An unusual spectacle took place in the skies over the Bernese Oberland in mid-January. In association with the Lauberhorn ski races, a SWISS Airbus A320 flew two formation flights over the Alps together with the Patrouille Suisse Tigers.
“At 11:25 we join up with Patrouille Suisse above the Shrattenfluh.” Over the foothills of the Emmen Valley a rather special gathering of aviators is getting under way. With six F-5W Tigers in tow, our Airbus A320 takes up its designated position over Interlaken; the famous majestic mountains of the Bernese Oberland offer a spectacularly panoramic view. The cockpit crew members of HB-JLT are deep in concentration as they set their course over Wilderswil toward Mürren. The formation flight performance begins at exactly 11:30 with a 540° curve to the left. The SWISS Airbus A320 is accompanied by two Tigers, one on each wing, while the other four aircraft in the diamond formation fly close to the tail of the passenger aircraft. The two wing-men underscore the first full circle by releasing flares. Now the show is really under way.
Past Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau
The curve manoeuvre is completed over the ski race finishing area and the formation then flies in an easterly direction along the flank of the Mt. Männlichen. Down below lies the wintery landscape of Wengen, where thousands of spectators on the ground look up and wave. The unfavourable weather of the previous days resulted in the downhill event being postponed until Sunday. Thanks to a heavy fall of snow during the same period, the Bernese Oberland has a fresh winter wonderland look. The scenery could not be more perfect. We make a leisurely ascent, which is then followed by my own personal highlight. As we descend, we enter a steep curve to the right and pass over the Lauberhorn starting zone, with the north face of the Eiger as our backdrop.
The view from the ground is a picture of perfect symbiosis. The red-and-white Tigers fly with alongside us at a distance of 30 metres to our aircraft but only five metres apart from one another. The SWISS aircraft livery is an ideal match to that of the Patrouille Suisse, with the impressive mountains providing a perfect backdrop. Over Mürren we lower the landing gear to prepare the formation for a further fly-over in landing configuration. The two teams then split up and Patrouille Suisse performs its spectacular program of formation flying.
Smoke, attention, top of climb!
We are a flying at a speed of around 250 knots amid the impressive mountains. Doing so calls for both extreme precision and constant communication. The pilots coordinate their manoeuvres by radio, with ground-based colleagues providing additional support. Along with Patrouille Suisse commander Daniel Hösli, SWISS‘s own Captain Jürg Hartmann – who piloted the A330 at the Air14 air show in Payerne in August 2014 – supports the airborne team.
Three pilots are in the cockpit of the 320: The aircraft is piloted by the two captains, Martin Stotzer, chief flight instructor A320, and “Luc” Zeitner, A320 flight instructor and former pilot of the surveillance squadron. They are supported by safety pilot Michael “Junky” Junker.
Since the Airbus is leading the formation, it also initiates the manoeuvres, which Luc communicates to the Patrouille Suisse pilots with crisp, clear statements. This procedure is essential in terms of safety and overall operational harmony.
Preparation is half the battle
A flight of this nature poses a special challenge for the participating pilots. Considerable advance effort was required in order for the six F5-E Tiger aircraft of Patrouille Suisse to team up with the SWISS Airbus A320 for such a performance of aviation skill.
Preparations began a good three months before the actual flights took place. The flight programme was planned and finalized jointly and then submitted to the Federal Office for Civil Aviation for approval. Once the permit was received, the actual training began in earnest. Following a reconnoitering flight over the relevant area the Airbus crew began practicing the flight in the simulator in Zurich. In addition to the performance of the formation flight programme, consideration was also given to such eventualities as bad weather or an emergency. During this process the SWISS pilots were supported by Patrouille Suisse counterparts Simon “Billy” Billeter and Michael “Maestro” Meister. This allowed the pilots of the fighter jets to gain an impression how the formation flight looked from the perspective of a passenger aircraft and to then make any necessary adjustments to the programme.
Following an intensive phase of preparation and 30 minutes of spectacular aviation, a final joint flight at exactly 12:00 noon completed the flight programme. The 2015 Lauberhorn Races were then officially opened, at which point it was up to the skiers to provide further spectacular action.