The annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting at Davos in Eastern Switzerland attracts many world leaders and important visitors to it and, as can be imagined, requires a high level of security – especially in these times of heightened alert states not only in Europe but around the world. In order to protect the skies above the conference, F/A-18C Hornets of the Swiss Air Force deployed to Flugplatzkommando 14 at Sion Airport to carry out air defence sorties above the conference.
Sion, located in the Valais region and surrounded by the dominating peaks of the Bernese Alps, has for many years been the home to both civil and military aviation, it being one of the small number of fast jet bases used by the Swiss Air Force to operate F/A-18 Hornets and F-5 Tiger IIs. However, with cutbacks in the Swiss defence budget, 2017 will see full control of Sion handed over to civilian personnel as the military withdraws. That said, the airspace protection mission above the skies of Davos for the 2017 edition of the WEF is one of the final times that the base will be used by the military.
With around 3,000 delegates attending the event including senior politicians (including 2017 seeing the first attendance by a Chinese President, Xi Jinping), business leaders and media there is obviously a serious security aspect that needs to be considered both on the ground and in the air. To meet this, over 4,500 personnel are involved from the hosting nation’s forces covering all aspects of protection.
For the duration of the WEF, restricted airspace that extends for 25 nautical miles in every direction from the venue is in place and it is the role of the Swiss Air Force – with some assistance from the Austrian Air Force due to the proximity of their border and airspace – to protect and enforce this restriction. Previous years have seen the protection force compromise of both F/A-18 and F-5 aircraft however, for 2017, it seems that only the prior were used whilst the based F-5s continued with repetition training sorties.
Operating from just before 7am until around 11pm, the Hornets rotating in pairs throughout the day to provide constant coverage above the conference. The pattern of aircraft movements remained broadly the same every day with three pairs forming the basis of missions, operating from a series of hangars on the southwestern area of the airfield. Once the first pair had launched, the second pair launched around 75 minutes later to relieve them. With the first pair returning back 30 minutes after being relieved, the third pair would launch after another 45 minutes to relieve the second pair. After refuelling the first pair would launch once more to take over from the third pair. This tempo saw each pairing in the air for just over 2 hours at a time with a quick turnaround required on the jets before they were sent out again. Throughout the week, individual aircraft were rotated around while spares located in other hangars allowed a spread of airframe hours and longer maintenance tasks to take place when needed.
In order to carry out the air protection mission, all F/A-18s were carrying live weapons during the flights, albeit with a slightly different load carried by each of the two aircraft in the pairs. Whilst both jets carried a pair of short range AIM-9X Sidewinders on the wingtips and a fuel tank on the centre line – with distinctive ‘STBY 121.50’ markings (the International Civil Emergency Frequency) – only one of the jets in each pair carried a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAMs whilst the second aircraft sacrificed one of these for an AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod.
Although not flying as part of the WEF airspace policing, the F-5E Tigers were still active throughout the day. Sion itself is home to Fliegerstaffel 19 – better known as the ‘Swans’ – who operate the type with reservist pilots. In line with this, the majority of airframes flying were wearing markings of the other F-5 squadrons in the Swiss Air Force having ‘borrowed’ the airframes for the task. Launching in pairs, the slender fighters were flying four sorties a day and often performed pairs landings or ‘touch and goes’ on return to the base. The airframes themselves are due for replacement after nearly 40 years of service; however it is, as yet, unknown what their replacement will be – following the failed public vote in 2014 to replace the jets with SAAB Gripens. Following a restart of the process in 2016, which should see further information on the replacement programme released during 2017, the Tiger is still operating in its twilight years with the force but with fewer airframes being seen. Whilst the intended retirement date of 2018 is likely to be postponed, any chance to catch these operational schemed aircraft must be taken.
In the week following the WEF missions, Sion held a farewell flypast on Wednesday 25th January consisting of 13 aircraft (nine F/A-18s and four F-5s) to commemorate the 65 years of military flying history at the base and the public handover of the airfield (although it should be noted that some military flying will still take place during the remainder of 2017). One of the most picturesque airbase locations in Europe, it will no doubt be missed by many military aviation photographers as it seeks to continue as a civil operations only airport
My COAP experience
Having never been to Sion before I decided to start looking around for an organised trip that led me to choosing the Centre of Aviation Photography (COAP). Run by well-known aviation photographer Rich Cooper, COAP (as it is better known) offers trips all over the world with a view of providing something more than just base visits or walks around the fence and is highly focused on the photography aspect.
I’ve been watching the COAP trips and, more specifically the results from the trips, for some time so decided to take the plunge and sign up for the Sion trip. The itinerary gave three and a half days of photography led by Rich and joined by the equally well-known Steve Comber, both of whom have visited the base numerous times and are well aware of all the vantage points. To say the trip was ‘full on’ would be an understatement with the days consisting 12 plus hours of shooting in temperatures as low as -12 Celsius and never above freezing – it certainly was hard work! With constant movement between locations and even the provision of ladders to help get above the troublesome fence, it was clear that both Rich and Steve were determined to help us get the best possible out of the trip. Of course, the focus of the trip was the WEF movements but consideration was also given to the civilian moves as can be seen by some of the shots provided below.
As with many things in life, cost is always a factor and often a key decision when booking anything whether it be a simple night away or an aviation photography trip such as this. It is fair to say that, had I decided to book the trip myself, I may well have been able to make the trip cheaper. However, in my opinion, the only true way of judging if the expenditure was worth it is in the results and I have to say that I came away with a set of images I am personally very happy with and think unlikely that I would have achieved if I had ‘gone solo’. The company of like minded people was also an added bonus and I’ve also walked away with some hints, tips and tricks around the photography aspect that I had never thought of myself before.
So, at the end of the day, I can honestly say that my first COAP experience is unlikely to be my last. If you are looking to go somewhere unusual, shoot air to air or even just get some up close access on a base, then take a look at what they have to offer. Some recent events (such as RAF Lakenheath and RAF Odiham) have demonstrated that there are trips available at lower price levels so there is no reason not to consider checking them out.