Towards the end of 1912, the people of Switzerland began collecting money for a national military aviation division. Illustration by Marco Heer.
Towards the end of 1912, the people of Switzerland began collecting money for a national military aviation division. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Switzerland’s first military aircraft

At the beginning of the 20th century, the general enthusiasm for aviation also found its way into the military. After a tentative start, in 1914 Switzerland began to assemble a fleet of its own.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

The dream of flying very quickly became a “dream of military supremacy”. From the earliest days, aircraft and hot-air balloons were used for military reconnaissance. Switzerland, where the first such flights had been made in early September 1911, was no exception. Pilot Ernst Failloubaz (1892-1919), just 18 years old, set out to convince the Swiss army of the value of aerial reconnaissance. His plan was derailed after an emergency landing in which the plane, a Dufaux-5, was badly damaged.
Ernst Failloubaz carrying out the first military reconnaissance flights, in 1911.
Ernst Failloubaz carrying out the first military reconnaissance flights, in 1911. ETH Library Zurich
But not everyone was as sceptical as the army’s leadership, perhaps in part because military fleets were being rapidly and massively upgraded across Europe, and the risk of being left behind in developing defences was growing week by week. On 2 December 1912, the Schweizerische Offiziersgesellschaft decided to start raising money for the establishment of a national military aviation force. The fund-raising drive was highly successful, raising a total of CHF 1.7 million. Now there was no reason not to add a new section to the army and purchase a fleet of aircraft.
Call for donations for the creation of a Swiss military aviation division, 1912. Swiss Federal Archives
In late July 1914, Theodor Real was charged with setting up an aviation division. A mechanical engineer and aviation pioneer – he was the first person to pilot an aircraft across the Swiss border – Real was made the first commanding officer of Switzerland’s military aviation force. He had the backing of some famous individuals. His pilots included celebrity “aerial acrobats” such as Oskar Bider, Edmond Audemars, Alfred Comte and François Durafour. These men had already achieved scores of world firsts and were full of enthusiasm for their new endeavour;
Oskar Bider
Oskar Bider was the first chief pilot in Switzerland’s military aviation division. In 1913, he became the first pilot to cross the Pyrenees. Swiss National Museum
Image 01 of 04
Edmond Audemars
Former cycling world champion Edmond Audemars also set records in the air. In 1915 he established a world altitude record, reaching 6,600 metres. notrehistoire.ch
Image 01 of 04
Alfred Comte
Aviation pioneer Alfred Comte established the first aircraft factory in Switzerland in 1923 and built his own aircraft. ETH Library Zurich
Image 01 of 04
François Durafour
François Durafour (left) was the first pilot to land on the Mont Blanc glacier, in 1921. Swiss National Museum
Image 01 of 04
This illustrious band was fired up and itching to get started. But there was still something missing: the planes! Six biplanes had been ordered from the company Luftverkehrsgesellschaft in Germany. But in the turmoil of World War I, there was no possibility of the aircraft being delivered. And so, for the time being, Switzerland’s fledgling air force had to make do with private planes, some of them even provided by the pilots themselves – some of whom also brought along their own mechanics. Three machines belonging to foreign manufacturers were also seized at the National Exhibition in Bern.
Dübendorf airport, 1915: The Swiss Army’s first aircraft fleet was a motley assortment of mismatched contraptions.
Dübendorf airport, 1915: The Swiss Army’s first aircraft fleet was a motley assortment of mismatched contraptions. ETH Library Zurich
It wasn’t until 1916 that the Swiss Army obtained the first aircraft of its own: six Haefeli DH-1 biplanes, and six Wild W-1, also biplanes. Both machine models were manufactured by Konstruktions-Werkstätte (K+W) in Thun and were actually prototypes and intended solely for reconnaissance. A year later, in 1917, Switzerland was able to buy five Nieuport 23 C-1 aircraft from France. These were the Swiss Army’s first aerial combat aircraft.
The beginnings of the Swiss Air Force. YouTube / Swiss Federal Archives

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).