2014 is a bumper year for the Swiss Air Force, with the air arm celebrating its 100th anniversary while its national display teams, the Patrouille Suisse and PC-7 Team, are enjoying their 50th and 25th anniversaries respectively. To celebrate these landmarks, and to say thank you to the people of Switzerland, the Swiss Air Force hosted the huge Air 14 airshow at Payerne Air Base. Dean West travelled to Switzerland to join the party.
It’s hard to convey the scale of the event. It seems as though Air 14 was never going to be treated by the organisers as just another airshow, they always wanted to be bigger than that – they wanted to be the biggest aviation event in Europe. To put some context behind it, the first adverts for the show that I saw appeared way back at RIAT 2012, with promotional posters appearing around the static display Swiss Air Force Super Puma, and their advertising campaigns continued to grow from there on in, with promotional activity varying from Air 14 posters on Swiss buses and trains to an official song celebrating 100 years of the Swiss Air Force. As if this wasn’t enough of a sign to show how big this show was going to be, the organisers then teamed up with one of the main sponsors, Renault, to create a limited edition Air 14 model of their popular Megane hatchback!
Air 14 can only be described as an aviation extravaganza. Payerne was the venue for two back to back airshows, held over 30–31 August and 6–7 September, with each of the show days day boasting a seven hour flying display and a static display of the highest quality. As if this wasn’t enough airshow action the showground was open to the general public during the week between the two shows, which obviously attracted the enthusiasts to view the arrivals, departures, rehearsals and daily flying display but also encouraged schools to bring pupils along to educate and inspire on all things aviation related in Switzerland.
The four show days all had a different theme, with the first weekend demonstrating ‘The Sky Outwatch’ and ‘Above the Battlefields’ themes, leading to each of the days featuring a slightly different flying display. Initially the participation list was somewhat confusing, with many items being listed for only one day, but in the end this kept the event exciting as there was always something new and different to look forward to.
Regardless of the theme or day, the main focus of the flying display was still on the Swiss Air Force. One of the highlights for many was the 45 minute tribute to 100 years of Swiss military aviation which comprised of a seamless mixture of displays, flypasts and formations. The segment opened with three PC-6 Turbo Porters dropping parachutists while either a Fokker D.VII or Bleriot XI, depending on the day, bimbled around the skies of Payerne, all while the Swiss national anthem rung around the showground – how very patriotic. Following the sedate start the noise picked up as an F/A-18C Hornet, decorated in World War Two-era Swiss Air Force national markings, paired up with either a Morane C-3801 or P-51D Mustang, once again depending on the show day, for a set of legacy passes. The pairings were incredibly impressive with a great contrast in the noise of the warbird against the Hornet, yet the similar national markings pulled the aircraft together – a magnificent contradiction.
The next element was a personal highlight, with a Vampire leading a box four formation of Hunter, F-5F and Mirage III appearing from crowd right for a series of formation flypasts, with the F-5F surprisingly getting the most attention of the formation as it was the only type of the four that didn’t perform a solo display at any point during the nine days. As soon as the jets had cleared the out of the overhead the next formation was running in, this time comprising of a privately owned Bucker Jungmann, Pilatus P-2 and P-3, which completed a set of formation flypasts before giving way to a three-ship of contemporary Pilatus made Swiss Air Force machines. The formation saw three generations of Pilatus trainers with a PC-7 and PC-21 sitting on each wing of a PC-9; a pleasure to see considering that, Team PC-7 aside, any Swiss Air Force Pilatus aircraft are incredibly rare to see over the skies of Europe.
It wasn’t long before the retro-marked Hornet was back, this time with a Super Puma for what was to be a massively impressive bit of close formation flying, with the Hornet holding a slow high-alpha in a series of figure-eights over the airfield before a crowd-facing break complete with both the Hornet and Super Puma popping flares! A suitable climax to an engaging, and impressively fluid, 45 minutes of Swiss celebrations.
But that wasn’t all that we saw from the Swiss Air Force. Their flagship solo demos, in the shape of the F/A-18C and Super Puma, also displayed on each of the weekend show days as well as the majority of the smaller midweek flying displays. It’s fair to say that Julien ‘Teddy’ Meister absolutely flew the socks off the Hornet throughout the whole of Air 14, the highlight of the demo being a 1 ½ pirouette manoeuvre which provided the illusion of the jet almost pivoting around a stationary nose, which certainly put the display up there as one of the most impressive aerial demonstrations on the European circuit. The Super Puma was also very active, providing a well-balanced display that ensured everyone along Payerne’s long crowdline got a good view of the helicopter, rather than just sticking to crowd centre as some rotary wing displays tend to do.
Unsurprisingly the Patrouille Suisse, flying their beautiful F-5E Tigers, and PC-7 Team were crowd favourites. The jet team always provide an aesthetically pleasing display, particularly the shadow pass and their final flare-tastic break, while the PC-7s pack a significantly bigger punch now that they have a smoke system to complement what is a very tight and concise routine. The two Swiss teams took to the sky together for a series of flypasts and even replicated the Patrouille Suisse’s famous tunnel manoeuvre, instead with the PC-7 Team forming the tunnel and the six F-5s flying through the middle!
Other modern Swiss military appearances during the week included an air policing demonstration with two Hornets intercepting a King Air, two Super Pumas showing off their underslung load capabilities, a PC-9 target tug with its C-3605 predecessor plus a very nippy solo display from a PC-21. Many were hoping for mass Swiss Air Force formations during the show, which remained elusive until the final show day when a surprise formation of 24 F-5s, a mix of grey operational aircraft and the Patrouille Suisse mounts, appeared over the airfield in a formation spelling out ‘100’ – an incredible sight!
Wrapping up the Swiss military involvement, one of the most striking sights from the show was a Swiss A330 being met by the Patrouille Suisse, performing a handful of flypasts to show the strong relationship between the airline and the air force, as well as give one of the event’s main sponsors great exposure. The formations continued as the Patrouille Suisse met up with a civilian Hunter Mk58 in a series of passes that put the past and present mounts of the Patrouille Suisse side by side and PC-7 Team too got in on the action by leading the Breitling Super Constellation and the Super Puma in to each of their display routines, of which the former amounted to a fair anti-climax of just two straight and level passes by the 1950s airliner. However, it was still a pleasure to see the Connie in the air and no surprise given that Breitling were a lead sponsor of Air 14.
Sticking with Breitling, both the Wingwalkers and the Jet Team were at Payerne for the whole nine days while a unique airshow experience was expected in the way of Jetman. For those not familiar with Jetman, he is more commonly known Yves Rossy, the Swiss pilot who developed the world’s first jet powered wing which he straps on and takes to the air! Having seen videos of Jetman swooping low over the Swiss Alps and flying in formation with the likes of the Breitling Jet Team, Spitfires and a B-17 I’d expected to see a similar wonder, however all we were treated to was a small Jetman shaped dot manoeuvring high over the skies of Payerne.
Other sponsor supported types were present at the show, namely Red Bull and the Swiss watch manufacturer Oris, with a great variety of types. The Flying Bulls’ Bo-105 solo display was a highlight that went under the radar for many, with Rainer Wilke delivering a superb jaw-dropping display full of rolls, loops, stall turns and backflips, in a routine that a helicopter really looks like it shouldn’t be able to pull off! Red Bull were also represented on the warbird front with a trio of F4U-4 Corsair, B-25J Mitchell and P-38L Lightning, all delivering displays across the course of the nine days. The Swiss watch manufacturer Oris aren’t as well known as Breitling but they too sponsor various aviation assets including the P-3 Flyers, with their mount being the 1950’s designed Swiss basic trainer, as well as a handful of ex-Swiss Air Force Hunters which took to the air for an airfield attack in the only gloom of the week on the first Sunday.
Seeing as though Air 14 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Patrouille Suisse and the 25th anniversary of PC-7 Team it is no surprise that no less than nine other military display teams appeared at Payerne over the two weekends. In the build up to the show some thought the event would be too team heavy, however this certainly didn’t feel the case and the teams were spread out through the display, so as not to display back-to-back, as well as throughout the week, with some teams only flying on one day.
The biggest crowd pleasers were the Frecce Tricolori and the Red Arrows, the passionate crowd applauding the majority of manoeuvres during both displays. Both are considered amongst the most entertaining and spectacular teams in the world despite having incredibly different displays – the Arrows focussing on precision formation and their Italian counterparts centring their display on some breath-taking moments, such as the solo lomcevaks and ‘Crazy Flight’ as well as the quite frankly nuts nine-aircraft bomb crossover! Despite all of their entertaining antics it’s still the Frecce’s final flag pass to the thundering tones of Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma that always stands out as one of the most emotive airshow moments – enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Other European airshow regulars the Patrouille de France, Patrulla Aguila and the Royal Jordanian Falcons were also present at Air 14 to wish their Swiss counterparts happy anniversaries.
The Croatian Wings of Storm and the Midnight Hawks from Finland were a joy to see for the enthusiasts. Flying six incredibly smart PC-9Ms, the Croatian team, known as Krila Oluja in their native language, seem to be one of the most overlooked displays on the circuit as they don’t often stray too far from Croatia during the airshow season, so their appearance at Air 14 was incredibly welcome. As one of Europe’s newer display team it’s no surprise that much of the Wings of Storm’s display takes inspiration from elsewhere, but this stimulus has led to a routine full of imaginative and outside of the box manoeuvres, such as their three aircraft tailslide and triple mirror pass.
Finnish Air Force Hawks are another type that aren’t often seen away from their home country, indeed their Air 14 display was their only appearance of the year outside of Finland, so the chance to see the relatively operational looking Hawks will no doubt have pleased the enthusiasts. Perhaps their appearance would have been less interesting to the general public as the part-time team lacked any significant punch with the four Hawks remaining fairly distant from the crowdline as well as each other during some formation passes, although the weather didn’t do them any favours as they found themselves displaying their grey aircraft against the dullest, gloomiest sky.
For a modern military fan the show was definitely all killer no filler. The numbers of fast jet types are fast dwindling and so the number of fast jet displays at shows have followed suit, but Air 14 certainly seemed to buck that trend with no less than nine different foreign fast jets appearing in the flying display. With the cancellation of the Russian Knights before the show as a result of the Ukraine crisis, it was left to the Polish Air Force to scratch the Eastern Bloc itch, providing both the MiG-29 Fulcrum solo display and their Su-22 Fitter role demonstration for the first show weekend, which contrasted nicely with the Armee de l’Air Rafale and Royal Air Force Typhoon displaying during the second show weekend as part of the ‘Heavy Metal and Evolution’ theme. The Rafale, nicknamed the Thunder Tiger due to its striking special scheme it acquired for the NATO Tiger Meet, set the bar ridiculously high during its Friday afternoon practice, a standard which, despite some powerful, tight displays, was never met. For me, the French Air Force Rafale solo is the European fast jet king.
The RAF Typhoon too deserves a shout and the fluff-tastic routine we were treated to on the Sunday was probably the single most impressive RAF Typhoon display I’ve seen, keeping the aircraft tight within the boundaries of the airfield which also kept the sound of the two EJ200 turbojets reverberating over the skies of Payerne regardless of the direction in which the aircraft was heading – it certainly retained the crowd’s attention and deservedly collected an appreciative round of applause on completion of the day. From their base at Istres, in the south of France, came the pair of Mirage 2000Ns forming the hugely popular Ramex Delta display, with the aircraft performing their dynamic airfield attack demonstration, while the Swedish Air Force provided a ‘let’s have a look at what you could have won’ JAS39 Gripen solo display, from F17 Wing based at Ronneby.
Three F-16 displays appeared at Air 14 over the two show weekends, with the Belgian F-16 flying during the first weekend and the F-16 of the Royal Netherlands Air Force picking up the baton the following week. The Dutch demo seems to have risen to the improved standard set by the Belgian Air Component solo over the last couple of years with what seemed to be a longer display that importantly retained the attention of the audience and provided a great balance of keeping the fourth-generation aircraft tight to the crowdline for the closer passes and the max rate turns but straying a little further afield for the more vigorous, energetic parts of the display, including a photogenic flare release. A slight disappointment came in the shape of the Hellenic Air Force F-16 demo team the demo displaying too far from the crowd to keep interest for the whole display. Nevertheless it was nice to see a slightly different F-16, with the Zeus demo team aircraft a Block 52 type with external CFTs and sporting brand new markings on the spine and fin.
Rotary fans were not to be disappointed at the show with a tasty mix of four different military helicopter displays. It was a treat to see a rare flying appearance from a French Army EC 665 Tigre on the Saturday of the first weekend, which contrasted nicely with the beastly Mi-35 Hind of the Czech Air Force the following day, the latter being particularly welcome as the Czechs are set to retire the type in 2018. Another rare anti-tank helicopter display came from an Italian Army A-129 Mangusta, a helicopter that isn’t often seen at public events – one of its last European performances was at Payerne ten years ago for Air 04 – although the display didn’t really pack any significant punch, with the Mangusta remaining pretty much around crowd centre and rather distant for the duration. The less potent looking Belgian Air Component A109 provided a spirited routine, complete with flares, wrapping up the flying helicopter assets.
Two further aerial displays are worth a mention – the Mirage III and the Airbus A380. The Dassault warbird, privately owned by Espace Passion Foundation at Payerne, was no doubt a highlight for many enthusiasts given that the aircraft is the only flying Mirage III in Europe and so it was disappointing to see that the aircraft only providing its solo display twice during the nine days, one of those being on the Wednesday too. The display itself was a further anti-climax with the routine consisting of only four passes with the majority of the routine being fairly far away from the crowd as the delta wing aircraft seems to have the turning circle of a small cruise liner. That said it was still great to see the Mirage III operating from the base, whether it be for a passenger flight or to take part in the flypasts. In contrast a surprise highlight was the Airbus A380, which put on a full aerobatic, well, for an airliner anyway, routine. Having never seen the A380 demo I’d have expected a few passes and a touch and go, so I was massively impressed to see the aircraft perform steep climb outs, max rate turns and a nose-over bunt.
Payerne is fairly limited for hardstanding on the public side of airfield, resulting in a static display that wasn’t huge but was still crammed with quality items. Almost every type in the contemporary Swiss Air Force inventory was presented in a 100th anniversary area, which was a real treat considering the Swiss Air Force usually only contribute the Patrouille Suisse, Hornet and Super Puma to shows around Europe – the stand out highlights being a grey operational F-5E and their sole Twin Otter. The rest of the static display was predominantly modern military with a pair of Canadian CF-18A Hornets seemingly the most exotic and furthest travelled participants, although in truth the duo had only made the relatively shorter hop across from their air policing duties in Romania, while the Austrian EF2000 that was parked alongside it was another uncommon fast jet. Other exotica in the static display included a pair of diddy Portugese Air Force Alpha Jets, a French Air Force Mirage 2000C, an Italian Army NH-90 and a Croatian Mi-8 Hip.
There were 50 hours of flying activity over the nine days, and considering the high quality of the participants, this meant that the show offered superb value for money with a two day ticket equivalent to just £26 when bought in advance. It’s actually hard to fault many things from the show – no surprise considering a team of 150 people worked on organising Air 14 over the past three years – the weekday access to the airfield was a great touch, for example. The only hassle was the car parks being a good mile walk from the base, admittedly the fact that I was on base for eight days may have made me more sick of the walk than the majority of the Air 14 punters, as well as the issues with getting vehicles out of the car park on the first Saturday, although that was quickly rectified and no further problems were experienced for the duration of the event.
Over 400,000 people made their way to Payerne over the nine show days to enjoy over 50 hours of display flying and I’m sure just as many will be back in ten years’ time should the Swiss Air Force wish to hold Air 24. If indeed there is another event of only half the scale of this show then I would definitely recommend going. Air 14, you were superb.