Axalp is, in my humble opinion, very likely the best air show on earth, although the Swiss Air Force will be quick to tell you that it’s not really an airshow, rather, it’s a live-fire training exercise to which the public is invited. It’s officially named Fliegerschiessen Axalp, which translates to Air Force Live Fire Axalp.
It’s an exercise that’s held on top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps, uphill from the ski town of Axalp. Attendance requires getting to Switzerland, a long drive, a bus ride that’s almost as exciting as the show itself, a chairlift ride, then a hike up the last 1,000 vertical feet.
Or, if you’re able to secure media credentials, you get to ride to the top in a Super Puma helicopter, a treat which we thoroughly enjoyed on the official first day of the event. But we (“we” being AR contributor Peter Schneider and yours truly) really wanted the full experience, so we also hiked up to watch the practice the day before the official show.
This year’s demonstration was held Oct. 9-11, and it’s the first time in five years the event actually took place – the weather hadn’t really cooperated since 2012, and some accidents (not at Axalp) led to one year’s cancellation. Mountain weather, especially at 7,500 feet ASL, can be fickle in October.
The horizontal distance of the hike isn’t that long – it’s only a few miles – but it’s the 55%+ slog up frost-glazed, potholed grassy slopes, and the thin air at elevation, that’ll get you; or at least that’s what beat up this flatlander. But the scenery was so good it would have been worth the effort even without airplanes.
After a couple hours, we made it to the viewing area, which was already filled with people. Lots of tired folks were napping in the sun, but there were also plenty of jaunty groups drinking wine and eating raclette, which is kind of like a reverse fondue – you melt slabs of smelly, yet delicious, cheese and dump it over either boiled potatoes or bread. Not everyone’s backpacks were filled with camera gear – it was apparent that many had hauled up portable kitchens.
You could also buy bratwurst and beer from a couple of concession stands the air force had flown up there for the event. Those Super Pumas are very versatile machines.
Now that I’m finished complaining about the hike, it’s time to talk about the airplanes. The Swiss Air Force still fields 26 Northrop F-5s of varying configurations and a couple dozen F/A-18c Hornets, many of which were flown for the demo. What looked like all 15 of their Arospatiale AS332 Super Pumas were pressed into service, either ferrying VIPs or long-lining supplies up and down the mountain.
At first, it’s a bit disconcerting to hear bursts of cannon fire overhead while you’re hiking, but, just like anything, you kinda get used to it after a while. The jets fire at bright-orange targets affixed to the canyon walls.
Watching the jets, you see the puffs of smoke from the cannon fire, you watch the jet get closer, then you hear the brrrrp sounds, and then you watch as the target gets lit up. Super cool stuff.
This trip really was an avgeek dream come true.
Want to go? Peter Schneider has tips and a checklist for attending Axalp:
With Axalp 2017 now in the books, people are already talking about Axalp 2018. The Swiss Air Force has already published the official dates for next year: Oct. 11-12, 2018. Here are a few helpful pointers if you are considering a trip to Axalp:
- This annual event happens during calendar week 41, which is the second week of October.
- Weather is the great unknown October in the Swiss Alps can be very unpredictable and the weather can change rapidly, so there are no guarantees that the event will happen. It gets canceled if the weather is poor.
- Axalp can be accessed either by public transportation or by car. There are shuttle busses from Brienz Railway Station, or from a park-and-ride lot at the Brienz highway exit that will take you to the village of Axalp. From there a chair lift will bring you to Windegg.
- Dress in layers and be prepared for sunshine, rain, snow, and/or fog. Temperatures can range from summerlike to below freezing with snow.
- Hiking boots are absolutely essential. The terrain is very uneven with ankle-busting potholes from the land being used in the summer months for grazing livestock. Take your time on the way up; it is a high alpine environment and you’ll hike up to an elevation of 7,500 feet.
- Go early! A good rule of thumb is to arrive at the train station in Brienz or at the car park by 8 a.m. and check the hotline or the website for the day’s Go/No-Go decision from the Swiss Air Force. If the event is canceled for that day, there’s no need to purchase a ticket for that day. But, even with a “Go” decision for that day, the air force reserves the right to cancel the event at any time.
- There are three official viewing areas for attendees: Brau, Tschingel, and Ebenfluh KP (command post). There is really not a bad seat in the house. Tschingel and Ebenfluh KP are located on steep slopes, so everyone gets a relatively clear view of the flight demonstrations.
- At the Tschingel it sort of feels one is located at the center of the show. Ebenfluh KP is closer to the shooting targets, and gets one also closer to the helicopter demonstrations. And the Brau is a great area for catching the aircraft as they come up the valley.
- At each of the three viewing areas, the Swiss Air Force sells food, soft drinks, beer etc., for reasonable prices – by Swiss standards, anyway (this is an expensive country for those traveling with U.S. dollars; two cups of gas-station coffee and a candy bar set us back $11).
- After the 90-minute flight demonstration, everyone starts the descent back to Axalp village. Again, take your time, as the terrain can be steep and slippery, and with lots of people on trails it is not worth it to rush and end up falling, spraining an ankle, or worse.
- At Windegg, there is usually a very long queue to get on the chair lift back down to Axalp. Instead, consider walking down. It takes only about 30 minutes, and most likely will get you to Axalp faster than waiting in line for the chair lift. A bonus is that you get more time to take in the fantastic scenery.
- If you prefer not to hike up for the show on both days, a visit to nearby Meiringen Air Base is worth the trip. Meiringen is the departure point for both the VIP and materiel-hauling helicopter flights, and the F/A-18s are based there as well. There is a nice viewing terrace on top of the restaurant, which is open to the public and is free to access.
- Up top, the 90-minute flight demonstration is narrated via loudspeakers in German, French, and English.
- Lastly, here is the link for the 2018 live-fire demonstration at Axalp.
If you have questions regarding the live fire training at Axalp or about attending the event, don’t hesitate to post your question in the comments section or send an email to peter(at)airlinereporterDOTcom.