Assignment No16: Sion, Switzerland
Drinking From the Fire Hose: A few days with COAP in Switzerland, by Steve Zimmermann
When you travel with COAP on a photo assignment, be advised that the grass does not grow under your feet. Keeping up under the programs that Rich Cooper and Steven Comber devise requires the dedication of a true enthusiast and more than a bit of stamina. From the stories the participants on other Assignments have told me, ours was one of the easier venues that COAP visits: Base Arienne in Sion is a compact facility with a single, joint-use runway and close-in fences. It's even got that rarest of amenities in this security-conscious era: an open observation deck on the roof of the terminal building.
A group of COAPs clients – aviation photographers from Great Britain and the USA – assembled at the hotel on the first evening, and we immediately piled into the van to go out to the base and shoot night ops. It was the opening salvo of three hectic days of photographing Swiss AF F/A-18s and F-5Es as they flew four sorties a day in repetition training, observed from multiple vantage points around the airfield perimeter as well as up on the sides of the valley.
Our first full day went like this: eat an early breakfast at the hotel and drive straight to the airbase; shoot departures, reposition and shoot recoveries, then stand down for a bit (then repeat the foregoing three more times right up until sunset); drive back to the hotel for a hasty dinner; listen to Rich's workshop presentation, swap shop-talk and shaggy dog stories about aviation and photography; collapse into bed. Then we got up early the next morning and did it again, and again the following day. We never shot from the same place twice; between the different vantage points, the changing light and weather, and the reversal of flight ops as the wind switched, there was such a variety to the photographic opportunities.
The weather was perfect: sunny and warm (for March!), and still. Deep blue skies prevailed until high clouds started to move in late on the third day, and plenty of snow blanketed the stunning mountain scenery of the Valais; fortunately, around the airbase at the bottom of the valley it was mostly dry, and easy to get around. The Swiss AF did their bit by throwing up waves of aircraft for each sortie, as many as eight F/A-18 Hornets and six F-5E Tigers IIs at once. Between shooting the fast jets coming and going, we witnessed (and photographed) plenty of civil and military operations by both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, including a rare ex-military F+W C-3605 target tug, the 'Flying Anteater'.
All in all, a very enjoyable and productive time was had by all who made the trip. If you want my advice: pick an Assignment, and go thou and do likewise. You won't regret it.