A Swiss Photoshoot Adventure: Travelling with COAP to visit a preserved Mirage II, Zurich Airport & the Swiss AF, January 2023

Report by Paul Bercik, with extras from Mark Jones

Monday, 16th January 2023...

The adventure starts, in a kind of semi-autopilot at 0345hrs (minicab p/up at 0440grs) but bubbles of excitement were already simmering as I contemplated the trip ahead. I was flying with Swiss International Airlines on an A220-300 (A220), both of which were a first for me, then undertaking two airside tours (day and night) of Zurich Airport, photographing a retired Mirage III, right next door to the Pilatus Site at Stans and the ‘pieced e resistance’, those F/A-18C Hornets of the Swiss AF flying CAP missions from Meiringen AFB, over Davos for the 2023 World Economic Forum Conference (WEF23).

Push back was half an hour later than expected from Manchester Airport. My bubbles of excitement were now definitely on the boil. On boarding the A220, my autopilot disengaged, to relish the taxiing, the take-off roll and at V1/V2, to feel the aircraft rotating and going into, what felt to be a relatively steeper climb than I was expecting – a bit like an afterburner take-off but obviously not so pronounced! Great fun, reaching our cruising altitude quickly. The flight was a smooth one, the cabin crew being efficient, in true Swiss style, but equally attentive with a welcoming friendly smile. I’d fly Swiss again and especially on this aircraft; the only drawback being the seat pitch but I have experienced worse on other similar category aircraft, I know it makes sense for the airline but not for passengers.

The Swiss A220 cabin

I was impressed by the light airy feel to the cabin, significantly facilitated by the larger windows, than you wouldn’t get on comparable aircraft (e.g. A320/A321/B737). This made the views much more scenic/enjoyable, especially when approaching Zurich with the Alps in the background. The cockpit crew did wonders as somehow, perhaps helped by a good tailwind as our arrival time was very close to the original scheduled time; the decent into Zürich Flughaven was done delicately as to be almost imperceptible even with the twists and turns as we lined up on the ILS glidepath for final approach. The landing itself was pure silk itself suggesting a very deft pair of hands on the controls!

Baggage reclaim was quick and I proceeded to meet the three other travelling 'International Musketeers' at the Helvetia Café in Arrival 2 Terminal. Mike came over from Vancouver, Canada; Mark from Nuneaton, Warwickshire; Rich, Aldershot, Hampshire (The Guv/Head Honcho aka the leader of this COAP exotic adventure) and myself from Manchester.

Rich had a car already sorted, so off we trundled out to pick up our Volkswagen Touran, bundled our cases and camera bags into the back and drove off to Stans for the Mirage III shoot, our 1st photoshoot finishing at around 7.00pm. The Mirage was shot in a variety of positions, all marvellously co-ordinated by Rich, ensuring that all of our requests for different aircraft positions, especially when being towed out of its hanger, were met. Photoshoots included dynamic action sequences with an ex-Mirage III fighter pilot doing requested poses. He climbed in, out and sat in the cockpit in his Swiss AF flying gear and helmet – wunderbar and ruddy marvellous too!

The photo highlights included the Mirage parked on a taxiway with a backdrop of the Swiss Alps (and impossible to see anywhere else)… a Mirage under tow, crossing a main road used by everyday civilian traffic, as it was being taken back from the runway to its hardened shelter.

The stunning Mirage IIIRS during the COAP shoot on Monday 16th January, 2023

The Pilatus factory also located at Stans has its PC-21s, PC-12s and PC-24s crossing the road when doing test and pre-check/pre-delivery flights on aircraft bought by its customers – now I have seen everything!

A tasty evening meal was at the nearby Nidair Restaurant, once a haunt of Swiss AF fighter pilots and now popular with Pilatus staff. Afterwards we returned to our first Base Camp for a single night for a well-earned good night’s sleep before the Zurich Airport tours the next day.

Tuesday, 17th January 2023...

Prior to the bus tours later in the day, we had time to take a minor diversion on the way to Zurich Airport by way of visiting the home of the Swiss aerobatic team, Patrouille Suisse, at Emmen AB. Sadly, none of the aerobatic team’s Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs were on view.  We did have time for a quick shot of our own team though haha…!

The aerobatic team were formed in 1964 initially with 4 Hawker Hunter Mk.58s then moved to a 6-ship in 1970 before finishing in 1994 when the faster and more manoeuvrable Northrop F-5E Tiger II replaced the venerable Hunter. The Hunter era is remembered by what I call an ‘aircraft on a stick’ adjacent to the base entrance.

It was time to move onto the main objective for the day (and night!) - tours of the Zurich Airport ramps holding WEF23 arrivals. First, we had a short visit to the airport itself going onto the viewing terrace, affording us as great view of all the aircraft that were departing or arriving on all 3 of the runways. These were mostly Swiss airliners but there was a good range of other airlines, including an Air Baltic A220 and an Uzbekistan B767-300 taxiing out.  

From the terrace, we checked in for our pre-booked day and night tours - 2 photoshoot sessions airside with WEF23-related aircraft as the focal point of attention. One in the freezing afternoon (1-3 pm), and an even more freezing evening night photoshoot (7-9pm). Both tours consisted of an airport bus with 40+ other mad individuals taking us to different sections of the airside ramps, then alighting, taking pictures of differing parked aircraft from all angles (ensuring we kept behind the red lines else the head minder would blow his whistle!)

On the various ramps we visited there were a whole host of top end business jets - very smart looking Gulfstream G650s, Falcons 7Xs, A32’s and B737-800 VIP military variants, all used to transport respective Government dignitaries to the WEF23 in Davos – I wouldn’t mind a one-off experience of luxury travel myself one day!

One of my favourites was a beautifully presented B737-800 of the Columbian AF. The evening tour was even better (though much colder!) with night shots of the same afternoon tour aircraft added to which there were 3 highly desirable entrants: taxiing in a very attractive USAF VIP B737-700 (C-40B Clipper) in blue and white, a Polish AF VIP B737-800 in red and white, whose simple but attractive liveries glistened against the runway lighting as they approached us, turned right, heading to the respective parking spots and an already parked Republic of South Korea AF B747-8I This  looked simply majestic as it sat on the apron, with cockpit area lit up – I took quite a few shots of that rare jumbo!

One of the star participants at the WEF Tour of Zurich Airport was this gorgeous Boeing 737-700/C-40 of the Fuerza Aérea Colombiana's Escuadrón de Transporte 811 at Bogotà. Taken airside at Zurich Airport, on Tuesday 17th January, during the COAP EW to Switzerland.

Wednesday 1 & Thursday  January 2023...

We then drove to our next destination Fribourg, which was to be our next base of operation ahead of the F/A-18C/D Hornet action at Meiringen AB. The hotel shower was great but room a bit small. As we had to leave at 0630hrs for the 1.5-hour trip to Meiringen we skipped hotel breakfast and opted for a roadside garage deli to carry us through the morning – the pastries were warm being freshly made on site and the hot coffee welcome on a cold start!

The base had a restaurant, with toilet facilities, a roof top viewing area and most essentially it was warm! So, for all air base personnel and other folk, such as visiting photographers, meals, drinks etc were hearty, good tasting with decent sized portions, accompanied by a Swiss beer, of course. It was all at subsidised rates, so here at least Switzerland was definitely on the cheap(er) side!  

On the way to Meiringen, we passed some beautiful, very picturesque scenery, travelling from the flat area into the valleys at the foot of the Alps; with the mountains reaching, soaring high into sky, lined with trees and or barren rock and mountain tops and their upper reaches covered with a snow. A truly wonderful sight to behold.

So, we arrive at Meiringen to find that the base is integrated as part of a village community with all the rural trappings of fields, houses, barns and animals such as horses. Unlike any other European/USA operational AF bases, it has no high fences. The the main runway 10/28 is in plain sight, as are the main taxi ways, and the main entrance road to the base crosses the taxiway and runways! Prior to the Hornets’ landings or take offs, an orange light flashes on the control tower, a warning siren sounds very briefly and railway-type crossing comes down to stop the road traffic in the middle area of the runway. Well, how incredible is that? Victor Meldrew would have said: “I just don’t believe it”!

Imagine the scene... TAKE 1: TAKE OFF... Getting up close and personal to the runway, looking over the low fence watching a pair of F/A–18C live-armed (2x AIM-9X Sidewinders & 2x AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles) Hornets taxing up and preparing to go on CAP over Davos. They turn and come towards you lights on, then turn again to line up for take-off... Switching on full power, lighting up the afterburners, and you hear two jet engines roar at full throttle, before brake release. The Hornet’s nose lifts a tad as it speeds/accelerates down the runway, rotates, and pulls into a steep climb against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, afterburners still on, to avoid the mountains either side and ahead, before soaring into the blue sky. Truly magnificent and would be difficult to replicate anywhere else. Now imagine the same scene at night with glow of the afterburners full-on as they perform the same take-off manoeuvre – absolutely breath taking!

Imagine the scene... TAKE 2: LANDING... The Hornets operated in pairs to perform continuous CAP over Davos. Another pair returns, breaking formation for the landing phase, each doing a sharp turn, jink and dive onto final approach against the mountain backdrop to line up on the centreline and touch down on the runway. They landed with world-renowned Swiss precision, even when there were layers of afternoon fog on the ground, like a long carpet that stretched over a large part of the runway, hampering the pilot’s view for landing reference points –spectacular. We saw at least 10 sets of take-offs and landing each day as we figured take-offs were hourly on the 40-minute mark and landings 10 minutes past the hour, generally speaking

The weather was cold, very cold. Especially at Meiringen, always a minus figure anywhere from -7 to -14C. Wednesday started dull and overcast but by the early afternoon it had become a whiteout blizzard, presenting very challenging photographing conditions! Let alone flying! Indeed, the base closed late afternoon and the returning Hornets diverted to Payerne AB. It was even colder on Thursday but at least it was blue skies and Wednesday’s snow lay deep, crisp and even. The need to be correctly dressed for the weather was never more important - I had 3 layers over my shirt, gilet, track top, coat, walking boots and a Siberian-type hat and still felt the biting cold!

However, as Rich drove us from one viewing point to another around the airfield perimeter to get the best photos we could during gaps in the take offs and landings we would return to the warmth of the VW Touran hire car to unfreeze and review pictures taken. Further, strategic timely retreats back to the warm restaurant and toilets (everything is close by) to thaw out with some excellent Swiss coffee, or have a longer break when going for lunch, was much appreciated by all.

Post shoots we had chance to relax and re-live the excitement of the day in local, hand-picked restaurants – on Wednesday, a bistro-type meal at the Café des Arcades and on Thursday we had an evening gastro-pub type meal at Freiburger Biermanufaktur AGi.e., a beer garden, to sample a variety of local Swiss brews that were made in the same establishment.

Friday, 20th January 2023...

The final day had arrived – the week had flown by! The night before, we decided to have a lie in, checking out of the hotel at 0900hrs for a final visit to Meiringen to shoot some final take-off and landings. From our Hornet pics, we counted that we had seen 9 different single-seat F/A-18Cs from the 30-strong Swiss Air Force fleet plus one two-seater F/A-18D from the fleet of 8 aircraft that had been used to maintain a pair of Hornets 24/7 on CAP over Davos.

Ending our short but sweet final visit to Meiringen AB we aimed to drive back directly to Zurich Airport through the adjacent mountains (there were many endless tunnels on our drives) to make sure that we were all in good time to catch our respective flights home. However, things did not go to plan - we hit a traffic jam on the steep mountain road up. We had to do a 3 point turn on a mountain road to return down in the direction that we had come and choose a different route. The new route was back via Berne, that added 1 hour to the 2.5 hours allocated that it would have taken us to get back to Zurich Airport. Consequently, we lost the very special aviation-themed luncheon booking that Rich had organised as a leisurely goodbye to Zurich and Switzerland – perhaps next time?


Rich: Thank you for all the organising, researching and hard work that you did to make this a great and memorable trip from many viewpoints; sorting the photoshoot locations, hotels, eating venues {with reasonable prices} where we could get together socially to relax {friendly banter, and not all about just photography}, mentoring me on taking better photos and of course all that fantastic scenery!

Mike & Mark: It was a pleasure to have met you both and thank you for your great company. Hope that the above reflects some of your thoughts too!!

A marvellous, thoroughly enjoyable and memorable trip. Now I need to pplan the next COAP Exotic Adventure!

Paul’s opinion: If you get the chance, sign up with COAP, trust in Rich and do this Swiss Photographic Adventure or any other adventure that he organises. It is seriously worth it – he who dares wins!