Home | Airshows | The Hangar | Nostalgia | Links

Norka '99Swiss Rangers

by Gary Parsons & Mike Kerr

Sunshine was, again, a rare commodity this year






Every year, the Swiss Air Force sets up temporary home at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire to enable its pilots to practice the art of air-to-air combat on British Aerospace's Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation (ACMI) range in the North Sea. Such are the normal restrictions on Swiss airspace that most of the year its pilots are not able to go supersonic or fly below 1,000 feet; coming to the range enables the flight envelope to be widened and a range of different types taken on in combat.

Known as Exercise 'Norka' every year, the exercise always takes place in the first weeks of June and as many sorties as possible are flown during the weekdays. In past years missions often commenced before 0700Z, but this year seemed slightly more relaxed with the first wave of aircraft departing at about 0800Z. Norka '99 was the first to see the F18C/D Hornet play the dominant role in the detachment, eight examples being flown over for the three week stay together with six F5E/F Tigers.  Previously, Mirage IIIs and Tigers were used but since the advent of the F18 in 1997 it has become the prime air defence fighter, first appearing at Waddington last year when four aircraft were deployed for Norka '98. In order, the aircraft were as follows: F18Cs J-5003, J-5005, J-5008, J-5015, J-5017 & J-5020. F18Ds J-5232 & J-5238. F5Es J-3012, J-3080, J-3089 & J-3098. F5Fs J-3201 & J-3208. Two of the F5Es were in Patrouille Swiss colours, as they are suitable for playing the 'enemy' on occasion.

Flying the flagsEvidence of past exercises on this F5ESwitzerland has purchased thirty-four Hornets, comprising of twenty-six of the single seat 'C' variant and eight twin-seat 'D' models. Such was the controversial political profile of the new purchase that it was put to the people to vote for the new fighter in 1993, which finally gave a seal of approval to the expenditure. Earlier, competition from the Mig-29, the General Dynamics F16, the Dassault Mirage 2000, the Israel Aircraft Industries Lavi, the Northrop F-20, and the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen had been dismissed, the decision to go ahead with the Hornet being made in October 1988. The delay in procuring the fighter allowed Switzerland to specify the APG-73 radar, and today three squadrons at Payerne, Sion, and Meiringen now operate the Hornets in the air defence role, allowing some of the F-5E/F Tiger IIs to be transferred to ground attack roles.

The small, but nimble, F5E TigerDelivered in the late seventies and early eighties, the venerable F5 Tiger has served as Switzerland's principal air defence fighter alongside the Mirage III until the latter was recently replaced with the Hornet. A total of ninety-eight single-seat F5Es and twelve twin-seat F5F trainers was procured between 1978 and 1979, many of the airframes being constructed at Emmen, as has the F18. Its biggest drawback in today's scenario is the lack of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile launch capability, something that the APG-73 in the F18 addresses. Even so, it is not unknown for a pair of Tigers to fare reasonably well against the Hornet in dissimilar air combat manoeuvres, so there is life left in the old dog yet.

The F18 Hornet has replaced the Mirage IIIThe F18C and D used by the Swiss differs little from the standard model offered by McDonnell Douglas (now part of the Boeing Corporation). Dedicated to the air defence role, this has led to the 'A' designation in F/A18 being dropped to distinguish its primary task. The biggest difference in construction is the use of a stronger titanium alloy in the fuselage main bulkheads to increase the service life of the airframe from 3,000 hours to 5,000, a Swiss requirement as the type is expected to serve for some thirty years or so. Most of the Swiss aircraft are put together at the "Schweizer Unternehmung für Flugzeuge und Systeme" (SF) in Emmen from kits, but the first two were assembled at the McDD plant at St. Louis and an extensive trials program undertaken by the Swiss Air Force before deliveries were made in early 1997. Two Swiss pilots worked up to full US Navy proficiency before testing the Swiss F18, including becoming fully qualified in carrier landings, which is ironic given that Switzerland is completely land-locked and has no navy!

One of the biggest features of the Swiss F18 is the 'low-drag' weapons pylon, specifically designed by SF in Switzerland. It was recognised early in the development phase that the normal SUU-63 multi-purpose pylon developed for the F/A18 would compromise performance in the air-to-air role and limit the aircraft's angle of attack. Consequently the new pylon was designed specifically to take the AIM-9P/5 Sidewinder and AIM-120B AMRAAM missiles, full testing being undertaken at NAS Patuxtent River in Maryland.

Rare nose art on a TigerAt present, most of the aircraft due have now been delivered, but unfortunately one has been lost already, F18D J-5231 crashing on 7 April 1998 with the loss of the crew when flying with a USN F/A18C. One of the two assembled by McDD, it was a sad loss but to date there are no plans to obtain a replacement. The other seven twin-seaters have all now been delivered and two were sent for Norka '99, alongside six single-seaters.

Click for bigger pictureA typical day on the range consists of a range of missions being flown against various opponents, and normally six waves of up to eight aircraft will fly. For example, on the day of our visit the following sorties were planned: 4 x F5 versus 2 x F18; 4 x F18 v 4 x F16 (323 Squadron, KLu); 2 x F18 v 2 x Sea Harrier (also on detachment at Waddington); 4 x F18 v 4 x Tornado F3 (from nearby Coningsby) & 4 x F5; 2 x F18 & 2 x Sea Harrier v 4 x F16; 4 x F5 v 2 x F18. As can be seen, the F18s used the F5s as aggressors on occasion and there were times when they were operating as a joint force with other units. This is a rare opportunity for the Swiss to operate with other air forces as its neutrality does not offer the normal squadron exchanges enjoyed by most NATO members. On this occasion the F16s operated from the Netherlands, the debriefing facility at Waddington enabling direct links to Leeuwarden so that the crews can all see the results of their efforts despite being in separate countries.

Delighted with their new Hornets, the Swiss pilots when asked to compare it to the Tiger showed mixed feelings. The F18 is undoubtedly superior in BVR situations, but in a close dogfight the small size of the F5 makes it hard to see, and an outnumbered Hornet is living dangerously.

Innocent-looking FLIR pod on J-5238One F18D, J-5238 was equipped with a AN/AAS-38B Nite Hawk forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) pod for the duration. The FLIR can be fully integrated with the other avionics of the F18, and data from it can be used in the calculation of weapons release solutions. A Lockheed Martin design, the AAS-38A/B Nite Hawk FLIR is primarily the laser target designation system for laser-guided munitions delivery, and is mounted on the port fuselage (station 4). It enhances the Hornet's night attack capability by providing real-time Forward Looking Infrared [FLIR] thermal imagery displayed on one of the cockpit CRTs and HUD. A relatively recent innovation, only four of these pods were available during the Gulf War, seeing service with VMFA(AW)-121 of the United States Marine Corps. Quite how the Swiss were using this pod is not clear, as they would not comment, but it is suspected it was being used in air-to-air target confirmation.

Pilots were rotated over the three weeks duration, each week being taken by a different squadron. This enabled all of the current F18 pilots to gain some experience on the range plus a good proportion of the F5 pilots, most of whom are or are about to become part-time 'militia' personnel. Aircraft are not normally assigned to squadrons, hence the lack of badges and insignia, but currently Nos. 11, 16, 17 and 18 Squadrons are designated as the Hornet units and Nos. Falcon 50 T-783, a rare visitor1, 6, 8 and 19 Squadrons continue to fly the Tiger. Personnel changes in the week were made using the Air Force's sole Learjet 35 T-781 and Super King Air HB-GII, both aircraft becoming a familiar sight in the skies above Lincoln. A less common sight is the Falcon 50 used for VIP Waddington's Cathedral adorns some aircrafttransport, but a visit was made mid-exercise by some high-ranking officials to review progress of the exercises.

As a result of having little airlift capability, all the ground equipment and spares needed for the three weeks are brought in by road, a vast fleet of container trucks making the thousand-mile journey. The containers do provide ready-made workshops, so this is not quite so impractical as one might first think. Spares were in plentiful supply, a full set of wheels and tyres being on hand at any one time - the life cycle of a GoodYear is anything up to fifty landings, a far cry from the English Electric Lightning which could only do six landings on a set before they were junked! Bicycles seem to be everywhere, being the first line of transportation available to the groundcrew, giving an air of what dispersal life was like back in the second world war when the ACMI area was home to the Lancasters of 44 Squadron. The ground crew and technicians worked meticulously before and after each flight, with all flight surfaces checked and re-checked. Each sortie is preceded with a full-power check of the flaps, rudder, tail hook and refuelling probe by the pilot, even though the latter is not used very much in their native country! To broaden the pilots' experience plans are in hand to undertake joint training exercises with the French Armee de l'Air in order to practice air-to-air refuelling with the KC135R.

They're not all grey, you know...For the ACMI facility itself, the Swiss detachment was a welcome boost after many exercises had been cancelled in the wake of the Kosovo crisis, 1999 proving to be the quietest so far since the range facility opened back in 1991 when the CF18As of the Canadian Armed Forces arrived to set the ball rolling.

The value of the training afforded to the people of Switzerland at Waddington each year is immense, as it allows their pilots to fly and fight with a range of opponents in a manner that is not possible in the tightly restricted airspace of their small country. No doubt they will be back next year!

Information source FAS Military Analysis Network.


Home | Airshows | The Hangar | Nostalgia | Links