf1109E’s by the newer G model. However, the quality of the latter was extremely poor with problems being encountered after only 15-20 hours of flight. They were, therefore, little used and were withdrawn in 1948. It turned out that this drop in quality on the part of the manufacturer was partly explained by the fact that young German fighter pilots were being rushed into service before their training was completed satisfactorily and most of them were killed before reaching 15 hours in combat.
In 1944 the Swiss also completed production of a domestically designed reconnaissance bomber, the C3603. This was the first major design of a Swiss military aircraft. They also produced 207 units of an upgraded model of the MS406, called the D3801, an upgrade which featured a more powerful engine, one of the most noticeable shortcomings of the earlier model.
After the war, action picked up again in 1948 when the government took advantage of an American surplus of Mustang fighter aircraft to purchase 130 of them still located in Germany for $4,000 apiece. By the end of the year all 130 had been delivered to Switzerland. Not to be left behind in the approaching era of jet aircraft, an order was placed for 75 De Havilland Vampire Mark 6 fighters from Gt. Britain. These were, in essence, Mark 5’s with an uprated engine. A further order of 100 followed in 1950 with the latter to be license built at the Swiss Federal Aircraft Factory located beside the air base at Emmen, near Lucerne.
Wit the arrival of the Vampires, the Mustangs were relegated to ground attack duties and, when the air force opted in 1953 for the Venom, an advanced version of the Vampire, the Mustangs were withdrawn from service. 150 Mark l Venoms were produced in Emmen, with the last 24 being equipped for the tactical reconnaissance role. In 1956 a further 100 Venoms were ordered, this time the Mark 3.
The next major re-equipment program took place in 1958 when 100 Hawker Hunter Mk.58’s were ordered. The first 12 were refurbished while the last 88 were newbuilds. With the arrival of the Hunters, the relegation of the Vampires and the Venoms to the training role commenced.
In 1961 a further step in the modernisation program was taken by the choice of the Mirage III to equip four fighter squadrons and one reconnaissance squadron, the Mirage being chosen after a stiff competition from the Swedish Saab Draken. The total number ordered was 100, of which all but four were to be license built in Switzerland. Due to horrendous cost overruns, mainly because of the selection of more advanced radar and missile systems, the number actually built was reduced to 57 but not before the Swiss had to endure, in 1964, one of the most acrimonious of political crises. After the lower number was chosen, only two fighter squadrons and one reconnaissance squadron could be equipped.
On a more positive note an aerobatic team was formed that same year on the Hawker Hunter, with four aircraft making up the initial unit. This was later to be expanded to six aircraft and in 1981 the unit, called the Patrouille Suisse, made its first foreign performance. In 1995 it switched to the F5C Tiger II’s. In 20 years of service with the P.S., not one Hunter was lost
The early 70’s saw more activity in the acquisition of new aircraft. In 197l additional Hunters were ordered, with 52 being refurbished Mk. 58’s and 8 new build two seat trainers Mk. 68’s. The following year an evaluation took place of the American Corsair II and the French Dassault Milan and, although the Corsair II was chosen, no production ever took place of this aircraft for the Swiss. Instead, in 1976 the Flugwaffe opted for the F5 Tiger II. 72 E’s were ordered as well as 6 F’s, with the bulk of the order being produced at Emmen.
1981 was an eventful year. First in line was a repeat order for the Tiger II’s; with 32 being the single seat variety and the remaining 6 twin seaters. In the same year Staffel No. 11, flying some of the aircraft of the original order, took part in the prestigious NATO Tiger Association Trophy competition and emerged as the winning squadron, being the only non-NATO air force ever to win the award.
In 1987 in search of an aircraft to provide jet training for its fledgling pilots, the Flugwaffe evaluated the French/German Alpha jet and the British BAe Hawk as a replacement for the Vampire T55 which was nearing the end of its useful life. The Hawk was declared the winner and an order placed for 20, with all but one produced at Emmen. Production of this aircraft was completed in 1991.
By that time attention had turned to a modern fighter aircraft which resulted in a fly-off between the F/A 18 and the F-16. The twin-engined F/A 18 proved to be the winner but it was not until a national referendum was held in 1993 (June 6) that the decision was made to order the plane into production for the Swiss.
During the same time the large supply of Hunters was finally being run down and by 1996 the plane had virtually disappeared from Swiss skies. The same year saw the arrival (Dec. 17) of the first of two F/A18C’s produced in the USA while in October the first D model made its initial flight at Emmen. Construction is to be completed in 1999 when the aircraft will replace the Mirage IIIS in the air defence role.
At the present time Swiss pilots take their initial training on the Pilatus PC-7 at Mogadino in the canton of Ticino. Those successful in this stage then do their advanced training on the Hawk at Sion in the canton of Valais before moving on to squadron service. Full time pilots normally serve with the surveillance squadrons (Ueberwachungsgeschwader) while militia (part-time) pilots are assigned to the various squadrons in this category.
For a small country Switzerland has a surprisingly large number of airfields for use by the military. The three main ones, which are continuously active and at which the surveillance squadrons are located, are at Dubendorf, near Zurich, Emmen, near Lucerne and Payerne, near Fribourg in the French-speaking part of the country. Other fields, in addition to the training fields mentioned above, are to be found at Meiringen, Mollis, Raron, Turtmann, Ulrichen, Alpnach, Stans, St. Stephan, Interlaken and Ambri while secondary fields are located at Samedan, Sarnen, Zweisimmen, Grenchen, Lodrino, Kagiswil, Fruitigen, Reichenbach and Sanvittore. In addition, airports are available at Altenrhein and Thun. The air force has also conducted exercises using parts of the country’s four-lane highway system as a runway. Finally, due to the cramped space, training has, on occasion, been carried out at the NATO base at Decimomanu in Sardinia and in Sweden. A Swiss built F/A 18C was also demonstrated to the Czechs at Hradec Kralove in Sept. 1997.
Not only do the Swiss keep their aircraft in immaculate condition, which accounts to a considerable degree for their long years of service but some of the landing fields listed above provide access to mountain caverns in which the entire air force can be hidden. This may entail hanging some of the aircraft from the ceiling of the caverns and the entire system gives some indication of how far the country is willing to go to protect its aircraft in an emergency.
1996 also saw the change in the name of the chief aircraft manufacturing facility in the country from the Swiss Federal Aircraft Factory to the Swiss Aircraft and Systems Co. (Schweizerische Unternehmung fuer Flugzeuge und Systeme).
(Original text by courtesy of Ray Canon).