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Angry locals try to shoot down air force plans

Two F/A 18 Hornets fly a mission over the Swiss Alps (Swiss Air Force)

A nationwide petition has been launched to halt flights by air force jets over tourist regions.

It comes after concerned citizens and tourism officials in the Bernese Oberland said they had had enough of the noise from the Swiss Air Force’s newest and loudest warplane.

The conversation of a group of tourists strolling through Ballenberg - the Swiss open-air museum for rural culture outside the village of Brienz - is abruptly cut short by the scream of a fighter jet overhead.

The museum is home to dozens of painstakingly restored farmhouses, shedding light on pre-industrial Switzerland. But the sudden arrival of the warplane in the sky above shatters any illusion of travelling back in time.

It is not surprising that in a small, densely populated and mountainous country like Switzerland various interest groups should stake a claim to the same territory.

Tourism is the main income generator in the valley stretching from Brienz to the village of Meiringen. But the area is also of strategic importance for the Swiss military, which has operated an airbase out of here for about 50 years.

What is surprising is that it has taken this long for a conflict to break out between the two sides.

Up in arms

Many local inhabitants are up in arms over the military’s decision to increase the number of training and surveillance missions using F/A 18 Hornet fighter jets, which they claim are twice as loud as the air force’s older fleet of F5 Tigers.

“Some of our regular guests have told us that if the flights continue with such an intensity, they will holiday elsewhere next year,” says Hansjörg Imhof, director of the Lindenhof hotel in Brienz.

Imhof is also president of Brienz’s hotel association which, along with a group representing hundreds of concerned citizens, wants to clip the air force’s wings.

They are demanding that missions flown with the F/A 18 be restricted to the low season so as not to disturb holidaymakers who come to the region in summer in search of rest and relaxation.

The Swiss environmental activist, Franz Weber, has taken it a step further. He has started a petition to ban flights by air force jets over tourist regions.

Weber hopes to collect 100,000 signatures by November 2005, enough to force a nationwide vote on the issue.

Quiet summer

“The air force is taking the concerns of the local population and the tourist industry seriously,” responds Ernst Kohler, head of the airbase in Meiringen.

“That’s why we have decided not to station a training unit here this summer - nor are there plans to do so next summer,” he adds, before his comment is smothered by the sound of an F/A 18 taxiing down the airstrip.

Major cuts to military spending in Switzerland have only served – at least in the short term – to strengthen the Meiringen airbase.

The air force has decided to abandon many bases, focusing its activities on three airfields, including Meiringen, which Kohler says is strategic because fighter jets can be stored here in underground caverns.

“As of 2006 a squadron of F/A 18s will be stationed in Meiringen permanently to train,” he says, admitting they will also take to the air in summer.

From 2005, the air force foresees more than 3,000 missions a year - one-third of them with F/A 18 fighter jets.

Weapons system

“The F/A 18 is not just an aircraft but a major weapons system,” explains Colonel Peter Suter, one of the first Swiss pilots to fly the American-built plane.

“It’s mainly for air surveillance,” he continues. “We have ‘look-down’ capability with this system. That means the radar enable us to see downwards into the valleys, which we cannot do with the F5s, or the Mirage jets we had before.”

“Do we really need such an air force, especially when it’s so costly to maintain?” counters Emil Feuz, a mountain guide and environmental activist, who lives only a stone’s throw from the airstrip.

Feuz is also, not surprisingly, one of the leaders of the citizens’ group.

“What are the real threats to national security today,” he asks rhetorically, reminding anyone who will listen that the geopolitical landscape has changed drastically over the past ten years since the Swiss electorate voted in favour of purchasing the 34-strong fleet of F/A 18 fighter jets.

Fourfold noise increase

According to the calculations of his citizens’ group, the region has to prepare for a fourfold increase in noise pollution from the airbase in comparison with the average of the past five years.

“It works out to a start or landing every 17 minutes as of 2005,” the group warns on its website.

“We are not against the airbase, we are against the planes that make so much noise,” says Imhof.

“Both tourism and the airbase can co-exist but a compromise has to be found,” he insists.

Imhof does not have any figures on the effect the increase in flights by F/A 18s might have on tourism but he asks, “would you holiday in a region where there is so much noise? ”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Brienz

Key facts

At SFr3.5 billion ($2.75 billion), the acquisition of 34 F/A 18 jets was the Swiss military’s single most expensive purchase ever.
The McDonnell Douglas aircraft were put into service in 1997.
The fighter jet has a thrust three and a half times greater than the F5 fighter jet – the reason it is much louder than the older warplane.

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In brief

A citizens’ group and hotel owners are spearheading opposition to the planned increase in missions flown by F/A 18 fighter jets.

Environmentalist Franz Weber has started a petition calling for a ban on all flights by air force jets over tourist regions.

Weber owns the historic Giessbach Hotel on Lake Brienz, which is directly affected.

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