Wiederhohlungskurs FlSt8 & FlSt11Photographer: Frank Grealish
24th - 26th January 2013Location:
Meiringen (LSMM), Switzerland
In Late January 2013 Fliegerstaffel 8 flying with the F-5E/F Tiger II, and Fliegerstaffel 11 flying with the F -18C/D Hornet, held their annual WK - Wiederholungskurs (Refresher Course) at Meiringen air base in Central Switzerland.
As well as running the WK, this year it was the turn of Meiringen based fighters to provide top cover for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting that was held at the resort Davos-Klosters from the 23rd to 27th January.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) is an international organization that brings together some 2,500 business leaders, political leaders, intellectuals and journalists to discuss some of the most urgent issues facing the world, including health and the environment.
As a result of this concentration of VIP's in one location, security is a top priority and the Swiss Air Force assigned both F-5's and F-18's to the protection mission, so during the days that the WEF is in session not only do you have normal refresher flights but also Combat Air Patrol (CAP) flights flown with live weapons.
Meiringen is a photographer's paradise, there are little or no fences to obstruct your view, you get very close to the runway and taxiways, there are lots of different vantage points, including a public viewing area on top of the base canteen. The base canteen also comes in handy for hot drinks after spending a few hours standing in -12C temperatures, certainly helps one get thawed out!
One thing to note about Meiringen is the sun, or lack thereof, during the winter months. Due to the fact the sun is low in the sky and the fact the air base is nestled close to Tschingel Mountain (2,326m / 7631ft), the sun never reaches the air base, it touches the runway in spots at times but that's it, you really have to pick your vantage points to get the aircraft in sunshine.
Anyway, back to the WK / WEF...
Most personnel in the Swiss Air Force, with the exception of the F-18 pilots who are full time, are part time militia and as a result refresher courses are organised to keep those pilots and personnel current.
The personnel are kept on a war footing for the duration of the WK and whilst the tempo of operations may not be as hectic as during a war, there are aircraft launching or recovering approximately every 30 minutes.
It is fairly easy to distinguish between WEF and WK operations; WEF aircraft fly with live missiles (F-5 - 2 x AIM-9P; F-18 - 2 x AIM-9X and 2 x AIM-120) while WK aircraft fly with acquisition rounds and ACMI pods. Some F-5's flew as aggressor aircraft, and these aircraft were distinguished by their dayglo orange external fuel tanks.
In the time that I was at Meiringen, flying started at 8am every day, the F-5's were flying daylight only missions, while the F-18's flew well into the night.
As mentioned earlier there are numerous vantage points around the base so the goal was to get to as many of these as possible in order to capture the flying action from every conceivable angle.
The weather on Thursday and Friday was cloudy while Saturday had clear blue skies. Unfortunately on Saturday morning, even though there were clear skies, drifting fog on the valley floor covered the runway to varying degrees. Depending on your location this made for good or bad photos. A few photographers were waiting for the QRA shelters to open at 8am and launch a pair of Hornets, unfortunately the fog put paid to any ideas of getting shots of the aircraft in the shelters.
Another downside to the -12C temperatures was the fact that the F-18's didn't need to use afterburner as the air was so dense and they had enough thrust in dry power. While the occasional F-18 launch used afterburner, the F-5's used them for every launch so this at least added a bit of colour, and a bit of much needed heat, to the day.
The F-5's usually, but not always, launched as a pair, while the F-18's launched individually. While a scanner would come in handy to give advance notice of a launch or recovery, especially when trying to determine which runway was in use (the runway direction sometimes changed from launch to launch), it wasn't necessary to have one due to the alarm bells for the road barriers making a racket and the flashing orange light on top of the tower notifying the entire air base of an impending movement giving you time to get into position.
The runway at Meiringen is crossed in two places by public roads, hence the road barriers. As well as that, the long taxiway leading to the aircraft storage caverns from the runway doubles as a public road when the air base is not in use.
In fact, to get to and from the caverns aircraft have to cross another public road so you can stand about 5 metres from taxying aircraft with nothing between you and them, no need for steps or anything like that, just you and your camera.
So to sum it all up, Meiringen, in my opinion, is one of the best bases in Europe for photography, especially when a WK is being held. As I already explained it can be dark in January but if you move around you can get some cracking results. There are years when a WK is held in March and the lighting reaches more of the base, especially the runway and the taxiways so if you can make it for one of those exercises you won't be disappointed.