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Heavy traffic above the clouds

Airspace policing is one of the main duties of the Swiss Air Force. Every year, F/A-18 pilots have to intervene between 40 and 60 times because, for example, a civil aircraft has reported a problem or fails to observe a restricted zone, or a misunderstanding has taken place. Geodata, maps and services provided by swisstopo are essential tools for pilots during training, as well as on missions.

06.05.2019 | DKW

Flugplatzkommando Payerne

At the Payerne airbase, F/A-18 air force pilots practice their flying skills both in the air and in a simulator. They also perform the duty of airspace policing – an important function in view of the fact that Switzerland’s airspace is very heavily frequented. “Their job can be likened to that of road traffic police,” explains Lieutenant-Colonel Aldo Wicki, referring to their security-related monitoring duties, the enforcement of rules and regulations, and the provision of aid when required. “We perform exactly the same tasks in airspace. Due to the high frequency of air traffic, incidents can occur from time to time, though in most cases there is no malicious intent. They may be attributable to misunderstandings, for example, or to a technical problem. But, ever since 9/11, the problem of terrorism has fundamentally altered how we approach things. Today it is no longer conceivable for a major congress like the World Economic Forum in Davos to take place without comprehensive security measures, both in the air and on the ground.”

Broad range of airspace policing missions
What form does airspace policing take today? What exactly do the pilots do? “In some cases, an air force pilot may have spotted another aircraft that is behaving in an irregular manner. Or civilian air traffic control may report a problem to us and ask the air force to investigate. Our F/A-18s then spring into action. Their mission may be, for example, to intercept an unidentified aircraft or flying object that is violating the applicable regulations.”

Depending on the nature of the mission, the aircraft will be visually identified and the finding will be radioed to the control centre. “We report the type of aircraft, its registration number, any special equipment and other details we are able to detect and ascertain. We may be ordered to shadow the aircraft and stay with it until it has left Swiss airspace or until we have been able to unequivocally determine the purpose of its flight. In some cases we may have to prevent the aircraft from entering a restricted or no-fly zone.”


The World Economic Forum is an example of this kind of mission. In this case, a no-fly zone is set up for security reasons, and if an aircraft should approach this zone, deliberately or otherwise, the air force pilots receive the order to prevent it from entering the zone or to force it to land. There is an internationally recognised procedure for doing this. “If communication by radio is not possible, standardised signals are used, for example rocking the wings or lowering the landing gear. The crew of the other aircraft should be familiar with these interception signals and must obey them.” In an extreme emergency and as a last resort, the pilots would receive an order from the control centre to shoot down the offending aircraft.

Flugplatzkommando Payerne

Ongoing expansion of the airspace policing service
The Swiss Air Force is currently expanding the airspace policing service so that it can operate all year round (“LP24”). The expansion is occurring on a step-by-step basis and will require a great deal of time and effort: “Firstly we will have to train enough personnel so that we can provide this service round the clock,” explains Aldo Wicki. “In order to secure constant availability we will need not only pilots and aircraft, but also more engineers, technicians, air traffic controllers and additional personnel in the control centre. Elsewhere in the world, the QRA (quick reaction alert) has long since been the standard, and it will be introduced in Switzerland as of 2021.

Realistic 3D depiction in the simulator
F/A-18 pilots spend around 15 percent of their time in the simulator, which comprises four cockpits and thus enables up to four individual pilots, or four pilots simultaneously on a combined mission, to carry out virtual operations against adversaries. Geodata from swisstopo are used both in the simulator and in the F/A-18 cockpit. Technical director Reto Ramseyer elaborates: “We are currently using the DHM25 digital height model for the projection of the outside world. This is converted into a polygon raster and superimposed with 50-centimetre orthophotos, i.e. aerial images. We use data from the topographic landscape model to visualise the locations of buildings, antennas and masts. We also use the aeronautical maps, which are available in different scales.”

In the simulator, geodata from swisstopo permit the realistic depiction of the outside world, including terrain and buildings, so that it appears as if the user is in fact flying around in Switzerland. The data are geo-referenced so that pilots are able to orient themselves in Swiss airspace. The pilots are not the only ones who are impressed by the quality of the data: “The manufacturer of the simulator was highly impressed by our database,” confirms Reto Ramseyer, “in particular by the height model and the quality of the aerial images.”

Project to update the database with new products from swisstopo
A project aimed at updating the database and the projection system in the F/A-18 is currently in progress. “For this purpose we need new spatial reference data from swisstopo. The height model is being improved and with swissALTI3D it will be available at resolutions of two, five and ten metres in the future. The aerial images now have a resolution of twenty-five centimetres. We will also be using the swissBUILDINGS3D dataset, as well as other topographic vector data for the depiction of trees, masts and antennas.”

Are there any alternatives to the products provided by swisstopo? “Not with the same level of quality,” Reto Ramseyer tells us. “They would also be considerably more expensive for us: swisstopo makes these geo-referenced data available for civilian and military purposes within the scope of the national survey.”

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Federal Office of Topography swisstopo

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