Helicopters search for missing Swiss jet and pilot

Three army helicopters and mountain rescue teams are continuing their search for a Swiss F/A-18C fighter jet and pilot, who disappeared on Monday afternoon flying over the Susten Pass in central Switzerland.

An air exclusion zone is currently in place between cantons Uri and Bern and 19 mountain rescue specialists are helping air rescue teams and Zurich police search for the missing pilot and plane, according to the Federal Department of Defence. The teams are carrying out their search on foot at altitudes of over 3,000m. The search was hampered by bad weather on Monday evening.

At present the pilot and plane have not been located, but a crash zone has been identified. Both the aircraft and the ejector seat are equipped with transmitters, which should help focus the search efforts.

The single-seat aircraft had been participating in a training mission with another jet in a thick layer of clouds. Last contact with the missing pilot was at 16.05pm Swiss time on Monday.

“We hope and pray,” said Swiss Air Force Commander Aldo Schellenberg when asked about the pilot’s chances of survival at a media conference in Bern on Monday evening. Schellenberg said his thoughts were with the pilot and his family.

After taking off from the Meiringen military airport at 16.01pm, the missing pilot had responded to a radio call as expected at 16.05. However, he failed to reply to a second call. He and the other F/A-18 Hornet pilot were practising manoeuvres for a potential engagement with an F-5 Tiger aircraft.

Fighter jet accidents

Just last month, two Swiss air force jets intercepted an Israeli El Al airliner near Schaffhausen after an anonymous bomb threat. The Swiss Air Force is currently ramping up its coverage to protect Swiss air space. The goal is to provide 24/7 coverage with two armed jets by 2020.

Critics have questioned whether the recent increased demand is leading to more accidents. The incident is the third time the Swiss Air Force has lost one of its F/A 18 jets in the last three years. Last October, a two-seat F/A-18 crashed in France during a training flight, injuring the pilot, while another F/A-18 crashed in 2013.

In June, an F5 fighter jet from Patrouille Suisse crashed in the Netherlands after two jets touched during a training flight there. The pilot was able to escape using the ejector seat.

Over the past 20 years, there have been 12 accidents involving Swiss Air Force jets or helicopters, killing 21 people.

Current fighter jet fleet

The Swiss Air Force has 35 F/A-18s: 25 single-seater, and five double-seater. The original fleet had 34 jets. There are also 36 F-5-Tiger jets, but these are getting too old.

In May 2014, Swiss voters rejected the defence ministry’s $3.5 billion (CHF3.4 billion)order for 22 new Gripen fighter jets from Swedish defence company Saab AB.

swissinfo.ch

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