UP, UP & AWAY
THE SLEEPY SWISS ALPINE TOWN OF SION ROUSES ITSELF EVERY FEW YEARS TO HOLD A SHOW OF ADRENALISED AEROBATICS, UNDER THE AEGIS OF SEASONED AVIATION WATCHMAKER BREITLING.
When you think about what Switzerland is most famous for, three things vie for the top spot: skiing, chocolate and watches. It’s mid-September and we’re here for the latter, kind of. Specifically, we’re in the small town of Sion, a beautifully scenic two-hour drive east from Geneva, to attend the unique aeronautical spectacle that is the Breitling Sion Air Show.
Those of you who haven’t heard of Sion are forgiven. When not hosting some of the world’s most exceptional aerial acrobatics in civilian jets and the like, it is merely a sleepy town, population 34,000, in the heart of the Alps. The third-largest wine-making region in Switzerland, Sion’s greatest claim to fame is arguably that Sepp Blatter was born here, though now probably the less said about the disgraced expresident of FIFA the better.
Anyway, Sion Airport welcomed its first official airshow 35 years ago in 1982 (though the aeronautical affiliation dates back to 1910). When it comes to grand surroundings, there’s no doubt Sion is a mighty fine destination to lose your airshow virginity: for aviators it offers an exceptional playground to fly in and for spectators, the blue skies and contours of the snowcapped mountains make for a beautiful backdrop. Since 1982 the airshow has returned to Sion sporadically (in 1986, 1989, 1997 then 2001) and most recently in 2011, which was the first time Breitling had its name attached to the event. So, as you’d expect, six years in the making, the anticipation for this year’s event is palpable. And aided by the prospect of revisiting 110 years of aviation, from the Blériot XI to the Eurofighter, the appreciation has grown incrementally.
We’ll be honest – we don’t know what to expect, let alone wear. But, as we walk through the gates, three things are quickly apparent: first, nigh-on every airshow enthusiast wears a baseball cap. The place is a sea of orange caps, red caps and black caps, branded with Rafale, Sion Airport and Breitling respectively. Second, we forgot to bring earplugs, as it turns out aircrafts reaching the speed of sound are really loud. Third, judging by the length of some of the camera lenses that had gathered front row (closest to the barriers to catch the action), we are in the vicinity of some serious aviation celebrities, specifically Breitling’s DC-3, Breitling’s Jet Team, Italy’s elite Air Force squadron Frecce Tricolori and a crazy Breitling ambassador by the name of Franky Zapata.
So, as 77th birthdays go, the DC-3’s has been quite the adventure. To celebrate, Breitling decided it was both novel and necessary to fly the DC-3 around the world in six months, stopping at 28 countries and covering nearly 50,000km. A Breitling DC-3 World Tour, if you will. Yesterday, the propeller-driven twinengine plane reached its final destination – fittingly, Sion, and escorted by the Frecce Tricolori. Torrential rain, a gathering of wet diehard fans and a few keen journalists were here to greet the birthday boy.
But today, it’s a different story. Stood majestic in all its glory on the edge of the runway, the Breitling DC-3 is having its selfie moment – the Kendall Jenner of the show so far. The sun is shining, the 100,000+ expected crowds are filing in along the runway, the region’s vineyards line the mountains, with snow-capped summits on show in the distance. The arena is set for some serious speed and power, aerotechnics, mid-air audacity somersaultery – the lot.
Like a bunch of arrows drawn, the first act to blow our minds (and perforate our ear drums), is the infamous Breitling Jet Team – a band of merry 50-something Gauloises-smoking hommes français in seven Albatros L-39 jets. Taking off in convoy, the world’s largest professional civilian flight team knows how to play a crowd. We overhear it being likened to a “meticulously coordinated ballet” as the septet cuts through the air in formation, a mere few metres from one another. The synergy between the display and Breitling is abundantly clear, with boxes ticked for all the brand’s cherished values: precision, performance, aesthetic, sophistication and innovation.
Next up, we have a crowd favourite in the aforementioned Frecce Tricolori. After a 20-year absence from the airshow, there’s a real buzz around the Frecce Tricolori (comprising Aermacchi MB-339s and a fabulous soloist), albeit amid controversy: it seems airshows have their own version of foul play, with consequent penalties dished out. Yesterday, it’s alleged said soloist flew too low and did not respect the minimum altitude. As a result, the Italian Army patrol’s weekend acrobatic shows have to be modified. Though that did little to stop the showmanship, talent and Azzurri colours jetting through the sky.
In our humble, but ever knowledgeable, opinion, the best is saved until last. 2016 was the year Back to the Future predicted us to have the hover board, but 2017 sees the fantasy become real as madman Zapata debut his latest invention: the flyboard. Equipped with turboreactors, it’s able to fly several metres from the ground. Until today, the Frenchman has only performed above water, so Sion represents the first time he’s perform a public demonstration over solid ground. The crowds let out huge applause as Zapata whizzes up and down the runway at speeds of up to 200km/h. Though it only lasts for roughly seven minutes, it’s a formidable sight. Indeed, it’s not dissimilar to something out of Blade Runner 2049, only 30 years early. There’s a lot more air muscle to see, lots more adrenaline rushes to be had, caps to be worn, but for now, we’re just sat, absorbing and enjoying the novelty of our first airshow. It’s been fast, it’s been a masterclass, it’s been an eye opener to a new world. And we even managed not a single mention of Goose, Tom Cruise or Top Gun. Wait? Damn it.