Alpine fighters over the North Sea


This year’s Frisian Flag saw Swiss F/A-18C Hornets making their debut. Kees van der Mark and Jan Jelle Dam spoke to the detachment commander to learn more about the Swiss participation

Two Swiss Hornets taxi to the runway at Leeuwarden. During the exercise the Swiss jets operated from the northern part of the Frisian base, together with French Mirage 2000Ds and Volkel-based KLu F-16s.
All images Kees van der Mark

Swiss Hornets flew from Leeuwarden Air Base previously on several occasions, for instance during air shows or in support of the EMBOW exercises in Germany, in 2015 and 2017. A couple of Hornets even participated in Frisian Flag’s predecessor DIATIT as early as 1998, a year after the type’s introduction into service with the Schweizer Luftwaffe (Swiss Air Force). But in the 20 years that Frisian Flag exists in its current form, this was the first time Swiss fighters joined the multinational live-flying exercise. As one of the nations involved in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, Switzerland qualifies for participation in Frisian Flag, just like PfP nations Finland and Sweden took part in previous editions.

This year’s Frisian Flag was held from April 1-12. Among the aircraft coming to Leeuwarden for the exercise were many regulars, including French Mirage 2000Ds, German Eurofighters, Polish F-16s and of course lots of F-16s of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (KLu, Royal Netherlands Air Force). First-time participants along with the Swiss Hornets were Duluth-based F-16CMs of the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing (see Bulldogs, June, p18-19).

Swiss detachment

The Swiss detachment at Leeuwarden was led by F/A-18 pilot Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Marc ‘Studi’ Studer. Being the former commander of Meiringen-based Fliegerstaffel (Air Squadron) 11 in the rank of Major, Studer got promoted to commanding offcer of Fliegergeschwader (Air Wing) 13, also at Meiringen, on January 1, 2019. Lieutenant Colonel Studer graduated from the Professional Pilot School in 2003. He was among the last pilots trained on the BAE Systems Hawk Mk66 before the type’s retirement. Studer went on to fly the F-5 Tiger for a couple of years. ‘Studi’ told AIR International that his career is atypical for a Swiss pilot: “I would normally have converted to the Hornet after flying the F-5 for a few years, but got permission to temporarily reduce my work in the air force to 40% as of 2005, allowing me to become a medical doctor in the meantime. During my six years at the University of Zürich, I continued flying the F-5 as a part-time professional pilot within the militia squadrons 1, 16 and 6. After gaining my doctorate in 2011, I became a full-time operational F/A-18 pilot after all the next year.” To date, Studer flew ten different aircraft types and accumulated close to 900 flying hours in the F/A-18 and another 900 in the F-5. Like all Swiss professional military pilots, he is also fully qualified as a flying instructor on the Pilatus PC-7 and holds a frozen Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL).

Lieutenant Colonel Marc Studer continued: “Our detachment here at Leeuwarden comprises 52 personnel, including 16 pilots. The remainder are maintenance and security personnel and intelligence offcers. We also have two tactical fighter controllers as observers in the Dutch and German Control and Reporting Centres [CRCs] Bandbox and Loneship. The 16 pilots include our Chief Operations and me as a DetCo, who fly a limited number of missions in the exercise.

As the last built Swiss jet of a series, F/A-18C J-5026 traditionally received a zap on the left-hand side of the forward fuselage. In this case it is a cartoon of an alien in a UFO. This was the only Hornet present at Leeuwarden carrying an ASQ-228 ATFLIR pod, which was not used during the exercise.

“We need 12 pilots daily to operate our four aircraft in each wave: four pilots fly in the morning, four more in the afternoon and another four prepare the morning mission of the following day.”

We need 12 pilots daily to operate our four aircraft in each wave: four pilots fly in the morning, four more in the afternoon and another four prepare the morning mission of the following day.”

Steep learning curve

Although Meiringen Air Base and its Fliegerstaffel 11 were in the lead – providing the majority of the personnel and aircraft during this deployment – the pilots came from all three Hornet squadrons. “We chose to bring pilots from Fliegerstaffel 17 and 18 at Payerne as well to get the best out of the exercise for all of us, not just for one squadron. We also brought a mix of experienced and younger pilots. Of the 16 pilots over here, six are division leaders – who can lead formations of four aircraft or more – three are wingmen and the rest are section leaders, who can lead a two-ship,” according to Lieutenant Colonel Studer, who continued: “When selecting the pilots for this exercise, our focus was on the younger colleagues. This exercise provides a very steep learning curve for them: here they learn more in two weeks’ time than they do back home in two months. Moving to another air base outside Switzerland, away from the familiar airspace, weather, scenery, opponents and fighter controllers, is very important for us. It offers our pilots an excellent chance to learn as much as possible, while operating in an international and complex environment very different from that in our own country.”

Among the younger pilots flying in Frisian Flag was First Lieutenant Fanny ‘Shotty’ Chollet. In December 2017, Lieutenant Chollet became the tenth woman to earn her wings as a professional military pilot within the Schweizer Luftwaffe – and the first one to fly combat aircraft. She made her first solo flight in an F/A-18 in March 2018 and serves as a fully operational wingman within Fliegerstaffel 18 since January 1, 2019.

Limitations to deal with

The Schweizer Luftwaffe initially planned to send five F/A-18s to Leeuwarden, including one spare aircraft. On April 2, during the first days of Frisian Flag, the Swiss Ministry of Defence made public that technical issues in the life extension programme – enabling the Hornets to fly 6,000 instead of 5,000 hours – have led to a reduced availability of the Swiss F/A-18 fleet. At the time of the exercise, ten of the 30 Swiss F/A-18s were available for operational missions. As a result, only the four aircraft minimally required for the exercise came to Leeuwarden, while the remainder was needed at home to secure Switzerland’s airspace and for training missions. “Despite having four jets available, we did not lose a single sortie due to technical reasons. One aircraft had to abort its take-off, but that was because of a deer crossing the runway.”

About the Swiss participation in Frisian Flag, Lieutenant Colonel Studer said: “We are very lucky to be able to participate in this exercise anyway. Our air force is currently heavily involved in the selection process for the acquisition of a new combat aircraft. For that reason, our participation in international exercises and training programmes like the NATO Tiger Meet, Arctic Challenge and TLP [Tactical Leadership Programme] were all cancelled this year. But Frisian Flag fitted perfectly into our schedule, so our headquarters allowed us to join the exercise.”

The evaluation flights in Switzerland commenced on April 11 and the scenarios flown in this programme require a lot of the air force’s own assets. Also because of the limited availability of the F/A-18 fleet, the Schweizer Luftwaffe had to decide to withdraw its aircraft and pilots from Frisian Flag per April 10, halfway through the second week of the exercise. The Swiss jets departed Leeuwarden late in the afternoon on Tuesday, April 9, thus allowing them to fly in both waves that day. In the end the Swiss aircraft were still able to participate in 14 of the planned 19 Frisian Flag missions. “We did not feel very comfortable about messing up the exercise flying schedule in those last few days, but fortunately the organisation understood our situation and was very supportive, saying: ‘We will make it happen.’ I really appreciate their relaxed attitude.”

Air-to-air only

During Frisian Flag, participating aircraft operate either in the air-to-air or air-to-surface role, or both. Lieutenant Colonel Marc Studer explained: “Since the focus of our combat aircraft force is purely on air defence, we only fly air-to-air missions during Frisian Flag, including OCA [offensive counter air] lead missions. Because we have a lack of experience in air-to-surface operations, we decided not to provide mission commanders for the packages flying in this exercise – thus enabling other pilots to take these slots. The Frisian Flag organisers make sure every participating nation takes its fair share of Red air flying. Like the other assets, we fly about 30% of our missions as opposing forces in Red air and the rest as part of the Blue air package.”

During the exercise the Swiss jets simulated the use of AIM-9X and AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. One of the Hornets carried an ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward- Looking Infra-Red (ATFLIR) pod, but this was not used during Frisian Flag. “In terms of air-to-air weapons and BVR [beyond visual range] capacities, the Hornet is very much comparable to the Dutch F-16. We use the same or similar missiles, we both have Link 16 and joint helmet-mounted cueing systems.”

DetCo ‘Studi’ continued: “While preparing for the exercise we used our four-ship F/A-18 simulator, which was programmed to show the whole exercise area including Leeuwarden Air Base. This way the pilots could experience the flow, the runways, alternates andnavigation points where you can ingress and egress the area. We did this mainly for the younger pilots to be well prepared, taking the pressure offa bit during the actual exercise. We also flew a couple of OCA missions, when we booked all the areas in Switzerland and flew twelve-ship formations.”

Flying-wise, Frisian Flag is not very different from the Tiger Meet, according to Lieutenant Colonel Studer: “In both cases you fly in multinational, multi-type packages with complex scenarios. But you can definitely tell that there is a lot of experience at Leeuwarden in organising this exercise every year, for decades now. Whereas the Tiger Meet is usually organised at squadron level, with squadrons taking their turn every eight to ten years. The social activities play a major role in the Tiger Meets as well. The benefit of that is that you get to know most of the pilots from other nations’ tiger units. You build relationships. Since this is our first time in Frisian Flag, we do not yet have that here. But Frisian Flag has lots of other benefits. One is that it is relatively close to our country, it is just an hour flying or ten hours by car to get here. And the exercise area over here is very large and easily accessible.”

Among the four F/A-18Cs participating in Frisian Flag was Fliegerstaffel 11’s flag ship J-5011, seen taxiing for its departure back to Switzerland on April 9. The Hornets had to depart Leeuwarden early as they were required in support of the evaluation flights of the Eurofighter Typhoon, as part of the competition for a new combat aircraft for the Schweizer Luftwaffe.

Typical mission

Lieutenant Colonel Studer described a typical Frisian Flag mission that he flew on the day he spoke to AIR International: “Today we were part of an OCA package in an afternoon mission. Planning started at 0730 hrs. After several briefings and meetings, we stepped to our aircraft at 1230 hrs. Taking offat 1415 hrs, we only flew for an hour and 15 minutes this time since our tanker was cancelled. In this case it was the German A310 MRTT, but we are certified to use the French C-135 as well. We would have flown half an hour longer if the tanker had been available. Normally we would go to the tanker first before going into the fight. We then pushed to the east together with other OCA players. After clearing the area, we continued to the assigned TARCAP [target combat air patrol] area, where we stayed for 30 minutes to make sure that the air interdiction players would reach their targets and get out safe. After returning to Leeuwarden, we first had a 25 minute long internal briefing, followed by a mass debrief lasting another two hours.”

Lieutenant Colonel Marc Studer seen taxiing for take-offin Hornet 011 on April 8, at the start of the mission he describes in this article.

The Swiss DetCo continued: “What we do in this kind of mission is basically the same as at home, but in a much bigger dimension, with multiple nations and much more complex scenarios. Embedding tankers, an AWACS and players like the Cobham Falcon ECM makes it more realistic and more demanding. The scenarios are good, although sometimes not very realistic. But that is what they are meant to be. For instance, in a real situation you would have a much bigger Blue force against a smaller Red force. In a normal situation we would not accept high risks like losing some 30% of our assets. But these not-so-realistic scenarios are very useful for training.”

Highly recommended

Lieutenant Colonel Studer concluded: “The biggest gain of our participation in Frisian Flag is that our pilots have to go out of their comfort zone. They train the things they learn at home, but in another environment. They experience that the tactics we use in our air force still apply in a much more complex environment. And it is not only the pilots that benefit, the maintenance personnel do as well. They too learn to work away from home, in different circumstances. I am really impressed by this exercise and the professionality and flexibility of its organisers. I will certainly recommend that we should return to Frisian Flag. If not next year, then in another future edition.”AI