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Swissair: Over the Alps

From the exploits of pioneers to the rapidly expanding services of today


SWISSAIR MACHINES on the aerodrome at St. MoritzSWISSAIR MACHINES on the aerodrome at St. Moritz. The aircraft in the foreground is a De Havilland Dragon Rapide and the one in the background is a Douglas DC-2. The Swissair Company was formed in 1931 by the amalgamation of the two companies Balair and Ad Astra. The Swissair Company was one of the first in Europe to use fast American air liners.

Swiss aviation began outside Switzerland. To rise into the air, the pioneer pilots required almost a flat calm and a level field. As Switzerland is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe, pioneer Swiss enthusiasts had to go to France and other countries, first to learn to fly and then to continue flying. Switzerland is a small country, with an area of 15,950 square miles and a population of about four million, and it is surrounded by large, populous states. Yet the Swiss have shown their ability in aviation continuously from the beginning of practical flight. The efficiency of Swissair, the Swiss Air Traffic Company, Ltd., of Zurich, ranks high in European aviation.

The first exhibition of flying in Switzerland was given at Geneva in August 1910. The pilots were Amerigo, Dufaux, Audemars, Failloubaz and Taddeoli. This meeting attracted great interest. On the first day Dufaux, in an aeroplane of his own design, won the starting prize by getting off the ground in a run of 60 metres (65½ yards). Amerigo flew a Bleriot to an altitude of 30 metres (98½ feet), winning the height prize. Audemars won the speed prize with a Demoiselle. On succeeding days there were some disappointments when the wind was too strong to permit flying, but on the last day Amerigo flew for more than an hour and twelve minutes, winning the prize for the longest flight of the meeting.

Failloubaz, one of the pilots at the Geneva Meeting, made what was then a good cross-country flight with a passenger in February 1911. He took off from Avenches, in Western Switzerland, and landed at Cher, about 15 miles distant, in fifteen minutes. This flight marked a successful achievement. Some of the other early efforts were more ambitious but less practical.

The second aviation meeting was held at Berne, the Swiss capital, in October 1911. On the first day Hans Schmidt, who had been in the air for more than half an hour, was seen to oscillate. His machine fell from a height of 160 feet and burst into flames. On succeeding days Durafour, in a

Dufaux aeroplane, Grandjean, in a machine of his own design, Taddeoli (Morane) and Wyss (Bleriot) made the meeting a success.

These early pilots in Switzerland and elsewhere were a combination of inventor, pioneer, showman and gladiator. The spectators paid to see men fly — to risk their lives.

In 1912 the Swiss military authorities were concerned at the fact that, although a small number of Swiss were aviators, few were flying in Switzerland. The Swiss Aero Club was therefore asked to report on the best means of encouraging aviation in the country. At the time of the inquiry only two Swiss pilots were in Switzerland.

The club had granted pilot certificates to eight persons that year, not one of whom had learned to fly in his native country. Four had qualified in France, two in Germany and two in England. The two pilots flying in England were E. L. Gassier, who qualified at the Eastbourne Flying School, Sussex, and Edouard Baumann, who qualified at the Ewen Flying School at Hendon.

Edouard Baumann was one of the outstanding pilots and instructors of the immediate pre-war and early war period in Great Britain. He began by experiments with gliders, in collaboration with Hal Piffard, at Shoreham, Sussex, and then went to Lanark, Scotland. At Lanark he joined Ewen and came to Hendon when the Ewen Flying School was established there.

THE INTERNATIONAL AIR ROUTES TO AND FROM SWITZERLANDTHE INTERNATIONAL AIR ROUTES TO AND FROM SWITZERLAND are operated by Swissair in collaboration with the countries touched by each route.. The internal routes are operated by the Alpar Company, whose headquarters are at Berne. Because of the mountainous nature of the country there are not many aerodromes in Switzerland. Dubendorf Airport, near Zurich, is the most important.

After he had qualified, Baumann became an instructor at several schools and then a partner in the Ruffy-Baumann Flying School at Hendon. Hendon was at that period the training centre of England and attracted pupils who afterwards became pilots in the Royal Flying Corps.

The fact that a Swiss was one of the principals of a school in England where a class of pupils on one occasion included several different nationalities was one of many instances of a state of affairs which troubled the Swiss authorities. A Swiss National Fund for Aviation was opened to provide scope at home for Swiss aviators.

This fund was opened at the instance of Oscar Bider, one of the foremost of Swiss aviation pioneers. Bider was the first to fly over the Pyrenees and the first to fly from Berne to Madrid and from Berne to Milan. He was the first chief pilot and flight instructor to the Swiss Air Force and a pioneer of Swiss commercial aviation.

When the war of 1914-18 began, the territory of the Swiss republic was neutral. The difficulty of keeping the air above it neutral increased as, under the stimulus of war, aircraft acquired offensive power. On several occasions the republic warned off trespassing aircraft.

Anti-aircraft batteries were installed at the frontier and aviators were fired at if they flew over Swiss territory. Bombs were dropped by mistake by belligerent but bewildered pilots, other pilots landed and were interned, and some trespassers were shot down.

On the Verge of a Crevasse

In the last year of the war the Swiss erected a large illuminated cross on a plateau near the Chateau of Porrentruy. This cross was placed near the meeting of the frontiers (as they then were) of Switzerland, France and Germany, and lighted by electric lamps, as a beacon to warn pilots of the contending forces not to fly over neutral soil.

Meanwhile the Swiss military aviators were solving the problems of flying over their mountainous country. During the progress of hostilities between their neighbours Swiss military aviators flew a distance of about twenty-seven times the circumference of the Earth. The centre of this activity was the military aerodrome at Dubendorf, near Zurich. When the war ended this aerodrome was

opened to civil machines. Dubendorf Airport has maintained its position as the centre of Swiss civil aviation, and is now one of the major international airports in Europe.

Happily the Swiss did not suffer the loss of any of their aviators from the war. Accidents such as that which killed Taddeoli, the pioneer, while flying over the Lake of Constance in May 1920 took toll of the veteran pilots who had flown to make flying safer.

The authorities, with the problem of mastering flight over the Alps before them, rigorously disapproved of “stunt” flying. Skilled pilots had ample scope for displaying their ability and nerve by transalpine flights, by venturing into the turbulent air above and round the mountains, by trying possible landings in difficult places, or by searching from the air for mountaineers cut off by storms and dropping food to them.

Major Isler, who was in charge of Swiss military aviation, made a notable flight in 1919 with Lieutenant Ackermann in the Bernese Oberland. After he had flown round the Jungfrau, Major Isler landed the machine on the glacier of the Jungfraujoch, on a landing place prepared on the ice. A gust of wind nearly caused disaster at the last moment and the machine stopped almost on the verge of a crevasse.

FIVE RADIO AERIALS ARE USED on this Douglas DC-2 air liner of SwissairFIVE RADIO AERIALS ARE USED on this Douglas DC-2 air liner of Swissair. The loop aerial, the top part of which is visible above the pilot’s cabin, is used for direction finding and homing radio. A fixed aerial runs backwards from the mast next to the loop aerial. This fixed aerial is used for communication when the air liner is on the ground or near the ground. During normal flight a trailing aerial is lowered through the tube underneath the fuselage. The weight on the end of the aerial is visible at the bottom of the tube. The remaining two aerials are used for the Lorenz system of radio-assisted blind approach. One consists of the two short horizontal tubes placed below the fuselage near the trailing aerial tube; the other is a short vertical rod arranged up the side of the mast which supports the fixed aerial.

This plate previously appeared as the cover to Part 8.

Alpine aviators practised flying among the peaks which set up local eddies and disturbances, and they learned to take advantage of these disturbances.

The aim of the aviators was not to set up distance records, as elsewhere in the world, but to master Alpine flying.

Charles Koepke made his thousandth flight in 1920 by an Alpine flight from Thun. Another aviator, Alfred Comte, one of the founders of commercial aviation in Switzerland, made a number of flights with passengers at this period from Zurich to St. Moritz. These flights proved that Alpine flights were as safe for passengers as flights over level ground. In 1921 the veteran pilot Durafour made a landing on Mont Blanc, in French Savoy.

The Alpine pilots enabled holiday makers to see the wonderful peaks without exertion and at a moderate cost. On the French side of the peaks at centres such as Chamonix, under Mont Blanc, pilots made use of their opportunities. From the aerodrome at Le Fayet, M. Thoret flew passengers over Mont Blanc during the summer and the winter seasons. Practice with a glider gave this pilot the key to flight among the peaks. He found that he could stop the engine of a light aeroplane and glide for considerable periods with his engine silent.

The outstanding personality in Swiss civil aviation was Walter Mittelholzer, who lost his life while mountaineering in the Austrian Alps in May 1937. With Alfred Comte, Mittelholzer founded the first aviation company in the country at Zurich, in May 1919. A small aerodrome was built at Schwammendingen as a starting point for tours by air. Then the Ad Astra company was formed and, when this was fused with a local company at Geneva, the company was able to operate over the whole of Switzerland.

Although there were only four adequate aerodromes for land machines, at Dubendorf (Zurich), Berne, Lausanne and Basle, the lakes promised opportunities for seaplanes. Seaplane bases were established at Zurichhorn, on the Lake of Zurich, at Geneva and Ouchy, on the Lake of Geneva, at Lugano, on the lake of that name, at Locarno, on Lake Maggiore, at Rorschach, on the Lake of

Constance, and at Lucerne, on Lake Lucerne. The effort was made too early for regular traffic and, as in other countries, civil flying on a commercial basis failed to thrive.

In 1922 the Federal authorities and various towns and cantons agreed to provide financial support. The Ad Astra company bought new Junkers F.13 machines and established regular services between Geneva, Zurich and Nuremberg, in Germany. British, German, French and Belgian companies established services to and from Switzerland and by 1925 had gained four-fifths of the international traffic.

Booked for Weeks Ahead

The Basle Air Traffic Company, called Balair, was founded in 1926 to operate long-distance routes with Fokker aeroplanes. The first route was from Basle to Brussels, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and this was flown successfully. The Federal Government increased its subsidies and enabled Balair to start a Geneva-Vienna service. Ad Astra began a Zurich-Berlin service. The next step was the amalgamation of both companies in 1931, when Swissair was formed to develop civil aviation in every branch. Two routes to Paris were opened, one via Zurich and Basle and the other via Lausanne and Geneva.

The company was one of the first in Europe to realize the importance of the increased speed of commercial aircraft made possible by American designers. It bought two Lockheed Orion machines in 1932. These aeroplanes were put on the Zurich-Munich-Vienna route and increased the average speed by more than half, from 110 to 175 miles an hour. The time of the journey to Vienna was reduced from nearly five hours to two hours forty minutes, and the express service was soon booked to capacity for weeks in advance. The passenger-attracting value of fast machines was proved.

MAGNIFICENT SCENERY is crossed by aircraft of Swiss air linesMAGNIFICENT SCENERY is crossed by aircraft of Swiss air lines. Alpine flights are operated by Swissair from Zurich. For about £7 a flight above many famous peaks is obtainable. Today Swiss aeroplanes are identifiable by the letters HB on the wings and fuselages. At one time they were marked with the letters CH followed by a number instead of further letters.

Douglas DC-2 aeroplanes were placed on the international routes of Swissair in 1935 and DC-3 machines followed later. By the summer of 1938 the fleet was composed of the following types, in addition to the Douglas: Fokker F.7, Comte A.C.4, De Havilland Dragon Rapide and Junkers Ju 86. The Junkers Ju 86 is powered by two 600 horsepower Jumo 205 diesel engines, which give it a cruising speed of 224 miles an hour. The Ju 86 is a low-wing cantilever monoplane. De Havilland machines have been used extensively in Switzerland. Sir Alan Cobham made a round flight from London to Zurich and back on May 29,1925, with a D.H. Moth, having a Cirrus engine of 65 horse-power. The machine, which was not new, having been flown for about 5,000 miles, made the outward flight at more than 80 miles an hour and the return flight, against adverse winds, at more than 60 miles an hour.

Excellent small machines were made by Alfred Comte’s Company at Zurich for a number of years. Machines for the Swiss Army Air Corps are made under licence by the Federal Factory at Thun. As with commercial aircraft, the military machines are virtually all of foreign design. They include a two-seater fighter biplane, based on the Fokker C.V. and other Fokker types, as well as Dewoitine and Potez machines.

The German company of Dornier, at Friedrichshafen, on the German shore of the Lake of Constance, has a large works on the Swiss side of the lake, at Altenrhein. The offices of this branch are in Zurich. Aeroplanes and seaplanes are built to the Dornier designs. A small Swiss company makes light aircraft at Grenchen in western Switzerland. At Grenchen is produced the Farner W.F. 21/C.4 four-seater cabin monoplane, designed by M. Weber, formerly with the Alfred Comte Company.

Switzerland’s internal routes are operated by the Alpar Company, whose headquarters are at Berne. The aircraft comprise Fokker F.II, Leopard Moth, Koolhoven F.K.50, Monospar S.T.4, “Autogiro” aircraft, Comte A.C.4 and Comte A.C.8 machines. The A.C.8 is a six-seater cabin monoplane. Alpine flights are made by the Alpar machines.

The ability of Walter Mittelholzer as organizer, pilot and photographer added lustre to Swiss aviation. A flight that he made to the Cape in the winter of 1926-27 was not his first long-distance flight, but it was one which earned universal appreciation because of its scientific value. It was a scientific expedition by air.

Exploratory Flight to Africa

The machine was a Dornier Mercury seaplane, the engine being a 450 horsepower B.M.W. VI, developing a maximum of 600 horse-power; the cruising speed was 93 miles an hour.

As the object of the flight was primarily for science and exploration, there was ample accommodation for the party of four. The members were Mittelholzer, a pilot mechanic, Dr. Arnold Heim, the Swiss geologist, and Rene Gouzy, geographer.

The plan was to make a study of the geography, geology and zoology of the region of Africa extending from Egypt to the African Lakes. Space was provided for the photographic records and there was a dark room for developing films; the cabin could be used as a sleeping place when the machine was in an isolated district. The low petrol consumption of the engine, with its reserve of power, and the excellence of the all-metal construction contributed to the success of the trip.

Mittelholzer took off from Zurich and flew to Cairo via Pisa, Naples, Athens and Abu Qir (Egypt), in easy stages. The party then flew to Luxor and Aswan (Egypt), Khartoum, Malakal and Mongalla (Anglo-Egyptian Sudan), Butiaba (Uganda, on Lake Albert) and Jinja (Uganda, on Lake Victoria). At Jinja a halt was made as one member was suffering from malaria.

Then flights were made to Kisumu (Kenya) and to Mwanza and Bukoba (Tanganyika). From Bukoba flights were made locally to places near Lake Tanganyika, after which the machine went on to Rhodesia, where the two scientists were left to collect material.

Mittelholzer and his companion then made a tour of eastern and southern Africa as far as Capetown. When the seaplane returned to Zurich it had covered 12,500 miles in little more than a hundred hours flying time.

A DUTCH KOOLHOVEN FK50 used on internal air routes of Switzerland

A DUTCH KOOLHOVEN MACHINE used on internal air routes of Switzerland. Known as the F.K.50, the aeroplane carries eight passengers and is powered by two 400 horse-power Pratt and Whitney Wasp-Junior engines. With controllable pitch airscrews, the cruising speed is 161 miles an hour at 8,200 feet. The landing speed is 62 miles an hour.

The efficiency of the flight and the value of the material obtained showed the value of aircraft for such expeditions. The selection of a reliable seaplane instead of a landplane aroused considerable interest. Much of the route is now flown by Imperial Airways. Mittelholzer’s choice of an aircraft suitable for alighting on water showed his knowledge of the potentialities of the route. Later, with A. Kunzle (now Assistant Navigation Chief of Swissair) as second pilot and M. Wegmann as mechanic, Mittelholzer flew Baron de Rothschild on a hunting trip to East Africa in a Fokker machine. The machine flew over Kilimanjaro (19,720 feet). This was the first flight over the mountain mass of Tanganyika.

The centre of Swissair operations is at Dubendorf Airport. The machines are tested and overhauled in the hangars and workshops. The routine is to change propellers after 250 hours of flying and to change engines after between 400 and 500 hours of flying. There is, in addition, the usual examination of machines and instruments after every flight.

The most extensive overhauls take place in the winter. Hulls, wings, rudders, undercarriages and all instruments and components are then dismantled and taken to the appropriate workshops. The care essential for such work is provided by mechanics whose reputation for accuracy is in accordance with the traditional skill of the Swiss in working to fine measurements. This skill is augmented by X-ray, magnetic and other scientific aids and laboratory equipment.

Because of the nature of the country, aerodromes are not numerous. Dubendorf Airport is a military aerodrome, in addition to being a customs airport. It is a mile from the town of Dubendorf and four miles and a half from Zurich.

The altitude is 1,443 feet. The dimensions of the airport are 1,442 by 1,203 yards. The surface is good, well drained and serviceable throughout the year. There are weather and radio stations.

The distance to Belpmoos, the civil customs aerodrome for Berne, is fifty-four miles. Belpmoos, situated 1,672 feet above the sea, is a smaller airport, 766 by 547 yards. The facilities are similar to those at Dubendorf.

Where Three Frontiers Meet

Blecherette customs and military aerodrome, at an altitude of 2,025 feet, is forty-nine miles from Berne and two miles from Lausanne. Dimensions are 1,258 by 711 yards. From this aerodrome, which is rated as second-class, to Cointrin, two miles and a half from Geneva, is a distance of thirty-two miles.

Cointrin customs aerodrome measures 1,094 by 656 yards and is situated at an altitude of 1,350 feet. The airport of Basle is at Birsfelden, about two miles from the city, at an altitude of 869 feet. The dimensions are 1,203 by 547 yards.

St. Gallen-Altenrhein Aerodrome, similarly to that at Lausanne, is rated as second-class. It lies on the shore of the Lake of Constance at Altenrhein, where the Dornier works are situated, and is nine and a half miles from St. Gall (or St. Gallen), the chief city of the canton of that name. Regular services link the aerodrome with Zurich, with Altenrhein, on the Swiss side of the lake, and with Munich. The altitude is 1,316 feet and the dimensions are 1,203 by 492 yards.

The international services are operated by Swissair, in collaboration with the countries touched by each route. The direct route to Croydon (London) from Zurich is via Basle. The schedule for the summer of 1938 allows from twenty-five to thirty minutes to cover the time of departure from Zurich, the flight to Basle and preparations for the take-off for London, the next stop.

Short as is the flight from Zurich to Basle, the journey is interesting. The Douglas rises from Dubendorf, flies above the green Limmat valley, passes over Baden and Brugg and speeds above the rolling downs of the Juras, with the Black Forest stretching beyond the winding River Rhine into the distance of Germany. The liner passes over Rheinfelden, on the Swiss side of the Rhine, and then lands at Birsfelden Airport, Basle.


THE HIGHEST AERODROME IN SWITZERLAND is at Samaden, near St. Moritz. A Douglas DC-2 air liner of Swissair is here seen on the aerodrome, which was opened early in 1938. A special snowplough is used to remove snow after a fresh fall, and the snowplough leaves a layer of snow only about 4 in. deep. Flights to St. Moritz with passengers were made from Zurich in 1920 by Alfred Comte.

Basle is situated at the meeting of the three frontiers of Switzerland, Germany and France. The direct route would be across the French fortified zone of Belfort, which is a prohibited area. Thus civil aircraft have to make a detour to the west as far as Montbeliard, an industrial town on the River Doubs. The pilot is then able to set a course straight for London. The route takes the passenger over the Champagne country and then over the battlefields of 1914-18. The English Channel is approached near Le Touquet. The liner flies swiftly over the sea and soon spirals towards Croydon, where it is scheduled to land in three hours ten minutes after having left Basle.

Flight-captain, wireless operator and stewardess comprise the crew of each air liner on this route. Radio apparatus consists of a Telefunken transmitter, homing and direction-finding equipment, and blind-landing apparatus for visible and acoustic reception of a short-wave radio range beacon.

The robot pilot eases the work of the flight-captain. As a rule the altitude is between 7,000 and 11,000 feet. If the ice-forming limit or clouds render this limit unfavourable the pilot can either fly at a higher altitude, which he generally does, or fly at a lower level and depend on his blind-flying apparatus.

A shorter but important route is from Zurich and Basle to Paris. Another route is between Geneva and Paris. The internal routes linking Geneva and Zurich direct, or via Lausanne and Berne, are operated by the Alpar Company. Night mail machines of Swissair ply between Basle and Frankfurt. Northward and eastward from Zurich the international trunk routes of Swissair are to Stuttgart, Halle-Leipzig and Berlin; to St. Gall and Munich; and to Vienna.

The route to Paris from Zurich and Basle follows the London route through the corridor to Montbeliard, and then passes near Chaumont and Troyes to Le Bourget (Paris). The time of the flight from Basle is two hours. The flight from Geneva to Paris is made in an hour and fifty minutes.

A time of three hours and fifty minutes is scheduled for the Zurich-Berlin service. After having left the airport at Diibendorf, the liner passes above Winterthur, the centre of the engineering industry of Switzerland. Then the Lake of Constance is seen and the machine enters Germany, the route being above Tuttlingen, the Swabian Jura and the university town of Tubingen, and so to Stuttgart-Boblingen Airport.

Famous International Meeting

After a stay of ten minutes, the air liner takes off and flies above the Saale Valley, the River Main and the forest of Thuringia. The towns of Weimar and Jena are sighted. A landing is made at the Halle-Leipzig Airport, which is at Schkeuditz, about fourteen miles from Halle and nine miles from Leipzig.

After a stop of fifteen minutes, the liner resumes the flight to Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, passing above the plains of North Germany, crossing the River Elbe at Wittenberg, and flying steadily towards the capital of Germany. The service to Munich from Zurich is via St. Gall, this stage taking twenty-five minutes. The flight over the Lake of Constance and to the Bavarian capital occupies only an hour. Here connexion is made with the route via Salzburg to Vienna and Budapest, but the direct route from Zurich to Vienna is south of this and is flown in two hours, compared with three hours and a half of the longer route, which involves stops at the cities mentioned.

The Alpar Company has a service from Berne to Basle, connecting with international services, and from Berne to La Chaux-de-Fonds, which is near the French frontier.

Various Alpine flights are operated by Swissair from Zurich. These carry tourists above the Lower Alps, the Glarnese Alps, the Bernese Alps and the Matterhorn and other great peaks. The most comprehensive flight enables the tourist to see the following mountains: Rigi, Wetterhorn and Schreckhorn, Finsteraarhorn, Aletschhorn, Weisshorn, Matterhorn, Grand Combin, Mont Blanc, Diablerets, Wildhorn, Bliimlisalp, Jungfrau and Pilatus for 150 Swiss francs (about £7 at the current rate).

The Zurich International Meeting, which is held every five years, is one of the most important events of its kind in European aviation. The meeting held in July 1937 attracted entries from more than twelve countries. On the opening day 75,000 spectators saw some of the best pilots of many nations give aerobatic displays with the latest military machines. Events included Alpine circuit races and altitude contests.

The pioneer work of Oscar Bider, Major Isler, Alfred Comte, Charles Koepke, Walter Mittel-holzer and others is today being developed to the full extent by Swiss aviators. The safety of flights is such that invalids too ill to travel by other means are flown to the sanatoria and health resorts to undergo treatment.

THE CENTRE OF SWISSAIR OPERATIONS is Dubendorf Airport, which is four and a half miles from Zurich and is the aerodrome for that town The altitude of the aerodrome is 1,443 feet, and the dimensions are 1,442 yards by 1,203 yards. Meteorological, radio and customs facilities are available, and the aerodrome is used for military as well as civil flying.

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