usually the month for the annual Axalp exercises organised by the Swiss
Air Force, but for two weeks each Spring the aerial and ground assets
of the Schweizer Luftwaffe are engaged in other training, better
known locally as 'rehearsal courses' (cours de répétition
or Wiederholungskurs). Hugo Mambour/ AviaScribe describes
what they are all about.
The 'wartime' airfield at Turtmann had been reactivated to accommodate two Fliegestaffeln (FlSt) (air squadrons), n°1 - the last professional F-5 unit - and n°6, a reserve unit, and their F-5E Tiger IIs. Sion had its activities focussed on the F/A-18C and D Hornets of FlSt 18 and the Mirage IIIRSs of FlSt 10 during the exercise. The latter unit is now the only Mirage reconnaissance unit of the Swiss Air Forces since the disbandment of FlSt 3 at the end of 2001. Other units, like the Lufttransportstaffel (air transport squadron) 8 with its Alouette IIIs and Super Pumas, plus a detachment of the mobile radar company 31, took part in the 'rehearsals' as well. The latter unit distanced itself from the others as its training course took place in Austria, where elements of a TAFLIR sky surveillance radar system were established in preparation for the 'Amadeus 2002' international exercise between 27 May and 7 June, which involved the air forces of Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland.
Whereas the reconnaissance Mirage IIIRSs did their job, the jewel of the Swiss Air Forces, the F/A-18, was defending the skies above Switzerland, fighting mainly against local F-5s. The latter, flying from Turtmann and manned by both professional and reserve pilots, were responsible for air defence missions and were acting as sparring partners for the Hornets. So, like the former USAF F-5s and those of the US Navy, the Tigers had become 'aggressors'. During some engagements against the Hornets, the F-5s were flying with a big belly fuel tank painted in dayglo, and also some aircraft of the 'Patrouille Suisse' were used (the aircraft are dispersed among various units in normal time), providing high-visibility targets thanks to their display scheme.
For one particular exercise, a F-5 duo would fly over the Hornets' 'nest' at Sion in order to provoke an alert take-off of the F/A-18s. During the rehearsals, two pairs of Hornets were parked inside individual shelters at each end of the runway - although the engines were shut down, the aircraft systems were on, ready for a quick start and take-off. Once instructed to take-off immediately, the two pairs would lift-off alternatively from their respective runway end - and consequently in opposite directions - in order to save precious seconds. A NATO delegation flown to Sion aboard Super Puma helicopters on 18 April did not see that type of QRA action however, having to content themselves with standard operations from individual 'boxes'. The VIP status is not always an advantage
The caverns of Tigers
The purpose of the F-5 deployment at Turtmann was also aimed at training the personnel, be they pilots or attached to the Flugplatz Abteilung 3 (aerodrome section n°3; composed of all the personnel necessary to manage an airfield), in operations from cavern shelters. Turtmann is a typically Swiss airbase, with the runway - partially integrated into the local village - on one side of a main road and the caverns on the other. Offering unequalled protection, the caverns concept is enhanced by shortening the period the aircraft is exposed before take-off and after landing, by the Mirages being able - like the Hunters in the past - to start their engine as soon as they are outside the caverns, while still being towed (see 'Aircraft Illustrated' February 2000). However, that modus operandi is not possible with the F-5s, because they need an external supply of compressed air in order to be able to start their engines. Nevertheless, a unique procedure has been devised - the engines' start-up (up to four aircraft at a time) is done via two traditional trailers equipped with compressors, which are parked inside small purpose-built individual shelters situated on each side of the enlarged apron in front of the cavern doors. Astonishingly, the air pipes that link the compressors to the aircraft are located underground! Retractable plugs - flush with the ground when not in use - can be accessed to be connected to the aircraft for start-up. During the whole process, which does not require any manipulation of ground equipment, the aircraft is parked in such a way that other fighters coming back from a mission can be towed inside the caverns immediately.
Final curtain call
Turtmann (Tourtemagne for the French speaking population) airfield will be closed on economical grounds at the end of March 2003 after a last rehearsal course. Flugplatz Abteilung 3 and FlSt 1 will be disbanded at the end of 2003, whereas Escadrille n°6 will be transferred to Payerne. As a consequence of that move, FlSt 13, based in Payerne, will be disbanded. Even if the glory days of the Tiger are over, it will continue to be useful for some years to come.