Peter Gunti looks at the retirement of the Swiss Air Force Mirage IIIRS. All photography by the author.
As we look back today on the history of the Cold War, it seems so far away, but it is only some forty-odd years since those days of the early sixties. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 was a shock to the minds of politicians and strategists alike - afraid of being involved, at some point, in a struggle between Warsaw Pact and Nato forces, a small country such as Switzerland could only hope that the strength of its military was good enough for it to be bypassed, rather than misused by either side.
In order to strengthen its national defence, more than forty percent of the national budget was invested in modern technology for the troops. The cornerstone of the modernisation was the upgrade of the Flugwaffe with state-of-the-art equipment - no false modesty could limit the ambition of the planners. They knew that if they faced conflict, it would have to be with the best in the world and no second-rate equipment would do. So, the military met the parliament and promised them that, if they were willing to spend the largest sum of money the confederation had ever spoken about, they could get a fleet 100 Mirage IIIs, capable of sealing up the airspace almost hermetically and striking devastating blows to every aggressive ground-threat within a 200-kilometre radius around its peace-loving borderline.
The technological leap from the aircraft then in service to the Mirage was so great, that in retrospect, nobody could really wonder that they had to learn to walk before they could run. Naturally, a ground threat had to be detected before they could be targeted, therefore a number of reconnaissance pods was obtained. At the time the French were really in full swing in the development and integration of systems into the basic Mirage airframe and, since money opens many a door, didn't hesitate to offer the latest upgrade to all interested countries, rich ones first, of course. So when the Swiss military was shown the dedicated new Mirage IIIR, it became immediately evident that no other system could rival its capabilities. Eighteen examples were ordered, although parliamentary approval had yet to be sought - soon the cost of the most expensive purchase in the history of the country had overrun by more than 100%, arousing some serious questioning. However, the overrun had little to do with the cameraships and when cuts had to made, it was the ground attack and interceptors that bit the bullet. The only downside to the reconnaissance order was that the camera nose hat forfeited the multi-mission capability of the aircraft.
Thirty-eight years later, and after numerous upgrades and modifications, the remaining AMIRs (Aufklärer MIRage) have shot their last snaps for the family album, the family being number 10 Squadron, the only specialised reconnaissance unit in the Swiss Air Force. How high the standards were of these men was made clear at last year's Recce Meet in Florennes, Belgium, where the AMIRs were the oldest airframes present, yet amongst 14 teams from 11 countries they scored highest and won the competition. The professionalism of the crews compensated for the age of the aircraft and their more modern competitors. But, sadly in December 2003 it was time to stop and send one of Europe's best reconnaissance systems to the scrap heap. Times have changed and the purpose originally intended for these jets is no longer relevant - in today's environment, where neutral Switzerland has active co-operation with all bordering countries, no threat needs to be detected any more. Surveillance is more important now than reconnaissance, and if the old French beauties are lacking in one field, then it would be loiter time over the battlefield.
In order to do a bit of PR during the last year of service, two aircraft were painted in a commemorative scheme called 'Black & White'. The squadron emblem, the head of a Falcon, was decorated with a teardrop for the last few flights. Knowing their mounts by now, on several occasions the pilots did some very exciting flying, but not for the purpose of taking pictures - for being pictured themselves for the last time. These shots were taken from an antenna tower in the Jura region, the rest were made from location in the Alps, overlooking a valley with beautiful backdrops.