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Swiss Air Force

The Pioneers


True to man's age-old dream of being able to spread his wings and soar into the air, Icarus - trying to escape from prison by means of bird's wings - aptly personifies the human urge to conquer the air.

It was not until 1783, however, that the dream became reality, with the first flights of hot air- and gas-filled balloons. These were followed, in 1891, by the first glider flight. Barely a decade later the first dirigible airships appeared, immediately suggesting their obvious potential for military purposes.

The first motorised flight by Orville Wright on 17 December 1903 on the sand of Kill Devil Hills, close to the town of Kitty Hawk at the Atlantic coast of North Carolina, USA, with the Wright Flyer I opened up new opportunities for the military use of flying machines.

The beginnings of military aviation in Switzerland can be traced back to the year 1891, when the General Staff considered the procurement of a captive balloon. With the purchase approved, a group of volunteers reported for duty at the first Airship Recruit School in Bern in 1900.

On 2 December 1912, at their general assembly in Fribourg, the Swiss Officers‘ Association decided to ask the public for a national donation in order to establish a Swiss air force.

On 1 January 1913, the call was signed not only by senior military commanders and 39 members of both the Council of States and the National Council but also by Federal Councillor A. Hoffmann, Head of the Military Department. Subsequently organised flight shows, events, collections and special sales raised the impressive sum of CHF 1,734,564. In 1916, the Military Department acquired 17 aircraft, 14 reserve engines and equipment, and had a hangar built in Dubendorf at a cost of CHF 866,000, taken from the aviation fund.


Group photo with the first military pilots
The first military pilots

Foundation of the
Swiss Air Force

As soon as war broke out, officials immediately changed their tune. On July 31, 1914, Theodor Real, Cavalry Instructor and pilot, was entrusted with the formation of a flying service. The first thing he did was to commandeer three aircraft on display at the National Exhibition in Bern.

Henry Farman H.F.22 / Schweizerische Fliegerabteilung. (Enlargement in new window)Enlargement in new window
Henry Farman H.F.22
Schweizerische Fliegerabteilung (1914-1918).

The nine famous flight pioneers, of whom eight were from the French speaking part of Switzerland, were: Edmond Audemars, Oskar Bider, Ernest Burri, Alfred Comte, Albert Cuendet, François Durafour, René Grandjean, Henri Kramer, Marcel Lugrin and Agénor Parmelin. The pilots brought five privately owned aircraft when they reported for service. Oskar Bider, for example, provided two Blériot XI monoplanes that, due to Bider’s ethical conviction, could not be equipped with machine guns, Further aircraft that were provided were a Farman biplane, a Grandjean monoplane and a L.V.G biplane as well as an Aviatik C-1 biplane. Real confiscated three foreign aeroplanes at the national exhibition in Bern: another Blériot monoplane, a L.V.G biplane and an Aviatik C-1 biplane. The pilots brought not only their own aircraft but also took along their mechanics.

In December 1914, the unit moved from a makeshift airfield at Beundenfeld near the Wankdorf football stadium in Bern to Dübendorf near Zürich. The first outpost was at Claro in the Southern Swiss canton of Ticino. As the pilots themselves saw little action during the war, they concentrated on development and training instead.


Flying demonstration in those days
Flying demonstration in those days
The crucial importance of air superiority, air reconnaissance and air-to-ground combat became apparent during the First World War (1914-1918) . But although Air Forces gained in importance rapidly during that war, they still failed to achieve war-winning status. Gradually, however, the Air Force developed into the third main branch of the armed forces, next to the Army and the Navy.


Nose-first landings were daily routine
Nose-first landings were daily routine

In the period between the wars, the fliers, administered by a Section Head of the General Staff, were viewed as an auxiliary force. Dübendorf, as the first permanent air base, was followed, from 1919 onwards, by the ones at Thun and Lausanne, and later by Payerne (established in 1921).


Dewoitine D.26 (1931-1948) (Enlargement in new window)Enlargement in new window
Dewoitine D.26 (1931-1948)

Further milestones include the foundation, in 1921, of the Air Force recruit schools, NCO schools and officers' training centers; then came the founding of today's Air Force Medical Institute in 1924; the integration of air-to-ground combat tactics in 1930 (temporarily discontinued since the phasing out of the Hunter fleet in 1994); the introduction of the Aircraft Observation and Communication Service in 1934; and, in 1938, the opening of the first Signal Recruit School.


International Air Show Zürich of 1932
International Air Show Zürich of 1932
In October 1936, a radical change took place. In view of the political developments in Europe and the general rearmament, the importance of aerial warfare was finally recognised also in Switzerland. As a result, the Air Force was declared an official branch of the defence forces, and the Department of Aviation and Anti-Aircraft Defence was created, under the command of a major-general.


Bücker Bü 133C Jungmeister (Enlargement in new window)Enlargement in new window
Bücker Bü 133C Jungmeister

In January 1937, the Swiss Department of Aviation and Anti Aircraft Defence were handed over their first Bücker Bü 133C Jungmeister aircraft, which had been constructed in the Bücker factory near Berlin.

K+W C-35 (Enlargement in new window)Enlargement in new window
K+W C-35
In May 1937, the first K+W C-35 two-seater fighter aircraft that were of mixed construction followed. Although the 90 aircraft procured proved themselves, they were already outdated when delivered.


Anti-aircraft defence in the pioneering days
Anti-aircraft defence in the pioneering days
On 3 August 1936, under the command of the department for artillery, the first anti aircraft artillery recruit school (red AAA) with four officers, nine NCOs and 49 recruits was carried out at the Kloten military training grounds. Colonel Ernst von Schmid was the first school commander. Our anti aircraft artillery/AAA force was founded in 1936 because the Head of the Federal Military Department, Federal Councillor Rudolf Minger, ordered on 19 October 1936 the creation of the department of aviation and active air defence, which on 10 November 1936 already, was renamed ‘Department of Aviation and Anti Aircraft Defence‘.


Messerschmitt Bf 109D-1 «David» (Enlargement in new window)Enlargement in new window
Messerschmitt Bf 109D-1 «David»

Within a remarkably short time, the aircrew strength was doubled, and the first batch of previously ordered Messerschmitt Bf 109 combat aircraft arrived just in time before World War Two broke out.

In January 1939, the aviation corps received from Germany

for re-training and in June of the same year

fighters. When mobilisation was declared on 30 August 1939, Flight Coy 6 in Thun and Flight Coy 21 in Duebendorf had already been equipped with these state-of-the-art high-performance fighter aircraft, while the rest of the flying units had only the hopelessly obsolete Dewoitine D-27 fighter monoplanes and Fokker C.V-E reconnaissance aircraft as well as the K+W C-35 at their disposal. An additional 50 Bf 109E-3 aircraft were delivered to Switzerland after the outbreak of war, between October 1939 and April 1940.


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    Last updated: 26.08.2013
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