For a small nation, Sweden has a proud and successful domestic aviation industry and the aircraft produced by Saab AB have defended the nation for decades. From their first jet fighter in 1945, through to the modern-day, Saab have developed a series of unique and highly capable jet fighter aircraft for the Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) and a diverse group of other nations. The aircraft prove to be a popular attraction with examples still flying in the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight and also on display in museums around the world.
Saab 21R – Sweden’s First Jet Fighter
The Saab 21R was a jet powered version of the 1945 era Saab 21 twin-boom push-prop fighter/attack aircraft, which entered Swedish Air Force service in 1950. The Goblin turbojet engine boosted the piston engine Saab 21 fighter performance from 650 km/h (403 mph) up to 930 km/h (578 mph) in later Goblin 3 jet powered variants!
Initial Saab 21R aircraft were used as a fighter jet. 32 J 21RA fighter variants were built in 1950 with British built Goblin 2 turbojet engines (including 4 prototypes). They were later converted to A 21RA attack variants and were retired in 1953.
30 A 21RB attack variants were produced between 1950 and 1952. They were fitted with more powerful Swedish licence-built Goblin 3 turbojet engines and were retired from Swedish service in 1956.
Standard armament consisted of a nose mounted 20mm cannon and 2 x 12.7mm machine guns (initially 13.2mm machine guns in the fighter variant) with 2 x 12.7mm machine guns mounted in the wings. The Saab 21R could also carry under the fuselage a range of bombs, rockets and gun pods for ground attack duties.
A unique aircraft as few piston engine aircraft have ever been successfully converted to an operational jet powered variant! The short service life of the Saab 21R can be attributed to the introduction of better performing, purpose-built jet fighters such as the de Havilland DH.100 Vampire and Saab J 29 Tunnen.
The Saab 29 Tunnan (Flygande Tunnan – “The Flying Barrel”) was the first Saab purpose-built jet fighter. Powered by a Svenska Flygmotor RM2 turbojet or RM2B afterburning turbojet engine (a licence-built British de Havilland Ghost), the Tunnan had a maximum speed of 1,060 km/h (660 mph) with the afterburning RM2B turbojet. 661 production aircraft were built by Saab between 1950 to 1956.
Variants of the Tunnan included 4 J 29 prototypes (built 1949 to 1950), 224 J 29A fighters (produced 1951 to 1954), 332 J 29B fighters with an increased fuel and weapons payload (produced 1953 to 1955 – when operated by attack squadrons they were designated A 29B), 76 S 29C reconnaissance aircraft (produced 1954 to 1956) and 29 J 29E fighters with an improved leading edge dogtooth wing design for improved performance (produced in 1955). Finally 308 J 29F fighters were produced from converted J 29B/E aircraft between 1954 and 1956, with the Svenska Flygmotor RM2B afterburning turbojet engine and leading edge dogtooth wing.
Despite its rotund appearance, the Tunnan was agile and fast (for the time). The top speed with the RM2B turbojet was 1,060 km/h (660 mph).
All Saab 29’s were built for the Swedish Air Force and most were retired from frontline service by 1967 but a number remained in training and target towing duties until the last was retired in 1976. In 1961/62, 30 refurbished J 29F fighters were approved for sale to Austria and went on to serve the Austrian Air Force until 1972.
Saab 29 Tunnan standard armament consisted of 4 x 20mm Hispano V nose mounted cannons. Underwing armament included 75mm air-to-air rockets and from 1963 a pair of Rb 24 air-to-air missiles (Swedish licence-built AIM-9 Sidewinder – equipped on the J 29F), and a range of air-to-ground rockets.
The Saab 32 Lansen (Lance) is a rather elegant looking combat aircraft. 450 were produced between 1954 and 1960 and had a long career with the Swedish Air Force from 1956 to 1997.
The Lansen was initially produced in three key variants: the A 32A ground attack aircraft (287 built between 1955 and 1957, retired 1978), J 32B all-weather fighter (118 produced between 1958 and 1960, retired 1973) and S 32C maritime and photo reconnaissance aircraft (45 produced between 1958 and 1959, retired 1978). Powered by a Svenska Flygmotor RM6A afterburning turbojet engine (a licence-built Rolls Royce Avon like that used in the English Electric Canberra and the Australian CAC CA-27 Sabre) the Saab J 32B fighter had a top speed of 1,200 km/h (745 mph).
Standard Lansen armament consisted of 4 x 30mm ADEN nose mounted cannons. Underwing armament initially included 4 x 75mm air-to-air rocket pods and later up to 4 x Rb 24 air-to-air missiles (licence-built AIM-9 Sidewinder).
In later years of service Lansen’s fulfilled electronic warfare and target towing roles with the J 32E Electronic Warfare and Countermeasures (ECM) variant, that was also used for ECM training (14 were converted from J 32B’s and were fitted with various radar jamming pods) and the J 32D target tug (6 were also converted from J 32B’s). Both variants were retired in 1997.
Up next was the Saab 35 Draken (Dragon) which proved to be one of the most successful combat exports for Sweden. The unique double delta wing design was first flown on October 25th, 1955. 651 Saab 35 Draken fighters were manufactured between 1955 and 1974, with the majority going to the Swedish Air Force (300+). The type was also operated by Denmark (51 Saab 35XD) , Finland (48 Saab 35XS and Saab 35BS/FS/CS) and Austria (24 Saab 35ÖE), and was produced as interceptor, ground attack, two-seat combat trainer and reconnaissance variants.
Swedish aircraft included 90 J 35A fighters, 73 J 35B fighters, 24 SK 35C two-seat trainers (converted from older J 35A variants), 120 J 35D fighters with a more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon 300 engine, 60 S 35E reconnaissance aircraft (around half were likely converted from J 35D aircraft), 230 J 35F fighters (produced between 1965 and 1972 with improved avionics and weapons systems), and finally 66 J 35J fighters that were converted from J 35F aircraft with more modern avionics and weapons between 1985 and 1991. The latter flew until retired in 1999.
The Saab 35 was actually one of the first fully supersonic aircraft to enter service in Europe and later variants had an impressive maximum speed of Mach 2.0! Standard armament was 2 x 30mm ADEN cannons and a weapons payload of 2,900 kg /6,393 lb for air to air missiles, rockets and bombs.
In the 1970’s Saab produced one of my favourite Cold War era aircraft, the Saab 37 Viggen (Thunderbolt). The Viggen multi-role fighter featured a unique canard double delta wing design and with its Volvo RM8 afterburning turbofan engine (a licence-built but heavily modified Pratt & Whitney JT8D engine with a Swedish designed afterburner for supersonic flight – the original J8TD was designed for airliners and subsonic flight only) had a maximum speed of Mach 2.1. This was the first engine fitted with both an afterburner and reverse thrust system (nozzle flux reverser).
The Viggen wing design and reverse thrust system gifted it with excellent Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) capabilities which was ideal for operating from dispersed locations on highways and roads. It could land in just 500 metres!
Between 1970 and 1990, Saab produced 329 Viggen aircraft for the Swedish Air Force. A number of distinct variants entered service: AJ 37 strike fighter (108 produced), SF 37 reconnaissance aircraft (28 produced), SH 37 maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft (27 produced), SK 37 two-seat combat trainer (17 produced) – all were fitted with the Volvo RM8A turbofan afterburning engine. From 1979 the JA 37 all-weather interceptor with a secondary attack capability entered service (149 produced) – this variant was fitted with a more powerful Volvo RM8B afterburning engine. The first Viggen entered service in June 1971 and the last was not retired until November 2005. The splinter camouflage livery of many Viggen fighters was a stunning memory from the Cold War period!
Later avionics and software upgrades between 1993 and 1998 saw selected aircraft redesignated as AJS/AJSF/AJSH 37 (48, 25 and 25 upgraded) a number of JA 37 aircraft also received upgrades and were redesignated JA 37C/D (at least 35 upgraded) and some which had instruments labeled in English and feet/knots instead of metric readings for international duty were redesignated JA 37DI (20 modified). 10 SK 37 two-seat trainers were upgraded to be electronic warfare trainers between 1998 and 2000 and were redesignated SK 37E.
Despite vigorous attempts by Saab, including the proposed 1967 Saab 37X export fighter offered to Norway and the 1975 proposed Saab 37E Eurofighter to replace NATO Lockheed F-104 Starfighters, no international sales were achieved for the Viggen. Its successor though has proved more viable.
The current Swedish Air Force multi-role fighter aircraft is the Mach 2.0 capable Saab JAS 39 Gripen (Griffin/Gryphon). The JAS 39 prototype first flew in 1988 and the JAS 39A/B entered service in 1996, replacing both the Draken and Viggen.
Current variants include the JAS 39C fighter (earlier 39A variants were also upgraded to this NATO compatible standard) and the JAS 39D two-seat combat trainer (replaced earlier 39B variants). New variants to soon enter service: JAS 39E fighter with an improved AESA radar and Skyward-G Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) sensor which can detect air and ground thermal emissions, and the JAS 39F two-seat training variant of the E model.
To date approximately 250 have been produced and are currently in service with the air forces of Sweden (72 JAS 39C, 23 JAS 39D and 60 JAS 39E on order), Czech Republic (12 JAS 39C and 2 JAS 39D leased from Sweden), Hungary (12 JAS 39C and 2 JAS 39D on a lease to buy arrangement with Sweden), South Africa (17 JAS 39C and 9 JAS 39D) and Thailand (7 JAS 39C and 4 JAS 39D). Brazil has also ordered 28 JAS 39E and 8 JAS 39F Gripen aircraft with an option for further aircraft.
The Gripen will grace our skies for many years to come but no doubt Saab are already working on its replacement. In my next post, I will take a look to the past though and discuss in more detail the Saab 35 Draken. Please keep an eye out for the Dragon Knights!