Gary Parsons reports on the Swiss Air Force's first major airshow in a long while, Air '04, held over 3 - 5 September. All pictures by the author and Guy Harvey. Apologies for the lack of sharp pictures but it was a combination of long lenses and extreme humidity, nothing to do with all the scantily clad women - honest, guv...
Sparkling in the summer sunshine, the flares from the Patrouille Swiss signalled that Payerne's Air '04 was something to celebrate, and celebrate with flair!
Air '04 was three years in the making, a celebration of three anniversaries in one go - the 75th birthday of the Swiss Air Force, 40 years of the Patrouille Swiss and 15 years for Team PC-7. "This is the most important air show organised in Switzerland at the start of the 21st century," said the event's director, Ian Logan. "It's been an enormous challenge but we're sure that it's an event visitors won't soon forget," he added. The event's chief spokesman, Didier Vallon, pointed out that the show is about more than just 'fancy' flying. "Air 04 represents a rare opportunity for us to show our appreciation of the Swiss population's trust in the air force," he said. "Military aviation guarantees security, provides assistance and protects the country's population, and in a constantly changing world, it's important that we be both seen and heard."
With an attendance of 275,000 over the three days, it would seem that most of Switzerland got the message! It was the first International airshow in Switzerland since 1994, so a first for many of the staff involved. There were a few problems with traffic, despite a well-organised system, but this was probably due to the vast crowd attracted by scorching late summer weather on both days - hardly a cloud was seen during all three days of our visit. Friday was arrivals and enthusiasts' day, enabling some static shots to be had, but the weekend was absolutely heaving, leaving little option but to sit back and enjoy the flying!
It was swimming with Swiss efficiency, as one would expect - sponsored by watchmaker Breitling, everything was bound to go like clockwork. Everything, even down to the toilets, was organised by the military and it showed as the flying programme ran to the minute on both days. Undoubtedly aided by the fantastic weather, each day's schedule was different, not all acts performing on both days such was the array of performers available. All display teams except the Red Arrows were parked along the taxiway in front of the crowd, making for a marvellous opportunity for the crowd to get up close to the aircraft as they taxied out and back in. The enthusiasm of the Swiss crowd was very genuine as they cheered and waved hats, especially for the two home teams. And the cheer that went up as the Red Arrows performed the 'heart' manoeuvre was something to warm the blood of even the least patriotic Brit in the crowd - the Reds' reputation certainly does go before them, and is something for which the RAF should be particularly proud - and continue to recognise. So too the Harrier GR7 - Chris Margiotta's displays kept the large crowd spellbound, making one realise just what a unique act it is outside of the UK.
'Dispersed' is best to describe the static parks - no less than a mile separated the west and east areas, with the helicopters scattered in the long grass at the eastern end. Swiss airfields are different to those of other nations, as the runways and taxiways are in open countryside with only the hangars and technical buildings contained within fenced compounds. A large area had been temporarily fenced for Air '04, but space for parking aircraft was scarce, resulting in the vast distance between the two static areas. It was worth the walk, as at the western end the Mirage IVP and Rafale mixed in with some older airframes such as Vampires, Venoms and Mirage IIIs while at the eastern end could be found an Austrian Draken, Greek F-4 and USN Super Hornet. Sadly we were once again presented with a plastic Typhoon, this example being particularly crude with a very poor-fitting canopy.
Air '04 was very much about today's modern air forces, with only a token gesture to the past - splendid displays from the 'Old Timers', four Hunters and a singleton Venom, plus flypasts from the Swiss Constellation based at Geneva provided the nostalgia. Contrasting with the fifties' fighters were the Boeing F-18F, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed F-16C and Saab Gripen, the principal competitors for the replacement of Switzerland's F-5E Tigers. This fine array of modern hardware contrasted sharply with the trade shows earlier in the year at Berlin and Farnborough, both of which failed to provide a line-up anything as impressive, and shows where there are contracts to be won, the manufacturers will make an effort…
As mentioned previously, Typhoon was suspiciously plastic-looking in the static display, parked near an equally Airfix-looking F-35/JSF. But at least there was a real one in the flying - Test Pilot Chris Worning gave a full-blown official EADS presentation display in Luftwaffe example 30+10. Remarkably effortless, it makes the F-16 displays look frantic in comparison, and was only matched by the Super Hornet in the 'making it look easy' category. Rafale was more muted in comparison, but it was clear the French fighter has vast potential and carries more 'grunt' than Gripen, which always seems to disappoint somehow despite its fourth-generation fighter design. It lacks the brute force of Viggen and the flickability of Typhoon, and was overshadowed by most of its competitors. But its main advantage is cost, plus it's already proven in service - one has to hand it to the Swedes for making it happen on their own.
Ricardo Traven was once again at the controls of Boeing's F/A-18F Super Hornet giving a repeat of his energetic Fairford and Farnborough routines, albeit in a toned-down squadron jet instead of the CAG-bird used in the UK. Its extra power and fly-by-wire capabilities contrasted starkly with the F/A-18C displays from both Captain Michael Reiner in the Swiss and Major Jyri Selvenius in the Finnish examples, who were more akin to the F-16 routines than Traven's powerful routine. F/A-18 displays are always good to watch though, so three in one day was quite alright by us!
Saturday's finale was one that will be difficult to top - five aerobatic teams in formation at the same time! Called the 'Patrouille des Patrouilles', it was an idea put together by the Patrouille Swiss and comprised the Swiss team leading the Patrulla Aguila, Team 60, Red Arrows and Frecce Tricolori in a forty-ship mass flypast - not just once, but twice! It underlined the determination the Swiss Air Force had to make a show like no other, and one wishes that airshow organisers and the CAA had the same ambitions in the UK. It was the first time since 1978 that such an armada of display teams had flown together, Swiss Defence Minister Samuel Schmid describing the flypast as "a symbol of essential international cooperation".
With an admission fee of about £9, Air '04 represented excellent value for money with nearly 200 aircraft on display, both in the static parks and in the air. It was a marked contrast to military airshows held in the UK - you could sense that the Swiss Air Force wanted it to be a success, and took pride in putting on a good show. Six major display teams were present for the Patrouille Swiss' party, including the Red Arrows, who failed to attract a similar number for their own official 40th anniversary at Waddington. One has to ask why this was - no doubt the three years preparation helped, but one got the sense that the Swiss Air Force's determination to make the airshow the spectacle it was the major factor, while the Airshow Offices of the three major RAF shows have to beg, shout and scream for support from its own military - and return a profit. Air '04 wasn't about profit; it was about celebrating with the nation and showing the taxpayer where his money goes - with style! Let's hope it's not ten years before it all happens again!
With thanks to Didier Vallon and the Swiss Air Force media team