When Switzerland took to the skies – and later landed with a bang

The history of aviation in Switzerland goes back more than 100 years and is characterised by the early aviation pioneers such as Eduard Spelterini and Oskar Bider, the founding of Swissair in 1931 and its "grounding" in 2001. Numerous fonds as well as film and audio material document the events in the air and on the ground.

The balloon pioneers

After the military airship had asserted itself across Europe at the end of the 19th century, and following a period of review and debate lasting nearly a decade, the Federal Council decided to form a military Swiss Airship Company in 1897. Various Swiss balloon pioneers came into contact with the Swiss army via other channels: Eduard Spelterini carried out test flights for the General Staff in the 1890s, whilst brothers Jacques and Auguste Piccard went through training as balloon pilots in 1915. The advance of airborne troops during the First World War and the larger range of artillery fire rendered the clearly visible and sluggish balloons increasingly more redundant. The airship company was finally dissolved in 1937.

The pioneering phase of Swiss aviation is documented in the fonds of the National Defence (1600-1960). They include documents on the military Balloon Company, the balloons and numerous photos.

Aviation in the 20th century

Swiss aviation pioneer Oskar Bider was the first person to cross the Alps in a plane on a route from Bern to Milan, a feat he completed in 1913. The first private passengers to travel by plane in Switzerland took off in 1919. One year later, the Federal Office of Aviation (1903-1972) was established by the Federal Council as a part of the Post and Railway Department. Since then, the Federal Council has held the responsibility legislation and is the controlling authority for aviation. It negotiates the agreements with neighbouring countries, grants licenses to aviation companies and airports, passes legislation on noise protection and anti-pollution regulations, and also holds financial interests in Swiss aviation companies.

Swissair was founded in 1931 as the result of a merger between Balair and Ad Astra Aero and was based in Zurich. Swiss aviation achieved its breakthrough after the Second World War with the construction of the three major airports in Zurich, Basel-Mulhouse and Geneva-Cointrin and with the incremental expansion of Swissair's scheduled routes and fleet. The advance of "low-cost airlines" in the 1990s and the negative financial impact of strategic decisions by Swissair's management increased the pressure massively and culminated in the collapse of Switzerland's traditional airline. The company was finally "grounded" in 2001. The airline with the name Swiss was founded shortly afterwards with the help of government funding, among other resources.

In 1979, the Federal Office of Aviation was succeeded by the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) (1918-2003), where the majority of documents relating to airports, the national airline Swissair, aviation shows, gliders and private air sports clubs such as the Aero Club can be found.

Plane crashes and accidents are documented in the fonds of the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (1918-2003), the Federal Office of Aviation (1903-1972) and the Swiss Accident Investigation Board (1926-2002). Furthermore, the National Defence (1600-1960) fonds contain documents on violations of neutrality and emergency landings by foreign aircraft during the Second World War.

The fonds of the Department of Aviation and Anti-Aircraft Defence (1929-1983) and the Federal Office for Military Airbases (1874-1996), both of which are attached to the military division, contain documents on military aviation alongside others relating to civil aviation and air sports.

International aviation negotiations and agreements are also documented in the fonds of the Directorate of Political Affairs and its preceding organisations. The documents of the Secretary General of the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (1972-2000) provide information on general transport issues.

Finally, the Federal Archives hold the historical film fonds of the Swiss television journal Schweizer Filmwochenschau (1940-1976) and Swiss news program Schweizer Tagesschau (1957-2007), which also contain a number of film sequences relating to aviation.

Tips for further research

Related topics

Last modification 04.11.2019

Top of page


Swiss Federal Archives

Archivstrasse 24
3003 Bern

+41 58 462 89 89


Opening hours reading room

Tu-Th, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Details and closing times

Print contact


Swiss Federal Archives

Archivstrasse 24
3003 Bern

Show map

Print contact